Set Up Your Media Room for Immersive Surround Sound
Get to Know Your Options for Surround Audio
Surround sound is how movie and TV soundtracks are reproduced in your media room or home theater. The surround sound concept dates all the way back to 1940 and was used in the Walt Disney classic film Fantasia. In theaters, surround sound became popular in the late 1970s in such films as Superman and Apocalypse Now through technology pioneered by Dolby Labs, the company that leads in the space. Surround sound is a term used to describe a type of audio output in which the sound appears to "surround the listener" by 360 degrees.
For a media room setup in Mendham, NJ, a high-quality surround system makes a significant difference in your entertainment experience. Why? Because surround sound is everywhere now. All broadcast TV is in Dolby Digital format, and many shows take advantage of it. More importantly, virtually all movies are distributed with surround sound. The best action films and thrillers genuinely take advantage of multiple channels of sound to immerse you in the story. Increasingly, high-quality original shows on popular streaming services like Netflix are using 7.1 audio, and the best shows make you feel like you’re at the movies.
So no matter what you watch, surround sound is virtually all around you – pardon the pun. Read on to see how you can make the most of an upgraded media room setup.
Soundbars have become incredibly popular for several reasons, the most important of which are aesthetics, vastly improved audio performance when compared to earlier models, followed by ease of installation. A basic setup is the Sonos Playbar paired with the Sonos Sub and the wireless Sonos 1 speakers. It's a basic 5.1 system - three front channels with left, center and right, a subwoofer, and two rear surround speakers. This setup can fill a smaller room with high-quality audio. At the higher end of aesthetics, performance and customization, Leon soundbars are configurable to match the width of your flat panel TV, are available in custom finishes, and contain high-quality speakers for excellent sound.
Soundbars can produce very high-quality audio. But for the person that wants the ultimate audio performance they cannot match the channel separation, sound steering, and dynamic range of a high-quality set of Left, Center and Right (LCR) speakers paired with the right surround processors and amplifiers. If you want a more immersive experience to get the most from the latest surround formats like Dolby Atmos, you want a component-based system.
To discuss surround sound formats, it’s useful to understand the terminology. Below is a quick summary:
- 5.1 Surround - There are five speakers: Left, Center, Right and two surround speakers. The .1 refers to the subwoofer.
- 7.1 Surround - There are seven speakers: Left, Center, Right and two side surround speakers and two rear surround speakers. The .1 refers to the subwoofer. If your system has two subwoofers then it would be a 7.2 surround
- With both 5.1 and 7.1 the speakers are located at approximate ear height around the room
- 7.2.4. Atmos Surround - There are seven speakers: Left, Center, Right and two side surround speakers and two rear surround speakers,2 subwoofers, and 4 Atmos Ceiling speakers. The first number refers to the number of main speakers, the second number refers to how many subwoofers are used, and the third number is the number of ceiling speakers. Please see our Atmos speaker layout diagram for a visual representation.
There are a bevy of surround formats, and the critical ones come from two companies with long experience in film soundtracks - Dolby and DTS. These formats have both evolved from the original 5.1 formats to 7.1, 9.2, 11.2, and beyond. 7.1 is a standard today, and if you have a soundbar or AV receiver, all higher-end models can decode 7.1 formats like Dolby Digital Plus and DTS 7.1.
If you are concerned with surround audio quality, you should know about lossless audio. With the advent of Blu-ray high definition discs, a decade ago, surround formats on discs went lossless. This means the sound was encoded at high bitrate and not compressed. Because that audio takes up considerably more storage space than the previous formats, it has only been available on physical media like Blu-ray and Ultra High Definition (4K) Blu-ray, as well as specialized movie server solutions like Kaleidescape. Is lossless available for streaming? Not yet, as the bandwidth in the current HDMI standards cannot fit both 4K video and lossless audio - but it’s coming soon.
Dolby Atmos and DTS:X are the latest and most immersive surround formats. The big innovation is creating the ability, when the audio engineers mix the film soundtrack, to direct sound in a three-dimensional field, rather than assign it to a channel. The result, with a well-mixed movie soundtrack, is sound that envelops you more naturally as if you are in the scene. Dolby Atmos and DTS:X soundtracks require height speakers – typically ceiling-mounted – for these effects, and larger spaces can have multiple pairs of these speakers to cover the room.
What Level of Audio Quality is Right for You?
By considering the level of sound quality that you prefer, Bravo AV designers will understand how to design your media room audio system.
We have found that for most people, breaking it down into three categories helps you define your preferences:
- Excellent (suitable for critical music listening; near-studio quality)
- Very Good (good for film soundtracks; OK for music but not suitable for critical listening)
- Adequate (sound quality is a lesser priority to other criteria such as aesthetics)
What to Consider for Your Media Room Setup?
For the most immersive surround performance, you will need a component-based system, speakers, and subwoofers. The options for speakers, both freestanding and architectural (built-in), are almost endless. Likewise, the choices in processors, receivers, and amplifiers are many and are related to speaker choices, room size, acoustics, and other factors. Whether you go with a full Atmos setup or a more traditional 5.1 or higher depends on your preferences and what you like to watch. It might be useful to know that Dolby is putting resources behind Atmos surround for music and will invest with music labels to remix popular music in immersive surround. If hearing music in surround sounds appealing, you can have that option with the right setup.
If you are considering a new or upgraded media room setup in New Jersey, Bravo AV is your local expert. Get in touch with us by filling out our contact form or by chatting live with us below. We look forward to hearing from you!
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Bravo AV is proud to be an HTA (Home Technology Association) Certified Installation Firm and professional A/V experts. Tom Curnin, the owner of Bravo AV, is a CEDIA Professional Designer, a certified THX Level 1 home theater professional, and a member of the Home Acoustic Alliance trained to Level II.