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Cover/title photo for our surround sound explanation blog.

What is Surround Sound? From 3.1 to 7.1.4

By Matt Pecharich | January 23rd, 2021/Home Audio and Video

What is “Surround Sound”?

We actually get this question a lot. From older to younger generations, there are still a lot of people out there who don’t understand exactly what surround sound is or how it works. They understand you need speakers around the room, but they still have questions such as:

  • Where do the speakers go?
  • How many speakers do I need?
  • What kind of speakers do I need?
  • Are they wireless speakers or do I need to run wire?

The list goes on when it comes to these questions, and the answer is not always simple either. For us to write something here that covers every single situation would be near impossible. This is why our consultants go out to look at a home and we can confidently offer a solution or explanation afterwards.

BUT… for the sake of current and future customers, we have to do something here that explains the basics. It will also answer questions and explain a few variables.

Note: If you have technical questions, please come in the store to speak to one of our experts and see examples. We understand you may be building dedicated media/theater rooms and need to know more than this article will explain. There are recommended dimensions, distances, heights, speaker placements, types of speakers, etc.. It is way too much for us to cover here.

What are all these numbers? I'm Confused!

So, when talking surround sound you are inevitably going to run into numbers like “5.1 Surround Sound” or “7.1.2 Surround Sound” and it leaves a lot of people scratching their heads. This is actually very simply explained and broken down. Let's start with the first number and work our way to the right, using “5.1.2 Surround Sound” as an example. Then we will move on to some pictures that will help you visualize the setup.

5.1.2 Surround Sound Setup

5 - Represents the number of surround speakers (speakers in the front, sides, and rear)
1 - Represents the number of subwoofers (bass/low end frequencies/rumble)
2 - Represents the number of height speakers (Dolby Atmos, speakers/audio located above you)

You don’t have to have height speakers for Dolby Atmos to have a "surround sound", just so you know. A lot of people do straight forward 5.1 or 7.1 setups in their homes. There are also more variables to consider if you are going to do a Dolby Atmos setup.

To explain the difference as simply as we can, Dolby Atmos adds a three dimensional effect to your experience. Your regular surround speakers will give you audio from the front, left, right, and rear of the room. Adding speakers for height give you, you guessed it, audio ABOVE you.

We do have to get slightly technical here and explain a couple of things, because like anyone you will probably do a Google search when you’re done reading this to research some more.

There are the recommended, proper ways to add Atmos speakers to a setup. And there are ways to mimic Atmos speakers or position speakers to “do their best” so to speak. You may see some home theater tower speakers with Dolby Atmos speakers built into the top. Two of our favorite brands, Klipsch and Focal, offer models like these. The speakers built into the top are meant to direct audio to reflect off the ceiling and down at the listener, thereby mimicking having speakers overhead.

 Dolby Atmos Towers

Those speakers act as another pair and will still require a home audio receiver with height/atmos channels to run them. This also brings us to our next quick topic. We strongly recommend wired speakers with a surround sound amplifier/receiver for the best experience.

There are powered soundbars with rear speakers that wirelessly connect and other options out there, but you just won’t get anywhere near the same experience. Using a traditional home audio receiver to power your room offers a LOT more in terms of dialing in your system to the room and your listening position. Being able to focus the experience on a “golden seat” (we will explain the term later) with a surround sound receiver makes all the difference.

What speakers do I need for surround sound?

There are three kinds of speakers we use 99.9% of the time for surround sound. Also keep in mind we are normally involved when the home or theater room is being built. So we get to pick/choose/optimize what we use depending on the design (and budget).

Traditional Tower/Bookshelf/On-Wall Speakers
Directional Flush Mount In-Ceiling Speakers
Flush Mount In-Wall Speakers

Notice we said “directional” in-ceiling speakers. We have to explain this a lot, because there is a difference between in-ceiling speakers in a home for music or for a theater room. You want your speakers aimed at a specific spot. Using non-directional speakers in the ceiling is fine for music on a patio or in a kitchen, but in a media room now all your “surround sound” is being fired at the floor.

Klipsch DS-180CDT directional in-ceiling speaker.

The Klipsch DS-180CDT (Designer Series) can pivot up to 45 degrees in its basket for directional audio.

Some in-wall speakers can be directional, but it’s not necessarily required for best performance. In-wall speakers would be at ear level, which is optimal, and the way they are designed to disperse audio is meant to make up for not being 100% directional. Throw a good surround sound amplifier on them, properly tune them to the room, and you wouldn’t know the difference.

Klipsch DS-160W six inch in-wall speaker of their designer series.

