Surround sound – speaker options

Worried that your lounge room just won’t work with four, six or eight speakers in it? Don’t worry, there are a number of options, at a number of price points!

1. Home theatre in a box

HTIB is the complete one-stop surround sound option, providing all six speakers, plus an electronic component that decodes surround and sends it out to all the speakers. This unit typically integrates a DVD player, CD player, AM/FM radio and – sometimes – even TV tuners. The latest add Blu-ray playback. It’s an all-in-one system that may not offer the quality an enthusiast looks for, but which is extremely easy to set up.

2. Soundbars

Don’t like the idea of a lounge room full of speakers and cords tripping people up? Soundbars are a radical alternative to conventional surround speakers. Instead of five big speakers and a subwoofer, soundbars have as many as 35 tiny speakers all working together in a single slim cabinet designed to mount beneath a flat panel TV. And the incredible part is they literally use ventriloquism to bounce audio off flat surfaces in your house to make it sound like there are speakers behind you. The latest models may include a DVD or Blu-ray player, a subwoofer, plus connections for an iPod.

3. Pick’n’ mix

If you don’t want to – or can’t afford to – buy a complete surround speaker system at once, you can assemble one gradually by, say, starting with the front pair, then adding a centre, a sub and the rear channels over time. If you already have a good pair of stereo speakers, you can also build a system from there, and many audiophiles take this path. This approach allows you to have big floorstanding speakers for the front, and tiny wall-mounted cubes or in-walls for the rear, and while you can pick and mix speakers from different brands, choosing speakers from the same brand or – better still – the same range from the same brand – will ensure your system is better voice matched, and performance matched.

When it comes to serious sound, a custom surround package like this is hard to beat. You can mix and match speakers that suit either your particular room or your particular audio taste. Choosing speakers is no easy task: it’s important to audition them in a showroom, and it’s important to have a good relationship with your sales person so you can discuss your taste in movies and music and which speakers that means you will enjoy the most.

If you fancy yourself an audiophile, then you’ll enjoy spending hours in showrooms listening to different combinations of satellites, subwoofers and receivers. But if you’re just a person who wants something better than an all-in-one system from a single brand, auditioning can be tiresome.

4. Surround sound packages

Surround sound packages are a ready-to-go 5.1 speaker package. The speakers can be satellites, bookshelf-sized or floorstanders or a mix of all three, and compact subwoofer/satellite systems are also popular. Some packages also include an AV receiver, the electronics component that accepts Dolby and DTS audio and mixes it to each speaker as required.

Balance is an important element of a surround package. Since each speaker does a different job it’s vital that they don’t inadvertently drown each other out.

For instance, if you use hugely powerful front surround speakers either side of a relatively weedy centre speaker, dialogue will be extremely difficult to understand. Loud rear speakers will drown out quiet front detail. And an over-powered subwoofer will almost literally set your teeth on edge.

The great thing about the packaged surround sound speaker option is that it’s been put together by experts – the speaker makers themselves or retailers – who already know how the individual components perform, and how they work as a group. And with subwoofer/satellite systems you can enjoy the benefit of a system that is not just designed to work together, but which is cosmetically matched. (Check out the following pages, where we review and compare six compact sub/sat systems that excel for both style and performance.)

There’s one final, radical solution. You can mount the speakers into your walls. This involves cutting holes in your house and recessing speaker boxes within. It’s possible to completely disguise these speakers with acoustically-transparent coverings – the ultimate in stealth sound!

Of course you need the right kind of house for this. Plaster walls with a cavity behind them are great, double-brick or cinder-block homes are less flexible. The best bet for architectural speakers is to install them during an extensive home renovation, while building that home theatre room you always wanted!

You can also mount architectural speakers in the ceiling, though this only really works for rear and side surround speakers: your front speakers really do need to point directly at the viewer for the ultimate audio experience.