Jan 8, 2022 Edit: I realized I never included my subs to the description. I recently updated the setup to a 7.2.4 (second sub) and the difference is astounding.
There’s a whole world out there for home theaters beyond video. After building out my basement theater, I realized I may have overlooked something as obvious as sound. Going down the rabbit hole of the latest video technology (4K HDR, Vision, HDMI compatibility, etc) left me totally blinded to getting sound right. My result was supplementing a 225 sq/ft space and 140″ screen with a Dolby Atmos Soundbar (Samsung N950). Fast forward two years and I am again circling back to tie up this loose end.
4K High Definition Video is a simple concept to understand since you can actually see the results – whereas Audio is something you just need to have faith in until the very end.
While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with soundbars in general – I do recommend investing the time to at least explore the idea of a more immersive setup, especially if you watch a lot of movies. If you are in the market to build a new home system, big or small, here are some of the tips that I learned along the way.
Determine the Setup (
If you head into any big box store, you’ll undoubtedly come across common bundles of preset configurations – 5.1, 7.1, 9.1, etc… What does this all mean? It’s actually quite simple.
- The first number represents the quantity of your traditional speaker configuration – think Center, Left and Right Front, and Left and Right Rears for a total of 5. The glorious number 7 is achieved by adding additional surrounds on to the left and right sides of the seating area.
- The .1 or .2 that follows represents your subwoofer configuration. Most homes will have a .1, but I definitely know there’s a market of audiophiles out there who can’t stand the sound imbalance of having one subwoofer without anything on the other side to balance. Hence the .2 setup would represent a floor configuration with 2 subs. Edit: While I started out with a .1 setup, I received an amazing deal on a second matching sub that I simply couldn’t pass up. That and I had already preran wires for a second sub, this was an absolute no brainer.
- So what is the third number? This is where Atmos comes into play. In short, Dolby created a third number to represent your overhead speaker configuration. It is most commonly produced through in-ceiling speakers, however the sound can be replicated through modern floor level speakers firing sound upwards to bounce off the ceilings. Atmos really completes the sound field as you can replicate the overhead dynamics of airplanes, missiles, birds (lol) as they fly by. How cool is that?
So knowing this, what experience are you looking for?
In my particular situation, I decided to run cables for a 7.2.4 setup even though I’ll only be starting with a 7.1.4 (subwoofers are expensive!)
Planning the Layout
Rather than just mounting speakers around you, there’s actually quite a bit of study that goes into the placement. Dolby provides some great resources, but I warn you it can get quite complicated and deep with viewing angles and so forth. That being said, no room is perfect and modern day calibration tools really compensate for poor positioning. So don’t get too crazy.
From a high level, it goes without saying that the positioning of your speakers revolve around your desired seating point. In most scenarios, this is the center of your sofa in front of your viewing screen. Since my sides and ceiling speakers will be in-walls, I will need to adjust and account for joists and studs. Also since my couch butts up near the back wall, I’ll have to factor the positioning of my rear surround speakers since they can’t be a few feet behind me. In these scenarios, its best to try and place them as far back as possible, raise and then tighten – in the order of what you can do with your space.
Height of ground speakers. The goal is to set the height of your floor speakers at ear level or above by 1-2ft when seated. Height of your floor speakers should ideally follow the same plane as your front speakers, where possible. This means that your front speaker height dictates the installation height of your surrounding speakers. You’ll notice for my particular setup however, I’m on a platform which raises my ear level above ground by about 12 inches. Dolby does not recommend installing the height of rear speakers more than 1.25x the height of the front (ie. if my front speakers rest 3ft above ground, the rears should not be more than 3.75ft). This is all to ensure the sound pan is accurately represented around you as objects move from one speaker to another. Down the road I may need to add some speaker spikes/legs or go as far as building a platform for my front speakers if the sound feels too fragmented. Lastly – you definitely do not want anything blocking the sound so avoid placing speakers behind objects.
Now that we’ve agreed upon a setup and planned the layout, here is my official shopping list. Pro Tip: research the cost of receivers first as this will likely be your most expensive piece. Then focus on your Front Right, Center and Left. These are unarguably the most important components of your home theater.