The Klipsch DS-160W in-wall speaker

Lastly, the tried and true traditional speakers which we are all familiar with. From the old school BOSE satellite speakers mounted in corners around the room, to actual tower speakers or bookshelf speakers with on-wall surround speakers. We’ve all pretty much seen and/or heard them, so there’s not much to explain here. Just know when we say “traditional” we mean these.

There is a reason why we are kind of over-explaining this section a bit..

We want to make sure that as we move through the different levels of surround sound that you understand our explanations or suggestions. The types of speakers used for certain locations/positions can (and sometimes NEED) to be mixed and matched for optimal performance in a room. Please keep in mind before we move forward that we are explaining little more than the basics.

Some people may say this is more than the basics. To them, we say nay.

Come see us in the store. We can discuss soundwave diffusion and absorption using certain materials in a media/listening room to avoid reflecting specific frequencies and optimize system performance. We can go over standing waves, bass traps, recommended degrees/angles of audio dispersion per speaker position relative to the listening position, and more.

Surround Sound - From 3.1 to 7.1.4 and the Golden Seat

The pictures of each surround sound setup in the following sections use a very simple photo of a speaker and red arrows to show the direction in which these speakers are facing. Those speakers could be traditional, in-ceiling, or in-wall. We make our own professional suggestions of what kind to use in each section and mention a few variables that can affect performance or change those suggestions.

We also need to touch back on the golden seat from earlier. Simply put, the “golden seat” is the chair (or listening position) which delivers the best performance.

Most home audio surround sound receivers have tuning capabilities such as setting the distance each speaker is from a position, whether they are large or small speakers, individual equalization, and more. They can also come with their own microphone and “automated” tuning as well, but eh.. in our experience spending an extra 10-20 minutes manually tuning and getting to know your system makes all the difference in the world.

Of course, when you Google more after reading this, you’re going to see so many opinions and suggestions it is going to make your head spin.

Our experience shows us there are too many variables to suggest anything other than the basics and what is universal across all situations. Most people (including us) like to tune the system to the front and center seat if you’re doing one or two rows of seating. That doesn’t mean everyone else gets a horrible experience (trust us, they won’t if done correctly) but that the one seat will offer the most accurate representation of what was recorded.

We will be using a media room with two rows of seating and a projector/screen setup as an example in the following pictures. That is as technical as the room is meant to be. There is no length/width/height of the room assumed here or recommended. These are simply meant to be a visual guide of speaker positions and their setup with explanations along the way.

Note: Every setup explained here on out is using one subwoofer (7.1.4, for example). Most A/V receivers have two subwoofer outputs for a 7.2.4 or a 7.2 or even a simple 5.2 surround sound setup. We are just keeping it simple. If you do two subwoofers, there are a few different configurations which we may do a much smaller blurb about later on.

3.1 Setup (Most popular with powered soundbars and older customers)

While not really a “surround sound” setup, we do feel like we need to cover this one real quick (specifically for our older customers or possibly parents of younger ones).

Diagram of a 3.1 surround sound setup and speaker positions.

This is a simple front stage setup. It gives you a subwoofer for the low end/bass, a front left speaker, front right, and most importantly a center channel. The center channel is the MOST IMPORTANT speaker here and in EVERY surround sound example from here on out.

The center channel is where all of your dialogue is meant to come from; fired right at you from center stage. Movies, TV shows, even live sporting events (announcers) are all meant for dialogue to be mainly projected from this one speaker. This is why we mentioned our older customers, because they may have trouble hearing what people say on just the TV speakers. Most televisions only come with a pair of speakers for 2-channel stereo audio.

This takes your dialogue and mushes it in with everything else. Turning up the volume to try and hear what people are saying only turns up everything all at once. Then your neighbors know you still watch The Bachelor and root for the Texans over the Cowboys, and nobody wants that.

5.1 Surround Sound Speaker Setup

The most basic of them all, the 5.1 surround sound gives you a total of five speakers and one subwoofer. You get the same front three and a subwoofer like the 3.1 setup but you add two rear surround speakers; the rear right and rear left (RR and RL). Notice they are also closer to each other, squished more to the inside of the room and not lined up directly with the front speakers from back to front.

Diagram of a 5.1 surround sound setup and speaker positions.

Some people argue for and against the rear speakers being “inside” the front stage in the rear of the room in a 5.1 surround sound. We prefer it because we feel it performs better. The rears are meant for surround effects behind you. Too much separation not only hurts the flow of audio between the two, but also puts the audio too far outside in the rear. Even with adjusting the distance and tuning in a receiver it falls short.

