Getting a loudspeaker system is just the beginning. Once you get everything home, you still need to set up your speakers for the best possible listening experience. It’s this accurate home theater speaker placement that separates the truly dedicated from the amateurs. Others have written extensive articles detailing every possible way to configure a room full of speakers. Rather than go down that path, I will simplify things a bit to make it more palatable for the masses. After all, I’m not trying to give you a degree in sound reinforcement, just give you a leg up in home theater speaker placement for your living space that approximates the surround sound you experience in the theater.
And that’s what we’re really going for here—to get as close to that theatrical experience as possible. But there are huge differences in loudspeaker placement when you compare home theater speaker placement against a movie theater. For one, home theaters tend to be more reflective in their acoustical properties. A movie theater is designed to be almost completely “dead”. Nearly all of the sound you hear in a theater is coming from the speakers. In the home, the room plays an important role.
You also have a lot more speakers in a movie theater, often with several surround speakers along both the side and back of the room. And the front and center speakers are located behind a perforated screen, so that the sound emanates completely from the on-screen action. While this is possible in home theater which uses a front projection system, it’s often not practical to place speakers behind a screen. The good news for you is that most people can move speakers around a room without much trouble or even having to break out the cordless power tools. Plus, if you’re still in the setup stage, you can try out several locations to find one that’s right for you before you do a final install.
Getting Started—How Many Speakers Are You Using?
Whether you’re planning your home theater, or you have already purchased speakers, a big question is: How many speakers are you placing in the room? This is a basic starting point, but it will allow you to jump down to the appropriate part of this article to fit your particular application. You may want to read through the whole thing, however, as we do explain ways to configure your system so that it’s ready for a potential future upgrade. You may also want to see our article on Upgrading Your Speakers Hassle-free for tips on when and how to go from one configuration to another.
Stereo Two-channel Speaker Placement
The most basic audio system is a stereo system. But that doesn’t mean you can just throw speakers into a room and expect great sound. For one, there is an audio characteristic called “imaging” that deals with how the stereo separation is perceived by the listener. This also affects the “soundstage” which is how you can locate individual sounds within the stereo image. A good soundstage will let you, for example, point out where the cellist is sitting when listening to a live recording of quartet.
You affect both soundstage and imaging by a combination of the distance between the speakers, the distance from the speakers to the listener, and the angle at which the speakers are “toed-in” or pointed at the center listening position. We can help with the initial layout, however we recommend you experiment with loudspeaker toe-in to get the best sound. Some speakers do better pointed nearly straight ahead, perpendicular to the rear wall, while others want to be pointed nearly directly at the center “hot” seat. Backing up, here are some recommendations for setting up stereo speakers in a room:
Start by setting up your front speakers so that you form a triangle with the primary (center) listening position. Make sure you give your speakers enough room between them that they can create a nice stereo image. Lots of times we see people place their speakers directly to the right and left of their television. While this may meet the aesthetic requirements of your spouse, a 42-inch or 50-inch television is not going to provide enough stereo separation for your music to sound good, nor will it allow for movies to have that expansive theatrical sound.
Once you get the distance and positioning correct, experiment with the toe-in of the speakers. Start with the speakers only slightly toed-in (angled towards the center seated position) and play back a piece of music you are familiar with—preferably a live track so you can attempt to ascertain the location of various performers on stage. After listening for a bit, get up and slightly increase the angle of the speakers, always moving them further inward. Listen again. The point at which you can hear the widest, most expansive sound and most accurately “pinpoint” musicians where they are playing on the stage is the correct amount of toe-in for your speakers.
5.1 Surround Home Theater Speaker Placement for Movies
The nice thing about adding more speakers is that you build upon what you’ve already done. For example, expanding a stereo system into 5.1 surround doesn’t require you to re-position the front speakers—unless you upgrade. With 5.1 there are two basic home theater speaker placement configurations: the recommended configuration and the “drop back and punt” configuration. It’s not that the second configuration is awful, but it’s not what will best reproduce 5.1 surround as it was mixed. In either case, here is the standard method of configuring a room for 5.1 surround:
In a typical 5.1 surround placement you will want to place your surround speakers to the side and just behind the listening position. Often, these speakers are diffuse speakers, called “dipole” speakers. The reason for this is that, for movies, surround speakers are meant to be ambient-supplying sources for effects and backgrounds, with the occasional point-source effect.
