How To Set Up a Home Theater Surround Sound System

There are plenty of reasons you may want to venture into the world of home surround sound systems. If you just bought a nice new television, you probably want to match your new big-screen experience with an equally impressive sonic one. Or perhaps you recently bought a wall projector or some other system that will allow you to blow images up.

To set up a home theater surround sound system, you will need an AV receiver, preferably 5 speakers and a subwoofer. Connect each speaker and a source (e.g., Apple TV) to the receiver and connect it to the TV. The speaker placement is crucial, but some receivers have a built-in guide to help you do it correctly.

This article will help you set up a surround sound system that will enhance your viewing experience no matter what kind of television you have. It will also discuss ways to outfit a room with an impressive sound system for any budget.

Home theater surround sound system

Determine What Equipment You’ll Need

The first thing you need to do when you decide to set up surround sound is to make sure you have the correct equipment.

You will not want to simply hook up random speakers to your television and arrange them around your couch. This might be possible, but it will most likely result in a sound that is more annoying than impressive.

Start by assessing what equipment you already have. From there, you can determine what you need to buy, if anything.

TV or Projector

Even though a home theater surround sound system can be useful for music, you will most likely want to pair your excellent speaker system with an excellent visual display!

In all likelihood, you already own a TV or monitor that you plan to outfit with a surround sound system. If not, you may want to invest in a high-quality television to match your impressive sound system.

If you want to have that true cinema feeling, you probably will opt for something big. A good TV in XL size usually won’t come cheap. Even though quality projectors aren’t cheap either, you definitely get more size for the money.

The quality of a projector may not match that of a great TV, but some people prefer having a high-quality sound to a high-quality image if they have to choose.

If you want to purchase a projector, this popular model from BenQ is a really great choice if you want something of high quality yet affordable.

AV Receiver

AV receivers may be unfamiliar to people who have never set up surround sound before, but they are necessary for a sophisticated setup. They take audio and visual signals from any source you’d like, then route them through to both a display and a set of speakers.

Even if you have a new TV, it won’t be equipped to support an entire surround sound system. AV receivers will allow you to connect multiple different speakers together.

In most cases, these systems will even allow you to connect your laptop or phone to a surround sound system, meaning you can experience high-quality music whenever you want. Of course, there are differences between home theaters and music systems, but you can absolutely use a home theater system for listening to music as well.

AV receivers are often pricey. While getting an AV receiver for thousands of dollars will probably not make much of a difference for the average consumer, getting one on a budget can pose problems down the line. 

Read more: Do All Receivers Sound the Same? An Honest Guide

Cheaper AV systems won’t be able to support speakers that use high energy levels. That might be fine for your first surround sound system, but if you eventually want to upgrade your speakers, you’ll have to upgrade your AV receiver as well.

For one of the best middle-of-the-road receivers, the Sony STRDH590 Surround Sound Receiver is powerful enough to support most speakers. It comes with Bluetooth capabilities, making streaming music directly to the receiver via your phone easier than ever. It can even support 4K visual systems if you have a TV that supports 4K.

Speakers

Though an AV receiver is crucial to surround sound systems, nothing is more important than the kind of speakers you’ll use. Investing in high-quality speakers will prevent you from getting frustrated with your subpar sound quality down the line.

Some types of speakers come standard with surround sound sets, while others don’t. Where you place these speakers depends on how many you have and your orientation in the room compared to your display. Here are the different types of speakers and where they belong in a surround sound setup:

  • Center Speaker: Most surround sound systems will have one speaker that is meant to sit directly in front of or underneath the TV. You can also put the center speaker above your TV if there is no space underneath, but it should really sit around the same level as your ears.
  • Subwoofer: Subwoofers also come standard with most systems. These devices are bigger than standard speakers and give the sound its “oomph.” It provides the sub-bass, which is the sound at the lowest range of the frequency spectrum. Subbass is more felt than heard, but it can make a big difference to the quality of your surround sound. Some people have two subwoofers sitting on either side of their television. 
  • Front Speakers: Almost every system will have two front speakers as well. These are meant to sit on either side of your TV.
  • Side Speakers: While not every system will have this pair of speakers, which are meant to go on either side of the listener, you’ll need them to get that true surround sound. This is what will give you that immersive experience that makes it feel like you are actually in a movie or TV show.
  • Rear Speakers: On more expensive systems, you can also get a set of speakers that will go directly behind you. These are called 7.1 systems and will be arranged a little differently than your typical 5.1 system.

