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How Does Each Speaker Function in a Surround Sound System?

Surround Sound Speakers: What You Need to Know

Home entertainment is not complete without a decent sound system. In fact, when it comes to digital entertainment, movies, games, and music, sound plays an even more significant role than visuals. The most popular sound systems today are surround sound systems. So, what does that mean?

Well, the idea is to have an immersive sound experience nearly mimicking natural sound from all directions. Hence the name surround sound system. 

Surround sound systems were made for movie theaters in the early days of films. Filmmakers were able to create immersive sound with high fidelity using surround sound technology. As home theater systems have evolved and audiophiles become more discerning in their desire for a superior audio component, surround sound systems have grown more and more popular.

Surround Sound System Technology

The surround system technology is non-proprietary apart from unique standards such as Sony’s DTS and Dolby Atmos

In the early days, audio formats used were in two channels only, known as a stereo system. This meant you just needed two speakers (left and right) to realize the audio fully. Later came the AC3 sound format also known as 3-channel or 2.1, commonly used even now in CD tracks. The AC3 added a third channel for deep, low-frequency sound only connected to a sub-woofer. 

From the AC3, things escalated to the now popular 5.1, and 7.1 audio formats. Other formats such as 9.2 and, 11.2 are also available, though exclusive for professional use, movie theaters, and home cinemas. 

In simple terms surround system technology splits the audio codec into multiple independent channels. Every channel is fed into a different speaker with a specific range of frequencies. These speakers can then be arranged around an audience to provide a surround sound experience. These channels have to be broadcast spontaneously to consolidate into a full audio track.

Multimedia acoustic surround sound speaker system
Image credit: maxxyustas, Deposit Photos

Surround Sound Speakers

The most common surround system used in home entertainment content such as Blu-Ray films and video games is 7.1 (8 channel), which can be down-scaled to 5.1 (6 channel). Representation 5.1 means five separate channels for five different surround speakers. The (.1) part of the description means one sub-woofer channel. Making six the total number of audio channels.

Both formats comprise four main categories of speakers. These are: front speakers, center speakers, rear speakers, and the subwoofer. Let’s take a look at each of these speakers in detail. 

The Subwoofer

The subwoofer is the most massive speaker in the system. It is enclosed in a large cabinet usually made of wood with large ventilation vents. The subwoofer is used for deep, low-frequency sound signals. The low-frequency signals are responsible for the bass on audio tracks. The subwoofers channel is exclusively filtered for bass only. Due to its design, it is incapable of producing high-frequency sound. 

In any sound system, the subwoofer is most noticeable since it produces high-energy vibrating sound.

Some systems have a woofer in place of a subwoofer. This is even bigger than a subwoofer with a diameter of up to 30 inches. The problem with woofers is that they produce more physical vibrations than sound. These vibrations can make items topple over everywhere in the living room, which is why they are meant for use outdoors and in concerts.

Front Speakers

At the front, we have the left and right front speakers. In most cases, these speakers are slightly larger than the other satellite speakers. They are full-range, meaning they produce sound anywhere between mid-range and high-frequency sound. 

In surround sound media content, front speakers produce sound coming from the foreground of the picture. In relation to the left and right-hand sides of the audience. Front speakers are also where the music soundtrack of a video game or movie is played.

In modern home systems, most manufacturers are replacing the front and center speakers with a soundbar. A soundbar is a horizontal speaker array with multiple speakers arranged in a way to function as the front and center speakers.

There are various types of speakers that you can use when it comes to the front left and right speakers. You can choose from the bookshelf or floor standing. It really doesn’t matter which ones you go with, but what does matter is that they both work well together with the center speaker.

The type of speakers that you purchase usually comes down to three factors:

  • Your room size and shape
  • Your budget
  • What type of audio do you want to play through the speakers (movies or music)

Center Speakers

In a 5.1 arrangement, the center speaker is only one and is placed directly overhead of the audience. In a 7.1 system, the center speakers are a pair positioned beside the audience on either side.

Center speakers are not as large as the front or rear speakers. They are full-range and usually tuned to a lower frequency than the front speakers. In media such as movies and games, monologues, narrations, and most conversations are channeled to the center speakers.

surround sound setup
Image credit: ArturVerkhovetskiy, Deposit Photos

Rear Surround Speakers

Rear surround speakers are a pair of the surround left and surround right speakers. About the same size as the front speakers or smaller. Like the front speakers, they correspond to the right, and left-hand sides of the audience and are set just behind the audience.

They can produce a full range of frequencies and are tunes to a higher amplitude than center speakers. The background sound and most special effects are channeled to the rear speakers. 

Other Surround Sound System Speaker Arrangements

Like mentioned earlier, some systems with more than eight channels. Audio channels can go to as high as 13. However, the basic layout is the same. You will always have the front surround, center, subwoofer, and rear surround. What might change is the number of speakers and channels representing each of the distinct categories. 

For instance, there can be two subwoofers in a 9.2 surround system, and four channels for the front surround, one center-surround, and four speakers in the rear.

The more channels used, the more  pronounced the surround effect becomes.

In Conclusion

It’s actually very useful for you to know the function of each speaker in your home theater system, so that you can position them the right way. Use this article as your resource to help you choose the types of speakers you want and put together a system that will be best suited for your needs.