Not all surround sound systems are the same. For your optimal listening experience—the kind that makes you forget about that whole “outside world” thing—you want the best surround sound system for your price range, arranged with precision and set up with enough knowhow to push its capabilities to the max.
If you’re hungry for steak, you don’t order a cheap, tough cut of beef and force yourself to enjoy it. When you really want to dress up and hit the town, you avoid black sweatpants and a T-shirt with a tuxedo print. And if you want surround sound, you don’t simply grab any old speakers, scatter them around, run some wires and hit play.
You want flowing, detailed, risk-a-noise-complaint-from-the-neighbors surround sound. You want crisp dialog, stirring musical scores, whispers you can hear and understand, and explosions that shake you to the core. You want to believe that helicopter is hovering above your roof, a dinosaur is stomping down your hallway, and that—for a couple of hours anyway—you are the center of the cinematic universe playing out around you.
You want high definition, high-performance surround sound.
Home theater systems that make excellent use of surround sound via quality equipment can elevate a typical move night to an event. All this transformation takes is a little background knowledge on how a movie’s audio makes its way from the disc through your speakers.
What is Surround Sound?
The definition of surround sound is sound that literally surrounds you, coming at you from the front, rear, and either side for a 360-degree listening experience. Surround sound puts you in the heart of the audio action, transforming the simple act watching of a movie at home into a rich and complex entertainment experience.
TV speakers alone send all of the sound at you from a single source. Rockets firing into the stratosphere, buildings collapsing all around, and heroes leaping toward the screen and beyond all sound like they’re happening in a box—because they are. Life doesn’t come at you from only one direction, so a single source for sound can reinforce the fact that what you’re watching is contained.
Soundbars can improve the experience by giving the audio more room to move, simulating surround sound without actually surrounding you.
Despite a soundbar’s impressive output, which is plenty for some people and room applications, true surround sound is the only way to re-create the movie theater experience at home, allowing you to hear what and the director intended. This immersion can boost your enjoyment of the experience by plunging you into the story. Watching becomes something more than just watching.
How Does Surround Sound Work?
When creating a production that makes use of surround sound, audio engineers will split all of the noises in a given scene into separate channels. Sounds that correspond to action happening to the left go left. Effects accompanying visuals on the right go right.
A surround sound receiver acts as a sort of traffic cop, directing all of the sound to be sure it gets to where it’s been ordered to go. The center channel does the heavy lifting in terms of handling dialog and whatever’s happening right in front of your face. The rest of the speakers take what’s been assigned to them. The system can be broad or specific. A setup with five speakers will transmit the sound accordingly, even if there are more channels encoded into the disc. Many movies are released on disc or broadcast in six channels, though an increasing number are coming to home viewers in an eight-channel format.
When connected and arranged properly, the speakers in a surround sound setup work together to properly fill the room based on its size and direct the sound toward the optimal viewing and listening area.
Surround Sound Formats
You may notice that surround sound systems are referred to in numbers, such as 7.1 surround sound. This lets you know how many speaker components the system has. A 7.1 setup boasts eight channels: seven discrete main audio channels, divvied up among seven speakers, and one channel fed to the subwoofer for the low notes.
A 5.1 surround sound system includes the left and right speakers to sit in the front near the screen, one center channel for vocals, the left and right speakers for either side of your seating area and the subwoofer. The speakers flanking you while you enjoy your audio attack are known as the surround speakers.
A 7.1 surround sound system has the same basic setup as the 5.1, but also includes a right and left back speaker positioned behind the viewer.
The 9.1 setup adds another pair speakers to the 7.1 mix. While the speakers in a smaller setup (in front of, to the side of, and behind you) allow sound effects to freely travel left and right, forward and backward, it takes two more speakers, each mounted a few feet above a corresponding left or right front speaker, to give the noise some opportunity for altitude. Height gives music and audio effects another axis, creating a more immersive experience.
Any of these systems can also incorporate multiple subwoofers, upping the number on the right side of the decimal point. Got a pair of subwoofers? Put them on opposite walls so you receive bass from two directions. Four subwoofers should take up one point each on a diamond surrounding the listener, creating a web of thumping and rattling that will catch anything in the middle and ensure it gets a good shaking. What good do all of these subwoofers do? They even out the bass response and make your movies and music thump a little harder and crisper. One of the first recommendations you will hear from home theater buffs is to add at least one subwoofer if you are rocking a 5.1, 7.1, 9.1, etc setup. It makes a massive difference.
