Video and Audio Center Blog

Monday, December 23, 2013


Watching a movie at home, no matter how big the TV, still needs great sound. Sound bars are convenient, no argument there, but for a real experience you need a set of Front (L/R), a Center, a set of Surrounds and a subwoofer. Oh, and an amplifier too. That might seem like a lot of work compared to an all-in-one soundbar, but the only real comparison to being in a movie theater is having a 5.1 system (the first number being all the speakers noted above, with the second number being the subwoofer). James Bond might look good with the audio off, but add in a surround sound system and those fight scenes will start your heart pounding as the sound-field envelops you from all directions.

There seems to be some confusion about what a surround sound system needs to have, so let’s break it down. The main (or front) stereo speakers flank the sides of the TV and provide the majority of the audio at any given time. Between the two will be found the Center speaker - this is dedicated to the dialogue, vocals, the spoken aspects. It goes between the two front speakers and "throws" its sound towards those listening. Sometimes, if there’s no Center, the front speakers will share the audio that would otherwise come from it. 

The final touch to the surround system is the subwoofer which provides an omnidirectional sound. This means that it can be placed pretty much anywhere (unlike the positioning of the front speakers and surrounds). And while it makes sense to use the same company’s speakers for the Front, Center and Surrounds, matching the sub isn’t all that necessary. Just place it in a corner; behind or against a couch, these are all good places. Of course the physical size and wattage plays a part: a 50-100 watt sub can handle a small bedroom, but if you've a living room with plenty of space on all sides, 100+ watts would be called for (Velodyne’s Impact10 has a 10” woofer powered by 150 watts). What the subwoofer does is bring in the low end of the audio spectrum in a way that is “felt” more than heard. Taking RIDDICK above again, with a sub added to the audio system, the sound seems more “heavy” and those scenes featuring explosions more “real.”

Most amplifiers - now referred to as AVRs (audio/video receivers) because they handle video signals as well as audio - have automated systems in place that match up the volume of each of the speakers relative to the listening position using a microphone. Besides making sure that the speakers aren't overpowering one another, these systems also optimize the quality of the sound based on their distance, placement and audio delays. Different company's have different named systems that all do the same thing at a basic level, but of course added functions and enhancements can be found in one versus the other - Sony’s STRDA1800ES digitally calibrates for sound employing auto phase matching, for example.

There’s also bundled models that include the speakers with the AVR. This makes for an easy purchase that gives you ever thing needed: LG’s BH6830 5.1 1000 watt Smart Home Theater System even includes wireless surrounds.
A surround sound system doesn’t have to be used only with blockbuster-type movies either. With the system now setup, I played the Blu-ray anniversary edition of Disney’s live-action MARY POPPINS. Visually the film stands up well (thank the 60” Samsung LED TV for that), but it’s the audio that really makes an impact - both because the musical numbers come across splendidly and because the dialogue is easy to listen to (Dick Van Dyke’s dancing always brings a smile). Musicals love a surround sound system  (even when pseudo-surround is in effect), and that includes playing audio only discs: for example, listening to Mozart’s Serenade n B flat major on the new TACET Surround Blu-ray disc.

Surround sound can turn watching a movie or listening to music from just a good time to a great time. You want the best TV you can get, so why shouldn't you enjoy the best sound too? A surround sound system will make a difference that you can hear.

Next we’ll look into getting surround out of a soundbar.


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