Home Theater: Surround Sound Basics

3d1Today’s blog post continues our look at home theater, following yesterday’s Home Theater Basics. Below you’ll find an excerpt from my new book, Home Theater for the Internet Age, regarding surround sound. Most people understand that surround sound involves a speaker arrangement in your living room or dedicated home theater that “surrounds” you (duh).

This is a pretty radical departure from the common arrangement to which most of us (unless you’re a millennial) are acclimated: Sound that emanates from in front of us—typically from the display device, the TV, itself. The old method of projecting sound from the display was rife with deficiencies. First, the speakers built into even the best, most expensive, TVs suck. Period. There’s no physical room in a relatively thin panel for real speakers.

Modern home theater has introduced a more complex audio arrangement in which dedicated, much higher quality, speakers are positioned to the sides or even behind viewers. Because the sound is being projected from locations other than the display panel and is generated by real speakers, surround sound is the cornerstone of true home theater. However, because there’s so many types of surround sound arrangements, the topic can quickly become confusing for non-enthusiasts or those new to home entertainment.

Today we’ll address surround sound configurations. These are the physical layouts of speakers and the logical dispersion of audio channels from TV shows and movies. What’s 5.1? What do the “5” and the “1” mean? Why does your buddy at the office lust for 9.1? Read on to eliminate your confusion.

Also check out Home Theater: More Surround Sound and Home Theater: Surround Sound Formats.

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Curt Robbins


Surround Sound Configurations

As you’ve learned, there are several different physical configuration standards for surround sound, ranging from five to twelve speakers (and sometimes more). Arrangement shorthand is indicated by a decimal number, such as 5.1. This indicates five surround speakers and a single subwoofer. The number of subwoofers is always indicated to the right of the decimal (5.x). A 5.1 AV receiver is capable of outputting to a maximum of five speakers and a single subwoofer. A high-end 9.2 receiver, on the other hand, is capable of driving nine speakers and two subwoofers. If a friend says she has a 6.1 system, you know she has seven speakers total and that one of them is a sub. While uncommon, it’s possible that someone might have, for example, a 5.3 system, in which they have a basic surround complement and three subs (yes, some videophiles install multiple subwoofers).

You’ve already learned the basic role of a subwoofer, or “sub.” In surround sound, the sub carries the LFE, or Low Frequency Effects, channel. Most movies and some TV programming feature an LFE channel (identified as such on your AV receiver). Capable of emitting ultra-low frequencies below 80 Hz, subwoofers are as much about what you feel as what you hear. This low frequency speaker plays in the zone where sound goes from audible to tactile. If a movie indicates that it features “x.1 audio,” it means there’s a dedicated LFE channel (regardless of whether you have a subwoofer to bring this channel to wall-shaking life).

Typically, surround configurations range from 2.0 to 11.2. The most common config is 5.1 (although 2.1, while not providing any surround effect, is also very common). Try not to get surround envy. 9.1 and 11.1 systems are very rare and, arguably, complete overkill for the average consumer. Also, relatively few films and basically no TV shows are encoded in a standard above 7.1 (although this is rapidly changing). Thus, even if you had a fancy 9.1 system, a small percentage of the content you consumed would support it, making it a very expensive upgrade. (I have a 5.1 system and rarely lust for the two additional rear speakers of a 7.1 configuration. If I was going to upgrade, based on the size and layout of my living room, I’d probably never go beyond a 6.1 layout.)

It should be noted that all of these surround configurations are backward compatible, meaning that a 7.1 or 9.1 soundtrack will play just fine on a 5.1 system (or even a 2.0 system) or via headphones. That’s part of the magic of Dolby and DTS and modern home theater receivers.

2.1 & 5.1

Because this book defines home theater as having a minimum of five speakers, a 2.1 setup involving three speakers (two mains and a sub, with no rears) isn’t covered in detail. This type of configuration includes soundbars (see the Soundbars & Theater-in-a-Box section of the Speakers chapter for more info). While this setup doesn’t provide “surround” sound, it can—with even basic equipment—greatly enhance your time with music, TV, movies, and games. It will perform remarkably better than your TV speakers (those built into even high-end display panels are basically an afterthought, producing really crappy sound).

