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How to Set up and Calibrate Surround Sound Speaker Systems (5.1, 6.1, 7.1)

I have been a home cinema enthusiast for years and am always looking for the next upgrade or DIY project.

How Do I Set This Thing Up?

Setting up and calibrating a home surround sound system can be a daunting task if you haven't done it before. This is an easy-to-follow guide that tells you exactly how to do it properly. I do go into some detail about what is going on, so if you want to understand your system, be sure to read it all!

There are two types of surround sound system. You have the 'home theater in a box' type system where you buy everything from one manufacturer. You don't have as much freedom to tweak the sound with a setup like this, but you can still set the volume levels accurately to get the most out of it. More advanced systems are generally comprised of an AV receiver with five to seven speakers connected, plus a subwoofer or two. Plugging them all in is one thing—getting them to sound good together is another.

This guide isn't just about set up and speaker locations, but also calibration of your surround sound system for the best possible sound. It's not tough, so let's get on with it!

What Is the .1 About?

The .1 added to the end of a 5.1, 6.1 or 7.1 system simply denotes the subwoofer. So, a 5.1 is five surround speakers and a subwoofer, a 6.1 is six surround speakers and a subwoofer and a 7.1 is . . . well, can you work it out?

Connecting All Speakers Correctly

The first thing to do is to recognise what it is that you're looking at. Most home theater/cinema systems are 5.1 systems. I will cover 6.1 and 7.1 systems later in the article, but first let's begin with a 5.1 system. What you'll have in a 5.1 setup is five speakers, a subwoofer and an amplifier/receiver. To set them up properly, you need three speakers at the front (one on either side of the tv and the centre speaker either directly above or below it). You then place the other two speakers to the side of the sofa, aiming them directly at your ears. Lastly, the subwoofer can go pretty much wherever you want it in the room, although generally you'll get the best results if you place it against a wall or in a corner. Use the image below as a reference.


5.1 Surround Sound Setup

You don't put the rear speakers behind your head, although they do handle the rear effects. Wiring the speakers up to the amplifier is fairly straightforward—you just have to make sure you connect the + to + and - to - terminals. You need to ideally have the front three speakers as close as you can get them to the same height. This is so you don't get a strange effect when effects pan from left to right or vice versa.

Make sure you get some good separation on the front left and right speakers. If they're on either side of the TV cabinet so that the TV is squeezed in the middle in between two speakers, the front sound field won't be very wide. So don't be afraid to put them some distance away from the TV, though ideally they'll be equidistant from your listening position.

5.1 surround sound placement viewed from above.

5.1 surround sound placement viewed from above.

6.1 Surround Sound Setup

This is a 6.1 setup. It's the same as the 5.1 version, but you have an extra channel behind your head, which helps with the rear surround effects. This can really help the surround effect. The more room you have behind you the better. If it is so close to you that you can rest your head on the speaker, you're not going to get a good effect; if you have several feet behind you, you'll be fine.

6.1 surround sound placement viewed from above.

6.1 surround sound placement viewed from above.

7.1 Surround Sound Setup

This is how a 7.1 surround sound setup looks. There are two speakers behind your head. This sort of setup has a really good field of surround sound behind and in front of you. This is the way I have my system set up! It does involve a couple more speakers and more wiring, but it is certainly worth it in my opinion.

7.1 surround sound placement viewed from above.

7.1 surround sound placement viewed from above.

So You've Got It Wired in. How Do You Calibrate It?

Now comes the fun part when you get to adjust the levels and calibrate the system. The speaker levels need to be set so they are an equal volume match for each other at the listening position. This means they will then compliment each other and one won't be way louder so effects will move around the room properly and sound natural.

There are two ways to do this. If you have a low end system, the home theater in a box sort of setup, then the best way to calibrate is to use an spl meter. These don't cost a lot and make things far easier than trying to calibrate by ear. You need to play a test tone through your receiver one speaker at a time and set each speaker to the same level on the spl meter. This is done from your normal sitting position. As long as they're all the same level relative to each other, it doesn't actually matter too much what that level is, but a commonly used level is 75 db for each speaker in turn. The subwoofer usually under reads on the spl meter due to their inaccuracy at measuring bass tones, so you may need to boost that up a little higher to have it matching the rest of the speakers.

