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Speaker Placement Tips: How many do I need and where to put them?

by , October 02, 2014

 or "I Upgraded My Home Theater System, But I Can't Hear the Benefits. Why?"

originally published Aug 25, 2004 by Ray Adkins

We received numerous emails from fellow Audioholics who recently upgraded their home theater systems to find that the sonic improvements were less than expected. This is a topic that comes up more often than you think when the Home Theater enthusiast upgrades his or her equipment. There are a few factors you need to consider to solve this issue. First you may need to get used to the new receiver sounding different. If it's been a while since you've upgraded, you'll find that most current A/V receivers come with some sort of auto-calibration software. Systems like Audyssey MultEQ, Yamaha's YPAO, and Pioneer's MCACC will apply filters to your speakers in order to counteract the negative effects of the room (resonances, peaks, dips, etc.). Newer receivers will also support the latest codecs, i.e. Dolby TrueHD, DTS-HD, and possibly even cutting edge formats like Dolby Atmos and Auro-3D.  These discrete surround formats are light years ahead of the old Prologic and even lossy Dolby Digital codecs of yesteryear. 

To get the most out of your system, you should first define how many speakers you're able to place into your living room from a budgetary and aesthetic standpoint.  Please watch our Youtube video where we discuss this topic in greater detail before proceeding to read the rest of this article.

How Many Speakers Do You Need for a Great Home Surround Experience?

To break it down, since Dolby Digital and DTS hit the home theater market back in the 1990's, 5.1 has been the standard surround sound layout. We consider this the minimum needed to achieve an excellent surround experience. Even with the advent of newer 3D sound formats such as Dolby Atmos, the base 5.1 channels continue to receive the lion's share of the content. To put it simply: we don't recommend skimping on the quality of these channels in the name of quantity.

5.1 System Setup

The standard 5.1 layout diagram.

So what about Atmos? At the moment, the most commonly supported setups are 5.1.2, 5.1.4, 7.1.2, and 7.1.4. These add two or four overhead speakers (or Atmos Elevation speakers) to the standard 5.1 and 7.1 layouts. If you're doing a new theater build, we would definitely recommend at least pre-wiring for a quartet of in-ceiling speakers. To learn more about Atmos (including placement diagrams), see our Dolby Atmos For Home Theater Explained article. For now, we'll focus on getting basic 5.1 right.

Here is a list of items you will need to do help you properly set up and calibrate your home theater system:

  • 1 Radio Shack (analog preferred) SPL meter
  • 1 25ft tape measure
  • 1 pen type laser pointer
  • 1 pair of rubber pie shaped door stops (Home Depot)
  • 1 package small square rubber stick-on feet (Home Depot)

Step 1: Center Speaker Positioning

First stick two rubber feet on the bottom front of your center speaker. Then place the pie shaped doorstops under the back of the center so the back is angled down toward the listening position. Next, place the laser pointer on the top of the center speaker pointed at the listening position. Then aim and adjust the beam of the laser pointer so it is just above the ear level at the listening position. Adjust the rubber door stops until the correct height is obtained. This effectively aims the tweeter at the listening position between your ears.

Step 2: Main Speakers Positioning

Position your front main speakers at least a foot off each back and side wall and you are close to the "Golden Triangle Rule" ( Example: speakers 8ft apart from listening position and 8 ft back). Make sure that the speakers are the same distance off the back wall with the tape measure, then place the laser pointer on the inside panel of the speaker enclosure at the height of the tweeter.

With the laser pointer beam active, rotate the speaker inward until the laser pointer beam is about 6" away (outside) from the center of your listening position. This will effectively toe in the speaker to a close position according to the dispersion patterns of your speakers. If your speakers have an unusually wide dispersion pattern, you may wish to experiment with the degree of toe in for optimal performance.

For installs where there are multiple seats, we recommend an 80% triangle rule (IE. speaker distance is 80% of distance to seated area).  So if your seated area is 10ft away, the front speakers should be 8ft apart.  Less toe-in would be required, thus allowing for broader dispersion while also taking advantage of sidewall early reflections which are beneficial to the listening experience.

Step 3: Surround Sound Speakers Positioning

Bipolar/Dipole speakers which are typically utilized for surrounds usually perform best when placed on the side walls directly beside or slightly behind the seated listening position and at approximately 18-28" above the seated ear level position. This ensures a relatively diffuse sound field and makes localizing the surround speakers much more difficult.

