When your home theater system is working properly, it is a beautiful thing. There are plenty of variables at play and dozens of considerations to make to get things working properly. At times, it may even seem like a chore. But for that bigger-than-life experience you're seeking, you'll need to be in command of every independent element of your home theater.
As is true with any viewing experience, lackluster audio can ruin beautiful visuals. When it comes to your home theater's audio, the slightest adjustments can make the biggest differences. Setting up a fully-tuned sound system for your theater isn't easy, but it's worth the effort.
Here are five tips you can do to drastically optimize and improve your listening space.
1. Determine your viewing position
Every device you purchase, feature you enable, and decision you make in your home theater is really only based on one thing. You, the viewer. It isn't a groundbreaking idea, but the whole purpose of a home theater is to provide a truer-than-life viewing experience. But while you contemplate all the variables in your system, be sure to base each successive decision around you... and where you'll sit!
Step one is a selfish, and obvious one, but it is often compromised. Determine the best viewing position in your room. Use it, and stick to it.
Sounds simple, right? Sure. However, often, we decide to move our couch away from its ideal positioning based on other variables or elements in the room. Don't move your couch because the plant that looks nice is in the way. Move the plant. Don't avoid moving the couch to a better location because it currently sits under ideal lighting. Find another lighting solution.
Your couch (or other seating surface) is the sun of your home-theater solar system. A generalized description of your couch's ideal position should be right in the middle (width-wise) and towards the back third (length-wise) of your room. However, if you already have a TV purchased, and your room is big enough to provide some flexibility, there's a more scientific way to position your couch.
You want the width of the TV to create a 40-degree viewing angle from your seat. To find how far away from the TV the couch should be to create this angle (depth), divide the display's diagonal screen size (width) by .84. For example, if your TV is 60 inches, your couch should be about 71 inches away. If you've yet to purchase the TV but have a good idea where it will be placed relative to your couch's ideal position, multiple that distance by .84 to get the maximum recommended screen size for your space.
In reality, it's OK to be a little off, but clearly you want to make sure you don't feel like you're watching a tennis match when watching the action on your TV screen.
2. Tame Reflections
You can have the latest-and-greatest speakers, but it'll all be for not if you put them in a room that will take away from their fidelity. It depends on how much work your viewing space needs, but this could very well be step one in a one-step discussion. It's that important. Your room dictates all, and a poorly designed room could result in your home theater sounding like an AM radio playing through a tin can.
As you sit on your couch, fully immersed in your favorite film, you are listening to a mix of the direct sound (sound that travels from your speakers to your ears, unobstructed), and indirect sound (sound that travels from your speakers, bounces off a wall, the floor, ceiling, furniture, windows, etc., then reaches your ears). These sounds, (and maybe the crunch of popcorn kernels) make up the full soundscape which accompanies the visuals on the screen.
These reflected sounds are both good and bad, a blessing and a curse. The good is they make the music and dialogue sound fuller, louder, and more realistic. The absence of indirect sound would be distracting and unnatural, like when listening to music through small speakers outside, they tend to loose their "liveliness".
(Keep in mind, we are always hearing a mix of direct and indirect audio signals in our regular day-to-day, it's something we are used to.)
Negative repercussions come into play when these reflections end up distorting the sound, and become distracting. Without getting into the principles of acoustics and psychoacoustics, the energy that gets built up when these reflections occur in specific areas of your room can amplify (sound doubly loud) or attenuate (minimize, and sometimes cancel out completely) specific frequencies. This can result in a listening experience where the bass disappears, or the mid-range sounds echoy or harsh. What's worse, is in some areas of your room the audio will sound drastically different than in others.
Correct speaker positioning is key to avoiding these issues, but sometimes the geometry of the room requires extra treatment. There are two ways to control the reflections in your listening room: either diffuse or absorb them. The details of understanding which you need, and how to achieve success can be complex, but subtle changes in your room can make a big difference. For quick pointers, here are some simple fixes which can go a long way:
- The couch or listening position should already be centralized and away from the walls (see above). If not, do so. Audio energy builds up along walls and in corners, and may distort your perception.
- Does your audio sound harsh and tinny? Look around your room and see if there is a lot of glass or other reflective surfaces. If so, drapes over windows, swapping out glass-top tables, and rugging your wood, vinyl, or tile (no, no, no!) floor goes a long way.
- Spend some time standing along the back wall and in the corners of your room. Bass heavy? Audiophiles are familiar with bass-traps and sound diffusers which help immensely. Use bookshelves with oddly-shaped books to solve the build-up in low-end frequency and add a touch of decor to your room.
Need more tips on room acoustics? Here's an excellent in-depth article that can provide more insight.
