Home Theater Audio Channels – A Beginner’s Guide

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home theater channels

One term that gets thrown around plenty in the world of home theaters is channels. Does this refer to TV channels, or something else? Here is my beginner’s guide to home theater channels.

So, what is a home theater channel? The channel referred to in the home theater world is a speaker as part of a surround sound system. For example, a 5.1 channel surround sound system will have 5 speakers and a subwoofer. Specifically, the channel refers to a single audio output, so a single speaker can accept a single channel of audio.

At its most basic level, that’s really all you need to know about what a channel is, particularly if you’re only looking to expand your speaker system. However, it helps to have as much information as possible so that you know exactly how to configure your speaker system. Read on to find out more.

Home Theater Channels Explained

So in short, a channel is a term that refers to sound coming from or going to a single point. Stereo music, for example, is a 2 channel system, meaning it puts out sound to 2 individual speakers, each with its own unique audio output. Channel is commonly used specifically for surround sound systems to indicate how many speakers there are.

Speaker systems for a home theater can realistically go all the way from a single channel to 9 or more. The most common you’ll find once you enter the world of surround sound (more than 2 channels) is 5.1 and 7.1 channel speaker systems. Generally, most DVDs will come with an option for 5.1 channel output.

Check out my recommended speakers for a typical 5.1 setup. 

All speaker systems will have a main left and right channel, which are your “normal” speakers. These should be at the front of your speaker system, usually close to your viewing device, and provide the standard sound channels. If you play music on a surround sound system, it’ll come out of these 2 main speaker channels.

But what about the .1?

Any number after the decimal place in a speaker configuration represents a subwoofer, or other device that handles low frequency audio. It’s kept separate because subwoofers are a different piece of kit to a normal speaker, and so they’re represented after the main number.

Realistically, your speaker system could be .1 or .2, which just represents how many subwoofers you’ve got. Most (essentially all) surround sound systems will require a subwoofer of some kind in order to produce the deep bass that makes the biggest difference over normal TV speakers.

Check out my recommended subwoofers that provide clean and solid bass for the money.

If you’re buying a surround sound speaker system it’ll usually come with a subwoofer, but it’s not difficult to integrate your own.

Although you can basically have as many channels (speakers) as you want, the most common configurations are:

  • 2.0. This is your normal stereo audio, and features a left and a right speaker. All music is recorded in stereo, and normal video media playback is in stereo.
  • 5.1. This is the most standard format for surround sound, and will be the easiest if you’re new to the game. It has the normal left and right speakers, a center channel, and 2 surround speakers that’ll usually go behind your seating area.
  • 6.1. This has everything 5.1 surround sound has, but includes an extra back surround channel that goes behind your seating area for more immersive sound.
  • 7.1. These speaker systems have built-in systems that essentially split signals for a single back channel (in a 6.1 system) into 2 audio channels, thereby giving you an even greater level of immersion.
  • 8.1 or more. Once you get above 7.1 channels you’re in to pretty specialist territory, and it’s likely you’ll be building this system yourself. The more speakers you add, the more immersive your viewing experience will be.

Other Speaker Terms

When you start looking at speakers, there will inevitably be a number of key terms that you’ll see that you need to understand in order to make a good decision. Here are the most common you’ll come across when choosing a speaker system.

Watts

We probably all know what watts are, but how does this tie in to speakers? There’s some misinformation around how wattage relates to speakers, as it’s a unit of power. The obvious connection is that this is how much power the speaker needs, but some say it affects audio output volume. However, this is incorrect.

Essentially, wattage in relation to speakers is the maximum power a speaker can handle before it blows. For example, a 200 watt speaker could handle a surge of 200 watts before it breaks. This is relevant to speakers because they’re so sensitive, and it pays to have surge protection in your circuit.

Impedance Rating 

Impedance is an important factor in speakers, but what does it mean? Basically, impedance is the level of resistance a speaker has to the voltage and current being applied to it. It’s measured in ohms, the unit of resistance.