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If you have the next level up from an all in one and have a receiver and speakers then you can get better results. Most receivers nowadays have an auto setup system which will calibrate for you. Different manufacturers have different systems, Denon, Onkyo and Marantz receivers have Audyssey, Yamaha have YPAO (Yamaha Parametric Acoustic Optimizer) and Pioneer have MCACC (Multi Channel Acoustic Calibration). There is also another AV manufacturer called Anthem, who use something called ARC, which stands for Anthem Room Correction. All of these systems attempt to do the same thing though which is set up your system for you, although the consensus tends to be that ARC is the best, followed by Audyssey, with the others behind that. This is a matter of opinion and is the sort of thing AV geeks argue about, but that seems to be the way most people in the AV world think as far as I can tell.

Anyway the way they work is that you set up a microphone which is supplied with the receiver at your listening position, the receiver will then play a test tone through each speaker in turn and then calibrate system levels and EQ the sound for you.

There are still a couple of things you need to remember when doing this though. One thing to remember is that you need to make sure that the room is as quiet as possible. Turn off any fans, close the windows etc as you don't want any banging, booming or rumbling from buses driving past to affect the final result.

Set the subwoofer gain control to the middle of the dial. Set the crossover frequency on the subwoofer to maximum.

You Could Put the Microphone on Your Head, but I Don't Recommend It!

The easiest way of holding the microphone at the correct height is with a tripod. These don't cost a lot, so I recommend buying one. Set it up at your main listening position, pointing straight up at the ceiling at ear height, then run the auto calibrate routine. If you don't have a tripod, you can put the microphone on your head and move around to different positions, but it's a bit of a pain to do it this way! That's not to say I haven't done it like this myself in the past, but I'm glad I bought a tripod.

A lot of these systems will give you a better result if you take multiple readings, you want to be roughly around the main seating position though as if you try to use different seats it will mess up the final calibration. Get as many readings as possible, usually the system asks you to move the mic 6 or 8 times. The more information it gets, the better the results.

There is a diagram below with suggested mic placement positions. The more advanced systems ask for more positions. If yours asks for six or eight or so, just use the first six or eight positions on this diagram for an idea of where to put the mic. Remember that you're not calibrating for every possible position you're ever going to sit in on the sofa, but instead you're measuring the room for automatic room correction so make sure you do move the mic around. The first position is the main listening position, so that's the most important as the sound will be optimised around that area.

Microphone placement around seating area.

Microphone placement around seating area.

Adjusting the Subwoofer to the Correct Level

After the receiver has ran through its auto calibrate routine, then check what level the receiver has set the subwoofer (also known as LFE) level. The subwoofer usually has its own amplifier and the receiver will try and match the subwoofer output/volume level to the same level as the rest of the speakers, which may mean it has to either boost or reduce the level. The amount the receiver has had to boost or cut this level will then show up on the receiver.

There is only so much this can be cut or boosted. If the receiver is showing -12 or +12 for LFE level after calibration, then it is at its upper or lower limits and your subwoofer may be producing too much or too little bass. Under this circumstance, the receiver has done all it can to correct but can't get to optimum range without you intervening to adjust the dial. If this has happened, simply adjust the gain on the back of the subwoofer up or down (depending on the reading), then calibrate it again by re-running the receiver auto calibrate routine.

The ideal is to get it as close to 0 as possible, then there is no boosting or cutting between the receiver and the subwoofer, which leads to a minimum of distortion. If it's a few db above or below it's not the end of the world, so you don't need to get too obsessive, but just try and make sure it's not at the top of bottom of its range.

Different rooms affect sounds in different ways so sometimes you may need certain frequencies boosting or cutting, which you don't need to worry about as the receiver will try and do this for you. It does this by playing a full frequency range signal to each speaker, measuring how the room affects the sound then adjusting the output level and also the equalisation of the sound to try and produce what will end up at your ears as a neutral sound.

