“What would you have done differently to give me true surround sound?”
It’s one of the most common questions people ask me when I’m working on their existing home theater or media room.
They always seem to come from a client who wanted to upgrade, but discovered the company that originally installed it had gone out of business. Or it was just some guy working out of the back of his truck … who is also now unreachable.
It always looks like I’m rolling my eyes at the client. But it’s because 90% of the time my response is “I wouldn’t have put ALL the speakers in the ceiling” … and that’s what I’m seeing!
In-ceiling speakers are great for multi-room audio or for business audio systems or restaurant music systems. There are some amazing-sounding products out there that will rival good bookshelf units. But for a primary viewing area – i.e. your living room, custom home theater, man cave, or media room – putting the entire surround sound system above your head will cause you to miss out on the natural surround sound effects that the film creators intended.
So..Where Should We Put Speakers to Get True Surround Sound?
Great question! There are typically two styles of speakers for home theater use:
- Architectural, which includes in-wall and in-ceiling speakers.
- Cabinet, which includes bookshelf, tower, and on-wall speakers.
But before we get into speaker placement, the real question you should be asking yourself is:
“Can I live with seeing the speakers?”
YES? Then we are sticking with cabinet style speakers. And preferably tower speakers.
These speakers generally have the best overall sound reproduction and the greatest frequency range, some dropping below 30 Hz with the ability to rival some mid size sub-woofers. One consideration with tower speakers is space. They are large, typically standing 30″ – 40″ tall and around a foot deep. Plus, to get the most out of these things they need room to breathe. What I mean is, the air around them needs to be able to move or the sound ends up getting “choked off” in a sense.
If there isn’t a lot of floor space and you’ve got to use your entertainment center or cabinet, opt for bookshelf speakers. These smaller cabinet speakers will have some of the quality of towers since they are engineered around a fixed cabinet size. They won’t typically have quite the range … but that’s what sub-woofers are for!
If the answer is a resounding NO, you CAN’T stand to see your speakers, then we are pretty much stuck with some sort of architectural speaker. (You can tell this isn’t my preferred option for best fidelity). This could be an in-wall speaker or an in-ceiling speaker. And of the two, when it comes to a true surround sound system I try to stay away from in-ceiling speakers as much as possible … unless we are using Dolby Atmos or there is no other option, such as a family room with an open floor to the kitchen and no rear wall for speaker placement.
Why I Don’t Like (Only) In-ceiling Speakers
Movie sound-tracks are not designed to come from above. Walk into any commercial theater and look where the speakers are; on the wall with front speakers hidden behind the screen. This will change slightly with Dolby Atmos, but we’ll touch on that later.
The sound should come from around you. Or in the case of the center channel, directly from the screen. Consider a home with 12-14 foot ceilings: if all you have are ceiling speakers, the sound will come from above you. Imagine a heavy dialogue scene in a movie. All the voices will be from 12 feet up … that just isn’t right and if anything, it will make for a less-than-ideal movie experience.
In-wall and ceiling speakers don’t tend to sound as good as cabinet speakers when comparing speakers in the same price range. There are a couple of reasons for this. Every wall is different. Maybe you have 5/8″ sheet rock on the walls instead of 1/2″. Perhaps you have blown-in insulation instead of batts or rolls. Maybe there is only 3 feet of attic space instead of 15. All of these variables and more can change the overall sound quality of your speakers.
These reasons also apply to in-wall speakers, with one additional caveat. Some interior walls are not insulated at all. This could wreak havoc on the acoustic properties of your in-wall speakers. Not to mention the sound transfer to the adjoining room will be tremendous!
Personally, I just don’t like the look of in-walls. If we are going to put some speakers at a decent listening height, then we might as well opt for some great-looking bookshelf speakers. Since they come in a large variety of designs and colors you can easily match your room decor.
What You Can do to Improve Your Sound System NOW
That other home theater design company put all the speakers in the ceiling.
Maybe, after all, you prefer it. Not seeing any speakers in front of you is a great aesthetic benefit. But if you’re willing to consider adding just a few more speakers around the room we can make the whole system shine … while still using your existing ceiling speakers.
I’m talking about Dolby Atmos. This is Dolby’s latest surround sound format and is truly the greatest advancement in cinematic audio in the last 30 years.
Traditional surround sound is channel based. This means that the speaker placement truly matters.
Let’s say we’re supposed to hear a car alarm go off on the right side of the room. Maybe it does if we have a 7 channel system. But if we’re using a 5 channel system, then this sound – that should have come from the right – is now coming from the rear. Not only does it not match the on-screen action, the sound also never moved the way it would in real life.
Imagine standing on a runway and an airplane is taking off right over you. If this scene was displayed on a screen, we would have all of the sound coming from the front speakers, then all of the sound transferring into the surround sound speakers in the ceiling, then finally all of the sound would transfer into the rear speakers. This sort of sound movement gives us the illusion that the sound is moving, but really it’s only jumping 100% at a time from one speaker to another.
Atmos Changes ALL of This!
With Atmos, speaker placement doesn’t matter quite so much (although there are some general guidelines) since audio tracks are no longer based on channels, but rather on objects.
We hear in three dimensions.
If you close your eyes and I walk around you while I was talking, you’d know almost exactly where I was. Using this principle, Dolby created a 3D audio format called Atmos. Cinematic audio is now based on an object and a three dimensional space where that audio can move.
If we need a sound to come from 3 feet in front of the listening area and 2 feet to the right … that’s now possible. All of the speakers work together to produce a “sound object” instead of working as
This is where your existing speakers come into play. We can use a few of these in-ceiling speakers as the height channels for a Dolby Atmos setup. Or if you somehow don’t have in-ceiling speakers, we’ll add a few.
Now when you watch a film in a thunderstorm, voices and other sound objects will likely come from around us, while the thunder crashes above or the rain drops fall on the tree branches overhead.
It’s a phenomenal experience that I invite you to try out!
You can head over to the Maya Cinema in Fresno and check it out in all its glory.
Then call us at (559) 432-8600 and I’ll show you how to get that true surround sound. Then, we can take a look at your existing system. I promise I won’t roll my eyes at what the previous sound guy did… we’ll find a way to get you a great home theater experience.