The most common impedance ratings you’ll find on speaker systems are 6 and 8 ohms, although you can also get 4-ohm speaker systems. While the full science behind impedance isn’t that important, the key thing to know is that you need to match a speaker’s impedance rating with the rest of your kit.

For example, 4-ohm speakers will need to be paired with an amplifier in order for them to produce decent audio. Similarly, 6- and 8-ohm speakers need to be paired with the correct AV receiver. So while you don’t need to know the science, you do need to know speaker ratings so you can match everything.

Decoding Formats

Speaker systems decode audio signals in different ways, and there are several common and well-known formats. The 2 you’ll most likely come across are DTS and Dolby Digital, which can be further broken down into different types.

Some are for specific channel configurations, so make sure everything matches up. This part is pretty easy though, as it should say on the speaker system which formats they support.

THD

THD stands for Total Harmonic Distortion, and this is the rating given to speakers that states how much distortion is created by the speaker itself. Cheaper speaker systems will usually have a higher THD rating, which isn’t a good thing.

The higher the percentage, the more distortion there is. If you have access to this information when buying speakers, look for the lowest rating possible. The best systems have a THD rating of under 1%.

How does Speaker Placement Affect Audio Quality?

speaker placement

Setting your speakers up properly is one of the most important parts of building a home theater. After all, viewing devices are usually easy enough (just plug in and go), but setting up speakers is a much more delicate procedure. If you get the placement wrong you’ll end up with gaps in your audio, which is very noticeable.

If you’re setting up a surround sound speaker system for the first time it’s important to work on your placement, and it’s much easier to do this before you actually place the speakers.

First, of course, know how many channels you’ve got in your speaker system so you can decide the best placement. Here are my top tips for getting the correct speaker placement in your new home theater:

  • The center channel is just that: the center channel. Ideally it needs to sit directly in front of your viewing area so it’s pointing at you. It should also be as close as possible to your viewing device. I either put mine on a shelf below the TV or mount it above it on the wall.
  • The easiest way to do things is to make a scale drawing of your home theater space. Work out where your speakers need to be pointing for you to get the most out of them, but so they also fill the room.
  • Your subwoofer should similarly go near your viewing device and should point directly at your viewing area. Don’t put it in a cupboard or behind furniture, as then you won’t get any benefit from it.
  • Once your speakers are set up, test them out. Sit in your viewing area and play an audio track, looking out for any gaps in the sound. If you have any, adjust your speakers until you feel surrounded by sound. This is the hardest part of the configuration process and it might help to have a second pair of ears.

Speaker placement is mostly about trial and error, even if you’ve done a plan. Your plan is just that, a plan, and once you’ve got a better idea of how the speakers sit in your room you’ll be able to get them working properly.

I’ve spent hours in the past playing around with my speakers until I was completely happy, so don’t be put off if it’s not right straight away.

What are the Parts of a Speaker?

If you’re just getting into the world of home theater systems and surround sound, prepare to be bombarded by numerous buzzwords about different types of tech.

Home theater manufacturers have plenty of different ways to market their products, and many do so by stressing the quality of the components. So do this actually mean anything?

When it comes to speakers, yes. Speakers are your frontline audio output, and so your final audio quality is going to be almost entirely dictated by their quality. While it’s not necessary to go into loads of detail about the inner workings of a speaker, it’s worth knowing the most used, and most important, terms.

A speaker is largely divided into 3 parts: the box, the crossover network, and the drivers. These are also the main terms you’ll hear thrown around plenty in the home theater world, so what do they mean?

Box: The box is essentially the housing of the speaker – the bit you see. It contains all the electrical components, and is both for looks and for protection. Speakers are usually pretty sensitive, after all, and so the components need to be protected from damage.

Crossover network: This is the part of the speaker that converts the electrical signals from your input device (DVD player, media streaming device) into audio signals. The crossover network divides the main signal that’s been passed to the channel into individual signals that are then sent to the drivers.

