How to Choose a Surround Sound System

Choosing a surround sound system can seem intimidating, but if you know what to look for, it won't be.

If you're a film or music lover, you probably yearn for the crispest, clearest sounds to enhance your audio experience. And with all the recent advancements in technology, there's never been a better time to be an audiophile. If you've got the money to burn, there's a vast array of options at your f­ingertips when it comes to audio systems.

However, navigating through all those options can be intimidating. You've got to learn the jargon and find out what equipment fits your needs. If you don't do your homework, you might end up dishing out hundreds -- or even thousands -- of dollars on a disappointing or overly complicated audio system. To help you on your way to a better audio experience, we're going to discuss surround sound. This is one popular setup that can make listeners feel as though they're in the middle of the action. There's nothing like it to sweep you away and envelop you in another world.


Surround sound works through the use of multiple speakers, each of which contributes a different audio channel (or component of the original recording). The system allows listeners to hear the full gamut of sound provided by, say, a speeding car. First, you hear the car approaching, then there's the sound of it humming beside you and finally the faint hum of it i­n the distance as it zooms past you. This is why some say full surround sound for a movielike experience demands at least five speakers: front-center, left-front, right-front, left-rear and right-rear. Film action and dialogue are separated among the speakers for realism, and background noise comes out of the back speakers.

Knowing this can help you understand some figures often used in surround sound jargon. For instance, 5.1 refers to five speakers (meant for the positions we just described) plus one subwoofer, designated by the .1. Subwoofers play very low-frequency sounds. Other common surround sound systems include 6.1 and 7.1, which include additional rear speakers. Regular stereo sound is referred to as 2.0, encompassing two speakers and no subwoofer.

As technology advances, it's difficult to keep up with the standards as well as latest and greatest equipment. So HowStuffWorks has compiled some overarching guidelines that should keep you afloat in the sea of surround sound options.


Choosing Surround Sound to Fit Your Needs

If you love the movie theater experience of surround sound and are anxious to replicate that at home, don't rush out to the store just yet. It's easy to get overwhelmed with the multitude of options available. For this reason, you'll want to be familiar with your choices and narrow down what you want before you head out.

An important restriction has to do with the size of the room in which you're planning to set up the audio system. The bigger the room, the more power you'll need. Receiver audio output can range from 50 watts (RMS) per channel, which is fine for a small room. For a larger room, you'll be looking at 150 watts or more. Remember that the speakers you buy should be built for this power.


Of course, your budget might also narrow down your options. To avoid overspending, set your budget for yourself before you go shopping. The upside to getting a simpler surround sound model (such as HTB, or home theater in a box) is that it can be easier to set up than a higher-end option.

While we're on the topic of setup, consider the logistics of how you'll be placing speakers around the room. The problem of running wires along the walls and floors can get frustrating. Some surround sound packages offer wireless options for the rear speakers. They aren't truly wireless because they still require power cords, but they can help reduce the number of wires stringing across the room if you plug them in to the closest wall outlets [source: CNET].

So what do you do if you don't know much about the technology and don't have too much money to spend but are impatient to get a surround sound system? This may seem like a crippling combination, but experts maintain that it's still possible to achieve movielike sound quality at home. Electronics expert G. Randy Slone says the secret is to start simple. Purchase a small, quality system, and once you get familiar with the technology and your preferences, gradually build on to it [source: Slone]. Just make sure your receiver has enough input/output jacks to handle the additions.

But there are many more facets of surround sound to consider. Before you buy, get some more tips from the experts.


More Surround Sound Buying Tips

You should get high-quality cables for your surround sound sytem. Or, if you don't want to deal with that many wires, you have other options.

Surround sound experts like to reiterate the idea summed up in the old adage, "a chain is only as strong as its weakest link." In other words, there are a lot of things that can go wrong with your audio system even if many of the components are top-quality. For instance, it's not wise to be stingy on the connective wires. Though they might seem like they're all alike, these wires can significantly affect the quality of your sound [source: CNET].

We've already mentioned the frustrations that come with stringing wires around a room. Besides the so-called wireless setups we discussed, there's another way to dodge this problem. It's called virtual surround sound and it will simplify the process for you -- even if it doesn't result in the highest quality sound. These systems can consist of just two regular speakers and a subwoofer (hence designated as 2.1) or of a single digital sound projector, which contains a row of speakers.


If you don't opt for the ­virtual surround sound or home theater in a box (HTB) options, you'll have to pick speakers individually. For this route, avoid mismatching brands of speakers, especially when it comes to the left-front, right-front and center speakers [source: CNET]. Although movie buffs should spend about the same amount on each speaker for the cinemalike experience, if you plan on listening mostly to music, aim to spend the biggest chunk of your speaker budget (30 to 40 percent) on the front-left and front-right stereo speakers [source: CNET].

As you might expect, proper placement of the speakers is essential to getting the most out of your surround sound system. But what you might not know is that it isn't something you should put off thinking about until after you've made your purchase. That's because while you're at the store, you should consider buying speaker stands. It's tempting to pinch some pennies here and mount your speakers on bookshelves and tables, but individual stands will deliver the best audio experience. Other advantages to stands? You won't have to waste shelf space, and they make for a slick, professional look.

For more cool audio electronics articles, browse the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • ­A/V Club. "How to Get Gr­eat Surround Sound." FirstGlimpse. A/V Club. June 1, 2006. Vol 3, Issue 6. (March 19, 2009) 2F2006%2Ff0306%2F09f06%2F09f06.asp
  • CNET. "10 tips for better home-theater sound." CNet. (March 19, 2009);contentNav
  • CNET. "Surround-sound buying guide: Separate speakers." CNet. (March 19, 2009);contentNav
  • CNET. "Surround-sound buying guide: Where will I put all those speakers." CNet. (March 19, 2009);contentNav
  • Sams Technical Staff. "The Savvy Guide to Home Theater." Tech Publishing, 2004. (March 19, 2009)
  • Slone, G. Randy. "The audiophile's project sourcebook." McGray-Hill Professional, 2001. (March 19, 2009)