If you can’t place your speakers to the side, then an alternate rear-wall placement is a great secondary option. With this home theater speaker placement, be sure not to point the rear speakers towards the listening position—at least not if your goal is to configure the system for primarily movie-watching. Here is what that style of speaker layout might look like:
5.1 Surround Speaker Placement for Music
For multi-channel music you keep almost the same configuration as the 5.1 surround layout above, however you want speakers that are not diffuse. These can be two-way bookshelf speakers, or even another matched pair of tower speakers. These surrounds will be separated by at least 60 degrees or more and angled inward towards the center listening seat.
With this type of loudspeaker arrangement, you will get a rich and full surround experience when listening to SACDs, DVD-Audio discs, or any Blu-ray concert DVD that has multi-channel audio. Above all, you want to try and place the seating area equidistant from all of the speakers. That’s not to say that you can’t do this if you simply must have your rear speakers closer to you than your fronts, but ideally, this is the arrangement. If you do need to position your speakers differently, use your AV receiver’s distance and level settings to calibrate your system so that all playback levels are the same.
7.1 Surround Speaker Placement
7.1 is great if you have some room behind your listening position. Many living spaces can accommodate this, but it takes a room that’s long enough for the extra speakers to be worth it. We would assert that if your room doesn’t easily support a 7.1 system, you’re better off upgrading your 5.1 speakers over adding a couple more and trying to make it work. With 7.1 there are actually two schools of thought for placement of home theater speakers. If you have a THX-certified AV receiver, you can use the ASA (Advanced Speaker Array) DSP to enable some very impressive surround sound. The way it works is to place two speakers nearly side-by-side at the rear of the room, with the rest of the room configured as you would with a regular 5.1 surround sound system. These rear speakers will then interact with the side surrounds to deliver accurate or diffuse surrounds based on the mode and the content being played back. THX has designed this to be flexible enough to handle all of the required surround formats and they recommend it when used in conjunction with equipment that has their particular digital signal processing (THX-certified AV receivers).
If you don’t have a THX receiver, then you may want to set up your room for standard Dolby TrueHD and DTS Master Audio playback. This is a similar layout, except that the rear speakers are placed roughly 60 degrees apart on the rear wall.
Exceptions to the Rule and Alternate Placement Options
Not everyone has the same size or shape room. And, of course, not everyone has the same speakers. With surround sound you get a lot of flexibility, but you do want to adhere to as many of the “rules” as possible. Here are a few to try and stick to whenever possible:
- Try to keep your speakers parallel with each other. Your surrounds should both be the same distance back from the front of the room as opposed to having one be closer to the television than another.
- Avoid in-ceiling main or center-channel speakers when possible. You want the sound to come from the screen/television and elevated speakers tend to take the action away from the screen.
- Placing a subwoofer in a corner, though popular, results in more “peaky” uneven bass response. Try and put your sub at least a few feet away from a corner whenever possible. This is a general suggestion and so we recommend using our Where Do I Place My Subwoofer guide to find the best spot for your subwoofer.
- Di-pole surround speakers create a nice diffuse sound for soundtracks while bi-pole speakers offer more direct sound. Some surround speakers can switch in-between both modes. While this isn’t terribly convenient, it may offer you some more flexibility if you’re on the fence as to whether you listen more to movies or music in multi-channel surround sound.
- Try not to sit against a rear wall. If you can even move your seat or sofa a foot or two away from the rear wall it will help eliminate acoustical problems associated with being up against a boundary wall.
- Always level match your speakers after you adjust them in any way—whether you move them, or toe them in or change out any equipment.
Speaker placement could be an exact science, were it not for the fact that hardly anyone has the perfect room! Do you best and, above all, experiment! Half the fun of setting up and configuring a surround sound speaker system is getting to tweak it until you get the best possible sound—and that means watching lots of movies and listening to lots of music. It’s like going fishing—if you have the right attitude you know the process is going to be fun no matter what the result. So tweak, and tweak, and tweak some more. When you get it right, you’ll know.
Do you have a 5.1 listening room or a 7.1 listening room? We want to know. Leave us a comment below or on Facebook and join in the discussion.