What You Should Know About
Surround Sound Speakers
Stereo speakers are fine for listening to music, and soundbars work well for simulating surround sound. But if you want to experience the kind of audio immersion that drops you in the middle of your movies, TV shows, video games, and multichannel music, two channels and simulated surround sound don’t quite do it. For that you’re going to need a 5.1 channel surround sound speaker system connected to an AVR (Audio/Video Receiver) for decoding the discrete multichannel soundtracks. Most new AVRs are designed to handle a 7.1 channel speaker setup (the two extra channels can power a second zone or be used to bi-amp the front speakers), but a 5.1 channel system is really all you need to begin enjoying home-theater surround sound. The reality is, only Lions Gate and Disney drop 7.1 sound on every Blu-ray. On the other hand, most 5.1 movies are mixed to use Dolby EX or DTS ES 6.1 or 7.1 anyway, so a 7.1 system can still take advantage of the extra channels. Here’s what you need to know before you build your system:
Go For Good Materials
Higher-quality woofer and mid-ranges use plastics, polymers, metals (aluminum, titanium) and smooth materials to create drivers. The idea is to use a textured, ridged surface to bite and move the air for better sound, so stay away from speakers made of paper. “Dome tweeters” made with soft cloth material like woven silk or ones made with ultra-thin titanium are good for dampening, which means less ringing. Dense, evenly textured speaker cabinets made from thick wood or particleboard work great for maintaining uniformity and consistency of sound. Try the “door knock” test: knock on the side of the speaker cabinet. If it sounds hallow, it will sound hallow. A good, sharp knock means a good cabinet.
Consider Speaker
Size & Space

For most rooms, you want to choose tweeters with at least a 1-1 ½ -inch driver. Anything under that can cause driver strain and muddle higher frequencies. For a mid-sized room, a 4-inch mid-range and an 8-inch woofer is all you need. For filling a large room, a 6-inch mid-range and a 10 or 12-inch woofer is plenty. Ported subwoofers with a 6-8-inch driver can produce ground-shaking movie bass in almost any room. For larger spaces, you may want to consider a dual 12-inch setup or a single 15-inch sub.
Specs You Should Know
Frequency Response (measured in Hz) represents the pitch range a speaker is capable of reproducing. Here are some standard ranges for each speaker type:
Ultra Tweeters: in the 20-40-80kHz range for a hypersonic effect
Tweeters: up to 20kHz
Mid-ranges: 500Hz-3kHz
Woofers: 500-200Hz
Sub-woofers: deep bass down to 20Hz; some go down to 15Hz (inaudible, but you can feel it)
Also be aware of Total Harmonic Distortion (THD). What you need to know is, the lower, the better. Good speakers have a THD of 1%; great speakers have a THD below 0.1%. Also keep in mind, specs don't tell the whole story. Only auditioning them in-store or in your house will give you an idea of what you’re buying. Try this: hook surround sound speakers up as a stereo pair, and play your music though them. If they reproduce music well, they’ll be able to handle anything a movie throws at them.
Choosing Your Speakers
Matching speakers by brand and series can help to ensure “voice-matching”, so tonal quality is consistent throughout the system for seamless surround sound. It’s a good idea to match power (watts) and rated impedance (Ohms or Ω) from AVR amplifier to speakers for optimum performance. For example, a 100-watt speaker rated at 8 Ohms is most efficient when connected to a 100-watt per channel amp rated at 8 Ohms or within a range including 8 Ohms.
The Center Channel Speaker
rests under or above your TV and is responsible for over half of a movie’s soundtrack, almost all of the dialogue, and some of the special effects audio. A large center speaker generally pairs well with bookshelf or floor-standing speakers. Center speakers that position the tweeter and mid-range vertically, instead of horizontally, can widen your center channel soundfield.
Front Speakers (right & left): floor-standing (tower) and bookshelf (mid-sized). These reproduce movie scores and additional special effects. They match the audio to the image as sound pans side to side between your right and left speakers.
Floor-Standing Speakers deliver a wide to full range of frequencies and can fill a large room with big sound, but you may still want to hook up a subwoofer for deep bass below 60Hz.

Bookshelf Speakers have a slimmer range of frequencies and pair perfectly with a subwoofer, because they usually do not reproduce lower bass frequencies. Even though they’re called “bookshelf” speakers, they do better when placed on stands.

Surround Speakers
are usually compact and reproduce mid-range and high frequencies. They can also double as front speakers, if you’re on a budget. These are great for ambient noises like footsteps, background laughter, and down-pouring rain. Note that the 7.1 channel system adds two additional surround speakers for further atmospheric immersion. Most surround speakers are monopole, meaning they’re designed to aim sound straight ahead which is preferred for stereo music. Want to expand your surround soundfield? Choose bipole/dipole (aka THX) rear speakers for a 5.1 system; they’re V-shaped and direct sound out to the sides. For a 7.1 system, you’re better off going with monopole or direct speakers.
Powered Subwoofers
offload low frequencies and deep bass. They come with a built-in amplifier for accurate frequency response. Some of the higher-end subs come with calibration controls, which is preferred over calibrating with an AVR. Subwoofers are omnidirectional, so placement can vary from right next to your TV to behind your surround speakers to anywhere in the room that sounds best.

For help with speaker placement, read our companion article Seven Speaker Placement Tips.

Adam J. Schmidt contributed to this article.

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Surround Sound Systems

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