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Interior Design for 5.1 sound spaces, without the heavy tech

5 July 2018

Hugely improve your surround system easily by implementing our simple steps.

It’s been said countless times before, but your home is your castle. You take pride in your home and why shouldn't you? It’s the place you trudge back to after a long work day and should be where you’re at your most comfortable. It’s only natural to want it to be the best it can be.

For some of us, we take a lot of pride in our homes fittings: our gadgets, televisions, and sound systems. We make design choices that revolve around our technology; notice how your living room is likely oriented around your TV. These kinds of decisions matter and there’s always room to improve. In our experience, this is particularly true with 5.1 surround spaces. Key design choices can really improve the performance of a surround system and they’re really easy to implement.

There are, in-fact, recognised standards for all audio system setups. Stereo, quadraphonic, 5.1, 7.1, and immersive platforms such as Atmos and Barco Auro. These standards are aimed to be implemented in commercial and professional sound spaces such as cinemas, production houses and theatres.

You may be wondering: how does this affect you? Well, industry leaders like Dolby and THX, among others, have guidelines and approved standards for surround systems in residential spaces too. This means you can apply best practice for cinematic sound to your own home.

The Space: the perfect setup

Firstly, let's talk about ‘ideal scenarios’ and work backwards. The living room image below details the ideal home setup in terms of speaker placement. It’s considered ideal as this closely emulates how content is mixed in surround-sound during production. Notice the angle range of the right and left surround speakers; in a living room set up this would mean speakers would need to either be parallel to your seating position, or angled behind you. That’s great if you have it, especially if you have the space to have them stationed equidistant from the listening position.

If this is the kind of space you can afford, you may be interested in a bluetooth or wireless surround system. This takes the cable mess down to an absolute minimum, save for a few necessary power cables. Even these can be discretely hidden through stands and a bit of clever cable management.

What if I don’t have the perfect space?

Most of us navigate our technology around spouses, kids, furniture, and pets. Thankfully, the industry knows this and consistently releases products to tackle the issues of space and irregular room dimensions. Look at the soundbar market in the last ten years. They are a compromise on true surround sound, but a ‘one box solution’ that seems to be considered more than a fair trade for a lot of consumers. ‘Surround like’ technology has been implemented to bring as much immersiveness as possible from a single unit, and these technologies are constantly improving.

Preparing your room

If you’re set on a true 5.1 solution, but are tight on space or have an distinctive dimensions to work with, try and find a space in the room that resembles a regular trapezoid. This closely mimics the speaker placement required for an ideal 5.1 setup.

If this can be done, move your sofa around two thirds towards the bottom of the trapezoid (the longest line). It's likely this line will represent a wall in your room, so try and put at least 18” between a sofa and any wall. This should give enough space for ideal speaker placement. If this isn’t achievable, get as close as possible to a position where you can have a left surround and right surround perfectly distanced from your chosen ‘sweet spot’.

Maybe consider using satellite or ‘bookshelf’ speakers as surrounds. As the name suggests, these are small box speakers designed to be placed around a room to integrate into the furniture layout. You often find them on shelves, bookcases, cabinets, and anything that can be placed within the ‘surround space’ of your listening position.

Calibration

Remember: the angling and symmetry is crucial in a surround sound setup. Our aim is to carry an immersive effect by placing speakers around the listener; if speakers are spaced poorly or inaccurately the effect dissipates and can become quite distracting or lost altogether. You’ll find the surround effect carries much better when the speakers are level to your ear height. There are a lot of people who are happy to just put their surround speakers behind a piece of furniture that keeps them out of the way, but this will often fail to deliver the directivity required to give a good surround effect - as much of the high frequency content is absorbed or deflected by whatever is obstructing the speakers.

As for the left, right, and centre channels, these are straightforward enough to calibrate. Many package systems will include a single soundbar for this, making it simple to place on a credenza or cabinet. If you do choose individual speakers, keep them level to your ear height, don’t space them too far apart and make sure the centre channel is inline with your screen. This should keep anything insync visually and your surround sound effect crystal clear.

Unlike loudspeakers, the output produced from subwoofers is nondirectional to a degree. Many vendors recommend placing a subwoofer in a corner of a room. Doing so tends to reinforce and embellish bass frequencies which really nails that cinematic effect. However, be wary of a boomy sound that seems indistinct; if you’re hearing this kind of ‘muddy’ sound then move the subwoofer a few inches away from the wall or further away from a corner.

Trust your ears

There are recommendations, standards, and advice for consumers all over the web but every room is different and rigid rules only really apply in the perfect space. Use these best practice guideline but after that, listen and learn for yourself. Using your ears will be your greatest asset in achieving optimal sound for your space. Setup, calibrate, watch a few films and think about how cinematic it feels.

The ‘sweet spot’ limitation of 5.1 is one of the reasons Orbitsound developed the unique Airsound audio technology. Airsound is the only audio technology that allows you to hear perfect stereo quality sound wherever you are in the room. You can get the quick explanation of how Airsound works here.

If the experimentation required to optimise 5.1 seems too complicated for you to attempt, don’t worry. Airsound is an excellent alternative if we do say so ourselves. It takes all of the hassle out of speaker placement and working within the stereo sweet spot.

As a final point on 5.1: Consider what is missing from the experience and tweak where necessary. We promise: eventually you’ll achieve a great sound for your room whatever the space. If you’d like a little more information on surround sound, feel free to have a look through our articles here. We’re confident we can help!

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