When I started, I was extremely satisfied with a 5.2.4 or a 7.2.2 setup (9 total channels – subs don’t count), however the cost of adding speakers seemed negligible as I was already running cable. An extra $100 for two in ceiling speakers seemed like a no brainer and was quickly added to my cart. The difference in the end was much more. The cost of a 9 channel (7.2.2) vs an 11 channel (7.2.4) receiver is quite significant. Whereas some great 9 channels can be found for $500-$700, the price can easily double/triple for a decent 11 channel. Receivers are expensive. Regardless, here is my configuration:
- $1050 CAD – Denon AVR 6300 Receiver (Facebook Marketplace)
- $0 – 2 Front Makoto Speakers (Hand me down from my Uncle)
- $785 CAD – 1 x Polk Audio S35 Center Speaker with 4 x Polk Audio RC65i In-Wall Bundle (Sides and Rear)
- $48 CAD – 4 x Polk Audio MC Series 6.5″ In-Ceiling Speaker (POLKMC60)
- $199 – Nvidia Shield Pro
- $500 CAD – 10″ Klipsh Subwoofer – Purchased on sale, but later added a second one for $250 purchased resale
- Misc: Banana plugs, 14 gauge speaker wire, Speaker Spring Spikes, Sub springs
Receiver: I ended up with a Denon AVR 6300 for cheap. I had my eye on a few of suitable options and the moment it popped up on Facebook Marketplace – I picked it up and brought it home same day.
Media Player: I have been an advocate of the Nvidia Shield for years. It’s widely regarded as the Ferrari of Android TV boxes, and I have pretty much every model released since 2015. They work insanely smooth, have great support and consistent software updates. The later models support Atmos, AI Upscaling, and can playback your digital content as well as any other streamer out there. Finally, I will likely pick up a capable Blu-Ray player to compliment the shield for my physical discs. Finally, to achieve the best result, ensure audio is set to bitstream output and secondary audio functionality is disabled
Surround & Ceiling Speakers: Here’s a picture set of my in wall process. Basically removed the grills from each speaker, and used the supplied painters cover. Brought them all out to the garage and gave them a 2 coat matte black spray. Love the result.
Nothing too fancy here other than pre running your cables. I am in the process of redoing the entire theater area, which definitely made the job easier.
Ceiling. Be mindful of the direction of your joists. Life is very easy when they run in parallel with the direction of the feed. Polk Audio provides a cutting template for you to trace onto your wall. If your ceilings are finished, I’d suggest starting with a small hole so you can align the cutout in between your joists. If you make the cut blindly, there’s a chance you won’t be able to fit the speaker into the joist! Prior to running the cables, I labelled each one FTL, FTR, RTL, RTR to indicate Front Top Left, Right, Rear Top Left, Right. Four in total.
Sides & Rears. Not unlike the ceiling recommendation, pay attention to your wall studs to make sure you have the spacing required to put your inwalls. I shot a laser across to keep the speakers on the same plane.
Front & Center. Nothing too fancy here other than the fact that my speakers had 2 black and 2 reds for potential bi-amping. I didn’t opt do this since I’m limited in channel output so I just used a jumper to connect the two blacks and 2 reds to each other.
Subwoofers: I placed two in front of me, on sub springs. If you haven’t seen springs before, these are definitely a game changer. They clean up the sound and vibrations that you traditionally get when the subs are sending pulses through your floor. Try it!
Banana Plugs. At the receiver end of the cables, I stripped all the wires and inserted banana plugs. This makes life much easier when using a receiver since it turns your traditional screw on wires into standard plugs. Simply strip your red and black wires, slip them into the banana plug and tighten the screw around them.
Once everything is plugged in, you are ready for the moment of truth.
As mentioned earlier, most decent receivers will have some sort of calibration component in your settings. You basically plug a mic into your receiver and place it at ear level in your primary seating position. Then hit up the receiver settings and select calibration. The receiver will fire off a bunch of sounds from each respective speaker and then calibrate the settings to the optimal level. If you also have a Denon, check out their Audyssey tutorial here. You probably won’t need it since the on screen instructions are pretty simple to follow.
When complete, fire up your Atmos content and run to your receiver to check the display.
Just a note on Atmos, from what I gather, the sound profiles tend to be on the quieter end for the center channel. Dolby believes our traditional conversational volume is not intended to be loud, so the natural experience will be quieter dialogue with jacked up sound effects. Not quite for me. To counter this, I adjusted the center channel up +4.0 dB. I also pumped up the Atmos ceiling speakers by the same amount. If a plan flies by, I want to hear it!
I liken this experience to a freshly cut lawn. So much satisfaction.
Of course if you haven’t already, check out how I built my screen, skylights and curved platform!
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