One of the things I often notice when listening to various surround sound systems is a disparity in either the subwoofer levels or the levels of the center or surround sound speakers. The problem with a misconfigured system is that you miss out on hearing at least the balance intended by the rerecording engineer who mixed the soundtrack (in the case of a film) or the mastering engineer (in the case of a multichannel music mix). That’s not to say that calibrating and getting the correct levels is all there is to attaining perfect surround sound, but it’s certainly a big part of the picture.
So the big question is: How do you calibrate the levels for each channel in order to get an accurate representation of the levels in each channel as intended at the listens position? As it turns out, the process is very straightforward and easy to do accurately.
Manually: Calibrate Surround Sound Levels with an SPL Meter
You can use a simple $35 SPL meter to calibrate surround sound levels in each channel of your home theater system. To do this, set the appropriate crossover for your speakers and then follow these basic steps:
- Go into the System Setup menu of your AV receiver
- Navigate to the speaker setup submenu
- Select channel level or speaker level (in some receivers you need to enable the test tone)
- Select the Left speaker
- Using an SPL meter, set it to Slow response and C-weighting and raise the level of the receiver to 75 dB SPL
- Using the Setup menu of e AV receiver, change the output channel and work your way around each channel of your 5.1 or 7.1 speaker system.
Special Note on Subwoofer Calibration
A lot of subwoofers (perhaps “most” subwoofers would be more accurate) cannot be calibrated perfectly with the test noise pattern present in AV receivers. As a result, don’t worry too much if you end up changing the level of the subwoofer to taste. After you do this, be sure to re-run the levels to ensure you are still even across all speaker channels.
Automatically: Calibrate Surround Sound Levels with an Auto-Setup Microphone
Each AV receiver that includes automatic room EQ and speaker setup to calibrate surround sound levels is different, but all of them include the option to use the system to setup levels only. I actually recommend this with one exception. Most automatic speaker calibration systems cannot accurately set either the speaker size, the crossover for the subwoofer or the subwoofer level. That means that if you do use the system to set up your speaker levels, be aware that you will need to go back and likely change your main speakers to “Small”, raise the subwoofer crossover level to 80Hz and also tweak the final subwoofer volume level.
Even with these quirks, using an automatic speaker level system to calibrate surround sound levels and set up your room is beneficial if you absolutely don’t have the means (or an SPL meter) to calibrate it manually. Given the choice, however, I always ptr the manual method since it means that I will understand each aspect of how my home theater is operating.
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