There are few things you can buy unthinkingly. Look down at your shoes, and think of all you had to go through for them to be on your feet.
Not only did they have to fit your toes, but also your budget, their purpose and, to whatever extent, the rest of your outfit. Those are just your shoes, and by next year you will probably have more.
So imagine how that scenario is amplified when you consider something such as a surround sound speaker package, built of varying numbers of parts, so affected by their surroundings and likely costing tens of times the amount. Even if you've found a stonking Black Friday deal, it wouldn’t pay to be nonchalant.
Setting up your cinema system, and really getting it singing, is as much concerned with the work you do before you get it as that you do after. And, as always, the research starts with knowing your budget.
Allocate your budget
First step is, of course, to decide upon a total you’re willing to spend, and then you can start breaking down where that money will go. Do you already have an AV amp, for example, or will a portion have to go there? Is your TV up to scratch or are you looking to invest in a projector? Will you be streaming and watching solely live broadcasts, or will you require a source to play physical media as well?
There is no hard and fast rule as to how much you should spend on each component, but you’ll be doing your speakers a disservice if they cost 20 times the amount of your amplifier, and vice versa. Usually we’ll put a few pairing suggestions in our reviews, so that’s as good a place as any to get a broad idea of what will work. As a rough rule of thumb, the speaker package should cost at least double the price of the amplifier.
You’ll also need to decide how many speakers that budget needs to pay for. This is part of why it’s good to get the tape measure out early, because knowing the dimensions of your room – as well as the space you have from each wall – is vital to finding the right package.
Just because your amp has 11 channels, it doesn’t mean you need to use them all. The best packages offer a broad, immersive soundfield with a traditional quintet of cinema speakers, so don’t attempt to fill your room with cabinets that get in each other’s way physically and, more importantly, sonically.
Height channels are another consideration. Plenty of companies now offer fine solutions for those who don’t fancy placing speakers in the ceiling, sitting them neatly on top of the others in the system.
But, though a well mastered Atmos soundtrack can really elevate a piece of cinema, it is much more important to get the rest of your home theatre system right first. So if your budget doesn’t quite stretch, best consider this a future upgrade rather than skimp elsewhere.
As well as the number of speakers you can accommodate, the size of your room may also dictate whether you should be looking at floorstanding or standmount speakers, or a combination of the two.
This isn’t really about the footprint of the speaker – when you add stands to the latter, which is paramount, they are likely to take up pretty much the same amount of room – but how much space they have to breathe and the power you can offer them.
Finding the right balance
Some speakers are also much more fussy than others with positioning, including how far away they can be from a wall.
Many smaller speakers can lose their sonic body being too far out into the room, for example, while others will close up altogether with their backs up against the wall.
Getting a suitable number and type of speakers is vitally important, but equally so is that they complement their partnering kit. It’s about finding a balance where positive traits are showcased and any idiosyncrasies tempered; you won’t want anything overly enthusiastic in the treble, for example, if your amplifier is already a bit bright.
The amount of groundwork you do hereafter is up to you – whether you will consider bi-wiring, how important a certain finish is and so on – but no sooner than you’ve carefully worked out what you’re looking for should you be heading to the showroom to have a listen.
There, you want to recreate your home set-up as accurately as possible – you’re about to be handing a fair wad of cash to this dealer, so they should only be too happy to oblige.
That means taking your AV amp with you if you have one, and any source you’ll be using with it. Even if you’re starting from scratch, make sure you have some films you know well to test with, else you’ll never know properly what you’re hearing.
Hopefully by now you’ll have read plenty of our reviews and have a good idea of a few products you’d like to hear, but the golden rule is always to be open to alternatives. A good dealer knows their kit and is more interested in building a relationship with you than selling you a dud and never seeing you again.
Perhaps there will be a product you dismissed because of its star rating, but will fit your specific needs better than an Award winner; there might be something we haven’t yet reviewed, or maybe it’s just something you missed altogether.
Either way, there’s no harm in hearing all you can, and no dealer can make a speaker sound better than it actually is.
It is possible, however, for a speaker to sound worse than it actually is – if it hasn’t been properly run in, say. It can take speakers hundreds of hours of play to reach their optimum level, but at the very least they will need 24 hours to warm up and loosen their joints.
And let us not forget that this is your opportunity to test the cables, speaker stands and interconnects you’ll use in your system. Don’t think of any of these as upgrades you can make later – least of all suitable support for any standmount speakers – or else you’ll only be paying for potential your speaker package can never realise.
So, say you find your ideal package. You know it all fits because you measured your room before you started looking; you know it works well with the rest of your system because you took it with you; and you know you can always go back to the shop if anything goes wrong because you bought it from the dealer and didn’t try to find it cheaper online. Now what?
Well – once all feet, spikes and stands are fitted, of course – you can begin with some basic positioning. Don’t worry if you don’t get this right first time; it usually takes a while to find the ideal arrangement and it’s always worth spending a bit of time experimenting with various speaker positions and angles.
Reading the literature that comes with your speakers is always a good place to start. Get out that measuring tape again to make sure distances are equal between corresponding channels, but again don’t be afraid to experiment with the arrangement later on.
The next, perhaps seemingly obvious, step is hooking each speaker up to your amp, making sure each channel is connected to the correct output, and black and red wires are all in the correct way round.
Run a level check
As well as designating channels, including whether certain outputs are running to height or auxiliary surround speakers, all new amps will run an automatic level check with a microphone that should be included in the box. This will play a series of crackles and bleeps from each speaker in turn, repeating the process as you move the microphone through a number of listening positions, and optimise the level of each speaker as best it can.
Again, though, this is a starting point, so don’t be surprised if later on you decide certain channels need to be louder or quieter. Often we find ourselves asking our subwoofer for a bit more welly, especially when we’re watching more action-driven films.
Much like wearing in a new pair of shoes, no matter the amount of preparation, you won’t be hearing your speaker package at its full potential from the moment you take it from the box. As it reaches that hundred or so hours of use, there may be different sonic elements you want to temper with a slight change of position, or reflections from flat walls you need to disperse with a strategically placed pile of books or DVDs.
There are rules to follow, but they are not one-size-to-fit-all. As ever in these situations, your best teacher is your ears. Taking in the basic steps we’ve outlined here will just give you the best opportunity to use them.
Want some ideas to get started? Check out this complete home cinema system we put together.