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Multi Channel Home Theater Systems Explained

If you’re looking to enhance your home entertainment experience, a multi-channel home theatre sound system is one of the absolute highest impact things you install, or start to build. The additional channels add layers of sound that wrap you in more and more of the audio layers of your content, driving emersion and, of course, enjoyment! But we’ll also be the first to say these systems can get complicated, which is why we’re here today to explain the basics.

A multi-channel home theater sound system augments the overall home theater experience by adding layers of sound channels that drive immersion. From smaller 2.1 systems to advanced 9.2.4 systems, understanding what you need isn’t that hard after you understand the details.

But what even are those details? Strap in, because we’re going to start at the very base of the idea here, building a firm foundation of the general situation and key terms before working through specific features of the home theater sound system you need to understand. After you’ve got a handle on multi-channel home theater sound systems, we’ll move into how you can design one that fits your space, and some systems we recommend considering. Let’s get started!

Understanding Multi Channel Home Theatre Speaker Systems

Multi-channel home theater sound explained

When it comes to creating a home theatre, the speaker system is a crucial component that can make or break your movie-watching experience. Multi-channel home theatre speaker systems are designed to provide a surround sound experience, which can make you feel like you’re right in the middle of the action.

And there are lot’s of variations on this theme. Some systems are wired, while it’s possible to run an entire surround sound system wirelessly to cut down on cable management needs. Have a look at that article later if that’s something you want to try, but for now, to understand this in more detail, we’ll need to work through a short list of key terms and ideas around how these systems are discussed in the industry:

How Are Speaker System Channels Described?

When it comes to speaker systems, the channels are described numerically to indicate the number of speakers and subwoofers in the setup. The most basic speaker setup is a Mono system, which uses only one speaker. Stereo systems are the most common and use two speakers, usually referred to as the left and right channels.

Surround sound systems are more complex and have multiple channels that distribute audio throughout the room. The most common is a 5.1 system, which includes five speakers and one subwoofer. The five speakers are arranged as follows: front left, front center, front right, rear left, and rear right. The “.1” refers to the subwoofer.

Other common speaker systems include 7.1 and 9.1 setups, which have additional speakers for a more immersive audio experience. A 7.1 system includes seven speakers and one subwoofer, while a 9.1 system includes nine speakers and one subwoofer. Have a look at our article on speaker system channel naming to get a feel for the range and what to expect with these numbers.

Dolby Atmos and DTS are shorthand for audio standards that imply a specific set of output channels from the source. Dolby Atmos, for example, is typically set apart by it’s ability to use upward-firing channels that are appended to channel names after the subwoofer. So, a 7.1.2 system has 2 upward firing speakers and can support Dolby Atmos generally. If you already know you’re interested in using Dolby Atmos for gaming specifically, have a look at this external resource talking a bit more about that.

There are more audio standards–we’ve compared Dolby TrueHD to Atmos on the blog before, and you can have a look at the actual quality comparison notes we have between Dolby Atmos and Dolby Digital here, but it’s more important that you take away the idea that audio standards exist as shorthands for the audio channels that are available for outpu.

It’s important to note that the number of channels doesn’t always indicate the quality of the audio. Other factors, such as the quality of the speakers and the room acoustics, can also affect the overall audio experience.

How Do Soundbars Fit Into This Conversation?

Sonos Arc Soundbar on Entertainment Center

Soundbars are a popular option for those who want to improve their home theater experience without the hassle of setting up a full surround sound system. They’re typically compact and easy to install, making them an ideal choice for small spaces or those who don’t want to deal with the wires and cables that come with a traditional home theater setup.

At the lower end of the spectrum, soundbars can be simple 2-channel solutions that provide an improvement over your TV’s built-in speakers. These soundbars usually come with a subwoofer to enhance bass response and create a more immersive sound experience, making them 2.1 channel systems. They’re a great choice for those who are on a budget or have limited space.

On the other hand, high-end soundbars can be advanced hubs that satellite speakers can spoke off of, wired or wireless. These soundbars can provide a true surround sound experience, with multiple channels and speakers placed strategically around the room. They often come with features like Dolby Atmos and DTS, which add height channels to create a more immersive 3D sound experience.

It’s important to note that while a soundbar can add multiple channels, it is still just another speaker in your system. Adding a single subwoofer, rear speaker, or ceiling speaker is only adding one channel at a time. We have a longer writ-up on how to know if a single soundbar or surround system is right for you here.

What Are The Essential Components of a Home Theatre Surround System?

Audio Video Receiver on dark background

When it comes to building a home theatre system, there are a few essential components that you’ll need to consider. These components include speakers and subwoofers, an AV receiver. Let’s take a closer look at each of these components and what you need to know about them.

