Where to Place Stereo and Surround Sound Speakers

You’ve purchased the home audio system of your dreams, plugged in all of your HDMI cables, and synced all your accessories via Bluetooth. Now it’s time for one of the most critical steps: placing the speakers around the room. This piece will help you find optimal placement for your home audio system so your system will sound its best.

As you follow these suggestions, you likely will need to make allowances for windows and other highly-reflective surfaces, furniture and the realities of daily living. Remember that the most important factor in speaker placement is how they sound, and unless you have a dedicated listening room, some compromises likely will be necessary.

Stereo, 2.1 and 3.1 Surround Sound

2.1 Surround Sound with subwoofer

2.1 Surround Sound with subwoofer

For listeners with a stereo, 2.1 or 3.1 system, finding the correct speaker placement is relatively easy, but the arrangement of the left, right and center channel speakers are of paramount importance. For the left and right channels, ideal speaker placement sits roughly three to five feet from the television, with the listener acting as the third point in an equilateral triangle. Also, the tweeters should ideally be at your ear level when seated.

The subwoofer, if you have one, should be off to one side and sit between the television and the left or right channel speaker. Some opt for placement behind or beneath the sofa if it’s feasible. Because bass frequencies are nondirectional, you can place your subwoofer almost anywhere in the room without affecting its sound quality. That said, don’t pump sound directly into a piece of furniture, draperies or anything that will absorb it.

3.1 Surround Sound

3.1 Surround Sound

For a 3.1 setup, the same rules apply, but with placement of a center channel speaker right below or above the center of the television and directly in front of the listener at roughly ear level. Often, digital mixes ensure that dialogue comes from the center, so this speaker’s placement is especially important. All of this is based upon the primary seating/viewing position. With these setups, all one has to do is keep the speakers symmetrical, and you should be good to go.

5.1 Surround Sound

As the systems become more complex, finding the optimal placement of your speakers becomes more complicated. Beyond the traditional stereo and 3.1 setups, the numerous speakers each have a distinct role that determines where and how they should be placed.

5.1 Surround Sound

5.1 Surround Sound

For a 5.1 system, speaker placement is more or less standardized. Dolby, the leading authority on surround sound, suggests taking these rules for 2.1 and 3.1 systems and adding the additional rear right and left channels. The rear channels add a third dimension to the sound, allowing sound effects to travel from one end of the room to the other. As both 2.1 and 3.1 systems allow for movement from right to left, the rears within a 5.1 system open up the back-to-front movement of sound.

Placement of rears should mirror the front channels, but be slightly higher than ear level, and angled towards the central seating position as needed.

Once the system is set up, be sure that the media source you’re using to experience true surround sound is mixed in 5.1 or above. These days, most movies on Blu-ray disc are, but sometimes older sources, as well as most albums, are mixed for stereo.


7.1 and 9.1 Surround Sound

7.1 Surround Sound

7.1 Surround Sound

With 7.1 and 9.1 systems, the setup becomes more logistically complex, as they require different equipment and more wiring.

In a 7.1 system, two additional channels are added to subdivide the rear channels. What were once the rear channels in 5.1 setups now turn to face the ears of the listener just above ear height. The left and right back speakers are placed behind the seating area, and like in the 5.1 system, should mirror the front channels.

A 9.1 setup adds front height speakers, which create a 3D soundscape. These speakers are best placed directly above the front channels. With a 9.1 setup, the horizontal nature of the 5.1 and 7.1 surround soundscapes becomes vertical, adding additional depth and dimension to the home viewing experience. Most 7.1 and 9.1 systems require higher-end receivers with the ability to not only process the audio signals from the source, but also physically connect the speakers to the system.

9.1 Surround Sound

9.1 Surround Sound

Here is where users must get creative with wiring; either they run the wires beneath the carpet, within walls or get them professionally installed. While wireless rears do exist, as of writing this, most audiophiles prefer their systems hard-wired for now, allowing for the best audio quality.

In general, you must find the system that matches your room, needs and budget. If you routinely watch movies and crave the cinema experience, the sky is the limit for price and options. Many users find that 5.1 systems give them all the immersion they need.

In recent years, video game publishers have embraced surround sound to add to the digital experience, as have a few select record labels. Hearing an album mixed in 5.1 or higher is truly a unique experience, and no matter what system you opt for, you will be pleased with the difference a simple aspect like the physical placement of speakers can have on your overall listening experience.

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Photo by gsloan

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