Tech Tuesday – Surround Sound and Ways to get it Part 1
Welcome to Tech Tuesday. Today, I am going to talk to you about surround sound and different ways to achieve it.
I guess you are wondering why on earth would I spend all this money on a new TV and then not use the speakers provided? Well as I mentioned before the TVs now are so slim and the bezel is so picture frame like that there just isn’t the room to put speakers of any worth in there. Let alone anything that would give you a good explosive BOOM on an action sequence.
Luckily there are many options out there to give you the audio experience to go with your carefully chosen display. Yes, we know your new display gives you the very best colour representation of flesh tones and it has a refresh rate of 4 billion (I exaggerate). But not getting a sound system to match is a bit like a good roast dinner without gravy, or a sports car without wheels.
First we need to address what exactly is “Surround Sound”
Well, it is in layperson’s terms exactly what it says on the tin. It is a sound field that surrounds you and consumes you within the soundtrack of the movie.
Lets think about everyday life, go with me on this one. When you are standing in the street talking to your neighbour, you hear their voice in front you right? But what else do you hear? It’s not just their voice is it? You may hear a plane over head, or a dog barking from behind you or a bird in the tree beside you. What a surround sound set up does it simulates this when watching a film. The voices will come from directly in front of your viewing position but there maybe other noises going on in the scene which are sent to the other speakers. Giving more life to the picture.
The first incarnation of surround sound was surround sound 5-1, which included five speakers and one sub woofer for delivering bass sounds. This is also referred to as Dolby Digital and Digital Theatre Systems (DTS) sound.
Next came DTS Extended Sound (DTS-ES) or THX as surround sound 6-1. This surround sound system uses six speakers plus a sub woofer. The sixth speaker takes the position of centre rear to create a complete three-dimensional sound scape. Surround sound 7-1 adds yet another speaker to the mix. It takes the rear centre channel and divides it in two, flanking speaker positions for an encircled rear. While a stereo recording will play through a surround sound system, the receiver will simply send the left channel to half of the speakers and the right channel to the other half. To get the full effect of surround sound, the original recording must be encoded for it. When this is the case, the receiver in the home theatre system is able to send specific sounds to specific speakers, creating “placed sounds” to build an acoustic atmosphere.
For example, imagine watching a movie in which the main character is standing on the street when he hears his friend call his name just behind him. He turns to his left and sees his friend. Watching this movie in surround sound, the friend’s voice will come from the rear left speaker, placing you inside the sound track.
The thing is, it isn’t all that difficult to set up either. It is not as complicated as most people think. Yes, you can go a separate route with a AV receiver and speakers, but also there are some really good offerings by big brands that do it all from one box! (Home Theatre in a box HTiB). These literally offer you everything you need to experience truly beautiful surround sound in the one box.
These sound great don’t they? But they do have their down falls, as with any bit of technology. It is better to buy a branded set than the cheap ones that look the same from a big supermarket. Some of the branded models can rival the separate versions (I will talk about this route next if that’s what tickles your fancy).
Home Theatre in a Box
So what do you get in a typical all-in-one HTiB system?
Remember, There is definitely no TV in the box!!!
The All in one system assumes that you have already bought your chosen display and are just looking for something to connect to it to get a consuming home cinema experience. What you DO get are speakers, an amplifier (often with a DVD or blu-ray player built-in) and all the cables you will need to connect it up!
The idea behind it is that all you need to do is connect it to the TV and off you go. There may be a small stumbling block. Some of the systems will have a built-in DVD or Blu-Ray but some will not and you will need to connect one Before you can watch anything!! So careful choice is required
There will be two type of speaker set ups in this category. Either 2.1 or 5.1. Here we go again with the numbers!!
2.1 Speakers means you have 2 satellite speakers (essentially stereo) with the .1 being a sub woofer which provide the LOW frequencies. Thus improving the Bass sound.
This is not what you would call surround sound. Although the sound processor within the receiver will often offer some digital trickery that will make it seem that sound is coming from around the room.
The other main type of set up is the 5.1 version. This adds to this a centre and 2 surround speakers at the rear.
This is now true surround sound. The receiver will either decode the signal provided by the source and send out 5 discrete channels of audio, plus the bass. It is a really amazing experience to have a helicopter fly from one corner of the room to the other.
The main problem with these type of set ups is the added wire to the rear speakers. You can either put it under the carpet, channel it into the wall or just put up with it. The is always another option. Some manufacturers do wireless rear speakers. Obviously you will be paying a premium for this but then it does remove the tripping hazard going across the room!
OK, so far so good. Seems like this is the perfect solution right? Well, yes it is. But unfortunately especially the audiphiles among us will not be
happy with the overall sound quality that these systems can achieve. Separates will always give a better result. But lets not forget they are cheaper than going down the other route.
They will and you can quote me on this, sound 100% better than the speakers living within your TV. In addition you will be getting the surround sound aspect that is so inviting when watching films in a commercial cinema.
These systems suit a purpose. They are simple and quick to set up. With little or no experience you could be ready to watch a film in no time.
As the amplifier is often combined with the DVD/Blu-ray player, there is less cabling to worry about. The back of the unit will have six speaker outputs for the speakers to be connected (assuming you have a 5.1 system), and a HDMI connection to send the picture to your display by way of a HDMI cable (it may have component or composite connections too in case your display doesn’t have HDMI – but check this before you buy). A HDMI cable will usually be included – but you may have to buy this separately.
There should also be enough speaker cable to run around most rooms of a reasonable size – although if you do run out you can always buy extra speaker cable yourself. The DVD/Blu-ray player will have all the basic functions you need in any such device. It won’t have some of the advanced functions you can get in some standalone players, but it should be of reasonable quality and will let you do all the basics.
Another bonus of an all-in-one system is that it will come with one remote control to operate everything. So operating the DVD player, changing options, controlling the volume and switching everything on/off, can all be done without getting a headache trying to decide which remote control operates which device.
So apart from the not quite “Audiophile” quality, what are the downsides?
The DVD/Blu-ray player will also provide only basic functionality – but that may be all you require too. The other thing to consider is that there may be limited scope to add new devices to a home theatre in a box system. The amplifier may not have many (if any) extra audio inputs to install extra devices to use the speaker system.
So if you buy a Blu-ray player to complement the built-in DVD player – or you want to connect your PS3 or iPod to the system – well you may not be able to add these into the set up.
So, while an all-in-one system may be cheaper in the short-term – you may want to think ahead slightly and take into account any devices you might be thinking of buying in the longer term.
Next up I will go through the other option in getting the best sound and future proofing into your Home Cinema. The AV Receiver, make sure you pop back next Tuesday for more techy geekery!!
How is your sound supplied in your FRC? Are you a fan of the HTiB? Are you more of a separates follower? Comment Below