WHEN YOU THINK OF THE TERM “home theater,” what immediately comes to mind? If you’re like most people, it’s probably the bright, vivid, larger-than-life video screen. While this component is certainly essential, having a top-notch audio system is just as important to the overall home theater expe- rience. By audio, we mean a surround-sound system. Made up of an A/V receiver (see page 40), several speakers and at least one subwoofer, a surround-sound system divides the au- dio soundtrack of a movie into six or more discrete channels and delivers these channels to the appropriate speakers and subwoofer(s). It’s an effect that makes you feel as if you are in the center of the on-screen action. The audio is dynamic, en- gaging and realistic—just as a home theater should be.
As the last link in the audio chain, quality home theater speakers are a must, and options vary widely. Starting with the design of the speakers, you can buy freestanding (also called box or cabinet) speakers that stand on the floor or that can be perched on bookshelves and other furnishings, or models designed to be recessed flush with the surface of the walls and ceiling. Neither style is better than the other; although some home theater designers would argue that freestanding speakers are superior in terms of audio quality. Over the years, the main distinction between the two types has become more about cosmetics than audio quality, as the performance of built-in prod- ucts continues to improve due to enhancements by manufacturers of the technology and a better understanding by home theater designers about proper installation techniques. “A home theater designer can make an in-wall surround-sound system rival that of a freestanding surround-sound system when it’s in- stalled correctly,” says Mark Casavant, vice president of product development at Klipsch Group.
Still, be sure to at least audition a few choice speakers (both freestanding and built-in) before you settle on a system. Go to a showroom of a nearby home theater design firm and listen to both movies and music to gauge your preference. Be sure to compare speakers that fall within your budget. While uber-expensive speakers can sound amazing, you’ll find plenty of solid speaker options in every price range.
Since quality is hinging less and less on the footprint (in- wall or freestanding) of the speaker, cosmetic design has be- come a big determining factor for many home theater enthusiasts. There are two schools of thought: One, show off your investment with an architecturally striking cabinet speaker left out in the open, or two, fuse them into the construction of the theater so that they raise no visual conflict with room design. There’s no right or wrong; just your personal preference. Keep in mind, however, that depending on the situation, it may be easier to install freestanding speakers than to recess several speakers into the ceiling and walls.
In addition to quality and cosmetics, you’ll need to determine the number of speakers to install. This can vary depending on the size of your room, your budget, and the sophistication of your listening style. At its most basic, a surround-sound system should include five speakers and one subwoofer, referred to as a 5.1 system. From here, you can add a subwoofer, expand to a 7.1, 9.2, or 11.2 system (technically the LFE channel is always .1 no matter how many subwoofers you use); even go to the ex-treme with a 12.6 setup … or anywhere in between (generally, the larger the home theater, the more speakers it will require). Just be sure the receiver or processor you pick today will be able to handle the speaker arrangement you have now … and may possibly have in the future. The latest surround-sound technol- ogy, Dolby Atmos, can deliver sound almost anywhere because it’s not restricted to a set number of channels. The effect is complete immersion, so you can’t go wrong by at least running the wiring to support these “elevation” effects speakers.
Given the flexibility of today’s surround-soundsystems and continuing advancements in the technology, it’s always a good idea to run cabling for additional speakers. Who knows: you may eventually want to upgrade from a 5.1 system to a 7.1 system. If you’re really committed to staying on the cutting edge, wire for the up-and-coming Atmos technology, which calls for the placement of several speakers overhead.
The physical placement of surround-sound speakers has become a much more flexible exercise, too. Although there are formulas that provide strict positioning recommendations, home theater designers now have tools that permit less-than- ideal, asymmetrical positioning while still delivering an experience where the entire room is covered with surround-sound information, Casavant says.