The Custom Installer: How's It Sound?

With all the press that monster flat-panel TVs and high-def discs have been getting, it's possible to forget that video is only half the experience. (After all, this magazine isn't called Sight & Vision.) Without great sound to back it up, your home theater is just a bunch of fancy images. You might as well be watching a movie on an airplane without shelling out the $5 for headphones! Whether you've had a system for years or are thinking about installing your first, and whether your budget is $1,000 or $100,000, following these steps will get your system performing its best.

Choose the Right Location As with real estate, the best listening rooms start with location, location, location! If possible, select a room that can be sealed off from the rest of the house, preferably by closing a single door. This will not only help keep loud soundtracks from bothering people in the other rooms, it will keep them from bothering you. Because of resonant room modes, rectangular rooms sound better than square ones. And rectangular rooms provide a better layout for seven-channel audio systems, delivering better separation between the side and back surround channels. If possible, avoid placing the TV in a corner. If you think that's your only option, think harder. Put the system in your bedroom or garage, or get to know your neighbors and put it in their house. Without exception, building an audio system around a TV in the corner compromises everything, making it virtually impossible to have any channel separation between the front channels, and the surround speakers almost always end up being placed ahead of some listening positions.

Place the Speakers Before you can position your speakers correctly, you need to know where you'll be sitting (which, in a home theater, is usually dictated by the size of your video display). The front left and right speakers should form an equilateral triangle with your seating position, ensuring good stereo separation and proper imaging. The center speaker should be immediately above or below the screen - or directly behind it if you're using a front-projection system with an acoustically transparent screen. For sounds to pan seamlessly across the front, the left, center, and right tweeters should all be at the same height if practical, preferably ear level. If you're using ceiling speakers for any of the front channels, make sure they're designed for that purpose. If they're not, they'll fire straight down instead of directing sound to the listening position. (Appropriate models are available from Definitive Technology, Sonance, Niles, SpeakerCraft, and Triad, among others.) For a speaker to provide surround effects - generally sounds that originate beside or behind the listener - surround speakers can not be located ahead of listening area.

Place the subwoofer A single subwoofer usually sounds best when placed in a corner, because that position "excites" all of the room modes maximally. But if the bass sounds bloated and boomy there instead of deep and tight, try relocating the sub (or your listening position). If placement doesn't improve your lackluster bass, consider getting a better sub or adding more subs. Beyond giving you more output, multiple subs (when placed correctly) smooth out the bass frequencies in the room. (See Why You Need Four Subwoofers and Setting Up Dual Subwoofers.)