Surround Tribes: Where Do You Fit In?

A home theater system, as I never tire of saying, is the union of big-screen television and surround sound. Conceptually speaking, the big-TV part is not a heavy lift. But some people interested in getting into home theater may have trouble visualizing what a surround sound system might look like. And it's hard to blame them. Surround systems come in many configurations, each appealing to a different tribe of listeners. How can you, as an aspiring home theater buff, decide which surround tribe you belong to? Here are some common configurations matched to the listeners to whom they would appeal.

Towers All Around, No Sub: You are an uncompromising, sometimes difficult person, but also a generous host, and your home theater makes you popular in the neighborhood. As a questing audiophile who never settles for less than the very best, you don't care that your system is not a mainstream configuration. It just happens to be the most appropriate thing for the dedicated room you've built for it, with its acoustically ideal proportions, heavily damped multi-layer sheetrock walls, and flexing raised floor. Your speakers operate full-range and reach down to the lowest octaves with confidence and ease and therefore have no need of a subwoofer. They are powered by a boutique pre-pro and a whole rack of stereo or mono-block amps. Your video display is a top-of-the-line 4K projection system.

Towers, Center, Bipole/Dipole Surrounds, One Sub: You live well and spend your money wisely. You want a high-performing system with only a few concessions to pragmatism. And you're a little old-fashioned, so your front left and right speakers must be full-range towers like the stereo speakers of your youth. You're happy to cut back to just those two speakers when playing music. They have enough bass to do justice to bass and drums. For movies and multichannel music, you also invoke a horizontal center, which fits well into your a/v furniture solution; two bipole/dipole speakers for the surround channels, because as an audiophile weaned on two-channel, you're bothered when surround effects call attention to themselves; plus a sub operating at a low crossover for extra special-effects impact and the occasional 1812 Overture binge. You are careful to make sure the drivers are identical or similar in each speaker for optimum timbre matching. To power your system, you might be using either a pre-pro and multichannel amp from a low-end-of-the-high-end brand, or a top-of-the-line receiver from an audiophile brand. Your video display is most likely a vintage Pioneer Kuro plasma.

Chunky Monitors All Around, Two Subs: You are a middle-of-the-road person who lives within reasonable limits. You want high performance, but need it to fit into a medium-sized room that has multiple purposes. Towers are just too big and bulky for the room, and perhaps a tad old-fashioned in this subwoofer-assisted era of surround sound. Your stand-mount monitor-size speakers have considerable bass response, but they roll off as they approach the bottom octaves, so you supplement them with two subs (for more even room coverage). You may not be rich, but you like your side-to-side and front-to-back panning to be continuous, and you have a rare passion for multichannel music formats, so your five speakers must be identical. Your receiver sold for $1000-1500. It has more than enough power to run the speakers; you may not live in luxury but you like having a little dynamic headroom. Your video display is a 60-inch LCD with local-dimming LED backlighting, and you picked a model near the top of the line, with loads of smart TV features, which you enjoy, and 3D capability, which you never use.

Satellite/Subwoofer Set: You are an aspiring surround buff. You might be living in a studio apartment or sharing a small house with a growing and rather tumultuous family. The thought of living with large speakers makes you queasy and makes your usually sweet-natured spouse rebel. You want something you can mount on the wall or (if your audiophile friend pours enough beer into you and the kids have passed the destructive stage) on skinny stands. A sat/sub set, for you, is the best you can do under the circumstances, and the most suitable choice for your small to medium sized room. It makes the difference between having surround or not having it. But you know what good sound should be like; after all, you spent $400 for a good pair of headphones, and you're shopping for a headphone amp to make them sound even better. So you pore over the Top Picks on this website in search of the ideal sat/sub set and a $400-600 receiver to run them. You bought the largest LCD set you could afford, and while it isn't the classiest brand or the top of the line, it's still your electronic hearth.

Soundbar: You are a hardheaded, practical, no-nonsense kind of person. And to you, a feature-laden surround receiver is the very definition of nonsense. Who has the time? Who has the patience? Whether you are outfitting the livingroom or the bedroom, you want something that mounts below the TV and is as simple and unobtrusive as possible. Your surround-tribe membership may be only nominal; your bar has a faux-surround mode but you may not even be aware of its existence. Still, you do like the way the sound spreads out just a little on either side of, and in front of, the bar. And you like being able to hear the newscaster's words of doom. Your TV is not the biggest or most full-featured screen on the block, but you shopped carefully for it, seeking the best combination of value, energy efficiency, performance, and features, and it gives you a quiet satisfaction.

Speakers Built into Flat-Panel TV: You are not a member of any surround tribe. At least not yet. Frankly, you just don't care. About anything: sound quality, your well being, the state of the world, whatever. Your space is strewn with pizza boxes, Doritos bags, and empties rolling around the floor. Your roommates are cockroaches and mice. Jesse Pinkman once slept on your sofa; now he doesn't return your calls. You subsist on the speakers built into the flat-panel TV you bought at Walmart and can barely figure out what the talking heads are saying on it. It will last three years before it fizzles out. Then you will go back to Walmart and buy another one, but next time, having learned from bitter experience, maybe you will buy a soundbar to go with it. Will you ever be a member of any surround tribe? There may be hope for you yet. Then again, there may not be.