5.1 systems involve two mains (typically floor standing models, but sometimes bookshelf units), a center channel, two rear surrounds (called the left side surround and right side surround), and a subwoofer. Sometimes consumers opt to skip the subwoofer to save money (or because they underestimate the effect it will have during Blu-ray movies). Most videophiles consider 5.1 the entry-level setup for true home theater. If your AV receiver supports 7.1 speaker outputs, a 5.1 system gives you room to grow; simply purchase two additional speakers and you’re in business. While your front three speakers should always be from the same series to ensure timbre-matching, it’s less important for your rear and side surrounds to be from the same line (but still preferable for a variety of reasons).

6.1 & 7.1

Moving up the ladder, more complex surround configurations are 6.1 and 7.1. These involve one or two additional rear speakers, positioned directly behind the viewers, called the left back surround and right back surround—not to be confused with the left side surround and right side surround positions in a 5.1 or larger system. Should you go the extra mile and install one or two extra speakers between your existing surround positions? If you’re a big movie buff and your room is large enough to justify it, maybe. You won’t have trouble finding movies to fill this many speakers; most films today deliver a minimum of 7.1 surround audio channels (even some high-res music albums feature a 6.1 surround mix).

Remember that your AV receiver must support the number of speakers to which you want to expand. If you have a receiver capable of only 5.1, you’ll not only have to purchase one or two additional back surround speakers, but also a new receiver (as you’ve learned, this isn’t cheap, especially if the unit produces clean, robust amplification).

9.1 & 11.1

The average home theater owner probably shouldn’t pursue a 9.1 or larger surround sound configuration. However, it’s important to know one’s options. For very large rooms—or hyper-hobbyists who are pursuing the most realistically surrounding audio environment possible—one of the layouts involving more speakers than a 7.1 system might be appropriate. Of course, it will cost you. You’ll either have to increase your speaker budget or downgrade the quality of your candidates. Those additional speakers—especially if they match your other models—don’t come cheap.

A 9.1 system adds front height channels to the mix (the left height and right height positions), giving—as the name indicates—a taller and seemingly wider front soundstage than a 5.1 or 7.1 system can deliver. 9.1 is the first standard to address the expansion of the front soundstage (whereas 7.1 adds audio imaging to the rear area). Not only would you need to purchase additional speakers to satisfy the needs of a 9.1 system, but you’ll probably need to upgrade your AV receiver to handle the additional amps and terminals. And it hardly makes sense to upgrade without pursuing a few more watts or maybe going Class D. Cha ching.

An 11.1 system goes even further by adding left wide and right wide speakers, positioned at roughly 60 degrees from a forward-facing viewing position (to the left and right of the front height speakers, but closer to the central seating position). This setup results in seven front and four rear speakers. While relatively few movies have been released in 11.1, some of these leading edge films include Rise of the Guardians, Man of Steel, The Croods, Elysium, Turbo, Ender’s Game, Mr. Peabody & Sherman, and How to Train Your Dragon 2.


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

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Take My Remote, Please

3d1Today’s blog post is an excerpt from my new ebook Home Theater for the Internet Age. I used an amazingly sophisticated logic to select this chapter: It’s the shortest in the book.

Remote controls have always confounded consumers. Personally, I can’t wait to have wi-fi-connected remotes floating around my house. Hopefully the next generation of Apple TV, the particular streaming media box I have in my home theaters, will take a hint from Roku and jump on the wi-fi remote bandwagon. Cause IR sucks; it’s so 20th century. Even better: Just let me control everything in my home with my smartphone and tablet.

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Curt Robbins


From Chapter 13: Remote Control

Remote Control

Consumers have always misunderstood and hated remote controls for their home electronics. As a culture, we seem to exhibit a collective disdain for these small communications devices, cursing them because their batteries are dead, the blast doesn’t reach the receiving device, they lack backlighting (of course I watch my movies in the dark, you corporate dolts), or they’re just too difficult to configure and operate. Ask any consumer: Remotes, as bundled with components, are a necessary evil that suck. So what can be done to alleviate our collective misery?

There have been some major improvements in this space during the past few years. First, programmable and universal remotes (those that can control multiple components in your home theater) have become more powerful and user friendly. Second, slick dedicated remotes for products like Apple TV and Roku streaming boxes have illustrated that the application of minimalistic, intuitive industrial design and powerful, leading-edge technology can make remotes something that you actually enjoy using. Third, special apps that you install on your mobile devices have become available that allow you to use your handy smartphone or tablet to control hardware components and media streaming services.

