With large screen flat-panel TVs dropping in price every year it’s becoming easier and easier to enjoy a cinema-like experience at home. The advantages of in-home cinema are obvious – crystal clear high definition images, no annoying chatter or coughing from the row behind you and no need to pay cinema prices which, unlike flat panel TVs, seem to increase every year.

But turning your lounge into a home theatre requires more than just a big television. A large part of the enjoyment of movies depends on the sound that accompanies the picture. The rumbling of a spaceship, the roar of the car chase, the clatter of a train – getting these sounds right and capturing their sense of movement is what makes us believe we are really there.

The only way to replicate the aural realism of the cinema at home is to link your TV and DVD player to a surround sound system.

What is Surround Sound?

During production, the sound elements of a movie are recorded on different channels. These channels are encoded on a DVD, along with the image, and on play back, if you have a surround sound system, are sent to particular speakers to create the typically immersive cinema sound experience.

Generally, for full surround sound, a surround sound system will have five speakers plus a subwoofer. The five speakers are designated as: front left, front right, centre, rear left, rear right and are placed in their respective positions to produce sound that matches the movie picture. For instance, when a motorbike crosses the screen from left to right its sound will be heard first from the front left speaker, then the front right and then, as it disappears into the distance, from the rear speakers.

The centre speaker is usually used for dialogue, and the subwoofer for deep, rumbling bass sounds.


Surround sound systems (often also known as home theatre systems) are defined by a numbering system that refers to the number of speakers in the particular sound system.

A 5.1 system will have five speakers (as described above) plus one subwoofer, a 7.1 system will have seven speakers plus one subwoofer etc.

The most common surround sound system on the market today is the 5.1 system and it is for this system that the sound of most movies is designed.

7.1 systems are making their way on to the market. They contain two extra rear speakers, but as few movies are yet mixed for 7.1 sound, playing a 5.1 DVD through a 7.1 home theatre system provides little advantage. The extra speakers will simply pump out more of the same background channel.


A surround sound system is made up of speakers, connecting wires and a receiver. A receiver is the heart of  the system and is what decodes the sound signal received from the DVD and sends it out to the appropriate speakers. Many surround sound receivers today incorporate a DVD/CD player.

Packaged System or Individual Components

When buying a surround sound system you have the choice of buying a packaged system (an all-in-one package that includes all components of the system) or buying the components individually.

The most prevalent surround sound systems today are packaged systems. The advantages of these are that they require less technical knowledge on the part of the consumer and that all components are guaranteed to be compatible with each other.

Building a surround sound system component by component is generally the province of the more experienced audiophile.


Whether you intend to buy a packaged system or compile your own, you need to think about a few things:

Room size. The bigger the room, the more powerful your receiver will need to be. An output of 50 watts RMS per channel may be all right for a smaller room, but outputs of 100 to 150 watts per channel will be needed for medium to large rooms. If you’re making up your own system, ensure that the speakers you buy can handle the maximum output of your receiver.

Speaker placement. Surround sound speakers have their defined positions, but exactly where in your room will you place them? Speakers come in different sizes, do you have enough room? Remember, too, that every speaker will be attached by a wire to the receiver – is that going to be a problem in a heavily trafficked room?

It is possible to position smaller speakers on shelves and bookcases etc., but this may not be either convenient or produce the best sound. Speaker stands might be a better option.

Uses. Even cheaper home theatre systems will produce a good listening experience when used for movies, but if you also intend to listen to a lot of music through your system you might want to consider a higher-end model. As a rule of thumb, the more expensive the system, the better its music handling capability will be.

Compatibility. It’s no use buying a great surround system if you can’t connect it to your DVD player or TV. Check that it has the right connections for your existing equipment.

A Competitive Market

The surround sound and home theatre market is a competitive one. There is a bewildering array of models out there and choosing between them will be difficult without at least some basic knowledge. Before you spend your money, do a little research online and make a preparatory visit to a few electronics shops to ask questions of the staff there.

The effort you put into research will pay off in the long run and ensure you end up with a surround sound system that transports your senses to all those other worlds the movie makers build for us.

Learn more about buying and setting up a home theatre system with this video.

How to Choose a Surround Sound System, 4.0 out of 5 based on 1 rating

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