Audio Editor Mark Fleischmann is the author of Practical Home Theater: A Guide to Video and Audio Systems.

jca332001's picture

That was fun, but true.

I began, and are slowly trying to move, from sats/sub to sigma monitors/2xsub, the thing is my "A/V" room is small, but I would love to be able to use the more refined equipment, but it would be overkill.

Anyway, I just love to read about the equipment. I guess no matter what tribe you belon to or identify with, the passion for the hobby is a common element.

Can you tell us a bit Mark about how was your evolution through these tribes?

Mark Fleischmann's picture
I've always been a member of the chunky-monitors tribe. I've lived in the same place for a long time and that's the best choice for my room.
dnoonie's picture

I'm a bit of mix and match of tribes

11.5 foot by 16.5 foot dedicated treated room, it seems very small, barely usable. The system has evolved piece meal but...long story short:
60" Plasma
4 sat 1 sub tri-amped.
Front and rear sats match timbre but are of different brand.
Front sats are on speaker stands with tweets at eye level.
Rear sats are on CD/DVD cabinets with custom speaker stand offs placing tweets at 5'8" from floor.
Rear sats face forward
Future plans are...
I have a room resonance peak at around 200HZ, vertical corners have base treatment but not horizontal, the plan is to get corner base traps for the horizontal corners as well as a test mic by this thanksgiving.
In a year or so I'd like to get same brand rear surrounds, I'd get the bigger version of what I have in front, move the current fronts to the rear and do more experimenting with rear placement.
Some day I'd like a house that isn't so oddly shaped/arranged.

What tribe am I from?

I love a great movie surround mix!
I love music!

Mark Fleischmann's picture
You're a tribe unto yourself, or at least a new one I hadn't identified, the Odds & Ends Tribe.
dnoonie's picture

Yes, Odds and Ends Tribe evolving into the largest monitors i can put on my current speaker stands.
Front monitors are Dynaudio
-3db is 40Hz
119db peak at 1M for pair
11.7 liters

Seem to be set between the Focus 110 and Special 25, mine are self powered and bi-amped.

Where does that line up tribe wise?

The Sub 500 is identical specs except for a 300 watt amp in mine.


Mark Fleischmann's picture
Your tribe is evolving so fast that it's hard for an anthropologist to get a fix on it. You clearly are redesigning your system under difficult conditions but you know what you want. Are you using any kind of room EQ to tame the room mode you referred to earlier?
javanp's picture

That's me pretty spot on I've got Atlantic Tech 2200s all around (just added two for 7.1) and just upgraded to the Denon AVR-X4000. I have two 2x18" bipolar manifold IB subs. I like the sound to stay consistent all the way around the room. Though, even with identical speakers (well, the center isn't identical but there's almost zero tonal shift between it and the L/R speakers), it's amazing how different the surround speakers sound based on their locations (they're set on the walls). Ideally I'd have identical monitors on stands all equidistant around me and a pair for EACH side channel, one speaker on each side is far too easy to localize.

dnoonie's picture

I do have two frequency selectable filters now...humm...thanks for the suggestion!

I use EQ's on a weekly basis to tame room problems but they only do so much to improve bad sound. I've always considered fixing the source of the problem to be the first priority if I can.

Since it's my home I can do more with treatment than I can at work if it's easy and obvious enough. After that I'll look into possibly adding an EQ for filtering. If I end up with just a few bad frequencies I could find some nice little processor to fix them rather than a 1/3 octave. We'll see. Test mic first, already have TrueRTA.

prerich45's picture

I own Klipsch Cornwalls for L/R, Heresy for the center, and Bi-poles for the sides and rears, and 2 15 inch sub-woofers. They are all powered by a separate amps but my prepro happens to be my HTPC and it's also my only source. Everything goes through the HTPC. JRiver handles all of my PEQ, Rooom Correction and Bass Management. What's my tribe ;) ?

Mark Fleischmann's picture
Your speaker config is sorta kinda an amalgam of the first two tribes as I described them above, but you have characteristics that point to a new tribe, especially the use of an HTPC. My discussion of basic speaker configs left out a lot of variations and readers are constantly surprising me with possibilities I never would have thought of in the first place. Clearly the surround community is very diverse, even more so that I'd have suspected. It's been said that 78 languages are spoken in NYC; I have a feeling there are at least that many surround tribes.
krell789's picture

I started with a intergrated amp Dolby pro logic decoder tower speakers. It was a mid fi system at the time, back in the mid 80's. my system has evolved since then. In 2005 I had a custom installer put a dedicated theater room in for me. I'm at the high end of the mid-fi and low end of the high performance audio video equipment now. It's a 7.1 system it's a complete ensemble of electrostatic speakers, I'm more in the 2nd tribe, theirs just two things that are different. I have 2 subs and I have a Sony QUALIA 006 rptv.