IR vs. Wi-fi

Most remote controls communicate with their devices using an infrared (IR) beam of light. But IR requires a direct line-of-sight, making the use of devices that incorporate it a pain. This is especially so in room environments where you’re trying to control home theater components that reside behind you or are obstructed by a cabinet or closet door. Newer remotes are beginning to drop IR in favor of a radio frequency like wi-fi, which is finally common enough in homes to serve this role. Likewise, remotes are also adopting Bluetooth, although this reduces their effective range to 15-30 feet (fine for most environments, but obviously not larger rooms). With wi-fi, the only limitation is that the controlling device is on the same wi-fi network, not that it’s within a particular radius or eye shot.

roku 3The Roku 3 streaming video box proves the advantages of wi-fi over old school IR. While most remotes are relatively cheap items bundled with home theater components, small improvements like the adoption of wi-fi connectivity have a real impact on increasing convenience for consumers. In a few years, the bones of IR blasting remote controls will reside in the dinosaur graveyard, with manufacturers leveraging ubiquitous wi-fi and Bluetooth technologies to avoid line-of-sight requirements and offer other enhancements.

Of course, the topic of component-supplied remote controls is made moot when consumers use existing wi-fi-based mobile devices to control their home theater components. Chromecast, an ever-growing collection of Miracast-enabled devices, and Apple’s AirPlay give you full functionality from the device that’s already in your hand or on your coffee table: Your smartphone or tablet.

Mobile Devices

As echoed throughout this book, one of the best features of modern home theater is that you can leverage your existing mobile devices to control your components and the entertainment that flows through them. Not taking advantage of this capability relegates you to the torture of bundled remotes with their confusing interfaces, crappy IR, and lack of ergonomics. Another option is a universal remote, but we’ll get to that later.

Streaming Media Devices

apple tv for blogStreaming media devices like Chromecast, Roku, and Apple TV are designed to work hand-in-hand with your mobile devices, allowing you to utilize apps that support them. For video, this includes apps for services like Crackle, Google Play Movies and TV, Hulu Plus, Netflix, Vudu, and YouTube. For music services, this covers the apps from Pandora, Google Play Music, iTunes and iTunes Radio, Rdio, Rhapsody, and Songza. Services with new or updated apps that support one of these media devices are announced nearly every week.

Another role for your mobile device as a remote control is with Apple AirPlay, whether it’s bundled into your receiver or comes to your home theater via Apple TV. However, AirPlay works only with apps that support it. Plus, some older Apple gadgets aren’t fully supported.

AV Receiver Control Apps

Several companies that produce home theater components offer free remote control apps for both Android and iOS mobile platforms. Use of these apps gives your mobile devices a whole new life as an integral part of your home theater. Such companies include Anthem, Denon, Marantz, Onkyo, Pioneer (and Pioneer Elite), Sony, and Yamaha. Using your existing smartphone or tablet to control your home theater components gives you a superior interface, an easy-to-read backlit touch screen, and more ready access. The only caveat is that most home theater components with support for such apps require some form of network connectivity—such as wi-fi, Ethernet (see my blog post The Case for Home Theater Ethernet), or bluetooth.

[See also Home Theater Basics.]


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Kevlar Woofers & Affordable Home Theater

3d1When I had to choose the backdrop photo for this blog, I instinctively opened the folder on my network storage device that contained my most recent photos. I had one I especially liked that I perceived to express the tone and flavor of this blog: The yellow Kevlar woofer from one of the B&W surround speakers in my living room.

I realized how small the world can be sometimes. The device on which I had archived and from which I was accessing this photo was one of the central topics of my latest ebook, Understanding Personal Data Security. But the content of the photo itself, the funky Kevlar woofer, was one of the many topics covered in two of my new books, Understanding Home Theater and Home Theater for the Internet Age. In all honesty, the purpose of this blog is to share ideas covered in this new series of books—available exclusively on Amazon Kindle. Basically, this blog is a supplement (think of it as the free dessert that comes with your ebook meal). Which makes it ironic if you’re reading it standalone, but I’m glad it can work that way in this funky web 2.0 intellectual property economy.