Crossover Settings

After you've ran the auto calibrate setup program, then you will need to adjust the crossover and LFE cutoff level. This is fairly straightforward. The THX standard is to set all of your speakers to small and then set the speakers crossover points to 80hz. The LFE channel for the subwoofer should then be set to 120hz. This is a different setting to the crossover setting for the speakers, you don't need to have the crossover setting for the speakers and the LFE channel setting at the same point, which is a misconception, always set your LFE / subwoofer channel to 120hz. These are the recommended settings that Audyssey, THX etc recommend.

The reason you set the crossover for the speakers at 80hz is that speakers struggle to reproduce the lowest frequencies you'll get from a soundtrack, which can go down to 5-10hz in some cases. If you set them to only play from 80hz upwards, then they don't distort and the sound is cleaner. The subwoofer will take the strain instead and do the job it's designed for, which is creating the low frequency effects.

If you have small satellite speakers, they may not be able to reproduce sound down to 80hz, so you may have to have the crossover for them set a little higher. The golden rule is you can always adjust your crossover up from what the receiver tells you it recommends, but never adjust it down, as if the system has had a go at playing a frequency through the speaker and it hasn't managed to reproduce it, the speakers simply aren't capable of playing any lower, so you get no benefit setting it lower than your receiver recommends.

Achieving 'Reference' Sound

The whole purpose of Audyssey, YPAO or whatever system your receiver uses to calibrate, is get the sound in your room as close as it can to a reference sound. In other words, you're trying to get it to sound when the sound engineers produced the soundtrack. This can be quite a different sound to what you're used to if you've always set up your systems by ear. But if you want it to sound how it should, then you should leave it like this. Of course since it's your system, you get to determine your preferences. For example, if you decide you prefer the bass a bit higher, then you're free to do that. This is what is called reference versus preference.

The reference sound may not be exactly to your taste straightaway, but you're best to watch a couple of movies before making up your mind so you can get used to it before making a decision to tweak anything.

The one thing that you shouldn't do is mess about with the dials on the back of the subwoofer once you've ran calibration. If you are going to do it, then adjust through the receiver.

If you move the speakers or subwoofer, or move the furniture around, then it's a good idea to calibrate again. Other than that, you're done. Go and listen to some music or watch some movies and enjoy your surround system, happy in the knowledge it's now all set up and performing properly!

I hope you have found this guide helpful.

If you have any comments then please leave them below.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.


Shailesh on August 04, 2020:

Pl suggest how to set Equalizer. How to use mobile apps SPL Meter. Auto calibration r not perfect. We have to make changes. I m using Yamaha sateallite speakers with Yamaha HTR 3072 AVR. There are one crossover for all speakers. So what crossover I should set 80 or above 80hz say 120hz. I m confuse about DB Level. It should set as minus or plus. As my Flat area is 120 sq feet and I can not fixed my speakers along with TV or as per your Diagram. Pl make detailed articale step by steps which covers all points related to AVR. If possible make video and post it on YouTube.



David on October 21, 2019:

HI I have a Denon S940 receiver where it has a Sub woofer setting under the speaker section and i have to choose whether i want LFE or LFE /Main and then I have the the cross over at 120Hz but on the back of the Sub do i turn the low pass knob all the way up clockwise to where it says LFE which is way pass the 120 and not set it at 80-90 Seem like the receiver is taking care of things instead of having to use the Sub adjustments knobs on the back of it .I think the receiver has a seperate amp built into it just for the Sub , Can you please tell me how to set the Sub knobs and the setting on the receiver Thank you

Sasi on September 18, 2019:

Very very helpful content mcacc setup nice thing thanks

Rajesh on August 24, 2019:

Very helpful information, Thanks.

Chandru. on April 27, 2019:

Sony 5.1 speakers fixed but audio only fr speaker and hooper what method use pls tell and gice drawing

C. Winston on April 08, 2018:

Very helpful guide, all it. Thanks

Prakash Aglawe on September 08, 2017:

Kindely suggest to protect the woofer from mouse/ rat which enters from behind the