You’ve agonized over picking the right video system for your home theater, dropped the money for it, and even hooked it up to your sweet surround sound audio setup.
So, why does it sound like the apocalypse when you fire it up? Chances are you need to balance the audio system to best suit the characteristics of the room. Here’s how.
Step 1: Map Your Layout
Achieving a truly immersive audio experience is one part movie magic and three parts acoustics. Most of the work in balancing your new system lies in understanding how sound behaves in the space you’ve chosen. A square room with minimal obstructions between speaker and listener is most ideal, but most systems are flexible enough to accommodate a number of different setups. Just keep in mind that you want enough space for the speakers to create individual audio fields without the audio getting mushy or echo-ey.
Some high-end surround sound systems incorporate their own “pink noise” generator or optimizer CD, and can calculate the proper speaker distances using an included microphone.
Step 2: Balance the Front
As the driving force of your system, the front left and right speakers are the best starting point. In general, you want the speakers far enough apart so you can distinguish sounds coming from the left versus sound from the right. Using an asymmetrical room? It’s likely you’ll have to compensate for unevenly placed speakers. Some receivers handle this automatically by allowing you to input the left/right speaker distances, but some tinkering with the channel’s panning and volume levels should do the trick.
Step 3: Work the Center
With the left and right channels squared away, it’s time to situate your system’s dark horse—the center channel. As the primary source of dialog and the center piece of your system, the placement of the center speaker is crucial. Common setups have this speaker situated either above or below the screen, but you can experiment to figure out what works for you. Just make sure to equalize the channel with the front speakers in mind. Otherwise, you’re in for a nasty surprise the first time you hear a sweeping left-to-right pan.
Step 4: Finish with the Surrounds
Contrary to common belief, surround speakers aren’t meant to inundate you with audio like the front and center channels. Instead, they’re designed to enhance atmospheric and off-screen audio to create the illusion of being immersed in the film at key points. As such, placing the speakers to the left and right of your sitting area and facing them in is the best quick and dirty placement.
It’s not uncommon to hit a few bumps while testing the surround channels with live audio. Volume levels can be set easily enough by playing a film with a heavy score. But if you’re looking to equalize them for things like atmospheric sound effects it can be a little more tricky. Your best bet is to invest in a home theater test DVD (don’t worry, they’re not very expensive) so you can run persistent audio through the speakers, but many systems come with test discs just for this purpose.
It’s also increasingly common for systems today have built-in room correction software to help in case you’re less confident. See how your ears and the software compare. It could help.
Step 5: Place the Sub
Whereas the front and surround channels have roughly predefined locations, the sky’s the limit for the subwoofer. A corner placement is often best for carrying bass through a room, but it’s rarely that easy. X-factors like furniture placement, carpeting and even the construction of the room’s walls can play big roles. But while you’re lugging your sub from corner to corner to find the ultimate sweet spot always remember: clean, punchy bass is the goal. Rattling windows and shattering dishes? Not so much.
One tip: Placing the sub-woofer near the seating locations makes the best impression, like near the sofa or between the recliners. Try it. Turn the volume to infinity and rock out.