About this time you might be asking “What’s so cool about yellow Kevlar woofer cones?” Well, first, they represent passion, commitment, and technical excellence. I know, that sounds dorky, but hear me out. They really do. Especially if we use objective metrics like money or time to measure the importance of a topic like home theater, which the yellow woofer obviously represents. Speakers featuring kevlar woofer cones, from companies like B&W and Noble Fidelity, are typically a tad better than your average variety.

If you’re a hobbyist, you put real money and plenty of time into your hobby. For my wife, it’s the springtime bonanza of gardening and flower landscaping that consumes a decent amount of money and tons of her time. For a buddy of mine in Colorado, it’s an expensive carbon fiber racing bicycle and race entry fees. For yet another friend in Texas, it’s cruising around the Gulf of Mexico in his 30-foot sailboat. In other words, most middle class consumers have one or more hobbies and, by definition, drop a considerable amount of disposable income into them.

Kevlar woofer in a B&W 705 speaker.

Kevlar woofer in a B&W 705 speaker

Another function of this blog is to lend transparency to my books. If you’re a real tech geek or connected consumer and want to dig deeper, this blog is the free value-add for my books. Because my entire book catalog must be updated bi-annually (based on the dynamic pace of the technical topics covered), this blog gives you an opportunity to provide feedback and maybe even influence the content of future editions.

Now, back to home theater.

One of the things that prompted me to publish Home Theater for the Internet Age and the subset, Understanding Home Theater, was the fact that consumers of all income levels can now enjoy quality big-ass display panels and real surround sound involving five or six speakers. Yes, there’s certainly a difference between a $2,500 home theater system and one costing ten times as much. But what can be purchased for between $2,000 and $15,000 is truly mind blowing. The convergence of computer, wireless networking, and home entertainment technologies—combined with the proliferation of media streaming services like Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Pandora—has resulted in price points and functionality that even the most optimistic home theater fan could not have imagined a decade ago.

In addition, the production quality of even mediocre television content and basically all films involves widescreen high-definition video and surround sound comprised of at least six separate audio channels, including a dedicated subwoofer feed that you can feel as much as hear. This, plus the affordability of popular media streaming services like iTunes, Google Play, and Rhapsody has resulted in a very consumer-friendly home theater market. This consumer-friendliness is in terms of both the raw capabilities of the receivers, Blu-ray players, and streaming media boxes that consumers are installing in their living rooms and also how bloody affordable even mid-grade examples of these product categories have become. Go entry-level and you’ll really blow your mind in terms of what you can get for your money in 2014.

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Curt Robbins

[See also Home Theater Basics, Home Theater: Surround Sound Basics, and Take My Remote, Please.]


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Chromecast for Christmas

Like a few million other tech geeks and home theater aficionados, I was one of the first people to purchase a Chromecast streaming media dongle from Google back in August 2013. For those of you unfamiliar, Chromecast, which is about the size of a Rubenesque USB flash drive, plugs into your home theater audio/video receiver or TV and allows you to use your mobile devices and computers to send internet-based streaming media (like movies, music, and games) to your TV and surround sound speakers.chromecast

At $35, Chromecast is a steal. Best of all, especially for families like mine, this groovy media streamer is platform agnostic. Your iOS-based iPhones and iPads and your Android smartphones and tablets can take equal advantage. In other words, you don’t have to worry about compatibility with your existing mobile devices and computers.

Success at Home

Having only a few months prior installed two new home theaters in my house, Chromecast perfectly complimented a family where everyone has at least one (and typically two) personal mobile devices and there’s an average of one PC per human—but where everyone also loves to sit in front of a big display panel and enjoys surround sound through real speakers (not the crappy ones built into your TV; they’re a joke). Every family member, on nearly a daily basis, began streaming music from Pandora and Songza and video from Netflix, iTunes, and Hulu Plus (some of which we could already do using Apple’s wi-fi-based AirPlay). All from our iPod Touches, iPads, iPhones, and Nexus 7 tablets, as well as our three Windows 7 laptops and a slick little Mac Mini. If the zombie apocalypse results in a shortage of silicon, looters will surely stop at my house on their way to Silicon Valley.