3. Your TV has small speakers
If you are serious about a home theater, you've likely considered the need for a full sound system. (If you haven't, it's time to discuss the need.)
TV's on the market these days are a beauty. Although they've gotten bigger and bigger, flat-screen manufacturers are focused on making TV's as sleek, and paper-thin as possible. But for every millimeter that gets shaved off the screen's depth, there's always a compromise, usually with the built-in speakers.
You won't find large diaphragm speakers in your new TV, which results in a lack of audio "power". Although large diaphragm speakers don't always guarantee studio-grade audio quality, you can't expect the same chest-thumping audio experience from the TV itself as you'll find in the cinema.
Per your high-school physics class, larger speakers can move more air more easily (without being over worked), and have a better chance at providing a truer listening experience. So just to cut to the chase, you'll need to replace the speakers with an additional system to round out the beautiful visuals your 4K TV provides.
When making the jump to evolve the audio system for your TV, many are weary of adding a full 5.1 surround sound system right away. "Soundbars" are an easy solution, many of which appeal visually to the aesthetic of your new TV.
Most of the leading soundbars are packed with several speakers, positioned to "spray" sound in a variety of directions. Taking advantage of your room's tuned surfaces (which you've tuned, right?), the audio from your soundbar can help create a "virtual" surround sound experience, enhancing standard stereo playback. For the least amount of confusion and headache, soundbars may be the quickest way to make up for your TV's sub-par speaker setup.
The Sonos Playbar is a leading option on the market, aimed to bring high-fidelity audio to your theater with the least amount of setup possible. Requiring just two cables, you can have your Sonos Playbar up and running in a matter of minutes. The Playbar is packed with nine speakers, six midrange and three tweeters, positioned to amplify audio across all corners of your room. What's better, you can access all of your music libraries and streaming services like Spotify, Pandora, Deezer, TuneIn, SiriusXM, Google Play Music, SoundCloud, Amazon Music, iHeartRadio, Rhapsody, Rdio, Qobuz, and Tidal wirelessly, all without connecting the Playbar to your computer.
Lastly, the Playbar is perfectly suited for future expansion as your needs grow. Add other Sonos speakers to create a true surround experience, and incorporate Sonos subwoofers to round out your low end. Speaking of subwoofers...
5. Get That Subwoofer Placed Correctly
For those looking for a more immersive audio experience, surround sound solutions have never been more obtainable for the home theater hobbyist. Although focused attention is required, (seriously) for configuring your surround system (especially if you have more than one row of seats), an often-overlooked element in a 5.1 setup is the placement of your subwoofer.
With a well-positioned subwoofer you can achieve excellent cinematic low-end energy, with smooth and extended tone from the sub-bass frequencies through 80-100Hz. However, almost more importantly than any other speaker, correctly positioning the subwoofer is paramount.
Deep bass sound waves are non-directional, meaning the subwoofer itself can be positioned just about anywhere in your room and bass soundwaves will reach all corners of your listening space's volume. This is ideal when you remember the wavelengths of bass signals are quite long, and are almost always larger than the normal objects you would find in a home theater. However, since these wavelengths carry a lot of power and vary in size, it is common to experience phasing issues from just one speaker.
This can be experienced if you move around the room while a consistent bass tone is playing. Although this is an interesting experiment, it doesn't represent what regularly occurs while you are watching a film (you and your subwoofer are stationary and don't move). However, in the inverse situation, where your position remains consistent (you sitting in your couch, which regularly happens), and the bass frequency sweeps, you may notice varying degrees in volume, punch, and power. In short, positioning your subwoofer so the audio energy and phase-relationship of the bass signal does not amplify or attenuate across a wide frequency range is important. For example, this article describes how it is possible to perceive a 36dB swing in frequency response due to an incorrectly placed subwoofer.
So where is the best place in the room to put your sub to ensure this doesn't occur?
Instead of experimenting by moving your clunky sub around the room, reverse your setup. Get your sub setup in your exact listening position, ideally on a chair at your ear level, and start pumping some bass. Then, crawl around around your room, (seriously, get on your hands and knees) with your ears at the height of where your sub's cone would be positioned when it is on the ground. (See what we're doing?) Move around the room and find a spot where the volume in the bass stays consistent while the pitch varies. Ideally, if you were to put your sub in that spot in the room, and return to your couch, the balance of bass versus the rest of your audio should be even.
(For a more detailed explanation of this "reverse subwoofer" positioning technique, check out this article, which includes listening recommendations.. *cough* Jaco Pastorius *cough*.)
6. Call a Pro
Clearly, there is much to consider. Expanding your setup to a 5.1 surround system introduces even more variables and every home theater presents its own challenges. To get the very best out of your system, give us a call directly and we can discuss the right solution for you. Contact us for a free consultation!