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September 25, 2009

Two is company. 5.1 is a party in your ears.

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 1:19 am

So, you plopped down a grand – maybe even two or more – and now you’re watching your favorite shows on that big, beautiful flat screen TV.  What could possibly be better?  Well, if you’re using the two measly speakers that likely came with that set, the answer is simple: the sound.

What can you do about it?  Consider investing in a 5.1 channel sound system.


Instead of using your TV’s built in stereo amplifier and stereo speakers, a 5.1 channel sound system typically uses an external multi-channel amplifier and an array of six separate speakers.  Five of these speakers are deployed in a sort of circle (three in front of you and two behind you.)  The remaining speaker (i.e. the “.1” in “5.1”)  has the sole mission in life of producing those deep, rich low frequency sounds that fill a room and resonate in your belly.  (You probably have also heard of 6.1, 7.1 and so on.  As you can guess, these are just like 5.1, except with even more discrete channels and speakers to play them through.)


The most obvious benefit of 5.1 sound is the immersive experience that results from having five discrete sound sources all around you.  (Trust me, the first time you hear a bullet ricochet in your 5.1 outfitted TV room, you will indeed hit the deck.)  Of equal importance, however, is the simple fact that the range and quality of sound that a typical 5.1 system can produce far outperforms those little guys typically slapped on to the sides of a television.  This is particularly so when considering the richness and depth afforded by the sub-woofer.  Even tuning in the news can be far more pleasing – after all, there’s a reason those anchors have velvety smooth pipes.


(This part starts to get a bit techie.  If you’re more into the experience than the details, skim this section and skip to “HOW MUCH DOES IT COST?”)

In order to experience true multi-channel sound, you need three things:

1. A multi-channel source.  This is a piece you probably already have.  Nearly all DVDs and most digital television sources (including cable and satellite) qualify.  Now, not every program on every channel will arrive with a multi-channel sound track.  But, keep in mind that even stereo programs sound SOOO much fuller when played through a dedicated receiver and 5.1 speaker system.

2. A multi-channel receiver.  Something has to provide power to all those speakers, right?  That’s where this dude comes in.  It’s also the job of the receiver to “decode” the digital signal that carries the multi-channel sound and break it out to the six separate speakers.   That’s where terms like Dolby Digital and DTS come in.  These are the various technologies used to perform the sound encoding that your receiver ultimately must decode for playback.  There are many variations of DD and DTS, and high end receivers ship with an alphabet soup of support for them.  For a basic 5.1 setup, you don’t really need to sweat this – as long as your receiver can decode Dolby Digital and DTS you should be good.

3. A set of multi-channel speakers.   This would include three front speakers (front-left, front-center and front-right), two rear speakers (rear-left and rear-right) and the one sub-woofer.


As always, that depends on the quality of the experience you seek.  Here are some options to get you started:

  • Entry Level: You can purchase a multi-channel receiver and speaker set in a bundle (often called Home Theater in a Box, or HTIB) for as little as $200 or $300.  (Amazon search: HTIB)
  • Up A Notch: For more accurate sound, expect to spend at least $200 just for the receiver (Amazon search: AV Receiver), and then $300 or more for the 5.1 speaker set (Amazon search: 5.1 speakers.)
  • To the Max: If you have the budget, a high end speaker set or even individual speakers can truly bring the movie theater experience to your home – expect to pay $1,000 or more.  For this type of purchase, consider contacting your local integrator to ensure the right fit and installation.

What’s that, you say?  Your spouse will not approve of all those speaker wires running around your living room?  The ideal solution would be running them through walls.  But, if you don’t have that luxury, have a look at the variety of wireless speaker options.

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