Shopping for new home theater gear can be quite confusing. Whether you’re in the market for a new TV, sound system, speakers, or something entirely different, there are a lot of terms going around. Maybe you’re not quite sure what “Dolby Atmos Surround Sound” is, but your friend told you that you just had to have it over standard setups. Or, maybe you want the most immersive audio experience possible, but aren’t quite sure how to get it. In this series, we’ll go over everything you need to look for when shopping for new home theater gear.
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What is surround sound?
Sound is a crucial part of any movie. Arguably, sound is more important than a great display. Have you ever been somewhere that had a semi-decent TV, yet fantastic audio? You likely didn’t notice the TV’s display quite as much. However, you can be looking at the most beautiful TV screen in existence, yet if it has a terrible sound, you’ll not want to watch a single thing on it.
Surround sound is precisely that, sound that surrounds you. Most TVs offer just two channels in front of you, meaning that all audio from a movie will come from in front of you. That’s not realistic, as there is some audio in a movie or TV show that would naturally happen to the side of you, behind you, or even above you. That’s where surround sound comes in, offering multiple channels of audio to make your movie-watching experience more immersive.
Most built-in TV speakers aren’t that good. When shopping for home theater systems, it can be quite confusing. Dolby Atmos? 5.2-Channels? 7.1.4-Channels? Let’s break it down for you.
The first thing you’ll find when shopping for a new sound system is wattage. You’ll see “200W output” and maybe not know exactly what that means.
Just because a system has a high wattage output doesn’t necessarily mean that it will sound good. Loud doesn’t mean good always, despite what many believe.
What wattage on a speaker means is how much power that specific item can handle. Generally speaking, home theater speakers that are wired to an AV receiver aren’t powered in and of themselves. However, speakers that are part of a soundbar generally have their power. In both situations, the wattage rating is the maximum power input that the speaker can handle, not necessarily how much energy that the speaker will output.
According to Sweetwater Sound, a well-known name in the sound industry, each time you double the wattage output, you only gain 3dB more volume. So, when shopping for audio equipment, just because it has a high wattage output doesn’t mean that it’ll sound great and be loud. What you want to shop for is the right balance of wattage output alongside other elements like efficiency, sensitivity, and dispersion.
This can be quite a bit to understand, so generally, we recommend our readers to opt for a soundbar that falls into one of the below categories for ease-of-use and setup. However, those wanting something a bit more complicated (and tunable) will want to opt for custom setups with AV receivers.
A/V receiver or soundbars for surround sound?
This is a personal preference, and comes down to where you live. AV receivers, generally, require you to run cables in the wall or ceiling to reach speakers. Soundbars, however, usually are all-in-one units (or offer a wireless solution for rear speakers).
Personally, with the way soundbars are going, they generally get my recommendation. Whether you go with something like the Sonos Beam and use two Sonos One SL’s as your rear speakers and the Sonos Sub, one of LG’s 5.1.2-Channel setups, a VIZIO 3.1.2-Channel, or even Polk Audio’s Command Bar, installation is always super simple, and the audio quality is generally fantastic.
However, hardcore audiophiles will generally opt for an AV receiver. Not only do these setups produce a cleaner sound most of the time, but they’re often more feature-packed. While it’s semi-hard to find a soundbar that has AirPlay built-in, AV receivers often have AirPlay 2 as an added feature. Not only that, but many AV receivers can even send audio to multiple rooms at one time, as long as you set that up.
In the end, it just comes down to whether or not you’re wanting a more complicated setup that requires running wires in the wall, or something that’s more plug-and-play. You really can’t go wrong either way.
How to read surround sound audio channel setups
Basic surround sound speaker setups
For many primary speaker setups, you’ll see two numbers when shopping. The first number represents how many channels of standard audio a system has, while the second describes how many channels of subwoofers it offers.
When it comes to budget-focused setups, this is the most common configuration. You’ll get two channels of audio, left and right, and up to one channel of subwoofer, depending on if the setup is .0 or .1.
For many, this is plenty for general movie watching or TV shows. It is usually a massive upgrade from TV speakers, and can provide a reasonably immersive experience if a nicer soundbar is purchased. 2.0 or 2.1 surround sound setups are generally relatively slim and compact, as well, as there’s only a single soundbar and a wireless subwoofer to deal with, nothing more.
You won’t get a full surround experience here, however, as there are no speakers on the sides or behind you. So, do keep that in mind.
3.0 and 3.1 surround sound setups are very similar to 2.0 or 2.1 configurations. While sporting the same left and right channels, and up to one subwoofer channel, you’ll also gain a dedicated center speaker. This helps to make vocals more clear while watching movies, as the “busy” noise of streets, people, animals, and the like are put off to the left and right speakers like they would be in real life.
You’ll have a center, left, right, rear left, and back right audio channel, along with at least one subwoofer. If your kit includes two, they will function as a left and right channel, offering a much more immersive experience.
