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Home Theater Setup Simplified


When setting up your home theater, you can quickly get overwhelmed. Don’t panic—we’ve got you covered! This article is entitled Home Theater Setup Simplified for a reason. Configuring your room for home theater doesn’t have to be that hard. Follow the steps below and you’ll be off to the races in no time and enjoying your movies and music like never before. This simplified home theater setup guide should work well for anyone—whether you just purchased a home theater and are fresh from the store, or even if you have had the components laying around for quite some time but never got around to setting everything up.

1. Start by Positioning Your Main Speakers

I’ve set up a lot of home theaters and placing your main speakers and configuring them is always a great first step. You want to dial them in so that you get a wide soundstage and achieve good stereo separation for your movies soundtracks and music. It doesn’t really matter if you’re using bookshelf speakers or tower speakers, the process is pretty much the same—with a few caveats.

Place your speakers far enough apart so that you make a triangle with the center listening seat. Some rooms will have wide and shallow triangles (where you sit closer to the speakers), while others will have narrow and “deep” triangles (where the speakers are further away but not as far apart from each other). When your speakers get close to an equilateral triangle AND you have enough room for them to be able to properly image—you’ve achieved your goal. Also, don’t worry about making your cables perfect just yet—we’ll deal with that later.

Work through the following issues:

  • Ensure your speakers aren’t too close to the wall(s). If they are, the lower frequencies will sound louder and you could hear a tonal difference between the left and right speakers.
  • Experiment with “toeing in” our speakers. That means turning them from facing directly straight forward to pointing towards the center—at the listening position. You want to achieve the widest stereo image, so grab your favorite stereo music CD that has a nice wide feel and play it while you reposition the angle of the speakers (and make sure both speakers are always toed in the same amount).
  • Make sure your speaker cables are sufficiently thick. I normally wouldn’t say much except that I once stumbled into a room where the speaker wire had to be 28 gauge (that’s VERY thin). You can use just about any speaker cable, but 16 gauge or thicker (the lower the number, the larger the diameter of the cable) is a great place to start.

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2. Place That Subwoofer

I’ve already written an article on subwoofer placement so there’s no need to hash all that over again (read it if you haven’t yet—it will help!) The main thing to remember here is that you should set up your subwoofer after your main speakers are placed—and not before. Placing your subwoofer prior to getting your speakers right will just end up changing the mix all over again and forcing you to start over if you want the best possible sound.

Try to place the subwoofer so that you get a nice even frequency response in all of the major seating positions. Remember, you don’t want just one good seat—you want a nice home theater where everyone enjoys the movie. If you want an easy way to listen for an even bass response form your subwoofer, grab your nearest THX DVD or Blu-ray and go into the THX Optimizer menu. It has all sorts of excellent audio tests, including a bass sweep that comes in real handy.

If you’re a propellerhead (geek) like me, then an SPL meter will help you set levels. An SPL meter isn’t perfect for bass frequencies, but it will get you pretty close. Your ears can take you the rest of the way. Just make sure there aren’t huge dips or peaks at critical places between 20Hz and 80Hz. And it’s OK if your subwoofer doesn’t go down to 20Hz—just make sure it’s as smooth as possible for the frequencies it does reproduce.

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3. Setup and Aim Your Center Channel Speaker

Once those three speakers are set, go back to your center channel and set it up so that it points directly at the center listening position. This is where you get to decide if it needs to be placed on top of a table, aimed downward from a mantle, or placed on a shelf within an entertainment system or AV shelf. The idea is that you achieve good direct sound from the speaker.

Early acoustics tip: Watch out for reflections. This is most commonly experienced when the sound spreads out from the center channel speaker and bounces off the floor, causing both direct and reflected sound to hit your ears only slightly apart in time. The result is a muddied sound that can ruin some dialogue intelligibility and clarity. Our favorite quick fix? A throw rug. Many a significant other has been blessed by a beautiful throw rug so that their spouse can achieve better acoustics for their home theater.

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4. Decide on the Location for Your Surrounds

Figuring out where your surrounds go can stop a home theater in its tracks. Don’t let it do that. There are a myriad of ways to run cabling from your AV receiver or amplifier to your surrounds. The first big step, however, is making the right call on where they go. The best place is the side walls to the left and right of your seated position—assuming you’re not sitting against the rear wall. If you are sitting against the wall then achieving a diffuse sound from behind you is the goal.

