Getting all the gear in the world doesn’t make for the perfect surround sound system. I mean, it’s pretty darn close, but there’s still the small issue of setting everything up correctly. We’ve got guides on configuring just about any piece of equipment and integrating it into your system, but even after that you need to set your levels and calibrate for lag. That’s not an overly complicated procedure, but it’s imperative that the sound coming form each speaker is properly calibrated, or you’re likely to hear a shift towards the left or right. And while I like surround sound as much as the next guy, leaving your surrounds at too high a level will only result in effects that take you out of the action rather than encourage the “suspension of disbelief” effect that makes movies so excellent.
A lot of newer systems use microphones and automatic room setup systems to do all of this for you, but there’s something about understanding the basics that seems important to me. It’s kind of like learning multiplication, you don’t start with the digital calculator…you get the basics down first so you understand the mechanics of the task. The same applies here.
Where to Start?
Before you get too far, there are a couple of things to take care of when calibrating speaker levels and distance. First, you need a SPL (sound pressure level) meter and a 15′ tape measure. With these two tools (not including, of course, somewhere to sit and your AV receiver’s remote control) you’ll be all set to complete your task. After everything is gathered, find your primary listening position and have a seat. Turn the volume down on the receiver to a quiet level so that when you get started on your test tones you don’t blow the paint off the walls.
Next, locate the Speaker Settings in the Setup menu of your AV receiver. This can be in several different places depending on the manufacturer, but it’s general under Speaker Setup, Speaker Config, or Manual Setup. This is the “home base” for all speaker configuration settings.
Setting Speaker Distance (also Called Distance or Speaker Delay)
Once in the Speaker Setup area of the menu you’ll want to locate the Speaker Distance or Speaker Delay settings. Once there you want to measure the distance from each speaker in your room to the listening position where you are seated. I find this most easy by simply running out the tape from where I am sitting. If your tape doesn’t have a large standout (where it will stay extended before snapping or dropping off) then simply run it along the ground. You want to try and keep the tape parallel to the ground so that you are measuring the true distance from the face of the speaker to your seated position. Specifically, you are measuring from the front baffle of the speaker to your ears when you are comfortably seated. I’ve seen people lean forward when taking these measurements, but if that’s not how you sit when listening then your settings might be off by a foot or more.
Editor’s Note: What the system is doing here is taking the distance you enter in order to set up proper delays for the center and surround speakers’ audio signals so that the audio is properly in phase when it reaches your ears.
You’ll note that in the Distance Settings menu you can go through each speaker and enter in your measured distance. Any receiver will allow you to set the distance to the nearest .5 foot increment, but the better models will do .1 foot increments. Yet other models let you choose which resolution you prefer. Here are the common breakdowns you’ll want to know for converting inches to tenths of a foot:
- 1″ = 0.1 ft
- 2″ = 0.2 ft
- 3″ = 0.2 ft
- 4″ = 0.3 ft
- 5″ = 0.4 ft
- 6″ = 0.5 ft
- 7″ = 0.6 ft
- 8″ = 0.7 ft
- 9″ = 0.8 ft
- 10″ = 0.8 ft
- 11″ = 0.9 ft
- 12″ = 1.0 ft
Since the subwoofer can be placed just about anywhere, be sure to decide on subwoofer placement before you enter in the distance for that speaker.
Setting Speaker Levels
Next, you’ll need to set the actual output levels for each speaker, including your 5 or 7 main channels as well as your subwoofer. Your measurement device for this task is an SPL meter. You can pick these up from many local or online retailers for under $30. This tool simply measures the loudness of the test tone coming from the active speaker. Your AV receiver will issue the tone, one speaker at a time, until you are able to set each speaker’s level properly.
To get started you’ll often have to first enable the AV receiver’s test tone. Then, when you go through each speaker to set the level, the test tone will issue pink noise so that you can raise or lower the settings as needed. I prefer to calibrate each speaker to 75 dB SPL—that’s pretty much a standard, and it’s plenty loud and gets you enough volume to exceed any ambient noise in the room. In terms of process and technique, we recommend sitting in your prime listening position and hold the SPL meter in your hand. Orient it such that the microphone is pointing straight up at the ceiling as opposed to pointing at each speaker as you go around the room. The idea is to get each speaker to measure 75 dB SPL. Since the left and right speakers should form the foundation for your level-setting procedure, the first thing you want to do is raise the master volume of the AV receiver until the Left speaker measures 75 dB SPL on your meter. The only exception is when you do that and your right speaker them measures louder—perhaps due to its placement in the room. If that happens then use the louder speaker as the baseline for your levels. Once this is done, you’re ready to begin setting the other speakers.
Most AV receivers will automatically run through each speaker in sequence. When the pink noise is being output from the speaker, you raise or lower the output level in the setup menu until the speaker is measuring 75 dB SPL on your SPL meter. Go around the room a couple of times with each speaker until they are all consistent.
Subwoofer Level Calibration
Assuming you already setup the best location for your subwoofer, the level can really be set to taste. An SPL meter and your AV receiver’s pink noise can work OK, but we’ve often found that it’s a bit off. In either case, I tend to default to setting the subwoofer to around 78 dB SPL. I tend to like a bit more bass, and that extra 3dB seems to do it for me in most cases.
One More Consideration—The Center Channel
The last thing to mention is the center channel. Some people have a problem understanding dialogue in films. Often this is due to the acoustical properties of their room, but setting the center channel a few dB SPL hotter than the standard 75 dB may help with intelligibility.
Setting your speaker levels isn’t meant to be something that constrains you, rather, it’s a tool to help you ensure your system is set up the way you want it. Want your surrounds louder for a more impactful surround sound experience? Bump them up. But using these tools means that you know what your system is doing and you aren’t arbitrarily trusting an automatic setup system or randomly bumping up channels to taste.