Masterclass on Home Theater Speaker Placement

7.1 Speaker Setup in Living Room
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Figuring out speaker placement is one of the more challenging parts of setting up a home theater system. One of the best ways to maximize sound quality in any system is by adjusting the position and angle of the different speakers. Achieving good speaker placement goes a long way in creating an immersive experience.

I have  learned a lot about sound waves, room acoustics, and audio tech in my quest of researching speaker placement for the ultimate man cave audio experience. I hope that my experience with this process will help you set up your home theater system!

Audio Tech

There are a few basic concepts you should be familiar with before we discuss speaker placement.

Sound Signal

A sound or audio signal is a message that travels from one device to another. Digital systems convert audio signals to electricity and use frequency to determine the pitch of the sound and how it varies.
You can measure sound pitch in Hertz or Hz. Humans can hear sounds between 20 and 20,000 Hz, but we’re most sensitive to sounds in the 2,000 to 5,000 Hz range. The bass range extends from 60 to 250 Hz, while human voices fall somewhere between 85 and 255 Hz.

Surround Sound

With a monaural sound system, a single signal travels over a channel with a message. You can send that message to different devices, but they will play the same sound frequencies.
Stereo sound systems use two channels to create complementary sound signals. You can hear sounds coming from your left or right, or get the impression of movement as sound travels from one speaker to the other.
A surround sound system takes that concept further and introduces additional audio channels to create 3D sound. A stereo source encodes signals into a matrix with different channels and sends these signals to different speakers. Placing these speakers in front of you, behind you, or on the sides of your couch results in an immersive experience that simulates 3D sounds.

Different Home Theater Sound Systems

There are different types of sound systems available on the market. When comparing sound systems, you will notice that there is a number next to the name of the system.
The first part of that number refers to the number of audio channels or speakers. The second part of that number refers to the number of subwoofers.
For instance, a 5.1 system has five regular audio channels and a subwoofer, while a 7.2 system has seven regular speakers and two subwoofers.
Home theater sound systems share common components like a central speaker and two front speakers. However, the role and ideal positions of the additional elements vary from one system to another.

Speaker Placement for 2.1 Stereo Systems

A 2.1 system includes two stereo speakers and a subwoofer. It’s an option worth considering if you’re creating a home theater on a small budget or have a small room to work with.
Find the center of your TV screen and try placing the stereo speakers 3 to 4’ to the left and right of that point. Elevate the two speakers 4’ off the ground to place them at ear level if you can.
You should adjust the angle of the speakers and turn them toward the sitting area at a 20 to 30° angle.
Because subwoofers deliver omnidirectional sound, you can get good sound quality for the bass frequencies as long as you’re mindful of reflection and surfaces that could dull the sound. Keep the subwoofer away from walls and corners.
You can place the subwoofer anywhere in the room, but most people like to place their subwoofer in the front third of the room to prevent delays.

Speaker Placement for 5.1 Sound Systems

A 5.1 sound system includes a central speaker, front and right speakers, two surround sound speakers, and a subwoofer.
These sound systems are a popular option because they’re affordable, easy to set up, and deliver impressive sound quality for the price.

Central Speaker

The receiver will send the main audio channel to the central speaker. Place the central speaker directly above or underneath your TV screen. Align it with the center of your TV screen.
This placement creates the impression that sound comes from the spot that you focus on when you watch TV. It feels natural since most of the dialogue will come from your central speaker.
Keep the central speaker as close to ear level as possible. If you can’t do this, tilt the central speaker to direct the sound toward the sitting area.
Your central speaker will typically sit on a TV stand or shelf. Don’t push the speaker back on the stand or shelf! Having a wooden surface in front of the speaker will dull the sound. Instead, get the speaker as close to the edge of the stand or shelf as possible to have plenty of open space directly in front of it.

Front Speakers

You should place your front speakers to the left and right of your TV screen. Ideally, the distance between these two speakers should be similar to the distance between the speakers and the listeners. The distance between the two speakers should be slightly inferior.
Here are a few tips to help you find the ideal placement for these two elements:

  • Installing your front speakers further than 10’ apart can result in sound delays.

  • Elevate the front speakers 1 to 2’ above ear level to create a 3D box effect.

  • Angle them toward your couch.

You can also figure out the ideal placement for these speakers by dividing the length and width of the room into fifths. Place the front speakers a fifth away from the front wall, and a fifth away from the left and right walls.

Surround Speakers

Your audio receiver sends ambiance sounds to the surround speakers and use them to create depth by giving you the impression that some sounds come from behind you.
There are different options available for surround speaker placement if you have a 5.1 system. When professionals mix audio channels, they create effects and ambient sounds that are meant to come from the back and sounds that are meant to come from lateral speakers.
If you have a 5.1 system, your two surround speakers will handle these two channels. It’s perfectly acceptable to place these speakers behind you or to install them on both sides of your couch. The placement is often a matter of personal preference, and the size of your room will also dictate where you can install these speakers.
You can place surround speakers directly to the left and right of your sitting area. Direct them toward listeners. You can move the speakers to have them sit slightly behind your sitting area. Adjust the angle to have them turned toward listeners, and elevate them 1 to 2’ above ear level.
If you decide to place them behind you, sit in the middle of your couch, face your TV, and set up these speakers at a 120° angle behind you. The distance between your two rear speakers should be roughly half the distance between your sitting area and the front speakers.
If you decide to place the surround speakers behind the sitting area, angle them toward the listeners but create an angle that is slightly off by 5° or so to have the speakers turned toward the front of the room. That angle will prevent ambiance sounds from becoming too noticeable.