There are articles we’ve already written on running wire for surround sound speakers and you can read those for more specific advice. For now, let’s assume you need to decide on the back wall, the ceiling, or the side walls. Here are a few guidelines to help you decide:

  • If you aren’t sitting at the back of the room, try for side surrounds with dipole or bipole speakers. This will give you a nice diffuse surround experience—much like a movie theater. If you don’t have side walls (or are missing one of them) don’t break up your speakers. Let’s try to keep them identical on left and right so that you can have a better matched sound field. If you lack side walls, in-ceiling surrounds might be your ticket. When in doubt, look up!
  • If you are sitting at the back of the room, try and scoot your sofa or seats away from the wall—even if it’s just a foot. The results are worth it as being against the wall yields some very unpleasant and unpredictable gains in the mid-bass area. One successful thing we’ve seen is to mount bookshelf surrounds on your rear wall (on shelves), but pointed at each other. This keeps the surrounds from becoming annoying “point source” speakers that take you out of the action, and makes them more diffuse and enveloping.
  • If you don’t have even walls do as we said earlier: look up! Using in-ceiling speakers may be just the ticket you’re looking for to get the surround sound you need. It’s also fairly easy—in most circumstances—to run cabling for in ceiling speakers.

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5. Cable Up Your System

Once all of the speakers are placed you can straighten up and finalize all of the cables going from your AV receiver or amplifier to your speakers. Obviously you have to connect speakers to listen and set them up, but final cabling can be saved until later. Things you want to make sure of include getting those surround speaker wires out of sight. You can use the edge of the room to hide them in the space between the carpet and the floor or even run cables underneath crown moulding. For your subwoofer, you want to use a nice thick RCA cable to feed the subwoofer out from your AV receiver or processor to the sub.

In some cases you may want to look into getting wall plates to “dress up” your cable runs, or you may be able to get away with straight cabling between your AV gear and your speakers. As far as interconnects go, I’ve found a great selection of HDMI cables doesn’t have to be expensive. And make sure you buy the correct lengths so that you don’t end up with huge loops of extra cable lying all over your gear.

If you plan on running a second zone, realize that most AV receivers and processors don’t provide digital-to-analogue conversion (DACs) for Zone 2. That means you may need to buy analogue RCA cables for your cable or DISH box as well as your streaming music player if you want to hear it in one of those zones. I’ve seen many people scratching their heads when they connect their system and can’t get audio to their garage or porch.

6. Check Your Levels

After getting everything in place and tweaking your cabling and speaker positioning, make sure to go back and calibrate your levels one more time. This will ensure everything “tightens up” for the final mix. Remember to pull out that THX Optimizer app for some extra goodies, but the truth is, your AV receiver’s built-in test tones will work just fine with an SPL meter.

The specific steps to calibrate your speaker levels:

  • Turn on the test tone on your AV receiver and get into the calibration menu.
  • Set your SPL meter to 80 dB SPL (C weighted, slow response).
  • Hold your SPL meter in front of you at ear level and point it at the ceiling.
  • Set your AV receiver volume so that your quietest front speaker is registering 75 dB SPL on your SPL meter. Adjust the volume of the other front speaker to match (they may differ if one is closer to a wall, for example).
  • Set all the other speakers to match, working your way through your AV receiver’s manual speaker setup system.

7. The Final Home Theater Setup Step: Test and Enjoy!

Before you call it all “done”, get out your favorite movies and CDs. Put them in and listen to some of your favorite tracks. Bring up your favorite scenes from movies, including explosions, panning scenes and anything that will give your system a workout. With music, listen for male and female vocal detail as well as the nice smooth decay on cymbals.

It should sound great because, well, isn’t that the point? If it doesn’t sound great, work your way through the positioning of your main speakers and subwoofer—that’s likely where things need to be adjusted. Then come back and re-evaluate. If that still doesn’t solve it, then you may have an issue with the room acoustics in your home theater. Don’t worry—room acoustics can be adjusted without ruining your home or costing you tens of thousands of dollars.

Hopefully this has been helpful. Be sure to comment below with your own tips (or to let us know if we missed anything). You can also visit us on our Facebook page for even more great articles and tips.


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