Speakers and Subwoofers

The speakers and subwoofers are the most important components of your home theatre system. They’re responsible for delivering the audio portion of your entertainment experience. When choosing speakers and subwoofers, you’ll want to consider the size of your room, the type of content you’ll be watching, and your personal preferences.

A 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound system is the most common setup for home theatre systems. This setup includes five or seven speakers and a subwoofer. The speakers are placed around the room to create a surround sound effect, while the subwoofer provides the low-frequency bass sounds. Some people prefer a 2.1 setup, which includes two speakers and a subwoofer, for a simpler setup.

Also worth noting is that individual speakers can be powered or non-powered, which is to say, they may have their own individual power cable that needs an outlet, or, they can rely on the power coming through the speaker wire that connects to the AV Receiver (perhaps with a built in amplifier) to get their power. We’ve looked at considering wired vs. wireless speakers on the blog before, and one big caveat is that wireless speakers often still need to be plugged in somewhere.

Audio Video or “AV” Receiver

The AV receiver is the central hub of your home theatre system’s sound (and likely video) management. It’s responsible for processing and amplifying the audio and video signals from your source devices and sending them to your speakers and display device. When choosing an AV receiver, you’ll want to consider the number of channels it supports, the power output, and the types of inputs and outputs it has.

It’s important to make sure that your AV receiver can output the number of channels you want to output. For example, if you want to output a Dolby Atmos signal, you’ll need an AV receiver that supports at least 7.1.2 channels. Check out How Do You Know If You’re Actually Getting Dolby Atmos Sound? for more information on this topic and how you can ensure the actual audio settings are set so that you get all those channels at the output speakers.

Technically, you can get away with not needing a receiver and running a full system totally without one. It’s a more simple solution, but a bit more expensive, but the option does exist! And be sure to see our separate guide on preamps vs amps if you want to go deeper! We also have an article comparing Denon vs. Marantz receivers you can peruse.

Choosing the Right System for Your Room

9.2.4 channel speaker diagram

When it comes to setting up a multi-channel home theater system, there are a few key factors to consider to ensure you’re getting the best possible experience. In this section, we’ll discuss two important considerations: room size and acoustics, and placement of speakers.

Before we do, have a look at the image above that depicts a more advanced diagram for a 9.2.4 channel system (with the upward firing tweeters embedded in the soundbar with the center, sub, and stereo speakers). This is basically the most complex a system will ever get, so you can use this diagram to mentally edit out the speakers you don’t have or don’t want and still get an idea of where you should place the channels you are using.

Room Size and Acoustics

The size and shape of your room can have a significant impact on the sound quality of your home theater system. Generally, larger rooms require more powerful speakers to fill the space with sound. If you have a smaller room, you may be able to get away with a less powerful system.

Additionally, the acoustics of your room can affect the sound quality as well. Rooms with hard surfaces, like tile or hardwood floors, can create echoes and reverberations that can distort the sound. In contrast, rooms with carpeting and soft furnishings can help to absorb sound and create a more balanced listening experience.

You can manage the sound with acoustic panels, even on the ceiling, and you can even make your own. So if you have a lot of hard surfaces or a very tight space that might cause echoes, keep in mind that you can factor that in and plan to add a few acoustic panels in the right spots (placement guide) if you need.

Many people settle out in the middle of the surround sound range, with a 5.1 or 7.1 channel system, so, if that’s starting to feel like your situation have a look at our article comparing these two types of systems directly.

Placement of Speakers

The placement of your speakers is also critical to achieving optimal sound quality. The front speakers should be positioned at ear level when seated, and the center channel should be placed directly above or below the TV. The surround sound speakers should be placed slightly behind the listening area and at an angle that directs the sound towards the listener (and you might be able to put it on its side if you need to).

It’s also important to consider the directionality of your speakers. For example, if you have a basement home theater, you may need to adjust the placement of your speakers to account for the low ceiling height and the fact that sound tends to travel differently in basements.

Overall, choosing the right multi-channel home theater system for your room requires careful consideration of the room size, acoustics, and speaker placement. By taking these factors into account, you can ensure that you’re getting the best possible sound quality from your home theater system.

Testing Your Home Theater Surround Sound System

When it comes to testing your home theater system, there are a few things to keep in mind to ensure that you are getting the most out of your setup. First, it is important to make sure that all of your equipment is properly connected and configured. This includes your TV, speakers, receiver, and any other devices that you may have connected to your system.

Once you get sound coming out, test the system further by streaming content from a variety of different sources. This can help you to get a sense of how your system performs with different types of content, such as movies, TV shows, and music.

As you can imagine, this testing process is a little more involved than we’ve summarized here, but it’s a critically important step to making sure you’re getting what you’ve literally paid for. So, have a look at our more in-depth article on testing your surround system here if you’d like to go further.