Now, these can be a bit more tricky to set up. While some companies, like Samsung, LG, VIZIO, and Sonos, make the rear speakers wireless (or at least wired into the subwoofer), not all companies do this. I have seen setups that require the rear channels to wire back into the main soundbar, which can make things quite tricky.
If you want a good 5.1 or 5.2-channel setup, be sure to verify whether or not your rear speakers are wireless. When in doubt, ask us on Twitter (@9to5Toys or @pcamp96), and we can do our best to answer all questions, though sometimes we might get stumped depending on the brand or information available.
7.1/7.2-Channel setups used to be top dog, outside of extremely custom nine-channel setups, before Dolby Atmos came along (more below). These setups consist of seven main speakers; center, center left, center right, left, right, rear left, rear right. Plus, like the 5.2 systems, you’ll find up to two channels of subwoofers here.
Offering greater separation of sound, you’ll find yourself fully submersed into whatever content you’re watching, as long as it’s optimized, of course.
Out of all audio setups, this is likely one of the most difficult to configure, and generally is left to just AV receivers instead of soundbars, though some do exist.
Dolby Atmos Surround Sound – What is it?
Dolby Atmos is a newcomer to the audio game, offering an entirely new experience. For years, you could experience Dolby’s insane audio technology in a theater setting, but it was never quite the same at home. Well, Dolby Atmos surround sound changed that.
What Atmos introduces to the home audio game is upward-firing speakers. This makes things sound like they’re happening above you. For example, I had a friend for whom I had just installed a 5.1.2-channel Dolby Atmos surround sound system for. When watching an Atmos-enabled movie, in which a helicopter flew overhead, his dog jumped up and started barking at the ceiling, thinking there was something up there. Atmos is a very immersive experience when watched with optimized content, as you feel like you’re in the actual center of the movie.
You’ll have three main audio channels here; center, left, and right. That’s the first number, just like above. The second number is just like standard systems, too, and references how many subwoofer channels there are. However, the third number is entirely new and makes a note of how many upward-firing channels exist. In a 3.1.2-channel setup, there are two up-facing speakers, left up and right up. This adds to the immersive ness and makes you feel like you’re in the middle of the movie, but as you expand your Dolby Atmos surround sound setup, the immersive ness grows exponentially.
With a 5.1.2 or 5.1.4-channel surround sound setup, you’re getting the same amount of speakers found in a 5.1-channel kit, except you’ll also get upward-firing speakers. This will further immerse you in the content of your movie.
The .2 offers the same left and right up options that the 3.1.2 setup above suggests. We recently went hands-on with Focal’s Sib Evo 5.1.2-Channel system and found that it delivered “incredible detail in audio and design. However, the real magic is in the 5.1.4 setups. This will be the sweet spot for many home theaters, as it balances price with quality, though it’s generally not always the most budget-friendly.
The .4 here references four upward-firing channels; front left up, front right up, rear left up, rear right up. This allows the sound system to create an immersive environment further, making you feel like you’re literally at the center of the action.
Like the 7.1-channel surround sound setup, 7.1.4-channel offers seven different speakers, one subwoofer, and similar to the 5.1.4-channel kit has four different upward-firing speakers. This is the most immersive of all Dolby Atmos setups that most consumers will dive into and is generally reasonably rare at that. However, if you’re after the absolute best, this will be the most immersive setup that is available to the masses.
Other Dolby Atmos Surround Sound Setups
If you want to go all out, custom setups are also available. You can get custom Dolby Atmos build-outs where there are more audio channels in either the average direction or upward, to make content more immersive. Things like 9.1.6 exist, according to Dolby Laboratories, but would be out of most people’s price ranges.
ARC, or Audio Return Channel, is a newer audio technology that is required for Dolby Atmos surround sound to function adequately, and also makes things quite a bit easier. If both your sound system and TV support ARC, items usually are super simple for audio setup.
With ARC, your TV can control the sound system’s audio without having to reprogram a remote, as long as ARC is working at that moment. Not only that, but many soundbars include HDMI inputs these days, so you don’t lose any on your TV by utilizing this new technology.
Personally, HDMI ARC has never been my favorite as its beginnings were quite rough in both support and function. However, in newer TVs and soundbars, ARC is much more reliable.
Optical audio is a tried and true technology that’s my personal favorite, but sadly, not a very widely used one. The cables are super thin, the audio is exceptionally high quality, but optical doesn’t officially support Dolby Atmos surround sound in its fullness.
Utilizing fiber optic technology, optical cables use light to transmit sound. This allows the audio to be near-lossless, but since there’s no authenticating through the optical technology, Dolby Atmos surround sound can’t function at its full capacity through the technology.
If you’re using a standard audio setup, optical will function correctly for you and makes things super simple, and it’s always reliable, though you will have to reprogram your remote when using it.
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