Understanding Surround Sound System


Understanding Surround Sound System: What the Setup Numbers Mean

When it comes to building a good home cinema, audio quality matters as much as picture clarity – and it isn’t hard to see why. Just imagine watching your favourite movie in crystal-clear clarity on a top-of-the-line 4K TV but having to strain your ears the entire way because of the muffled dialogue (ouch).

What do the surround sound numbers really mean? (e.g. 5.1, 7.1, 5.1.2)

Well, here’s the simple explanation: These figures refer to the number of speaker components included in a home theatre system or set-up.

For example, a 5.1 surround sound system comes with five full-range speakers (front, centre, rear), plus one subwoofer (a type of low-frequency speaker, more on that below), whereas a 7.1 system has seven full-range speakers that are accompanied by a subwoofer.

You may also encounter three-digit combinations that look something like ‘5.1.2’. In such cases, the final digit refers to the number of ceiling and/or upwards-firing speakers that a set-up has (two).

5.1 Surround System
5.1.2 Surround System
5.1.4 Surround System

So, how many speakers do you really need?

The number of speakers that you’ll end up with depends on the set up you choose, but as a general point of reference (based on an entry-level 5.1 setup), you’ll need 5 speakers and a subwoofer at minimum to create a classic surround sound experience.

Instead of directing everything through a single source or speaker (which is what TVs do), surround sound works by sending audio with different frequencies through several speakers or channels – this has the effect of creating an enhanced listening experience that’s more realistic because of the ‘movement’ of sound all around you.

To understand how this effect is created, here’s a simple explanation of what each speaker does:

a. Front speakers

Full-range units that are placed at the front, on the left and right of your set-up. They are responsible for handling most of the music and sound effects coming from your movie/game/any media that’s being played on-screen.

b. Centre speaker

Centre speakers mainly do the heavy lifting when it comes to dialogue, ensuring that every spoken line is crisp and clear.

c. Surround speaker

Placed at the rear left and right positions of a surround sound set-up, surround speakers handle any sounds that ‘come from behind’ – for example, the footsteps of a person sneaking up from the back.

d. Subwoofer

Responsible for bass and sub-bass (low-frequency) sounds, subwoofers are the key to giving a surround sound experience its impressive ‘feel’ – think of it as the impression you get when you hear the ‘oomph’ of Thor’s axe slamming into Thanos’ chest or the ‘vrau vrau’ of a lightsaber’s buzz.

e. Ceiling speaker

Ceiling speakers are in charge of directional sounds that ‘come’ from above, like the whir of a helicopter’s blades or thunder during a storm.

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