Surround Sound – Highly Overrated

22 08 2008

In America, more is better, right?  Not always.  More is NOT BETTER when it comes to mega-multi-speaker surround sound for your home theater.

The current fad is the “home theater in a box”, i.e. a single box you buy in a store which contains a DVD player, amplifier, and 5.1 channels of sound.  Just add your TV and presto! you have a home theater.  But there’s a problem — THEY ALL SUCK!

These Home Theater In A Box (HTIAB) suffer from many problems:

  1. Speakers are of very poor quality and distort very easily.
  2. Amplifier can’t deliver the “punch” necessary to correctly reproduce a movie’s audio dynamic range.
  3. Correct room placement of speakers is difficult — almost impossible in most cases.
  4. The audio track in most movies is not mixed for the typical living room — only for an ideal theater

For an official definition of all surround setups, here is a Wikipedia link.  A 5.1 channel system requires 6 speakers:

  1. Left front
  2. Center
  3. Right front
  4. Left rear
  5. Right rear
  6. Subwoofer (this is the .1 in a 5.1 channel system)

What are the most important speakers?  Left front, right front and to a lesser degree, the center channel.  Why is this?  All the action comes from the front!  The center channel is somewhat important because dialogue is usually coming out of it.  But you say to me, “Doesn’t the other speakers add to the feeling of being immersed in sound?”

No, not really.  Because sound from speakers 4 and 5 — the rears, starts to interfere with the sound coming from the front.  In home theater, the first sound heard should be coming from the front.  If the electronic delay is not set properly, or the distance from viewer to rear speakers is too close, then sound coming from the rear channels will confuse your brain.  BTW, the sound coming out of speakers 4 and 5 are identical — not discrete (different).

Speaker Design
Another thing people don’t know is that true home theater speakers have a different dispersion pattern than normal home audio speakers.  Home audio speakers are designed to spread the sound waves wide — 70-90 degrees horizontal.  True home theater speakers are supposed to spread it much narrower — around 45-60 degrees.  This is so that the sound from each speaker doesn’t interfere with each other.

The upshot is that a really good 5.1 channel home theater sound system will NOT sound good with audio material.  However, a good audio system with 2 channels — left and right — will sound great with home theater.  For me, having a good audio/video 2 channel system is the best of both worlds.

This is what I recommend for most people’s home theater / audio setup, in order of preference:

  1. 2 Channel (left, right)
  2. 2.1 Channel (+subwoofer)
  3. 3.1 Channel (+center)

Spend good money on the front left and front right speakers (and optionally the subwoofer and center channel), and you’ll have a great home theater setup.  Trust me — all those extra speakers are crap.