Step by Step: How to Position Your Home Theater Speakers

Ideally, you want to place all of the speakers in a surround-sound system at the same distance from your listening position. Since that's impossible or impractical in many cases, especially with on-wall and in-wall models, home theater receivers provide adjustments that allow you to compensate for the varying distances. (The illustration shows a 7.1-channel speaker setup, with the left and right back surround speakers placed the same distance apart as the front L/R speakers.)

No matter how much you paid for your rig, you need to set it up correctly to get it sounding its best. With a surround-sound system, that means finding the right locations for your speakers. Optimal placement will lead to precise imaging, letting you trace the path of bullets as they fly around your room. (Since Dolby Laboratories literally wrote the book on surround sound, I've followed their guidelines closely in making my recommendations here.)

Step 1: Choose the "Sweet Seat" Your theater might have many good seats, but there will be only one best seat. The size of your video display will dictate how far you sit from the screen. (The rule of thumb for an HDTV set is to sit at a distance that's about twice the length of screen's diagonal. For a front-projection setup, the distance is about 1.5 times the screen diagonal.) In a perfect world, you would draw a circle around this prime location and place all the speakers on the circle, with each channel the same distance from you. Of course, this would likely mean having speakers sitting well out into the room, and unless your wife is the coolest chick around, that probably won't fly. In that case, make the necessary compromises and rely on your receiver's delay and channel-level adjustments to compensate for the varying distances.

Step 2: Position the Front Left/Right Speakers For the best imaging, your seating position and the front left and right speakers should form the points of an equilateral triangle. For instance, if you're sitting 12 feet from either speaker, the speakers should also be 12 feet apart. This placement will create a 60° angle between you and the front L/R positions. Also, you should place these speakers so that their tweeters are at ear level when you're sitting.