High definition sound is the perfect partner to high definition pictures

With high definition equipment in your home, often you can get picture quality at least as good as that in the cinema. But with some movies, the sound quality can be a step above cinema sound, and even free-to-air TV can now provide cinema quality sound.

The essence of great sound for your home entertainment system is surround sound, and there are three main routes for injecting it into your living room:

  • Packaged systems
  • Single speaker surround
  • Separate components

Some of these options assume surprisingly compact forms, but before we detail each alternative, let’s briefly explain surround sound.

Surround basics

The name pretty much describes the basics: instead of sound just coming from your TV, it comes from all directions, surrounding you. Why? To better create a sense of involvement with what you’re watching. As the character on the screen is racing for her life through jungle undergrowth, it works better on you on an emotional level if your ears are giving the same sense. So the surround sound system will have branches whipping past your ears, drawing you into the action.

The main digital surround sound formats are Dolby Digital and DTS, and unlike stereo, which delivers just two channels of sound, each of these provides 5.1 channels of sound. That’s a lot of channels, so where do they go?

Three of them are at the front. You have normal left and right stereo speakers, plus you have a ‘centre channel’ speaker just above or below the TV screen. The two surround speakers go to your sides, but back a little towards the rear. The ‘.1’ in ‘5.1’ stands for the ‘low frequency effects’ (LFE) channel. This is for the thumping sounds from explosions and so on, and this goes to a subwoofer (a dedicated bass speaker), best placed in a room corner near one of the front speakers.

5:1 surround sound