The different kinds of surround sound systems will be explored later on in this article, along with different brands of speakers.

Cables

If you’re purchasing a surround sound system, the odds are that it comes equipped with the right kinds of cables. With that being said, you will still need to know what each cable is labeled and where they connect. Your sound system’s manual will be helpful to you when identifying different cables.

An important caveat: Some systems today are wireless. These might be convenient, depending on the type of AV receiver you have, but there also may be a loss of sound quality. Wires carry sound more consistently. That said, technology has come a long way, and the difference between wired and wireless speakers is less detrimental than it has been in the past.

Most sound system components will be proportionally better according to their price, but if you need to buy your own cables, don’t make the mistake of overspending. Long cheap cables can add fuzz and sound quality issues to your system, but as long as you aren’t buying the lowest price you can find, this shouldn’t be too much of an issue.

HDMI 

HDMI cables will connect your TV, laptop, and cable box to most standard AV receivers. They are extremely common; odds are you have an HDMI somewhere in your house already. These cables look like a wide USB port, with a “shelf” at the bottom.  In many cases, they’ll be labeled as HDMI.

HDMI allows for eight different channels of both compressed and uncompressed audio. Most common audio formats can be transmitted via HDMI cables.

In fact, with just two HDMI cables, you can connect your cable box to both your TV and your surround sound system. Simply:

  1. Turn off all devices in your entertainment system.
  2. Plug one end of the first HDMI cable into the outlet that is labeled Television.
  3. Plug the other end of that cable into the TV.
  4. Next, plug the second cable into the receiver’s outlet marked for surround sound.
  5. Plug the other end of that cable into your cable box.
  6. Turn the system on and check that it works correctly.

This technique can also be used to connect laptops to your surround sound. If you have a Roku or other streaming device, HDMI cables will also connect them to the AV receiver.

Component Cables

Component cable connections can be found on DVD or Blu-ray players. They can be identified by their three connections on each end, which are often color-coded by red, blue, and green.  

They only transmit the image, which means that you’ll need an optical or coaxial audio cable as well. Some people believe that component cables offer a higher quality image than digital HDMI cables, but the difference is marginal. You may prefer HDMI cables for ease of use.

These will most likely be used to connect your cable box to your television. Simply plug the three connections in on both ends to the cable box and the TV. Make sure to connect the right colors to their matching ports.

Optical

If you’re using component cables, you’ll want an audio connection as well. One of the most common audio connections is called optical cables. These use a digital audio connection.

On your AV receiver, the outlet for the optical cable will be labeled “Optical” and will often have a protective cap over the plug. Optical cables have one square end and one angled end, each with a tiny plug. The angled end is to be placed at the audio output end.

Coaxial

Coaxial cables are also audio-only. They are very similar to optical cables, so which one should you use?

The only difference between these two kinds of audio cables is that optical cables usually support a maximum of 24/96 resolution audio. Coaxial cables, meanwhile, can support 24/192 resolution. Because of this, for high res audio formats, you’ll probably prefer a coaxial cable.

Coaxial cables resemble other kinds of AV cables, such as component cables. Their ports also appear very similar, so be sure to inspect the back of the AV receiver and cable box before you plug in. They will usually be labeled “Coaxial” but can also read “Digital In” or “Digital Out.”

Speaker Wire

One final but necessary component of every surround sound system is the wiring to plug into speakers. You will probably want to purchase a good amount of wiring since you’ll likely be connecting four or more speakers to the same receiver.

