Just finish three more vital steps, and you'll be ready to enjoy first-rate sound at home. In a multichannel home theater or music setup, you have to configure the receiver to match your speaker setup, time align all the speakers in the system, and balance their levels. All of this is done using your receiver's speaker-setup (or bass management) menu.
The menu will ask you to select either "small" or "large" for each of the five main speakers (usually by pairs for the L/R front and surround speakers). These settings refer to the speakers' bass-handling ability - "small" for satellites with limited output below 80 Hz and "large" for full-range speakers with true output below 80 Hz (generally large tower speakers).
Use a sound-level meter to calibrate the volume of your speakers. Don't do this by ear. Stand behind the listening position and hold the meter at the same height as the listener's head, with the microphone pointing up so that the sound from all the speakers in the setup moves over it.
With the "small" setting, all bass is directed to the subwoofer, freeing the main speaker from the demands of reproducing low-frequency effects as well as deep-bass musical notes. With virtually all 5.1-channel home theater setups - and all THX-certified speaker systems - you'll get the best sound by selecting "small" for all five main speakers and "on" for the subwoofer. When in doubt, use the "small" setting.
(Listening to DVD-Audio multichannel music, however, is a different matter. As David Ranada showed in "Confirmed: DVD-Audio's 'Base-Less' Rumor," every DVD-Audio player so far - and almost every receiver capable of accepting the six-channel input from a DVD-Audio player - lacks the bass-management capabilities to play DVD-Audio discs properly on a subwoofer/satellite system. Until hardware manufacturers address this issue, you'll need five full-range speakers if you want to hear exactly what's on a DVD-Audio disc.)
For accurate soundstage reproduction and image placement, it's essential that you time align the speakers so that the sounds from all of them arrive at your ears at the same time. Enter the distance of each speaker from your listening position, and the receiver will automatically set the correct time delay.
Balancing speaker levels is also easy. As your receiver sends test tones to each speaker, use a sound-level meter to measure the volume. (A few receivers come with measuring devices, but you can buy a meter at RadioShack if yours doesn't have one.) Stand behind the listening position and hold the meter at the position of the listener's head, with the microphone pointed toward the ceiling so that the sound from the speakers passes over it. Adjust the level settings for each speaker, using the receiver's remote control, until they're all at the same volume with the test tones. Note: You can not do this accurately by ear.
Well, if you've carefully followed all of the steps above, you may now prepare to be amazed - even astonished - at how much more realistic your home entertainment system sounds. Great sonic performance is in the details, and a great speaker setup will take your system to a level of sonic quality you might not have thought possible. Happy listening! S&V
SAMPLE SETUP DISCS
Tracy Chapman Tracy Chapman
Eric Clapton Unplugged
Art Davis A Time Remembered
Michael Hedges Oracle
Bireli Lagrene Blue Eyes
Mozart Piano Concertos Nos. 21 and 24 Eugene Istomin/Seattle Symphony, Gerard Schwarz
George Strait Chill of an Early Fall
These music DVDs are better suited for checking out your surround sound system than almost any movie soundtrack. - David Ranada
(Originally published in: Sound & Vision, May 2001)
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