How to Set up and Calibrate Surround Sound Speaker Systems (5.1, 6.1, 7.1)

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  • You may have to tweak individual item settings before your surround sound system setup is complete. For example, your console might require slightly different sound levels or output than your DVD player.

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Definitions

Surround sound systems (often also known as home theatre systems) are defined by a numbering system that refers to the number of speakers in the particular sound system.

A 5.1 system will have five speakers (as described above) plus one subwoofer, a 7.1 system will have seven speakers plus one subwoofer etc.

The most common surround sound system on the market today is the 5.1 system and it is for this system that the sound of most movies is designed.

7.1 systems are making their way on to the market. They contain two extra rear speakers, but as few movies are yet mixed for 7.1 sound, playing a 5.1 DVD through a 7.1 home theatre system provides little advantage. The extra speakers will simply pump out more of the same background channel.

Picking the Right Audio Device

Your computer may have multiple audio devices, and not all may support surround sound. The surround sound output will appear as a separate audio device to your regular headphone or stereo speaker output with some sound cards. 

For example, your sound card’s digital output to a surround receiver will be a different audio device.

How to enable Speaker Fill

The quality might be slightly altered as a result, but at least your 5.1 surround sound system will work.

  • Press the Windows key and R simultaneously to open a run window. Type mmsys.cpl and hit enter. The sound properties will pop up.
  • Hit the playback tab, select the 5.1 surround sound speakers like when you set the system up, then go to properties.
  • One of the top tabs is an enhancement. Go there, and you will see a box to disable all sound effects. It is checked by default. You have to uncheck it.
  • You will also see a list right under this option. Look for Speaker Fill in this list and check the box.
  • Apply, reboot the computer, and try testing it again.

Change the audio format

Whether the previous method does not work or you cannot enable Dolby Direct Live, these steps can help you change the audio format and fix the issue.

  • Go to the sound properties like in the first step above.
  • Once in the playback tab, go to the speakers and hit properties.
  • Find the advanced tab on top, and you will see a drop-down menu with the default format. Change the format to 24 bit, 96000 Hz (Studio Quality).
  • Apply the changes and reboot your computer.

Uninstall the driver

Based on another article from Appuals, uninstalling, the driver will force the operating system to install it again and perhaps a newer version. However, this option is a bit out of the discussion if you update the driver upfront.

  • Press the Windows key and X at the same time, then go to the device manager.
  • Double click on audio inputs and outputs.
  • You will see a list of install devices.
  • Right-click each of them and uninstall them.
  • Go to the Action tab, and you will find a button to scan for hardware changes.
  • When you reboot, Windows will install the driver again by itself.

Optimize the room

Lining your walls with foam panels greatly reduces echo.

Just like with any home theater setup, be it a soundbar or a full-fledged surround sound system, you want to rearrange and optimize the room for acoustic purposes. You could just scrap the room altogether and convert it into a dedicated theater, but this is much more economical.

Reduce the number of reflective surfaces or counter them with soft items like foam or additional padded furniture.

One of the first things you should do is look around. Do you have a mixture of surface types in the room? Hardwood is a reflective surface and bounces sound around like crazy. Carpet, on the other hand, absorbs soundwaves. ideally you want a mixture of both hard and soft surfaces. If your designated room is completely hardwood, invest in some rugs or thicker curtains. If acoustic treatment is in your budget (it should be) and not too much of an eyesore for you, get foam panels to place throughout the room. You can fix it to the walls, ceiling, and ideally get bass traps for the corners too.

Now that you’ve added in some absorbent fixtures, its time to remove anything that could obstruct a soundwave’s route from the speakers to your ears. This is pretty simple: don’t have a sculpture or lamp between you and a speaker. Worst-case scenario, you can always place the speakers close to the couch. Doing so reduces the effect of distant reflective surfaces.

Adjusting the Subwoofer to the Correct Level

After the receiver has ran through its auto calibrate routine, then check what level the receiver has set the subwoofer (also known as LFE) level. The subwoofer usually has its own amplifier and the receiver will try and match the subwoofer output/volume level to the same level as the rest of the speakers, which may mean it has to either boost or reduce the level. The amount the receiver has had to boost or cut this level will then show up on the receiver.

There is only so much this can be cut or boosted. If the receiver is showing -12 or +12 for LFE level after calibration, then it is at its upper or lower limits and your subwoofer may be producing too much or too little bass. Under this circumstance, the receiver has done all it can to correct but can't get to optimum range without you intervening to adjust the dial. If this has happened, simply adjust the gain on the back of the subwoofer up or down (depending on the reading), then calibrate it again by re-running the receiver auto calibrate routine.

The ideal is to get it as close to 0 as possible, then there is no boosting or cutting between the receiver and the subwoofer, which leads to a minimum of distortion. If it's a few db above or below it's not the end of the world, so you don't need to get too obsessive, but just try and make sure it's not at the top of bottom of its range.

Different rooms affect sounds in different ways so sometimes you may need certain frequencies boosting or cutting, which you don't need to worry about as the receiver will try and do this for you. It does this by playing a full frequency range signal to each speaker, measuring how the room affects the sound then adjusting the output level and also the equalisation of the sound to try and produce what will end up at your ears as a neutral sound.

