The first thing I tell customers when this comes up is that while extremely cool and trendy, a typical 5.1 surround sound system isn't always necessary. The reason I point out that a surround sound isn't always necessary, is that it isn't always used. A lot of people tend to get upset when they find out not everything they watch/listen to is actually formatted in a surround sound signal. The reality is, an auxillary sound system makes everything sound better than TV speakers, so it's always a good investment. The question is, how many speakers should you add to the system?
This is obviously a general outline and there are always exceptions for certain speakers and certain types of rooms. A customer's preference always supercedes an installer's opinion too.....and rightfully so.
Your traditional 5.1 system is comprised of 5 separate speakers and a subwoofer (the .1). The main speakers are your front left and right. They should be located anywhere in front of you and equidistant from the center of the TV. This is where a majority of your sound is coming from, about 70%. So you want to make sure that if you are putting together a speaker package, you put the most money into these two speakers.
The center channel should be in the dead center of the room and located as close to the TV as possible. This is because it is the speaker all of the voices come out of. The closer it is to the TV, the more vivid the illusion becomes that your TV is actually talking to you.
The rear speakers can be placed either to the side or behind you and, like the fronts, should be equidistant from the center of the room if possible. Keep in mind that they are not always necessary because they only add about 10% of the sound. However, that 10% is the special effects such as bullets whizzing by and people yelling in the background.
The reason I bring this up is that it can be extremely frustrating to try and put rear speakers into a room that isn't designed to have them. And even more frustrating is physically installing them while making sure that they look as good as they sound. Because I am a theater nut, I do err towards recommending a full 5.1 more often than not. If the customer understands the difference between a 3.1 (all up front) and a 5.1 (with surround added) and definitely wants those extra speakers, here are the most common ways to handle it.
- If the room is carpeted or can be addressed before flooring goes in, a special type of speaker wire can be installed that is less that 1/8" thick. Quality brands sound just as good as traditional wire, but you can neither see it nor feel it when it's under the floor. Once the wire has been run to the desired spot, speakers can be put on free standing speaker towers that will also conceal the wire's exit from the floor. Bam. One on the left and one on the right and you've got surround sound.
The only thing I caution customers about this method is if little kids or bigger pets are running around, they are liable to knock the stands over and I haven't met a warranty yet that covers that.
- If there is attic access or pre-wire installed by the home builder in the ceiling, speakers can be installed that actually sit up in the ceiling and are flush with the surface. Since they are installed directly into the ceiling, you don't need any kind of back wall for support.
Also, universal speaker mounts can be installed in the same manner if satellite speakers ON the ceiling are being used instead of ones that mount IN the ceiling. The cost of in-ceiling speakers is usually higher than out-of-walls of the same quality.
- Probably the newest way to put rear speakers in a room that's not designed for it is to go wireless. IMPORTANT: I am not referring to actual speakers that are wireless. Those are all terrible. I have never heard one that rivals a wired speaker, so unless you work for NASA, steer clear of them.
"Wireless" refers to fact that there are no speaker wires run from the front of the room to the rear of the room. Several companies make kits you can buy that create a wireless link from your home theater receiver (in the front) to the rear of the room. It includes a sender unit that connects to the rear terminals on the receiver and a receiver unit that connects (via regular speaker wire) to your rear speakers. This leaves you free to put them on stands as discussed earlier, without having to tear up carpet or buy special wire. The only downside to this method is that the unit in the rear of the room needs to be plugged into a wall outlet and that can sometimes make it hard to keep the system out of sight completely. The kit I have used plenty of times and would recommend is actually made by Rocketfish, which is a company created and owned by Best Buy. It retails for around $100.
The last speaker to setup is the subwoofer, which is the bigger box speaker that provides all your bass. The subwoofer channel is not location-specific, so it can be placed anywhere in the room that is convenient. For the best sound, make sure you don't block it or stack anything on it.
Keep in mind that these are all methods which I have personally used many times. Enough times to know when one presents a better solution than others. If you're not sure which way to go, your best option is to have a home theater installer come out and look at your house to make recommendations. These days most companies, including mine, will offer this service at no charge so it is definitely worth an hour of your time.