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How to get the best home theatre audio

Wed 1 Feb 2012
FYI, this story is more than a year old

As important as picture and screen size can be, sound is an equally important part of your home theatre experience (try watching the attack scenes from ‘Jaws’ without the soundtrack!) To get the best audio experience, you definitely need surround sound and some thumping bass. Having the sound encompass you from all sides of the room, with bass you can actually feel, gives a much more immersive feeling and can really improve your overall viewing experience, as well as your opinion of the movie. Of course the first step to achieving amazing sound is purchasing the best sound system. You can now find a wide variety of integrated home theatre audio systems (otherwise known as ‘home theatre in a box’ or HTiB) that save you the hassle of choosing and installing all of the separate components needed. These systems range from basic sound equipment you plug into your TV to elaborate systems complete with built-in DVD players. Whichever you choose, be sure to do your homework to get the best bang for your buck, as some of these systems are not cheap!   Buying Tips Consider frequency response. This measures both the range of frequencies that can be reproduced and the evenness of their reproduction. The important part of this is the low-frequency limit. For most music and movies a lower bass limit of 50 Hz will work just fine.  If you go down to 40 or 30 Hz, however, you’ll get a mind-blowing audio experience sure to disturb the neighbours! Look at the audio inputs. The number and type of audio inputs in the control centre will tell you how many sources you can connect and what you can do with them. The three types you will see are: Line-level stereo: A basic analog audio connection that is usually made up of just two RCA jacks. Any audio/video source will have compatible outputs and these are fine for stereo or Dolby Pro Logic reproduction. Coaxial digital: This type uses an RCA jack and should have a 75-ohm coax cable, which is any cable labeled for video or digital audio. A digital audio connection is necessary for Dolby Digital (or DTS) decoding. Optical (Toslink) digital: This is another type of digital audio connection, but what differentiates it from coaxial digital is that it uses fiber-optic cable for signal transmission. Surround Decoding: The surround-sound formats supported by your system of choice will play into your viewing (and hearing) experience because it will determine the level of intensity and how realistic the sound is. There are quite a few options, but the basics are the Dolby Pro Logic series (basic, II and IIx). Each upgrade just offers advanced features and an enhanced experience. Beyond this there are the Dolby Digital options and Dolby TrueHD. To find out what your best fit is, do some research online and talk to the salesperson at the store (just don’t let them talk you into something way beyond your requirements! Most people will do just fine with Dolby Pro Logic). Speaker Placement Once you’ve purchased your system, you’ll want to think about the room you will be using it in. Most of us probably don’t have a home theatre room in our house, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have an awesome home theatre experience in our lounge or family room. Speaker placement can be crucial to improving sonic performance and knowing the basics can make a world of difference. Keep in mind, however, that every speaker has different sonic characteristics, every room has different acoustic properties and everyone’s ears hear sound a little differently. So use the tips presented in this article as guidelines, but when it comes time to actually set up your speakers, let your own ears be the final judge. Central speaker You will want this to be the first speaker you position when setting up your audio system. Your central speaker is the one that carries the dialogue and main sound, so it should be placed directly above or below your TV and centred if possible. If you situate the centre speaker on top of your TV, make sure the front edge is aligned with the front edge of your TV to reduce distortion and sound reflection. Also keep in mind that your central speaker should be approximately the same distance from where you will be sitting as your front left and right speakers to avoid wonky and uneven sound. Front left and right speakers These speakers handle movie soundtracks and they also work to reproduce all of the sound when you listen to music. They should be positioned in front (to the left and right) of where you will be sitting, forming somewhat of an arc with the central speaker, all the same distance from where you’re sitting. Double check that there are no objects or furniture blocking the speakers as this will obstruct the sound. Think about your central speaker and TV in the middle of the room with the front left and right speakers a few feet away on either side, turned slightly inwards, so all 3 speakers are aimed towards your sitting spot at the same distance. Surround speakers These speakers work to immerse you in the sound of the movie or program you’re watching and are especially important for action and horror movies, or movies with lots of special effects. If set up properly, they should give you the feeling of actually being in the movie. The surround speakers carry the background noise as well, and where you position them can vary widely on the shape, size and layout of your room. Ideally, your primary surround speakers should be placed to the left and right of your listening position – either in line with it or slightly behind. They should form a 90-110 degrees angle to your television. If this is not possible due to the layout of your room, the next best thing would be to place the surrounds behind where you sit (facing the front of the room and television). It’s a good idea to mount your surround speakers for the most all-encompassing experience. You also want to mount these speakers high enough to avoid having them blasting directly at your ears while you’re sitting down. Try to situate them at ear level while standing for the best effect. Mounting can be done using wall brackets, speaker stands or furniture around the room (such as tables, cabinets and bookshelves). If you have your speakers mounted on the wall using adjustable brackets, try experimenting with the angle of the speakers and see what sounds best. Subwoofer If you have a subwoofer with your system, you’ll be relieved to know you can place this puppy just about anywhere. The subwoofer handles the bass, and since low bass frequencies are multidirectional, its position isn’t all that important. Placing your subwoofer near a wall will result in more bass and in a corner (near two walls) will get you the most possible bass. Some final things to consider

  • A room with a lot of reflective surfaces (like windows, tiles or mirrors) can make the sound harsher and not as clear. Try adding carpet and drapes to neutralize the sound in your TV room.  
  • If possible, try to arrange your couch (or listening position) in the middle of the room rather than against a wall. This will improve the overall soundstage.  
  • Position the main speakers so that they fire into the length of the room, not the width.  
  • If you want to get really fancy, consider in-wall or in-ceiling surrounds. Of course this option is more work and more expensive, but if you really want to maximize your sound and viewing space, it’s definitely something to think about.
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