2 Popular Multi Channel Home Theatre Surround Systems We Recommend

Maybe you’re ready to pull the trigger on a new sound system! If so, have a look at these two options we recommend below, from less to more expensive:

Logitech Z906 5.1 Channel System

Logitech Z906 5.1 Surround System

The Logitech Z906 is a 5.1 channel surround sound system (on Amazon) is a fantastic starter option. It comes with a control console that allows you to adjust the volume and customize sound settings, meaning you don’t need a separate big receiver. The system includes five satellite speakers and a subwoofer that delivers deep bass. The Logitech Z906 is compatible with multiple devices, including TVs, computers, and gaming consoles. It also has a built-in Bluetooth feature that allows you to stream music wirelessly from your smartphone or tablet.

The Logitech Z906 is a great option for those who want a powerful and versatile home theatre system. It is easy to set up and use, and it delivers high-quality sound that immerses you in your favorite movies, TV shows, and games, and all of this at what we think is a very price point at less than $500.

Nakamichi Shockwafe Ultra 9.2.4Ch Soundbar System

The Nakamichi Shockwafe Ultra 9.2.4Ch Soundbar is one of our favorite systems on the blog. It includes a soundbar, two rear surround speakers, and two subwoofers that deliver deep and powerful bass. It has upward firing tweeters in the soundbar itself that offer that sweet sweet Dolby Atmos sound, and you’ll just have to sort through our full review article (above) or this highly detailed video review I put together for all the other bells and whistles on this outstanding package.

The Nakamichi Shockwafe Ultra 9.2.4Ch Soundbar (on Amazon) is a great option for those who want a high-quality and immersive home theatre system, an they just want to buy one thing and have it all installed and ready hassle free. This conveience and quality come at a price-tag, though, north of $1000.

Additional Features and Considerations

When choosing a multi-channel home theatre system, there are several additional features and considerations to keep in mind to ensure you get the best possible experience. Here are some key factors to consider:

Streaming and Connectivity Options

With the rise of streaming services, it’s important to choose a system that offers a range of connectivity options. Look for a system with built-in Wi-Fi or Ethernet connectivity, as well as compatibility with popular streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Hulu.

Additionally, consider whether the system supports Bluetooth or AirPlay connectivity, which can make it easy to stream music and other audio content from your smartphone or tablet.

Speaker Count and Weight

Another important consideration is the number and weight of the speakers in the system. A typical multi-channel system includes five to seven speakers, but some systems may have more or fewer.

Keep in mind that more speakers generally means a more immersive audio experience, but it also means more speakers to set up and more wires to manage. Additionally, consider the weight of the speakers, as heavier speakers may require more robust mounting hardware.

Flexibility and Upgrade Options

Finally, consider the flexibility and upgrade options of the system. Look for a system that allows for easy customization and expansion, such as the ability to add additional speakers or upgrade to a higher-end receiver. Consider whether the system supports features like Dolby Atmos or DTS, which can provide even more immersive audio and more “future proofing” than the alternatives.

Common Challenges and Solutions with Multi-Channel Home Theatre Systems

Multi-channel home theatre systems can be a great addition to any home entertainment setup. However, they can also present a few challenges that may affect your overall experience. In this section, we’ll explore some common issues that we see users facing with multi-channel home theatre systems and some potential solutions to these problems.

Sound Imbalances

One of the most common issues with multi-channel home theatre systems is sound imbalance. This occurs when the volume of one speaker is louder or softer than the others, resulting in a less-than-ideal audio experience.

To address this issue, we recommend using a sound level meter to calibrate the volume of each speaker. This will ensure that each speaker is producing the same sound level, resulting in a more balanced audio experience.

Connectivity Issues

Another common issue with multi-channel home theatre systems is connectivity issues. This can occur when the system is not properly connected to the source device, resulting in no audio or poor audio quality. To address this issue, check all the cables and connections to ensure they are properly connected. Additionally, using high-quality speaker wire and speaker wire connectors can help prevent connectivity issues.

Software Glitches or AV Receiver Mismatches

Software glitches can also be a common issue with a newly installed (or growing) multi-channel home theatre system. This can occur when the system software is not up-to-date or when there are compatibility issues with the source device. To address this issue, we recommend regularly updating the system software and checking for compatibility issues with the source device. Additionally, resetting the system can often help resolve software glitches.

If you haven’t done it in awhile, compare the specs on your receiver to all of your speakers and make sure you’re not overtaxing your system. Check out our article explaining receivers and amplifiers in more detail to understand how to run this spec comparison for yourself.

A Sound Conclusion

So, now you know how a multi-channel home theater system enhances the overall viewing experience. However, it’s more than just picking the system with the most channels.

The quality and type of the components, the setup, and the acoustics of your room, all play an important role in the performance of the system. Remember, a smaller, well-setup system can often outperform a poorly setup system with more channels. Whatever the choice may be, the outcome is guaranteed to bring new levels of enjoyment to your favorite films, TV shows, and video games.