Although surround sound is becoming an ever-more frequent feature in home cinemas, it can still be tricky to get clarity on how it all works, the different systems that are out there to choose from, and how best to create a fully immersive surround sound experience in your own home. This is why we’ve put together this beginner’s guide to surround sound, to help you select the best fit for your home entertainment needs.
What is surround sound?
Surround sound is a technique used to make the listener feel fully immersed in the media that they’re consuming, be it a video game, a film, a
show, or music. This is achieved by the careful placement and configuration of speakers around a “sweet spot” — a place in the room that provides the optimal listening experience. These speakers play different audio channels to make you feel like you’re fully surrounded by the action, creating an unparalleled
experience. For example, if you’re playing a video game, you may hear characters calling out to you from behind, or if you’re watching an action film, you may hear bullets fly past your ear. Although less commonly-used in the world of music, there are also plenty of surround-sound recordings out there for aficionados to enjoy, too.
What do all of the numbers mean?
The number systems for speaker set-ups are actually really simple once you know what they signify. The first number refers to the number of regular speakers used in the set-up, while the 1 after the point refers to the subwoofer, which deals in low-frequency sounds and rumbles that create that next-level atmosphere. Thus, with a 5.1 system you have a total of six audio channels played through six speakers, and for 7.1 you have a total of eight audio channels played through eight speakers.
Sometimes you will see an extra digit added to the end of a 5.1 or 7.1 set-up, usually 5.1.2 or 7.1.4, under the moniker Dolby Atmos, who developed this pioneering overhead technology for home cinema use in 2014. These final digits signify that a whole extra dimension of sound has been added by fixing additional speakers to the ceiling that play overhead sound channels. This added dimension creates unparallelled immersion, and is well worth seeking out if you’re serious about surround sound.
The placement of your speakers, no matter how many you choose, is critical for achieving proper immersion — if one of your speakers is off a little, the effect can be jarring, so consulting the professionals is always a good idea if you want a perfect result first time.
Which system should I choose?
When it comes to choosing a system for your home, it seems like a no-brainer that more speakers means better sound, which might be technically true, but before you splash out on a 7.1 system, you need to take into consideration things like room size. Cramming that many speakers into a small room may be inconvenient at best, and at worst, give a poor result due to inadequate placement. It’s also worth noting that, as with many trailblazing technologies, not all of your favourite media will be recorded in 7.1 surround sound just yet, though of course many new releases will be harnessing this technology in the future — Disney are just one company that have pledged to release all of their 3D films using 7.1 sound. If you’re mainly a fan of older films, the best you can hope for is that your favourites will be remastered in the future with more and more audio channels.
As well as choosing how many channels you want, it’s also important to think about what format you want those speakers to take. While traditional surround sound systems are fully wired, requiring careful cable installation and management, companies like Sonos now offer a number of smart wireless systems for you to enjoy, giving greater freedom and often a sleek, minimalist design that fits nicely any home.
The positioning of speakers can make or break the immersiveness of your home cinema set-up.
What about sound bars?
Though sound bars have been around in some form since the 1990s, they have really come into their own in the past ten years or so, thanks in part to the prevalence of ever-slimmer TVs being unable to accommodate high-quality in-built speakers, and also to the soundbar’s ability to produce relatively high-quality audio in a sleek and compact format. Sound bars pack multiple speakers into one piece of equipment, offering a surround sound effect of sorts without having to find space for multiple speakers. Sound bars, however, will not be able to provide the full immersion of a surround sound set-up, as even though they can project sound in different directions, you won’t have that fully spine-tingling sense of sounds coming at you from every angle. If you’re short on space and have budget constraints, however, sound bars are really hard to beat.