Surround Sound- What you need to know


Investing in a new sound system can really improve your TV viewing, particularly if you’re into films or gaming. Choosing the correct surround sound system to fit your existing setup can be a tasking endeavour. With so much to consider before you make a purchase, take a look through our handy guide to choosing the best surround sound system for you. 

How many speakers do I need?

Possibly the most important consideration to make is the number of channels you want your system to contain. Your standard surround sound setup consists of a 5.1 channel system. Essentially, that consists of two front speakers placed to the left and right of your TV, two rear speakers placed to the left and right of your viewing position, and one central speaker sitting just below the TV. The added .1 on the end is in reference to the subwoofer, ideally positioned in close vicinity to your TV.5.1

A typical 5.1 setup

Each speaker is delegated a certain job. The main, central speaker deals with around 50% of all audio, including the vast majority of dialogue. The front pair of speakers are more concerned with enhancing the realism of your viewing experience. Handling the bulk of set pieces, the sound will jump from left to right in accordance with what’s happening on screen. It also deals with out of shot sounds, such as a train approaching or gunshot fired. The remaining two speakers, situated nearest your ears, are for the subtle extras you might otherwise miss, such as rustling leaves or whispering.

That leaves the subwoofer, which deals with the bass. Providing a deeper, richer layer of sound, the subwoofer brings that added punch to an on-screen explosion. Depending on your environment, you may want to consider the level at which your subwoofer operates. For example, should you live in a block of flats or a shared house, ramping your subwoofer to the max is only likely to end in your entire system being launched out the window by an infuriated neighbour.

Whilst 5.1 is the typical surround sound choice, 7.1 (featuring two more, side on speakers) and 9.1 (chucking in another two speakers) are becoming more and more popular. In order to know how many speakers is right for you, take a look at the room you want to place it in. If you’ve got a huge display and want to recreate the cinema experience as closely as possible, consider upgrading to 7.1 or above. For anything but the largest of rooms and the largest of TV’s however, 5.1 surround sound is likely to be more than adequate. There is even an option of 5.2 or 7.2 systems, doubling your subwoofer power. But with the exactly the same audio being transmitted to both, it’s unlikely to do much more than irritate the rest of the street.


 A typical 7.1 setup

Media Formats

One other major factor to consider is the breadth of content available to the relative choices of surround sound.

Beginning with DVD and Blu-Ray. As a standard, any DVD you might purchase and hook up through your surround sound will come with 5.1 audio capability, as is the case with Blu-Ray. Increasingly however, we are beginning to see an influx of Blu-Ray discs with added 7.1 audio functionality. The decision lies with the developer of the content on the disc, and should the disc’s memory already be crammed with a number of extras, 7.1 may be squeezed out as an unnecessary filler.

Streaming is a format with increasing amounts of 5.1 support. Netflix streams 5.1 audio for all its HD content (of which there is now a lot), as well as expanding its base of 7.1 content. Amazon Prime Video on the other hand, only supports 5.1 on selected programming, with no 7.1 support at present. NOW TV does not currently offer any 5.1 surround sound support. However, both the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 are compatible with 5.1 and 7.1 audio.

As for broadcast TV, the situation is a little messy. There is no consistent policy on which content will run 5.1 and which will stick to the standard 2.0 (Stereo). As a generally rule, HD content is far more likely to contain 5.1 audio, particularly modern films or American TV imports. Your system will almost always detect 5.1 availability and convert it anyway.

When pondering the buying choices of surround sound, music is not really part of the debate, as almost all of it is developed with no greater potential than Stereo 2.0.

Developing Technology

Before you rush out and grab that shiny new 5.1 system, bear in mind that curse of consumer technology we all trip up on every now and then; progression. 5.1 Surround sound may be enjoying an Indian summer at present, but for how long? Much like the DVD of a decade ago, or HDTV of today, advancements in consumer tech occur at breakneck speed. Your once top-of-the-line system could be a relic in less than 12 months.

So whilst 7.1 is lacking in its body of content support at the time of writing, it is only likely to grow over time. Dolby (the standard surround sound audio brand) have even begun rolling out their ‘Dolby Atmos’ systems, complete with 128 channels of sound. That represents the future, but for now the situation holds certain similarities to 4K TV. Lacking in available content and widely overpriced, 4K remains an unnecessary investment. However, it is part of an emerging consumer tech trend. Should you be willing to splash out that inevitable extra cost, it could pay off in the long term.

Sound Bar- A genuine contender?

To make your purchase that little bit more confusing, there is a third sound-enhancing choice. Soundbars are relatively new to the tech market, offering greater practicality than a fiddly surround sound system, with a sacrifice made on sound quality.

Soundbars come as only a single unit (unless you purchase a subwoofer as part of the package). Able to sit just below your TV, Soundbars are a cost and space effective alternative to surround sound. Often able to connect via Bluetooth, Soundbars can be ideal for the smaller sized living room or bedroom. Whilst attempting to replicate the clarity and immersive experience of surround sound, inevitably it can never really compete with a set of six or more dedicated speakers.


Make it a Home Cinema

To complete your surround sound experience, you’re going to need an A/V (Audio/Video) receiver. Receiving and distributing sound to your speakers, the A/V receiver is the glue to all your external media devices. Many come with in-built media players, such as DVD or Blu-Ray, and ensuring your A/V receiver has such an outlet cuts out an unnecessary middleman. With an in-built disc player, you can avoid the impracticalities that several devices sat below your TV, and the many connections they require, would bring.

av receiver

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