David Lynch once said: “Films are 50 per cent visual and 50 per cent sound. Sometimes sound even overplays the visual.” He’s got a point: imagine Jaws without the dramatic ‘dun-dun’, a Woody Allen movie without jazz, 2001: A Space Odyssey without the visceral sound effects, or even – gulp! – Jurassic Park without its memorable theme.
If you're not covered in popcorn in the cinema, then equally important is your own speaker system - and, while there’s value in practical, space-saving soundbars and soundbases, nothing beats a surround-sound speaker system for the ultimate home cinema experience.
Whether you have a 5.1- or 7.2-channel system, or even a Dolby Atmos set-up with extra ceiling speakers, these film scenes will reveal how good it really is… and sound seriously impressive in the process.
House of Flying Daggers (2004)
Zhang Yimou’s gorgeous martial arts film has a soundtrack as vivid as its exotic picture - and the echo-game scene will be the first to detect any gaps in your system's soundfield. Beans, hurled by a police captain in slow motion, meticulously ping around the room and bounce off a circle of drums, requiring your system to track their trajectory precisely. Integration is key here and the soundfield should take on the dimension of – and be as tight-knit as – the drum arrangement, and thus put you at the centre of it. Blistering percussion is a good test of dynamics too, while smashing glass and the dancer’s twinkling headpiece will challenge your speakers’ tweeters to keep a lid on the treble.
Ready for more? Later on, the five-minute bamboo-forest fight – just as awesome as it sounds – offers a similar challenge when it comes to precision and cohesiveness, as branches creak, break and soar through the air.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)
Edgar Wright’s adaptation of this comic-book series has a great range of sound throughout the film, but this chapter is particularly notable for the fight between Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and her fourth evil-ex Roxy Richter (Mae Whitman). From the low bass created by the rumble of breaking concrete as Ramona removes an enormous hammer from her Mary Poppins-esque bag, to the high-pitched shattering of glass as Scott Pilgrim’s (Michael Cera) head is smashed against the bar, it has a great range of frequencies by which you can test your home cinema system.
What also makes this film a test go-to is that there are multiple layers of sound in almost every scene. The sharp dialogue of the characters can’t be drowned out by the thump of the club, nor can the musical soundtrack merge into the clash and clatter of the characters’ battle. These atmospheric scenes are the perfect way to check the balance between your left and right speakers.
Pink Floyd: The Wall (1982)
Through 95 minutes of musical montage, live action and animation, this brilliant rock opera – the brainchild of Floyd member Roger Waters – tells the tragic story of rock star Floyd ‘Pink’ Pinkerton (Bob Geldof) and his psychological downfall. Yes it’s dark and downright depressing, but, Floyd fan or not, there's no denying it’s an audio treat.
Among the first animated films with a Dolby Stereo soundtrack, it was presented on DVD in 1999 with a 5.1 Dolby Digital surround sound mix. The film didn’t win Best Sound at the 1983 BAFTA Film Awards for having just one or two good-sounding scenes, but the one backed by Another Brick in the Wall (Part II) from the band’s eponymous album – BAFTA winner of Best Original Song, too – is a sure safe highlight, and a great test for explosive dynamics and midrange solidity, not to mention your subwoofer’s tunefulness. You just might want to turn it down when the school kids rampage around their classroom!
Plot and character development largely take a back seat to explosions in this John Travolta-starring action thriller, but it does have a killer hostage scene to give any surround-sound package a thorough workout. It comes shortly after the opening credits, following Travolta’s character’s theory on ‘the problem with Hollywood’.
Not only is there a dramatic orchestral score and mass hysteria (there's a lot of screaming) in the build-up, but the slow-motion explosion captured by one sweeping camera pan is 30 seconds of ear-shattering, bass-tastic destruction that all ends with one big thud – so turn your sub up loud! Finer sonic details of splintering glass, cries, and the whoosh of objects flying past should still be heard beneath the bassy blast, though.
Miles Ahead (2015)
Extraordinary surround sound owes not only to power and speaker integration, but also of course (cue cliché klaxon) as much to versatility. Take the opening scenes of this Miles Davis biopic; the trumpeter’s performances are interspersed with car chases and gunfire, meaning not only will it test the expression and musicality of your speakers but also allow them to stretch their legs with some high-tempo action.