Subwoofer Placement

There is a lot of flexibility for subwoofer placement. I’ve found an ideal spot for my subwoofer by trying different spots until I found one that sounded better than the others.
Avoid placing your subwoofer too close to a wall or corner. Don’t place it underneath a coffee table or inside of a cabinet. Be mindful of furniture and other elements that could absorb sound waves and result in a dull bass.
It’s best to keep your subwoofer 8 to 12” away from walls to reduce reflection. Placing your subwoofer too close to a wall or in a corner will emphasize bass sounds and result in a bass channel that covers other sounds.
If you must put your subwoofer in a corner, adjust volume and other settings to prevent the bass channel from becoming too noticeable.
Placing your subwoofer near your receiver and close to the front speakers can prevent delays and help you establish a wireless connection . Subwoofers are omnidirectional speakers, so you don’t have to worry about adjusting the angle of your subwoofer.

Speaker Placement for 7.1 and 7.2 Systems

We briefly mentioned that sound mixers create lateral effects and surround sound channels that are meant to come from behind listeners. With a 7.1 or 7.2 system, you will get the full effects of these different channels thanks to the additional surround speakers. If you opt for a 7.2 system, you will get seven regular channels as well as two subwoofers.
The ideal placement for the central and two front speakers doesn’t change with a 7.1 or 7.2 system, and the few tips listed above for subwoofer placement apply if you have a 7.1 sound system.

Dual Subwoofers

A 7.2 sound system comes with two subwoofers. The advantages of having two of these speakers is that you will get better coverage in a large room. The two speakers will deliver a more detailed reproduction of the bass range, and you can configure them to have one subwoofer handle a lower bass range than the other if you want a more precise sound range.
There are different placement options. You should still avoid walls and corners and should keep the two subwoofers away from each other to increase coverage.
Try placing the two subwoofers at opposite ends of the room, or in opposite corners while keeping the subwoofers at least 12” away from the walls.
You can also place both subwoofers in the front section of the room and install them to the left and right of the front speakers. Another option is to place the two subwoofers on both sides of the room between the front and lateral speakers.

Lateral Speakers

Installing your lateral speakers is easy. These speakers should go on both sides of the sitting area, and you should angle them toward listeners.
You can also place these speakers slightly behind the listening area and adjust the angle to turn them toward the listeners.
When you sit in front of your TV, the lateral speakers should be next to you or slightly behind you at an angle that is somewhere between 90 and 110.°

Surround Speakers

Surround speakers go behind your sitting area. When you sit in the middle of your couch, your surround speakers should be behind you between 135 and 150.°
You will get ambient sounds that feel more natural if you angle your surround speakers toward a point located in the middle of the room rather than pointing them forward or directly toward the listeners.
Try placing your surrounding speakers 2 to 3’ behind your sitting area. These speakers are directional, so you shouldn’t encounter any sound quality issues if you place them in corners or close to a wall. The distance between your surround speakers should be slightly narrower than the distance between your two front speakers.

 

Additional Considerations

Figuring out the ideal speaker placement for my sound system took me a while. Here are some of the factors that played a part in determining speaker placement.

Wired and Wireless Speakers

Installing a wired sound system takes more time and requires a few adjustments. However, a wired system is typically more flexible in terms of speaker placement. You can use longer cables if needed, and run cables through walls or install cable management channels to power your lateral and sound speakers easily.
A wireless system can introduce additional limitations due to connections and interferences. Speakers might need to be within a minimum range of the receiver to deliver quality audio. Delays can become an issue if the speakers are too far from the receiver. The shape of your room and furniture might create interference and impact sound quality.
If you opted for a wired system, invest in quality cables. Choosing the right cables will ensure sound quality and prevent delays and distortion.

Room Acoustics

The size and shape of the room you’re using to set up your home theater is going to have a significant impact on audio.
The walls, ceiling, floor, and furniture are going to reflect sounds. That reflection can create an immersive 3D experience or make your favorite movie or music sound bad if it distorts certain sounds.
You can prevent distorting by being consistent with speaker placement. For instance, if your right front speaker is 3’ away from the right wall, the left speaker should mirror that position. Adjusting the angle of the speakers can also help you control reflection. Avoid angling speakers directly toward the floor, ceiling, or other flat surfaces.
You can reduce distortion by installing surfaces that dampen reflection. Thick fabric like wall-to-wall carpeting, curtains, and special acoustic panels can improve sound quality. A bookcase can also dampen sound since sound waves don’t travel well through books.
These elements that can reduce distortion can also prevent proper sound propagation by stopping sound waves. Ideally, there shouldn’t be any furniture or other elements that could dampen sounds between the speakers and listeners.
The point is that each room has a unique configuration and acoustic properties. You will have to try different placements and distances to figure out what works for your home theater room.

Manufacturer Recommendations

Manufacturer recommendations were my starting point for setting up my sound system. Your sound system should come with instructions that explain how to place the different speakers. You should find recommended distances from listeners, and recommended distances between the different speakers.
It’s crucial to follow these recommendations in the case of wireless systems since the recommended distances usually correspond to the ideal range to establish a stable connection and prevent delays.
Even though manufacturer recommendations can be helpful, they might not be precise enough to help you pinpoint an ideal location, or might not be adapted to the unique properties of the room you’re using. It’s a good starting point, but don’t hesitate to experiment within the range recommended by the manufacturer of your sound system or to step outside of that range!

Sound System Configuration

Your sound system configuration matters! You should adjust the volume and frequency response through your receiver menu.
Some sound systems come with smart features that adjust these settings automatically. If your sound system doesn’t come with these smart features, I recommend taking the time to read the user guide that came with it to learn more about the different settings and configure your sound system manually.

Summary

This guide sums up everything I’ve learned about speaker placement while figuring out how to set up my home theater system. I recommend using these tips as a starting point for your setup and experimenting until you find a layout that delivers the kind of audio quality you’re looking for!

Bonus tips on hacking your speaker position

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