7.1 Surround Sound Setup

This is how a 7.1 surround sound setup looks. There are two speakers behind your head. This sort of setup has a really good field of surround sound behind and in front of you. This is the way I have my system set up! It does involve a couple more speakers and more wiring, but it is certainly worth it in my opinion.

7.1 surround sound placement viewed from above.

The Surround Sound Speakers

The left and right surround speakers (shown as “A” in Fig. D below) must be placed equally to each side and slightly above and behind the viewing position. Left and right rear surround speakers (shown as “B”) should also be about three feet above (and behind) the seated listeners’ heads.

 Fig. D - Four surround sound speakers placement.

Fig. D – Four surround sound speakers placement.

Surround Sound With a Gaming Headset

Many higher-end gaming headsets offer built-in simulated surround sound. These headsets usually connect to your PC or console over USB, either with their own surround-processing sound cards incorporated into the connection, or with a token or code that authorizes the use of software that provides the feature.

This is simple, but device-specific, and can potentially be limited to channel-based surround sound if your headset isn’t designed for spatial audio. You plug in your headset (or transmitter if you’re using a wireless headset), and it configures as a surround-capable device. You might need to install a companion app to enable the surround feature, but this is usually a simple toggle, perhaps with additional options to let you tweak how it sounds for you. How easy it is to set up depends on the model and the platform, with PCs often requiring configuration through an app and consoles usually handling it automatically.

Why Listen To Music in Surround Sound Speakers?

As you might have gathered, surround sound is typically reserved for films and television. With that said, there are many reasons why you may want to learn how to set up a surround sound system in your home studio.

First and foremost, surround sound speakers gives you the opportunity to hear every detail of your music. The beauty of having more audio channels to work with is that there’s less information coming out of each individual speaker.

This helps to reduce overall muddiness that’s often associated with stereo mixes. As a result, you’re able to hear fine details that would otherwise be lost. It’s a great way to catch mistakes and correct issues that get buried in traditional stereo setups.

Appealing to a Wider Audience

The popularity of home surround sound systems is quickly rising. As such, more and more people are turning their home cinemas into multi-functional entertainment spaces where they can enjoy music.

Having to surround sound speakers in your home studio allows you to cater to those listeners. You can fine-tune your mixes to sound great in all situations. Whether your audience is enjoying your tunes in stereo, surround sound, or simulated surround sound in headphones, perfecting the mix at the source ensures that everyone is enjoying it how it was intended to be heard.

More Control

Another big benefit of surround sound is that it gives you more control over the final product. With a stereo mix, you can only pan in one dimension. Surround sound lets you manipulate signals in two dimensions.

Not only does this give you more room to create the listening experience you’re after, but you’re able to layer sounds more strategically. This is especially useful with orchestral music and sound effects. Rather than placing the signal in some random space on the spectrum, you can be more selective and adjust everything to perfection.

Future-Proofing Your Work

Last, but not least, a surround setup can help you prepare for any future releases. Say, for example, that you want to include your work in a project that takes advantage of 5.1 audio.

If you worked in surround sound, most of the job is already done.The cool thing about using the surround setup in your home studio is that you can still publish in stereo. While the immersive soundscape you created won’t be replicated exactly, that information is still present and available. It’s simply compressed and encoded into stereo for your listeners that don’t have surround sound.

Considerations

Whether you intend to buy a packaged system or compile your own, you need to think about a few things:

Room size. The bigger the room, the more powerful your receiver will need to be. An output of 50 watts RMS per channel may be all right for a smaller room, but outputs of 100 to 150 watts per channel will be needed for medium to large rooms. If you’re making up your own system, ensure that the speakers you buy can handle the maximum output of your receiver.

Speaker placement. Surround sound speakers have their defined positions, but exactly where in your room will you place them? Speakers come in different sizes, do you have enough room? Remember, too, that every speaker will be attached by a wire to the receiver – is that going to be a problem in a heavily trafficked room?

It is possible to position smaller speakers on shelves and bookcases etc., but this may not be either convenient or produce the best sound. Speaker stands might be a better option.

Uses. Even cheaper home theatre systems will produce a good listening experience when used for movies, but if you also intend to listen to a lot of music through your system you might want to consider a higher-end model. As a rule of thumb, the more expensive the system, the better its music handling capability will be.

Compatibility. It’s no use buying a great surround system if you can’t connect it to your DVD player or TV. Check that it has the right connections for your existing equipment.

The 7.1 configuration

The standard setup for a 7.1 configuration includes a center channel speaker, left and right front channel speakers, a subwoofer (Fig. A shows two locations options for a single subwoofer – or you can add a second subwoofer placed in both locations making a 7.2 system setup), left and right surround speakers and left and right rear surround speakers.

The rear surround speakers add more depth to the surround sound experience by spreading the sound across four speakers (the left and right surrounds and rears), rather than two, resulting in more directed, immersive sound.

The two additional speakers also help to fill larger rooms more completely. Plus, more and more films are being released or home viewing in 7.1 formats, adding to its appeal.

 Fig A. - The full 7.1 system setup.

Fig A. – The full 7.1 system setup.

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