Drivers: These are the part of the speaker that most people think of as the actual speaker, and these are where the sound comes from. Audio signals are split into high, mid-range, and low frequencies, and then passed to the relevant driver. A low frequency driver is called a woofer, a mid-range is just called a mid-range (or mid), and a high frequency driver is called a tweeter.

Generally, even if you’ve got a subwoofer in your speaker system, each individual speaker will contain its own woofer. This is so it can produce the low frequencies that are low enough to be produced by the subwoofer, and this helps to create more dynamic and rounded audio.

All drivers follow the same basic layout, which includes magnets and wire coils to produce sound. As a general rule, woofers have open backs to accommodate the air they need to produce the soundwaves, and tweeters have sealed backs. Mid-range drivers can be either depending on the frequencies they’re designed to put out.

While it’s not really necessary for you to know exactly how a speaker works if you’re just looking to build a home theater, I definitely think it helps to have at least a basic understanding of a speaker’s inner workings, particularly as you’ll likely have plenty of these terms thrown at you while choosing your speaker system.

What are the Different Kinds of Speakers?

When it comes to buying speakers for your home theater, there are probably a few main types you’ll have to choose from. Common deciding factors are things like size, shape, and where you can put them in the room, but speakers can be divided into 3 main groups: bookshelf speakers, satellite speakers, and tower speakers.

Bookshelf Speakers

bookshelf speakers

These are probably the most recognizable and common type of speaker. They’re a good size for most and generally have pretty good volume output. They’re quite versatile, and can be used in any position in your home theater setup.

The most important thing to note about bookshelf speakers is that they’re not meant to go on the floor. That said, I’d recommend not putting them on a bookshelf either if you can help it. Putting them on a hard surface like this can reinforce bass tones, cause reverberation, and also sound absorption.

The best place for bookshelf speakers is either on a specialist stand that won’t affect audio quality, or mounted on the wall. Bookshelf speakers are ideal for small-to-medium rooms, and will usually be powerful enough to give you pretty loud audio.

Check out my recommended bookshelf speakers

Satellite Speakers

Satellite speakers are most commonly used with computers, and are quite small. This makes them really easy when it comes to placement, but has a range of obvious downsides. You can get surround sound systems that use satellite speakers.

The key thing with satellite speakers is that manufacturers design them specifically to be boosted by a separate subwoofer. Satellite speakers are built to not produce the deepest bass tones (usually under 100Hz), and instead focus on mid-range bass and up.

Although size isn’t always directly correlated to volume, it’s fair to say that satellite speakers might not be the best choice for a large home theater room.

If you wanted a set in a larger room, you’ll have to look for the more expensive models to be confident in their sound output. However, for a small room, a set of satellite speakers with a good subwoofer will do fine.

Tower Speakers

tower speakers

Tower speakers (also called floorstanding speakers) are the other end of the spectrum. These are the biggest speakers you’ll find that are aimed at home theater users. The main difference between bookshelf speakers and tower speakers is their size. Generally, larger speakers means more drivers, which means higher sound levels.

While this might seem tempting, tower speakers are known to suffer from a few problems specific to their design. The first is the impact of being placed on the floor, which can cause reverberation and sound absorption. To combat this, most will have special feet, but if not, you’ll have to buy some kind of stand for them.

The second common problem is cabinet distortion. Tower speakers can produce much higher volumes than bookshelf speakers, and this can sometimes result in the speaker’s box vibrating, which causes obvious distortion issues. However, this will usually only be an issue with cheaper models, and the best way to find out is to read customer reviews.

What are the Best Speakers for My Needs?

So now that you have plenty of information on what makes up a speaker, along with the different types, it’s time to decide which will best suit your home theater needs.

Obviously this will be different for everyone, but there are some common things you should identify. And, as with all tech purchases, make sure you do plenty of research first.

How Many Channels?

The most important thing when it comes to choosing speakers for a home theater is to remember that they’re an upgrade on your previous speaker system, which will generally be the ones in your TV. For this reason, it makes sense to jump up to surround sound.