Quadpolar surrounds, similar to Bipoles, usually perform best when placed on sidewalls, but closer to the backwalls, for rear wall reflection of the side mounted tweeter. Their height should be about 4-6 feet above the seated position, but greater than 1 foot away from the ceiling to not obscure the top mounted woofer.

Direct Radiating surrounds usually perform best when placed behind and slightly higher than the listening position, spread apart the same distance as the mains and slightly toed in.

Step 4: Subwoofer Positioning

Subwoofer placement is adequately covered in our article: Crawling for Bass.

Step 5: Speaker Configuration Set-Up In The A/V Receiver

As mentioned above, most modern A/V receivers will feature some sort of auto-calibration system. These will automatically determine speaker distance relative to the main listening position, level match your speakers and subwoofer, and set appropriate crossovers. The systems will also ensure there aren't any issues with electrical and acoustic phase. We recommend double-checking these settings, as we've found crossover settings in particular to be problematic. To start, we suggest setting all speakers to small, with an 80Hz crossover to the subwoofer. For a more in-depth look at bass management, we recommend:  Bass Management Basics: Settings Made Simple. You can double check speaker distances with a tape measure, but note if the subwoofer distance reported is higher than expected, this may be due to DSP processing within the sub's amplifier which may delay the signal slightly.

Last but not least, it's time to double-check that the speakers are properly level matched. For this, place your SPL Meter at the listening position at ear level with the Mic end pointed toward the ceiling. Select "C" weighting, response slow then, turn the dB dial to 70. Activate the internal pink noise generator of your Receiver and select manual test tone. Now adjust each speaker to +75 dB reference. When you are adjusting the surrounds make sure your body is not in a direct path of the speaker and make sure the house is quiet. When doing the calibration, only the test tone should be heard (A/C, ceiling fans, ect. should be turned off).

Step 6: Enjoy!

Put in a good flick with lots of hard simultaneous pans and dialog, and plenty of dynamic swings.  "Contact" Lift off chapter or "The Phantom Menace" Pod race, or "U571" Depth Charges, work well.   IF YOU DON'T SAY WOW AFTER THE VIEWING, START OVER!


About the author:
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Gene manages this organization, establishes relations with manufacturers and keeps Audioholics a well oiled machine. His goal is to educate about home theater and develop more standards in the industry to eliminate consumer confusion clouded by industry snake oil.

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Recent Forum Posts:

scattershot posts on October 07, 2014 13:09
I never knew that Middle Atlantic made credenza's. There C5 series products seem VERY interesting and fit a variety of décor options:
C5 Series, Options

If they could ever allow you to do an in-depth video review of one of their C5 Credenza's I think many of us would really appreciate that!

I've helped clients with Sanus and Salamander designs, for example, or had carpenters make custom jobs (like the one I designed for myself) but the Middle Atlantic design, while pricey, seems like an awesome options because it’s very well made, highly flexible, yet features enough modern and classic finishes to please most installers. For people like apartment dwellers who don't have the usable living space to have a classic vertical rack, these credenza's (like the 3 rack wide one's) can still offer a lot of flexibility for those not wanting to compromise the quantity and quality of AV components they wish to have.
gene posts on October 07, 2014 12:18
scattershot, post: 1054966
Thanks Gene, sorry was confused by what you said. Now I have some sweet talking to do - WAF factor and all

The RCS series seems pretty sweet!

Well they aren't designer looking but incredibly functional and built like a tank. Good luck.
scattershot posts on October 07, 2014 11:51
Thanks Gene, sorry was confused by what you said. Now I have some sweet talking to do - WAF factor and all

The RCS series seems pretty sweet!
gene posts on October 06, 2014 17:06
scattershot, post: 1054852
Middle Atlantic? Ah so a custom job darn it. If anyone knows a manufacturer website that makes pre-fabbed one's please share the link(s) for those of us looking for a flexible shelf. Thanks.

Not custom. You can order what you want already built:
Middle Atlantic
scattershot posts on October 06, 2014 17:00
Middle Atlantic? Ah so a custom job darn it. If anyone knows a manufacturer website that makes pre-fabbed one's please share the link(s) for those of us looking for a flexible shelf. Thanks.
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