Having gained so much value from such an inexpensive and fun device, Chromecast obviously was at the top of my gift giving list for the 2013 holidays. Because of its incredible ease of use, I didn’t have to worry about whether the recipient was a techie. If he or she could plug the device into an HDMI port and install apps on a smartphone, they were basically in business.

The One that Worked

I gifted two Chromecasts, one each to two different friends (one in Ohio, the other in Colorado). My friend in Ohio, a single guy with no kids, instantly fell in love with his new media streamer, using it on a 23-inch computer monitor in his dining room to watch stuff on Netflix.

Once when I visited for dinner and drinks, we watched a James Bond movie on Netflix with the volume cranked. I was amazed that a $130 computer monitor and a $35 HDMI dongle—combined with the Samsung Galaxy smartphone already in my friend’s pocket—were able to produce such stellar (and portable) results. I might never walk on the moon, but I have at least seen home entertainment and media distribution reach this point of ease and amazing affordability.

The One that Didn’t

My other friend in Colorado, a married dude with three teenage daughters, never mentioned his Chromecast. We’ve been drinking pals for twenty years, so this wasn’t interpreted as rude. But I was curious as to how he was enjoying it or if he was even using it. After all, different strokes for different folks, and many homes aren’t quite as digitally enhanced as mine and those of other tech journalists.

christmas story blindIt turns out that my buddy wasn’t using his Chromecast. In fact, he hadn’t even installed it. I politely said my feelings weren’t hurt, but I was curious as to why he wasn’t. Turns out he wasn’t entirely sure what it did. Ok, fair enough. I explained the benefits, including the screen mirroring function introduced in the summer of 2014.

It was at this point in the conversation that I realized where the train jumped the tracks. A misperception on my part had resulted in me giving a strikingly inappropriate gift. However, in my defense, when considering my friend’s present, I knew he had a killer surround sound home theater (I had enjoyed big budget CGI-laden films like Transformers on it) and was a subscriber to Netflix. He also had several mobile devices floating around his house, including his daughter’s Nexus 7 tablet and five smartphones. He was perfectly outfitted to enjoy Chromecast.

Or so I thought.

Turns out his subscription to Netflix was for the disc-by-mail service, not the considerably more popular streaming option. And the role of Pandora in his life for streaming music was limited to the thousands of miles he logs on the road, in his car, as a sales dude visiting customers.

After discussing the topic for about five minutes, I realized that his family’s use of and dependence upon streaming media was 180 degrees opposite that of my house. I had truly made a poor choice by gifting my buddy in Colorado a Chromecast. It is gathering dust in a box in his basement—and probably will forever.

Simply because his family doesn’t consume streaming media. Unlike my household, they aren’t cord cutters. They subscribe to cable TV.

This will teach me to assume that a subscription to Netflix is for streaming. Even more ironic, my Colorado friend once subscribed to both the streaming side of Netflix as well as the by-mail disc service. He found that his family rarely used the streaming service, so he intelligently cancelled it. I originally subscribed to both sides of Netflix as well, but did the opposite: I nixed the disc service because the four people in my home were using only streaming (and tons of it).

Lessons Learned

Sometimes we become so entrenched in a particular digital or media consumption lifestyle that it’s difficult to understand that someone else—with a nearly identical technical infrastructure and demographic—might practice something very different. My friend’s reliance on physical discs over a broadband-based media streaming service had nothing to do with a lack of gear.

He has fast broadband, mobile devices, a killer surround sound home theater, and his family has an appetite for movies and TV shows. Unlike many, he gave streaming media a chance, and for a long time paid for a service from which he and his family gained almost no benefit, based purely on their particular lifestyle. He certainly isn’t a laggard or a Luddite. Like the rest of us, he simply doesn’t want to waste his money on products or services that provide him with little or no value.

Let’s chalk this one up to lessons learned (a $35 lesson, to be exact). But if you’re thinking of gifting someone a streaming media device for the holidays (like an Apple TV, one of those cool Roku boxes, a Chromecast, or maybe the game-friendly Amazon Fire TV), first learn if the intended recipient is even a consumer of streaming media in the first place. Just being a gadget freak, owning an iPad, or enjoying technology doesn’t necessarily mean that your gift of streaming media will be the one that keeps on giving.

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Curt Robbins

[See also Streaming Media Stick Wars and Apple TV: Best Media Streamer?]


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.