The movie focuses on only a short period of Davis’s life, so the soundtrack may not be varied enough to get the full picture of what your setup is capable, but you’re sure to notice any major shortcomings.
More after the break
Pacific Rim (2013)
On the surface, there’s a lot happening in Guillermo del Toro’s blockbuster Pacific Rim. But in many of the scenes, such as the fight between the colossal robot Gypsy Danger and the Kaiju in this chapter, there is a surprising amount of time when the sound dies down to heighten the tension of the impending monster attacks.
When using this film to test your sound system, the little details should be as discernible as the booming horns in the moments of conflict. You should be able to hear clearly the muted woosh of the ocean as the camera moves underwater, or the crackles and whirs of the Jaeger as it builds up to a powerful punch.
Good balance will also ensure these small touches are not overpowered by the booming horns of the soundtrack at the climax of the fight when Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) loses his brother Yancy (Diego Klattenhoff) to the beast.
The importance of sound in film is irrefutable, but rarely to the extent that it is in Pixar’s WALL-E, where sound is both the narrative and language of the largely dialogue-free animation. One of its most charming scenes also happens to be among the more sonically colourful too, as one of Hollywood’s most-loved robots is propelled through space on a fire extinguisher with Eve tumbling after him.
You should be able to track their position on the screen with your eyes closed, hear the faint sprays from the extinguisher and the robots’ subtle mechanical clicks – a mix of real-world sound and synthesizers – in your rear channels, and be immersed in the uplifting instrumentation and ethereal ambience created by sound designer Ben Burtt. There’s even a bit of dialogue from the red-suited humans in the middle for your center speaker to have a chance to shine.
Star Trek (2009)
We’ve seen it a gazillion times by now, but the scene where Bones keeps injecting Kirk with vaccines, the reveal of the USS Enterprise and the ship going into warp speed remains one of the best and funniest moments of JJ Abrams’ rebooted Star Trek.
It’s also a magnificent test for your home cinema system. You should be able to feel the height and movement of ships that fly over the Starfleet students bustling about in the hanger; the change in scale and atmosphere when Bones and Kirk move to a smaller room; hear the little beeping, blinking noises inside the Enterprise; and the deadpan humour in Captain Pike’s gravelly voice.
The moment of truth comes when Michael Giacchino’s stirring score fills the entire room and reaches a beautiful flourish when you first see the Enterprise. The soaring music should end with blaring horns and a moment of awe as the pristine starship is finally revealed. And when it hits warp speed, your system should be delivering that gut-punching, precise sound effect with layers of deep, taut bass.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
This two-hour chase opera might sound cacophonous on a lesser system, but it isn’t simply a wall of noise. You’ll need a mighty powerful system to really feel the thunderous roar of the souped-up engines - one that can convey the scale of the desert wasteland as the wind storm tears across the jagged and rusty monstrous cars.
Junkie XL’s soundtrack is orchestral and furious, with angry drums egging the chase on while soaring strings and electronic beats punctuate the action on screen. You’ll need a system that’s precise and articulate enough to keep the tension of the pounding soundtrack and the cars and explosions running alongside each other.
Each gunshot, engine rev and grunting Tom Hardy dialogue need to be distinguishable. But the best part is the distorted guitar riffs that suddenly flare up whenever the camera cuts to the Doof Warrior – the red jumpsuit wearing guitarist who’s attached to his insane rig on bungee ropes and plays a double-necked guitar that shoots flames. Yes, really. It’s a moment of absurdity that you can't help but cackle gleefully at, before your mind is whipped back to the noisy chase and all that sand.
Bond opening scenes are the stuff of cinematic legend, and any number of 007 openers could have made our shortlist. From the the white tux and wetsuit of Goldfinger, to the unforgettable ski jump and Union Jack parachute in The Spy Who Loved Me, and the stunning, sensory overload that marks the start of Spectre. But we’ve opted for Skyfall.
Inevitably the more recent Bond films set a higher sonic standard and this one has it all. A trademark 007 chase scene – in cars, on bikes and finally atop a train – is peppered with enough broken glass, gunshots and fleeing market traders to test any surround sound system to its fullest. The icing on the AV cake? The background bongo drums of course.
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