Creating The Perfect Surround Sound

Just recently, I posted five HDTV shopping tips designed to help you find the perfect high definition television. Those suggestions will help in finding a screen that's right for your HDTV viewing needs, but without a decent sound system to go with it your HDTV experience will definitely seem lacking. After spending $1000 or more to get a great looking picture, you'd hope the cash outlay would be at an end. If you already have a 5.1 surround setup, you may be set. On the other hand, if you're audio is languishing in the Pro Logic era, some improvements may be required to get the full effect of your hefty screen investment. Several factors help you determine the best course of action when shopping for the right surround system for your high definition home theater.

Home theaters range in complexity from a combined high definition screen and home theater audio in the family room to entire rooms dedicated to creating a home theater experience. I'm going to focus on the first group because it more accurately represents my own situation. I'd love to have a room dedicated to home theater, but I don't have the option because the amount of space I have available is limited and I don't think the people we are renting from would appreciate a makeover of the house.

Filling the Room with Sound

The whole point of surround sound is to immerse the listener in the audio experience. If the speakers you choose are too small for the room your home theater is located in or if you purchase speakers too big for the room, the audio experience is ultimately lacking. There's a careful compromise between too much sound for the room and too much room for the sound. When your home theater space spills over into another room, as is the case with the living room and dining room in my house, things get even more complicated because it's necessary to account for the extra space in the room, even though we won't be using the entire space for the home theater. For a bigger room, make sure the speakers are capable of filling the room with sound.

Receiving All Your Components

Before you buy a home theater receiver, take inventory of how many components you will be connecting. Also determine how many connections will be required from the receiver to the back of the HDTV. If your home theater has a DVD player, a VCR, a CD player, a Media Center PC, and a cassette deck, a Sony Play Station and Game Cube, you need to be sure the home theater receiver you choose will accommodate all the connections for those devices, especially because five of those seven devices all need to display something on the screen for you to get anything out of the experience.

If you're doing surround sound on a budget, I still like the Onkyo TX-SR502 with 6.1 channel surround sound supporting Dolby Digital EX, DTS-ES, DTS 96/24, DTS Neo:6 and Dolby Pro Logic IIx. The subwoofer crossover is adjustable for optimizing bass response. It offers two component video inputs in addition to three S-video or RCA video in connections, which is enough for the scenario described above. CD and Tape audio only connections, as well as a digital audio in round out the input selection. The key area where this receiver is lacking is in upconversion from S-video to component output or RCA to S-video output, so the potential exists for needing three connections from your receiver to the back of the screen. Consider this a great starting point with plenty of alternatives for larger budgets.

Buy Your Subwoofer Separately

It's tempting to buy one of those all-in-one surround sound packages with front, center, and rear speakers bundled with a subwoofer. The result may be less than desirable because the speakers are almost never perfectly sized for the room you want to use them in. For large rooms, like the situation I describe with the living room area and dining room forming one massive room, bass can easily get lost if the subwoofer isn't appropriately sized to fit the room. Buy purchasing the subwoofer separate from other speakers you get exactly the subwoofer optimized for your listening area.

Matching Tones

While buying a subwoofer designed for your listening space is better than buying a speaker bundle it's still a good idea to have some brand loyalty in buying. Speakers from different manufacturers have slightly different tones to the way they reproduce sound, which can mean that a particular speaker (or speaker pair) will stick out slightly if it doesn't match with the others. Buying all your speakers from one manufacturer will generally prevent this although if you're willing to invest some careful listening, it may be possible to create a tonally balanced set of speakers across brands.

Demo on the Showroom Floor

It's almost impossible to get an accurate sound picture on the showroom floor that translates directly to your listening environment at home, but there are a few tricks that will help make sure the speakers are solid. First, make sure you know the return and exchange policy; if you really hate the speakers in your home setup you want the option of exchanging them for something better. Listen for subtleties of sound in the appropriate speakers; for talk programming make sure voices are clear in the center channel and that you can hear speech clearly. For a great surround test, the pod race in Episode I remains one of the greatest surround samples on DVD. As a matter of personal taste, I have no interest in music performances in surround, but if you enjoy a full-bodied music experience, bring a few CDs or DVD-A disc to the store and test the speakers for a dynamic range of music as well (in my case, I make sure the front channels deliver a truckload of performance with the vocalist in my face from the center channel).