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How to Make Surround Sound Work in an Apartment

by October 09, 2014
Klipsch on-wall speakers

Klipsch on-wall speakers

Not everyone can enjoy the luxury of living in a stand-alone home. Many of us, especially those in large cities, have no choice but to partake in apartment living. Living in an apartment has a host of advantages, like little to no home upkeep, but the flexibility to set up a surround sound and rock out is not one of them. Limited space, sound bleed to neighboring units, and an inability to modify the construction of the home are all obstacles to having a great sound system in an apartment. Below are our suggestions to overcome each of these issues and more.

Saving Space

1. Buy compact speakers

Obviously, purchasing compact speakers is an easy way to save space. The trick is to find compact speakers that don’t compromise on sound quality. Getting top notch performance out of compact speakers requires the use of premium drivers, and often times in the case of compact subwoofers, powerful amplifiers as well. These expensive parts drive up the price of the speaker, so finding high-quality compact speakers might cost more than a similarly performing large speaker. This is especially true for subwoofers. With that in mind, we’ve reviewed a number of solid compact subwoofers from the likes of SVS, JL Audio, MartinLogan, and Aperion Audio. We’ve also reviewed a number of good compact speakers from brands such as EMP Tek, Orb Audio, Definitive Technology, and NHT. Also, for an even less obtrusive solution, consider in-wall and on-wall speakers.

JL Audio e110 Subwoofer                         SVS PC12-Plus            

The JL Audio e110 (left) and SVS PC12-Plus (right) are made for tight spaces      

2. Buy compact gear

Buying compact speakers is an obvious way to save space, but not as many people realize that there are also compact receivers, Blu-ray player, amplifiers, etc. For example, the Marantz NR series receivers are just a little over 4” tall. The Emotive UPA-500 5 channel amplifier is also a hair over 4” tall, but it’s unlikely you would need an external amp to drive compact speakers. Keep in mind that we don’t recommend purchasing “combo” units that combine multiple pieces of equipment together, as these units tend to be unreliable.

Emotiva UPS-500 Amplifier               Marantz NR1603 Compact Receiver

  Emotiva UPA-500                                                    Marantz NR-1603

3. Wall mount everything

Flat panel TVs are designed to be wall mounted, so read our guides on how to choose a mount find studs, and mount a TV, then get yours on the wall. Most speakers can also be easily mounted, so get out the tools and free up some floor space.

4. Hide equipment

Although placing home theater equipment directly under the display is the most popular option, it’s not the only option. With the help of IR repeaters and RF remotes, it’s easy to control equipment no matter where it is in the home. Thanks to advancements in wireless HDMI devices like the DVDO Air3, you don’t even need to run an HDMI cable back to your display. However, it’s always best to use an actual HDMI cable if you can, just don’t get ripped off.

Avoiding Angry Neighbors

1. Decouple speakersAuralex SubDude subwoofer platform

There are two main ways to soundproof a room, add mass and decouple. Adding mass means using heavier, more inert construction materials that transfer less sound. Since the room is already built, adding mass isn’t much of an option. Decoupling your speakers from the room, however, is easy. Take a look at Auralex’s SubDude offerings for decoupling subwoofers, and their ProPADs for decoupling bookshelf sized speakers. You could even place towers speakers on a SubDude platform, but tall speakers with a small base might be unstable sitting on a SubDude.

2. Utilize Audyssey LFCAudyssey mic

Audyssey LFC is a proprietary technology designed to reduce sound bleed between rooms. It does this by actively limiting the level of certain frequencies that tend to cause common building materials to resonate. Audyssey claims that by selectively limiting certain frequencies, they can significantly reduce sound transmission without severely affecting in-room sound quality. The catch with Audyssey LFC is that your receiver needs to support the feature. It’s not something you can add to your system without buying a new receiver. 

Overcoming Limited Construction Capabilities

3.Tuck wire in-between baseboards and carpet

Your landlord might not be happy if you tore up the walls to hide speaker wire, but as long as you have carpet, hiding wire is easy. Simply buy thin wire, about 18AWG, and use a flat head screwdriver to tuck it between the bottom of the baseboard and the carpet. In most cases, there’s enough space to completely hide the wire, and it will just pull out when you’re ready to leave.

4.Use a wireless speaker kit

Some people scoff at the idea of wireless speaker kits, but modern technology has come a long ways from the interference prone units that ushered in the product category. While WiSA is the most promising new wireless speaker technology, manufacturers have yet to integrate it into many products. That means you’re stuck with purchasing a universal wireless speaker kit. Luckily, we’ve tested out a few different models and have generally had good luck. The included amplifiers usually aren’t quite good enough to use with your front speakers, but can handle surround duty without any issues. For an economical option, check out the $99 Rocketfish wireless kit sold by Best Buy. For something a little nicer, consider the Outlaw Audio OAWA3. Also note that there are plenty of wireless subwoofers and wireless subwoofer adapters on the market.

5. Hang decorative Sound Panels

For most apartment dwellers, the living room doubles as the theater, which means the walls are made for photos and paintings, not acoustic panels. The easy solution is to buy acoustic panels with images printed on the fabric. These panels are more expensive than typical acoustic panels, but pull double duty as acoustic treatments and art – you’ll have to give some liberty with the word “art.” Check out Auralex and Gik Acoustics for these types of panels. If you don't want to mount anything on the wall, you can opt to buy stands for the acoustic panels.

GIK Acoustic artpanel

GIK Acoustics ArtPanel


These 9 tips should get you well on your way to breaking free of the audio prison that is an apartment. As an ex-apartment dweller myself, I can tell you that none of these methods will allow you to crank the volume dial to 11, but you also won't need to listen to things at a whisper either. Beyond reducing sound transfer, you should be able to save space and increase sound quality as well.

Do you have any other ideas, or any experience with the ideas in this article? Let us know in forum thread below.


About the author:
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Cliff, like many of us, has always loved home theater equipment. In high school he landed a job at Best Buy that started his path towards actual high quality audio. His first surround sound was a Klipsch 5.1 system. After that he was hooked, moving from Klipsch to Polk to Definitive Technology, and so on. Eventually, Cliff ended up doing custom installation work for Best Buy and then for a "Ma & Pa" shop in Mankato, MN.

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