Speaker wire is wrapped in plastic insulation and is actually two separate wires entwined. Most of the time, these wires have some sort of visual marker, so you can tell them apart. The connection ports for these wires on speakers and AV receivers will be color-coded; make sure you plug the wires into the same color port on each side.

This Amazon Basics Speaker Wire Cable is very affordable and one of the most popular available. This cable is 100 feet long and 16-Gauge, making it suitable for most types of speakers.

You can connect speaker wire as-is, or you can use banana plugs. Banana plugs can ensure the connection is a little more secure, but it can also be tricky to make sure the wires are firmly in the plug. It all comes down to what you prefer. In either case, make sure to strip the plastic insulation from the ends of each wire.

If connecting your speakers with bare wire, make sure not to touch any bare wires together, as this could cause them to short out! That could damage the speakers or receivers themselves.

For a guide on connecting a surround sound system with bare speaker wire or banana plugs, check out the following video:

HDMI, component, optical, and coaxial cables are standard connections in traditional surround sound setups with a television, a cable box, and speakers. You will also certainly need a speaker wire. However, there are other kinds of cables you may encounter when connecting your surround sound system.

If these cables don’t seem to work for your particular setup, consider whether these other types of cables will fit what you need:

DVI

DVI cables are less common than HDMI nowadays but are still in use. If your device lacks an HDMI port but has a larger port with screws on the side, you likely need a DVI cable.

DVIs transfer visual signals only, so you will need an optical or coaxial cable as well.

VGA

These kinds of connections are common on older computers. They resemble DVI cables, as they also have screws on either side, but they are a little bit narrower.

VGAs can be connected to an HDMI port with the right adapter, such as the Moread HDMI to VGA Gold-Plated Adapter, available on Amazon. However, VGAs are visual connections only, so opt for an HDMI cable when possible.

Stereo Analog

Stereo analog cables are two color-coded connections, similar to component cable connections. “Stereo” means that the sound will come out of two different channels, as opposed to mono, which supports only one, or multi-channel, which supports multiple.

Since surround sound setups use multiple different points to pump out sound, a multi-channel audio connection is better. Optical and coaxial cables support multi-channel audio, so you will probably prefer to use them.

Cable “Camouflage”

Since sound systems require so many wires, you’ll probably want to find a way to integrate these seamlessly into your room. You could leave the wires loose on the floor, but this will leave the speakers easy to unplug and make your entertainment room look messy. 

Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to conceal wires without breaking the bank. One great option is this EVEO Cable Concealer, which is over 150 inches (3.1 meters) and can even be painted over.

You can also install them into the walls themselves, but this is tricky to do by yourself, and it can be expensive to hire a contractor. Of course, if you’re investing in a high-quality setup, you may prefer to get the wiring installed in your walls. Keep in mind: this will make upgrading your system later on much more difficult, so invest in high-quality speakers if you choose to go this route.

Now that you know what you’ll need to set up your surround sound, you can go ahead and get started.

Read Your Manuals

First, you’ll want to read the manual for every part of your speaker system. This is the most important step since your particular system may be set up slightly differently than others.

Take a look at the manuals for your cable box, your AV receiver, and your speakers. This will also let you know right away if your devices aren’t compatible.

Set Up the Room

Believe it or not, half the battle will be getting your room set up correctly. The acoustics of your room can have an outsize effect on how your system sounds, so take a look at what your living room looks like.

Is your room all wooden paneling and hardwood floors? It probably looks great, but hardwood is notorious for making rooms echo, which will muddle the sound of your speakers.  

If your entertainment room has hardwood floors and little in the way of furniture, consider investing in some thick rugs or curtains. That will help offset the echoes.

On the other hand, a crowded room with lots of soft surfaces, such as carpet or plush furniture, will absorb the sound, canceling out the impressive surround sound quality. If that’s the case, consider pushing most of your furniture towards the walls. Adding a coffee table will also help add some resonance.

Ultimately, a mixture of soft and hard surfaces will give you the best quality of sound.

Set Up Your Speakers

Now it’s time to put your speakers around the room. You’ll want to take care of this part and may even want to test out different orientations for your speakers to determine what looks and sounds the best.

