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Buyers Guides > Speakers and surround sound systems

View all our surround sound speakers

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Introduction

The revolution in digital technology that has swept through the world of domestic, consumer electronics in recent years has resulted in a number of extremely high-quality sources of video, and audio, entertainment, in the form of DVD (“Digital Video – or, sometimes, Versatile – Disk”), and HD (“High Definition”) television broadcasts, for example. Huge, widescreen, television receivers, high in resolution and contrast, and deep in colour, cater for the visual elements of a true, home theatre experience and the increasingly sophisticated consumer of today demands audio capabilities of the same high calibre – the capabilities of digital surround sound.

The aim of surround sound is to provide an engaging, realistic listening experience, by immersing the listener in, or “surrounding” the listener with, sound. This is achieved by recording multiple, discrete, or individual, sound channels, on, for example, a film soundtrack, and reproducing each channel on its own dedicated loudspeaker, situated to the front, to the side, or to the rear of the listening position. Sound, therefore, appears to emanate from a full 360 degrees around the listener, such that the distinct source of each sound is not easily located – just as it wouldn’t be, if you were really riding pillion on Steve McQueen’s motorcycle in “The Great Escape”, or co-piloting Tom Cruise’s jet fighter in “Top Gun”.

Surround Sound Formats

Dolby Digital is the industry standard for both DVD and HDTV broadcasts, and allows the recording of 5 main, independent sound channels, to carry the dialogue, music and other effects, for example, and a further LFE (“Low Frequency Effect”) channel to carry the low-frequency bass effects – imagine the Tyrannosaurus Rex in “Jurassic Park” and you’ll get the idea. Dolby Digital is often referred to as a “5.1” channel format. A second, competing, 5.1 channel format is available, in the form of DTS (“Digital Theatre Systems”), which is in fairly common use in commercial and consumer applications, although, unlike Dolby Digital, it is not a standard format for DVD and HDTV.

For the more adventurous, extended formats do exist. Dolby Digital EX, for example, allows an additional centre channel – making it a “6.1” channel format – that can be reproduced through one, or two additional speakers, and similar comments apply to the extended DTS format, DTS-ES. Dolby Pro Logic IIx takes things still further, effectively converting 5.1 channel input into 6.1, or even 7.1 channel output, and, for a truly next-generation audio experience, there are the latest, “lossless” codecs (short for “compression / decompression algorithms”) of Dolby TrueHD and its competitor, DTS-HD Master Audio, designed to take advantage of recent developments in HD optical disk technology. Dolby TrueHD, for example, has been adopted for use in the HD DVD and Blu-ray disk formats, and can, theoretically, at least, support up to 14 discrete sound channels (although both standards are currently limited to 8).

Surround Sound Speakers

Surround sound speakers come in many shapes, sizes and configurations, but perhaps the most popular is a 5.1 channel configuration, comprising a front centre speaker, front left and right speakers and rear left and right speakers, plus a subwoofer for low-frequency effects. Home theatre, “in a box”, solutions, provided by many manufacturers, are likely to conform to this configuration, and, indeed, are likely to be more than adequate for an average-sized living room. 6.1, or 7.1 channel systems require one, or two, additional, so-called “satellite” loudspeakers, usually positioned to the side of the listening position. The Yamada H8550 Surround Sound Speaker package, as an example, includes 5, 14-watt satellite speakers, and a 28-watt subwoofer.

In terms of physical size, surround sound speakers range from large, floor-standing models, perhaps 3 feet, or so, tall, through smaller, “bookshelf” speakers, which can be mounted on shelves, furniture, or a wall, to tiny satellite speakers. The size that you can accommodate will, obviously, depend largely on the physical dimensions, and layout, of your listening space, but do bear in mind that smaller speakers will have limitations, in bass and volume levels, compared to larger alternatives. As a rule of thumb, it’s generally a good idea to have front centre, front left and front right speakers of roughly the same size, and elevated to the same height – unsurprisingly, roughly ear height, when seated. Do remember, too, that “unshielded” speakers are likely to cause interference with picture quality if placed close to a traditional CRT (“Cathode Ray Tube”) television set – thankfully, most speakers, nowadays, are magnetically shielded, and interference is not a problem with LCD or Plasma televisions. Examples include Rimax Wireless Speakers, only some 7.5 inches in height, delivering 3 watts per channel, with a range of over 150 feet.

One of the most important aspects of a surround sound system is the tonal balance, for example, of bass, or treble, frequencies, between all of the speakers. If there is a noticeable difference in tone, as sound “moves” from one loudspeaker to another, the source of the sound will become immediately identifiable, defeating the whole object of surround sound. It is wise, therefore, if possible, to acquire a complete set of surround sound speakers from a single manufacturer, which will have been matched for tone before they left the factory. Voyager VYWSS splash proof stereo wireless speakers, for example, can be individually adjusted for channel, and volume.

Another aspect that cannot really be overemphasised is the quality of the cabling – assuming, of course, that you don’t go for a wireless solution, which is a possibility – that you employ to connect your surround sound speakers. Many systems are shipped with cables that are just about, but barely, adequate in quality (and, perhaps, length) and amazing improvements can be made just by replacing them. Look for cables with solid gold connectors – usually a pretty good indication of quality – rather than braided wires.

A/V Receivers

The other essential component, of course, of a digital surround sound system, is a digital A/V (“Audio /Visual”) receiver, required to decode the incoming video signal, and amplify and direct each channel to its appropriate, dedicated loudspeaker. Spending a little bit more – 30%, or so, of your digital surround sound budget is not unreasonable – on a A/V receiver is likely to give you better overall sound quality, more powerful amplification, support for more surround sound formats (and possibly better upgrade options), and more connections, or interfaces – composite, component and S-video, and, more recently, HDMI (“High Definition Multimedia Interface”), and the like – which may be important if you want to connect other components to your home entertainment system.