Of course, depending on the room and the situation you can’t always do what is 100% recommended when it comes to the speakers.

With a 3.1/5.1/7.1, we prefer to do the front stage or at least the center channel as close to ear level as possible and directional in-ceilings for the rest. Sometimes you can do it all in-ceiling with no ill effects, as long as your ceiling isn’t too high. As you know your center channel is the most important speaker (dialogue) and if your ceiling is too high, unless you’re going to mount your TV or screen up there with it, it will sound really weird.

Think looking at or watching someone talk and hearing their actual voice come from 7ft away from where their mouth is moving. No amount of tuning on a receiver is going to fix that.

Let’s keep going!

7.1 Surround Sound Speaker Setup

What is missing in a 5.1 surround sound the 7.1 fills in, which is your sides!

Instead of your surround sound hopping from the front stage all the way to your rear speakers, you now have what we call your surround right and left speakers. These speakers complete the flow around the room, allowing effects to transition smoother from your front stage to the rear and vice versa. This makes a big difference in the quality and performance of your surround sound.

Diagram of a 7.1 surround sound setup and speaker positions.

As with a 5.1, you can use directional in-ceilings for the added surround speakers depending on ceiling height. Also keep in mind as we go from level to level, you need a surround sound receiver capable of powering all the speakers in the system at each level we go over. So as of right now, we have gone from a 5.1 channel receiver to a 7.1, so an extra two channels for surround speakers.

Because of the job your surround left and right speakers are meant to complete, we will get slightly technical here with what we call dispersion (there is a reason, bear with us). A not so technical definition is how wide an area your speaker is meant to cover with its audio. Stick your arms straight out to your sides, palms open facing forward and fingers pointing out. Keeping them straight, slowly close your arms forward like you’re going to clap your hands together.

You are narrowing the dispersion as you bring your arms closer together to clap your hands.

A speaker is designed with a specific angle/degree in which audio leaves it. This can be wide or more narrow and direct like your arms as you bring them in or the difference in a floodlight versus a spotlight. For certain applications and better performance, you really want to make sure the speakers you use have an optimal degree of dispersion.

Look at the picture, and you see how much distance you have between your front stage and rear speakers. The surround speakers have some work to do to smooth out that transition. The narrower that degree, the less optimal your system will sound. Your home audio receiver and proper tuning will help, but so will spending a bit more on some nicer speakers at this point as well.

Lastly, notice their position. They are set up wider than the front stage (closer to your walls) and set right in line with where someone would be sitting in the “golden seat” you’d tune everything to. Once again, you’ll see varying opinions on this when you go on your Google adventure.

The argument here is always whether to set them up right in line with the golden seat, slightly in front or slightly behind. Dolby themselves say to set them up right in line so that’s what we suggest as well (fact check us here > Dolby 7.1 Setup).

7.1.2 Dolby Atmos Surround Sound Speaker Setup

Now we’re having some fun, and also really getting into dedicated media room/home theater levels at this point. Mainly because we’re getting into strongly suggesting different types of speakers since we are dealing with Dolby Atmos now. You need a 9.2 channel A/V receiver to run this setup (7 surround speakers + 2 Dolby Atmos speakers = 9 channels total).

Look at the picture, and imagine all those speakers in the ceiling of your theater room.

Diagram of a 7.1.2 surround sound with Dolby Atmos setup and speaker positions.

We always strongly suggest 8 inch in-ceiling speakers for a theater because of the added midrange depth. Even though they are flush mount in-ceilings the grill you’d see is still going to be (on average) about 11 inches wide. With nine speakers that makes for a cluttered ceiling.

Not only that, but that’s a lot of audio and soundwaves being thrown around from the ceiling that we’d expect a surround sound receiver’s audio processor to handle properly. If it was just a 7.1 surround sound then sure, do it all in the ceiling especially if you have a dedicated home theater. It’s still not optimal (really want the front stage or center at ear level) but it would work.

Moving up into an Atmos setup, even with just two of the recommended four height speakers, is a completely different ball game. So we strongly make the following suggestions while assuming you have a 100% dedicated media room.

  • Front Right/Left and Center = In-Wall Speakers (at ear level, behind an acoustically transparent projection screen that allows audio to pass through)
  • Surround Right/Surround Left = In-Wall Speakers (at ear level)
  • Rear Right/Rear Left = Directional In-Ceiling Speakers
  • Height 1 Right/Left = Directional In-Ceiling Speakers

You could also run a variation of this using traditional speakers. Doing it the following way doesn’t sacrifice performance and saves some money by not needing an acoustically transparent screen. Really the only difference is you’d see the speakers in the following suggestion vs. speakers built in and hidden in the first suggestion.