Like a doctoral student collecting new skills, prestige and a series of letters to add to the end of a signature, your sound system can continue to advance into the future. Dolby Atmos, a leap forward in audio technology that breaks from the traditional channel-based system to free the various audio objects in a soundtrack and allow them to move about and come at you in three dimensions—including from above your head—can prompt you to turn your 5.2 system (one center channel, four speakers, and two subwoofers) into a 5.2.4 by adding four speakers to ceiling mounts or four speakers that direct sound up to bounce back down toward the viewing area. No longer tethered to a pre-assigned output, these sounds can move to come from the direction that best serves your movie-enjoying experience.
Too much? Your ears (and friends) may disagree, but that’s OK. Keep it simple with a 9.2 system, creating an encircling perimeter of speakers anchored by two subwoofers.
Must-Have Surround Sound Features
There are several essential components necessary for anyone looking to showcase what a home theater system can do. The cinema-experience-level technology available to everyone these days should get you excited about letting your speakers off the leash to really run wild.
THX-certified standards ensure that the sound being created on the movie-makers’ end is getting its due with the audience on the other end. A production company can pull out all the stops in crafting a scene where a shot ricochets off of a dozen metal objects scattered around the room before hitting the target, but if the system meant to broadcast that intricate series of sound effects is incapable of properly handling the load, nobody’s going to be ducking to avoid taking a bullet to the skull. Be sure to invest in THX-certified speakers—such as the THX Ultra2 Series from Klipsch, which earned the highest possible certification rating. Boom.
Consider a setup that can best deliver the free-range, real-world-emulating, three-dimensional sound experience of the gotta-have-it-if-you-care-about-movies Dolby Atmos experience mentioned above, including a speaker that bounces everything off of the ceiling, raining down noises and music to soak you with sound effects. We tapped out at a nine-speaker system in our initial explanation of this audio gift to humanity, but the technology can work with up to 34—repeat: 34!—so we’re sorry/not sorry to say that you don’t stand a chance against that level of audio power (but why would you want it any other way?). The Klipsch Reference Premeire Dolby Atmos enabled RP-280FA speaker has a built-in elevation channel that does nothing but blast away at the plaster over your head. Actually, it does do one other thing: win awards.
Klipsch emphasizes Wide Dispersion Surround Technology for all of its surround sound speakers, which ensures the best sound, no matter the home theater system setup. Can’t get fit the speakers exactly where you want them? Don’t worry. You’re still going to feel like you’re in the middle of the action.
Wireless vs. Wired Surround Sound
Wireless surround sound is ideal for people who prize both performance and simplicity. You can place the speakers anywhere without worrying about connecting them to the amplifier or hiding the evidence of those connections.
The fact that wireless systems can hold their own against their wired counterparts is evidence of how far technology has come since sound first electronically made its way from a source to a speaker.
If you’re considering a wireless setup, know that time is of the essence. That means the more modern your speakers, the better. Older wireless systems operated on technology that could interfere with or be disrupted by other wireless signals in the home. They also tended to be more expensive and not as reliable.
Today, wireless technology has advanced to the point that it can deliver the goods. Just know that you will need a special control center. If that sounds intimidating, don’t worry: It’s smart enough to start pumping out the sound you want within minutes of leaving the box.
What is the best wireless surround sound system?
Honestly, the best wireless system is one that works for you now, and will continue working for you in the future. This means it should be able to handle expansion as you add more speakers to the set, as well as advancements in technology.
Consider the Reference Premiere HD Wireless system from Klipsch, which delivers high-definition, high performance cinema-quality sound and welcomes new additions by recognizing them and adding them into the system without any need for physical connections. Klipsch offers lifetime upgrades on their Control Center’s firmware so you are sure to always have the most advanced and reliable technology.
Basically, the speakers talk to each other via a WiSA (Wireless Speaker and Audio) network that ensures each high-fidelity member of your surround sound system does what it’s supposed to be doing when it’s supposed to be doing it. WiSA coordinates every audio detail to ensure speakers are in sync, timing is precise, delivery is impeccable, and you are beyond impressed—all without interfering with other wireless devices around your home.
What are the best surround sound speakers?
The cop-out answer: Whatever speakers work best for your wallet and room. While this is true (and, actually, really good advice), the you-know-you’d-rather-hear-this answer is more fun.
The best surround sound speakers are those that apply the most cutting-edge technology to the highest-quality materials with the most discerning audiophile in mind. Seek out well-crafted components from a reputable company with a tradition of creating speakers that continue to define the industry. Look for home theater systems built by people who understand cinema-quality sound because they also build for cinemas.
If you need to start small, there’s nothing wrong with that. The best surround sound speakers will make the system—not the other way around. Investing in a 34.7.15 surround sound system won’t deliver amazing sound if the speakers themselves aren’t high quality. Instead, get a small number of top-of-the-line speakers and build the system out as time and money allows. Great sound doesn’t go out of fashion.
Your ears will thank you (once they get over the initial thrill of their first dose of true surround sound).
What is your advice for someone looking to buy a surround sound system? Post it in the comments below!