Getting the best from any newly installed surround sound system
This blog goes out to the end users, the client, the film and TV fanatic and the popcorn n' pixar families. The customers who buy home cinema or media rooms from an AV installer.
It's very easy for mistakes to happen during an installation, I know because I've been an installer myself. I'm sure you're planning to enjoy your new system for many years to come. So some basic checks as those listed below, will help you to understand your equipment better and produce better results. Or of course, you can call your installer to let them know that there's a snag to fix if you find something not quite right.
The following check lists are by no means absolute, they are in my view the most important to address, because they relate to the most common issues that I've spotted over the years whilst working in home cinema sales, design and project management.
The Subwoofer, what to check for:
1) Is it sturdy, are all four feet firmly on the floor? This will stop it moving around when it vibrates.
2) Is the 'Auto Off' button On? If it is, then when you are not using the system, the subwoofer should automatically switch into standby and use less electricity. When you play content, it should automatically switch on, even for quiet parts of the movie or TV programme. Check this is working well.
3) Has the LPF (Low Pass Frequency) knob been set to bypass? This controls the range of bass that plays, it should be pointing at Bypass or the high end of it's reach i.e 200Hz rather than low at 50Hz. This way, the AV receiver settings determine the perfect range of bass to send to the subwoofer.
4) Listen out for any excessive hum or noise, and that the RCA/Phono connection is sturdy and doesn't make crackling noises when you touch it.
The satellite Speakers, what to check for:
1) If you can see the rear connections on the speakers, check that the cables have all be connected with the correct polarity. i.e. that black goes to the black binding post and red goes to red. Do the same at the amplifier end. This is important so that the speakers all push and pull the airwaves in tandem. If one is out of polarity then it degrades the sound in the room quite dramatically. It's an easy mistake to make during an installation.
2) That all connections are tight and do not have stray copper strands touching other terminals or cables. That all of the speakers are level and stable, or where wall or ceiling mounted, they have a good grip of the plaster board and are without air gaps around the speaker edge.
3) That the speakers are connected to the appropriate connections on the amplifier. Left of course should go to all left speakers, right to right. Surround outputs normally feed speakers that are beside or perpendicular to the seating area, whilst rear outputs feed speakers behind you. Height outputs must go to the correct ceiling speakers, or any upward firing Dolby Atmos speakers that fire towards the ceiling from on top of the main speakers.
4) That all speakers have a clear line-of-sight towards the listening area, especially the centre speaker which carries the majority of the dialogue that's so important to enjoying TV or movies. If the centre is at the back of a shelf, try to move it to the front lip, this gives a clearer sound that isn't reflecting from the shelf surface.
The Sources, some advice:
To be able to enjoy real surround sound you have to ensure that your source devices have actually been set to output surround sound. Take time to explore the menus on Apple TV, Sky, your DVD/Bluray player, games console, to check that the output over HDMI has been set to surround via Bitstream, and not to just stereo. You'll normally need the original remote control to do this.
When the settings are correct, then on the AV receiver's display, when you play content with surround sound, should show a message such as Dolby or DTS Surround (or 5.1 or 7.1), Dolby TrueHD, DTS Master Audio, Dolby Atmos or DTS:X
What you don't really want to see, or to be lumbered with is Dolby Pro Logic, DTS Neo, All Channel Stereo for example. These are surround sound formats where they are taking a stereo signal and forcing it into your surround sound speakers to create a fake surround. This can be good of course if your source only produces stereo, like an iPod, the TV itself or an old VHS player!
Once you've adjusted settings, here's a basic check list of what to look out for, depending on source type:
Note that with discs, the rear of the packaging will say which formats are available.
1) DVD player - pick a blockbuster movie to play. During the ads expect to hear a stereo signal being converted to Pro Logic or Neo. Once the movie starts, look for Dolby or DTS Surround being displayed on the AVR. You should hear the sound 'click into place' with a cinematic feel to it. It's great!
2) Bluray player - pick a popular Bluray movie to play. During the trailers, you may hear Dolby or DTS Surround. Then, when the movie starts look out for the even clearer sounding Dolby TrueHD or DTS Master Audio. Even on basic surround sound systems, the difference is quite something. A much more open and dynamic sound.
3) Bluray player, for 3D sound formats - pick a disc with a soundtrack in Dolby Atmos or DTS:X. This could be a Bluray, or a newer 4K Ultra HD Bluray disc. Again, once past the trailers, looks out for the AVR displaying the Atmos or DTS:X format and sound coming from above you.
4) SkyHD or SkyQ - pick a movie channel or programme with the DD symbol. Sky at present delivers Dolby Digital in 5.1 as it's best format. So, look out for that message on your receiver. Many programmes are in stereo only, you can set your AV receiver to output either in Mono, Stereo or a 'fake' surround format to fill the room. It's up to you.
5) Apple TV and other streaming devices - again, like the SkyHD Box. Seek out content with surround sound to test. Then also run a test with non surround channels or programmes.
Finally With so many sound options and menu choices on today's equipment, it really can be a minefield. However, with just some simple checks or asking the installer to check and demonstrate to you, you can enjoy your system for many years to come. It might even sound better than your local cinema.
Feel free to contact me directly, if you would like to ask any questions regarding the above.