  • Front Right/Left and Center = Tower Speakers + Center Channel (or flat panel on-wall speakers mounted on either side and under the screen)
  • Surround Right/Surround Left = On-Wall Surround Speakers (either flat panel type, bipole type, or directional on-wall speakers)
  • Rear Right/Rear Left = On-Wall Surround Speakers (either flat panel type, or directional on-wall speakers)
  • Height 1 Right/Left = Directional In-Ceiling Speakers

Once again, all as close to ear level as can be.

There is a bit of a debate over whether Dolby Atmos speakers need to be directional or not. This is mainly because these speakers are meant for height, which adds more of a three dimensional audio experience versus one that is more directed towards the listener (surround speakers).

As professionals, we have to suggest what Dolby themselves say to use once again; Directional in-ceiling speakers for all Dolby Atmos speakers.

7.1.4 Dolby Atmos Surround Sound Speaker Setup

End of the line folks. This is it, as good as it gets. Adding a subwoofer for a 7.2.4 would be the only upgrade from here. You need an 11.2 channel A/V receiver for this setup (7 surround speakers + 4 Dolby Atmos speakers = 11 channels total).

Diagram of a 7.1.4 surround sound with Dolby Atmos setup and speaker positions.

For once there really is not much to say. We covered pretty much everything that would apply here including variations and suggestions in the 7.1.2 Dolby Atmos setup in the section before this. The same apply here for the extra two Atmos speakers; do directional in-ceilings for the rear heights.

You can see that we brought the rear surround speakers inside just a bit more to make room for the rear Dolby Atmos. We have also used blue dotted lines to highlight an aspect of this setup. Your four height speakers are set up in a square, and lined up directly with your front right/left speakers.

Now technically, according to Dolby, they suggest you position the rear height speakers just to the outside of your rear surrounds lined up next to them. This is another reason why we also suggest doing in-wall or on-wall speakers for your seven surround speakers at this level. While we can’t give you a 3D model to really visualize it, we can try to explain why real quick.

So close your eyes and go on a short journey with us..

Why use different types of speakers?

Kidding, you can’t read if you close your eyes.

Just imagine attaching a laser pointer to each speaker and aiming that laser at the golden seat if you did all in-ceiling speakers at this point or in a 7.1.2 surround sound. That's a lot of directional audio (that still has a set dispersion angle) really close and almost crossing one another. This greatly increases the chances of interference and decreased performance.

We can’t make you an expert in one writeup, but explaining one thing in particular might help at this point if you don’t know it already.

Sound travels in waves; high frequency in short waves and low end frequencies in long waves. This is why you hear loud bass from further away and through more barriers than the midrange or treble. Where the problem lies is when you have a soundwave of the same frequency meet another of the same frequency from a different speaker (or its reflected back).

Picture of a 1Hz soundwave and a 10Hz soundwave.

When they meet, it causes interference in several different forms. But the most common is either making the sound louder or quieter than it is meant to be. This is why you don’t set speakers right next to each other and play them.

And why we suggest a mixture of speaker types; for more separation and less interference.

Surround Sound - Wrap Up + More

Well there you have it. Hopefully we explained things thoroughly (and simply) enough for most of you to understand. Keep in mind, there are a couple more configurations and variations we didn’t cover here. You can do Dolby Atmos in a five surround speaker setup as well as seven.

For example, a 5.1.2 or 5.1.4 surround sound configuration.

There are also “hybrid” Dolby Atmos setups. As mentioned earlier, the tower speakers that have Atmos drivers built into the top to fire at the ceiling and reflect down at the listener. Using speakers made to reflect off the ceiling in the front and rear can offer flexibility, especially if you are unable to add in-ceiling speakers for some reason.

Also, we know there are 13.2 channel surround sound receivers and configurations (this makes a 9.1.4 or 9.2.4 surround sound setup). Explaining it takes a bit more time, however. If you’d like to know more, then check out the links to our other (shorter) writeups below. The one that goes over A/V receivers explains the 13.2 channel setup.

The other is just as important as this one. It goes over subwoofers in a home theater. We kept this writeup simple with just one subwoofer in each example and really focused more on the surround sound aspect. But it is optimal to have two, and we explain why.

Two is Better Than One: Home Theater Subwoofers

A/V Receivers: Just Inputs and Outputs.. Right? (Projected Post in February 2021)

As always, if you have questions or would like to schedule a time to sit down and design a media room then give us a call or come into the store! One of our consultants would be happy to help.

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