How to Understand Surround Sound Systems for Beginners

Surround sound is a technique used to provide the listener with an immersive audio experience. For a long time, surround sound was only available in theaters. Fortunately, thanks to new technologies and modern advances in design and manufacturing, many surround sound systems are now affordable enough for people to have in the comfort of their own homes.

If you’re interested in installing surround sound in your home and planning to buy a system or curate the pieces yourself, you first need to understand how it works.

How does surround sound work?

Surround sound systems immerse listeners in a sense of realism. When you experience surround sound, you feel like you’re part of the movie. For surround sound to work, you need three things: media with audio mixed for surround sound, a suitable audio visual (AV) receiver, and a selection of speakers properly placed around your seating area.

To fully understand how a surround sound system works, let’s first talk about standard surround sound formats, then move on to various elements needed for surround sound before concluding with standard speaker placement .

Common surround sound speaker configuration

You may have heard of different surround sound terms like “5.1”, “7.1” or even “9.1.2”. You can confuse it with a version number, but it’s just a naming convention to know how many speakers you have in a room at different heights.

A surround sound format would have three numbers separated by a period like this XXX

ear level Subwoofers overhead
number of speakers x x x

The first number is the number of speakers at ear level, the second is the number of subwoofers, and the third is the number of speakers above ear level.

ear level Subwoofers overhead
number of speakers 5 1 0

A 5.1.0 configuration would mean five in-ear speakers, a subwoofer, and zero over-ear speakers. If the configuration does not use an over-ear speaker (the third variable), simply identify the system as surround sound 5.1 (without the zero).

Now that you understand the conventions for naming the various surround sound configurations. Let’s talk about the most common configurations and why they are popular.

Surround Sound 5.1

Surround sound 5.1 is the most popular speaker configuration for surround sound. Many homes use this surround sound configuration because it requires the fewest speakers and can still provide a true surround sound experience.

This setup uses five speakers and a subwoofer. To achieve this configuration, two satellite speakers are placed on the front left and front right of the viewer, two main speakers on the back left and back right, a center speaker in the middle directly in front of the listener, and a subwoofer somewhere near the setup.

Surround Sound 7.1

Surround Sound 7.1 is a balanced step up from Surround Sound 5.1. With just two more speakers, this system creates an even more compelling surround sound experience. The configuration of this system is exactly the same as 5.1, but with two additional satellite speakers placed on the viewer’s sides.

Surround Sound 9.2.2

With Surround Sound 9.2.2, the setup now uses nine ear speakers, two subwoofers, and two overhead or ceiling speakers. This surround sound system is ideal for larger areas where you can’t place ear speakers in the middle of the room. In addition, the additional subwoofer and ceiling speakers ensure an even surround sound experience throughout the room.

What speakers and hardware are used in surround sound systems?

Now that you know the most common surround sound configurations, let’s talk about the elements you need for your surround sound system. Although you can use almost any full-range speaker on the market, the best setups split different audio signals between specialized speakers.

Keep in mind that it doesn’t have to be a home theater setup (although it is the most common). You can also build a system just to play music.

1. Center channel speaker

As the name suggests, a center channel speaker is a speaker that is placed in the front center of a surround sound system. A good center speaker covers the entire audio spectrum perceivable by the human ear. To cover such a spectrum, these speakers often use three types of speaker drivers: tweeter, midrange, and woofer. If you can only afford a small setup, a center channel speaker with a single full-range driver should do the trick.

2. Main left and right speakers

The left and right main speakers are placed next to the center speaker. The main left and right speakers can be a variety of speakers, such as B. a bookshelf speaker and a floorstanding speaker. Just like the center channel speaker, these speakers use two or three types of speaker drivers (tweeter, midrange, woofer) to cover a wide range of the human audible sound spectrum.

3. Satellite Speakers/Surround Speakers

Satellite or surround speakers are placed to the side and behind the listening/viewing area. They cover mid to high audio frequencies with tweeters and midrange drivers. They are often floorstanding speakers but can also be wall mounted as long as they are placed to the side or behind the listening/viewing area.

4. Subwoofer

A subwoofer is a type of speaker that covers the low and very low frequencies of sound. Because of the low sound frequencies they cover, people within range of a subwoofer will feel that boomy effect you usually get in the cinema. Subwoofers are often the largest speakers in the system. The larger the subwoofer, the more air it can move and the clearer its effect in the room.

5. Ceiling Speakers/Overhead Speakers

Ceiling speakers are any speakers placed above head height. They cover the same audio frequencies as surround speakers, only in an overhead placement. These speakers are important for achieving object-based surround sound, such as that used in Dolby Atmos. Aside from providing object-based surround capabilities, they also balance audio in a large room, as they can be placed near the center of the room when floor-standing speakers are too intrusive.

6. AV Receiver

With the number of speakers you need for a surround sound system, you’ll need an AV receiver to tie it all together. The AV receiver is an electronic device that acts as the brain of your home entertainment system. It offers all the connections you need to connect all your speakers, TV/projectors and other devices such as a DVD player. Modern AV receivers now support various surround sound formats such as Dolby Atmos and DTS – more on that in a moment.

The key to a great surround sound experience is proper speaker placement. Ear level speakers such as center channel, left and right main speakers, ceiling and satellite speakers need to be placed in the correct areas with the drivers pointed directly at the listener/viewer. On the other hand, subwoofers can be placed anywhere in the room, since low frequencies are difficult to distort and easy to hear wherever their audio waves propagate.

With the right speakers and the right surround sound configurations, you’re almost ready to enjoy an amazing surround sound experience. The final ingredient for a true surround sound experience is finding the right type of media that your system supports.

Dolby Atmos

Dolby Atmos is currently the most popular surround sound format used in home theaters. Additionally, you can find many movies and media mixed for Dolby Atmos on various subscription-based entertainment services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Disney Plus.

Dolby Atmos supports up to 24 floor speakers and up to ten overhead speakers. This means it can support just about any object-based surround sound configuration you can have in a home. In addition, Dolby Atmos enables the delivery of object-based surround sound through overhead speakers, which makes the listening or viewing experience even more realistic.

The problem with Dolby Atmos is that you need overhead speakers. That’s not too bad, as you can simply add an overhead speaker to your current 5.1 or 7.1 setups and experience object-based surround sound.

Dolby Digital

Don’t have time to upgrade your current surround sound system? You can still use Dolby Digital! This format supports all popular legacy configurations like 5.1 and 7.1.


Just like Dolby Atmos, DTS offers object-based surround sound. It can support up to 32 speaker positions and up to an 11.2 surround sound configuration. The problem with DTS is that there are currently no streaming services that support DTS. The only practical way to enjoy DTS is via Blu-ray and DVD. The advantage of DTS is that it supports older configurations like 5.1 and 7.1.

Now you can build your surround sound system

That’s pretty much all the basic things you need to understand when building your surround sound system. Remember that you need the right speakers, a standard surround sound configuration, an AV that supports the surround sound format you want, and media (movie, music, video, games) that supports the specific format are mixed.

If you find building a surround sound system intimidating, there are pre-built systems from reputable brands like Logitech and JBL that you can try. These systems come complete with speakers, AV receivers, and even stands, brackets, and instructions to help you set up your system.

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