If you’re a beginner in the home theater world, I’d recommend going for a 5.1 channel system as your starting point. This is the most common format found in DVDs and Blu-Ray media, and is also the easiest to buy. Your choice of 5.1 channel surround sound systems will be almost endless, and you can either buy a complete set or build your own.

One of the benefits of building your own speaker system, while it might be more complicated now, is that you can always add to it later.

If you do decide to make the jump in the future, upgrade to a 7.1 channel system. This will give you the most immersive and cinema-like experience. However, your choice of starting point is up to you, although I believe beginners would benefit from taking it easy in the beginning.

Type of Speaker 

Again, this will be different for everyone, but the main deciding factors are room size, budget, and knowledge of the market. However, my personal advice would be to start with bookshelf speakers, and then look to diversify in the future.

This is primarily because bookshelf speakers are the most common type, and therefore the easiest to get hold of. Similarly, this also means you’ve got more flexibility with your budget, as bookshelf speakers cover the whole price range. Check out my recommended (best bang for the buck) bookshelf speakers

However, this will be impacted by room size. For example, if you’ve got a massive room that you’re dedicating to your home theater, then perhaps tower speakers would be a good choice. On the reverse, if you’ve only got a small room, then a set of satellite speakers will probably do the job fine.

Another option, although this might not be suitable for beginners, is to have a variety of speakers in the same setup. If you choose to do this, I’d recommend 2 tower speakers as your front channels, and then bookshelf speakers as your surround channels, and a center channel in the middle.

If you do decide to mix up the types of speaker in your home theater system, it’s important to make sure they’re all from the same brand. This is not only about compatibility, but also about timbre matching. Speakers from different brands can output the audio in different ways, and this can lead to some unusual audio experiences. To avoid this, buy from the same brand.

Ease of Setup 

One of the most important things about surround sound speakers is that they need to be wired in circuit. To do this you’ll need to buy your own wiring and connect them yourself. This might seem like a challenge, but it’s really not that hard. What’s more there are plenty of instructional videos online that show you exactly what to do.

Almost every speaker system will require the same kind of setup, and there shouldn’t really be any that are easier than the others. So although setup can be a bit of a pain if you’ve never done it before, don’t let this affect your buying decision. Choose the set of speakers you think will be best, and work under the assumption that they all need essentially the same setup process.

Subwoofer or No Subwoofer? 

This one is something of a no-brainer when it comes to a home theater. Not only do most surround sound systems require a subwoofer, you’d be losing out on a lot if you decided not to include a subwoofer in your speaker setup.

The easiest way to illustrate the benefit of a subwoofer is by remembering the purpose of a home theater: to improve your at-home viewing experience and emulate the cinema as much as possible.

The stereo speakers in your TV might have seemed fine until you started looking into new speaker systems, but it’s important to remember they can only produce mid-range bass, and even then it’s not guaranteed they’ll do this particularly well.

So, the most notable upgrade you can make to your audio system is to add more bass. Bass is the thing that we usually lack with standard speaker systems, and the right bass makes a huge difference to your viewing experience. And what produces the bass? A subwoofer. So there’s your answer as to whether you should include a subwoofer or not.

What About Budget? 

Setting aside the right budget for a speaker system is a difficult one. Choosing a reputable brand like Bose or Sonos will obviously give you a massive improvement on your sound quality (they’re seen as industry leaders for a reason), but these will obviously come with a hefty price tag.

Related: Are expensive speakers better?

However, don’t do yourself over by choosing an inexpensive and therefore inferior system. My best advice is decide your budget for the whole home theater setup (assuming you already own a TV and media device) and the set aside at least half for your speakers.

These are easily the most important part of your system, and so it’s where most of your money should go. Similarly, don’t scrimp on the wiring; otherwise you’ll lose some of that sound quality you just paid out for.

Conclusion

Getting started in the home theater world can seem like a minefield, but once you break things down they’re not actually that complicated.

Getting the right speakers is a crucial decision, and is where most of your planning and budget should go. After all, they’ll make the most noticeable improvement to your previous setup, so make sure you do it right. As ever, my most important bit of advice is to do your homework before purchasing.