The Setup: Speakers Page 5

Final Setup Just finish three more vital steps, and you'll be ready to enjoy first-rate sound at home. In a multichannel home theater or music setup, you have to configure the receiver to match your speaker setup, time align all the speakers in the system, and balance their levels. All of this is done using your receiver's speaker-setup (or bass management) menu.

The menu will ask you to select either "small" or "large" for each of the five main speakers (usually by pairs for the L/R front and surround speakers). These settings refer to the speakers' bass-handling ability - "small" for satellites with limited output below 80 Hz and "large" for full-range speakers with true output below 80 Hz (generally large tower speakers).

Use a sound-level meter to calibrate the volume of your speakers. Don't do this by ear. Stand behind the listening position and hold the meter at the same height as the listener's head, with the microphone pointing up so that the sound from all the speakers in the setup moves over it.

With the "small" setting, all bass is directed to the subwoofer, freeing the main speaker from the demands of reproducing low-frequency effects as well as deep-bass musical notes. With virtually all 5.1-channel home theater setups - and all THX-certified speaker systems - you'll get the best sound by selecting "small" for all five main speakers and "on" for the subwoofer. When in doubt, use the "small" setting.

(Listening to DVD-Audio multichannel music, however, is a different matter. As David Ranada showed in "Confirmed: DVD-Audio's 'Base-Less' Rumor," every DVD-Audio player so far - and almost every receiver capable of accepting the six-channel input from a DVD-Audio player - lacks the bass-management capabilities to play DVD-Audio discs properly on a subwoofer/satellite system. Until hardware manufacturers address this issue, you'll need five full-range speakers if you want to hear exactly what's on a DVD-Audio disc.)

For accurate soundstage reproduction and image placement, it's essential that you time align the speakers so that the sounds from all of them arrive at your ears at the same time. Enter the distance of each speaker from your listening position, and the receiver will automatically set the correct time delay.

Balancing speaker levels is also easy. As your receiver sends test tones to each speaker, use a sound-level meter to measure the volume. (A few receivers come with measuring devices, but you can buy a meter at RadioShack if yours doesn't have one.) Stand behind the listening position and hold the meter at the position of the listener's head, with the microphone pointed toward the ceiling so that the sound from the speakers passes over it. Adjust the level settings for each speaker, using the receiver's remote control, until they're all at the same volume with the test tones. Note: You can not do this accurately by ear.

Well, if you've carefully followed all of the steps above, you may now prepare to be amazed - even astonished - at how much more realistic your home entertainment system sounds. Great sonic performance is in the details, and a great speaker setup will take your system to a level of sonic quality you might not have thought possible. Happy listening! S&V


CDs Tracy Chapman Tracy Chapman While not perfect - Chapman's vocals are a little too bright and the bass too prominent - this recording is excellent for quickly and reliably determining differences in speaker setups. Eric Clapton Unplugged A superb, clear, detailed, wideband recording featuring many acoustic instruments and hits like "Tears in Heaven" and "Layla." Art Davis A Time Remembered An exceptionally natural, direct-to-two-track purist audiophile recording that sounds as if the musicians (including Herbie Hancock) are in the room in front of you. Michael Hedges Oracle This CD of mostly acoustic guitar, accompanied by occasional bass, vocals, and percussion, has astonishing clarity, resolution, transient response, and dynamic range. Bireli Lagrene Blue Eyes Phenomenal presence, dynamics, and punch along with exceptional resolution. Oh, yeah - Lagrene is an unbelievable guitarist, and he's brilliantly recorded here. Mozart Piano Concertos Nos. 21 and 24 Eugene Istomin/Seattle Symphony, Gerard Schwarz Heavenly music, sumptuously recorded. If this CD doesn't sound lush, sweet, seductive, and spatially expansive, your speakers just aren't set up right - or you have a big problem with the rest of your system. George Strait Chill of an Early Fall Solid country music from one of the genre's most solid performers, with tracks like "If I Know Me" and "Chill of an Early Fall" that feature Strait's warm, complex voice and richly detailed instrumentation.

DVDs These music DVDs are better suited for checking out your surround sound system than almost any movie soundtrack. - David Ranada

WILL SMITH The Will Smith Music Video Collection This'll give a workout to your surround speakers as well as test the system's overall bass response. The mix comes to life with direct-radiating surround speakers placed at ear level. James Taylor Live at the Beacon Theater Various Artists VH1 Divas Live/99 Front-stage vocals such as on these DVDs are more telling than movie dialogue when it comes to the tonal quality and placement of a center-channel speaker. Vienna Philharmonic New Year's Concert 2000 This program of waltzes and polkas sounds extraordinarily realistic when speaker levels are correctly balanced, especially with dipole surrounds placed above ear level.

(Originally published in: Sound & Vision, May 2001)