Depending on how many speakers you are equipped with, there are three different ways you can arrange your surround sound:

2.1 Setup

With this setup, you will have two front speakers and one subwoofer. You won’t be able to get a truly “surround sound” experience, but you will still be able to enhance the sound of anything you watch or listen to. If you compare this to your TV’s built-in speakers, the difference is like night and day.

For the 2.1 setup, place the front speakers on each side of the TV and angle them slightly towards your listening position. Usually, 20-30° angle will be good. It can often be better to place the speakers away from the wall to get a more balanced sound. Experiment a bit with your speakers’ placement for the best sound.

A super simple 2.1 setup for beginners is the Edifier S350DB 2.1 Speaker System. These are powered speakers that don’t even need a receiver to work with your TV. It comes with a subwoofer and two front speakers. It looks professional with a wooden casing, sounds good, and is a straightforward way to get a lot better sound from your TV.

5.1 Setup

A 5.1 setup is the most common for surround sound systems. This kind of system will utilize the center speaker, a sub-bass, two front speakers, and two side speakers.

When setting up a 5.1 surround sound setup, place your center speaker, subwoofer, and front speakers in the same place as you would for a 2.1 setup. Then, take your side speakers and put them at offset angles behind you. In most cases, you’ll want to have your side speakers sitting just over either of your shoulders.

With five speakers and a subwoofer, you can completely transform how your home theater’s stereo system sounds.

For a budget 5.1 system (including the receiver), the Yamaha YHT-4950U Home Theater System provides a true surround sound experience without breaking the bank. Of course, there are better options if you really enjoy amazing sound, but this will do for a beginner and casual movie lover.

7.1 Setup

If you want to take your sound to the next level and are ready to invest in a much nicer sound system, consider getting a 7.1 surround sound system. 7.1 systems have all the types of speakers included in a 5.1 system, as well as the rear speakers.  

For these kinds of setups, simply take the side speakers and put them directly to the left and right of your couch. Then, place the rear speakers behind your couch, one on either side.  

A 7.1 setup will provide an even more powerful sound since the vibrations come from multiple sources. If your home theater is living in a large room, it will also prevent inconsistencies in the sound depending on where you’re sitting. You want to avoid having “dead” spots in the sound or some seats that are significantly closer to speakers than other seats.

You likely won’t find a budget 7.1 surround sound system since most people interested in buying over seven speakers prioritize quality over anything else. For one of the best yet affordable 7.1 systems available, consider purchasing the Fluance Elite High Definition Surround Sound System. Two speakers are set up in free-standing towers, and the set comes with a 10-inch subwoofer.

Connect All Devices Together

Finally, connect all your devices with AV connections and speaker wire. Take a look at the back of your AV receiver and hook up whatever systems you’ll be using to play from your surround sound.  

Related Article: Troubleshooting Guide: Why Is My Receiver So Low?

You can connect your cable box to your AV receiver and use your surround sound to play live TV. You should also be able to hook your laptop up to your AV receiver, usually with only an HDMI cord. DVD players are usually connected with component cables and either a coaxial or optical audio cable. Blu-ray devices have similar setups.

If you have a Roku device or other type of media streamer, this can usually be connected directly to your AV receiver with an HDMI cable. If not, double-check the device’s manual to see what kind of connection you need.

If you happen to have a VCR that you’d like to connect to your surround sound, you should first check if the device has an HDMI outlet. If not, you will likely have to connect it with component cables and stereo analog cables. Keep in mind that VCRs are old technology, and the sound will be of lower quality than from other sources.

Final Thoughts

When setting up your home theater surround sound system, first get an AV receiver, all the necessary cables and wires, and a good set of speakers. There are several different ways to set up your speakers, but the most common is a 5.1 setup with four side speakers, one center speaker, and a subwoofer. Finally, connect the system with speaker wire and AV cables.

Installing a home theater system is simpler than ever and can be extremely rewarding, especially for audiophiles. If you know exactly what tools you need before diving into this project, you shouldn’t face any issues!