Surround Sound Setup Complicated? Home Theater Setup Simplified

I noticed on previous posts that a lot of readers said the Onkyo Receiver  "looks complicated"  I just wanted to comment on that.  I understand if you haven't owned a receiver that looking at the back panel to any would appear intimidating.  While it may appear complicated with all the ports and features, the receivers I've recommended and any that I will recommend usually have decoders in them that will handle any audio soundtrack that any DVD/Blu-Ray or CD you own.  As a result, setting up a receiver of any kind is pretty generic. Devices, speakers, TV.  I'll go through it here.  Really unless you have 20+ devices plugged in, really you're not going to use a lot of what you see on the back panel.  Now if you do have 20+ devices plugged into one receiver send me a pic, I would love to see that :) Hopefully this will make more of you that haven't already, entertain the idea of purchasing a system.  Home theater is a very rewarding hobby especially these days.  The quality of audio and media has improved greatly from even five years ago.

My first surround sound system was awesome.  The sound was amazing (in my mind).  It was a Yamaha 5.1 surround system from over 10 years ago maybe 15 years.  Back then there weren't as many options and there was no HD or Blu-rays.  Heck I think I was playing Sega Genesis and at that point you couldn't even connect it to your stereo receiver.  Now with Playstation/Xbox you can connect with 7.1 surround realism that before you could only obtain with headphones I was talking with someone about it today.  When you can sit on your couch, standing still in a game like Battlefield 2 and you can hear guys coming from behind you walking in the snow, its an amazing progression from console games/PC games from even 5 years ago.  Not to mention the HD sound and picture of  movies now.

Hardware :

To begin, you will need to choose speakers and a receiver that meets your budget and needs.  Just starting out? Check this 5.1 system http://majormack.blogspot.com/2010/11/recommended-starter-system.html (for $399cdn.). This is an excellent way to start.  A recommended receiver I've reviewed at an awesome price is http://majormack.blogspot.com/2010/12/affordable-stereo-receiver-option.html ($549cdn).  If you have a different preference or if your just buying a receiver and your desired speakers I would recommend at a bare minimum, at least 2 HDMI inputs and Digital Decoders (to decode all the different digital sound that different media is produced in -Dolby Digital, DTS-HD, True-HD etc).  This isn't required as some devices (dvd players etc) can decode this information before it reaches the receiver but if you're going to spend the money you may as well get something that you can continue to use that supports everything.  Once you've chosen a receiver choose your speakers(if you didn't choose a 5.1 or 7.1 system that came with them).  Ideally, all the same kind will produce the best sound but if you're on a tight budget I would make sure the front end (two front speakers and the center channel) are at least the same model/brand.  and buy the rest as you can afford it.  Subwoofers are one of the most important piece of the puzzle.  I won't go into that now as I was planning on doing that at a later date.  

Receiver/Device setup:

Everthing is clearly labeled on the back panel of stereo receivers and as a result once you've done this once.  You've the knowledge to setup these devices. 

Now I think this is the part that people may find complicated but almost all receivers have made this part much more simple than you would expect.  With the introduction of HDMI technology audio and video go through the same cable.  This means no more red/yellow/black cords or S-video, component, optical...etc.  Theres one cable to handle what these cables did.  HDMI transfers digital data better at that.   While most receivers will still have the ports to connect these devices really the only time you will use them is if you have devices that don't have HDMI outs; so have fun hooking up your VCR to your HD receiver ;)   Realistically there are devices like my computer in my theater that doesn't have digital sound so I have it connected with RCAs (Red and White cables).    There are several digital devices dvd players, cable boxes etc have digital audio and can  use the optical/coax ports on your receiver.

Sorry if I'm making this sound complicated again but let me put your mind at ease.  Essentially you can take the HDMI cables from your devices (Playstation, HD PVR/Cable box, Computer, Blu-Ray player etc..) and plug them into HDMI IN ports on your receiver.  Now that all your devices are plugged in to the HDMI Inputs on your receiver, all the video and audio signals are in the receiver.  There is one, sometimes two HDMI outputs on the receiver, and an HDMI cable goes from the HDMI Output on your receiver to your HD TV.

Speakers :

Speakers are even simpler.  Its simply a matter of taking the speaker wires and connecting the negative to the negative and the positive to the positive connections on the back of the speakers and the back of the receiver.  Again they are clearly labeled so front right on the receiver is the speaker placed in the front right on your surround setup and right front, center etc. as you can see in the simplified diagram below.


Unless you have whats known as "bi-wired" speakers just ignore the "link" in the diagram

7.1 surround speaker placement
The next consideration is placement.  Now distances from your listening position are generally based on the size of your room and your distance from the television.  As a result I've just included some diagrams showing the standard layouts.  Its likely your receiver manual includes such diagrams and ideal distances.
5.1 speaker placement

The layouts aren't set in stone, they can be modified slightly.  Sometimes you have no choice due to your room size or furniture.  Ideally speakers should be at your listening position height.  I find towers ideal for this in my theater.  Putting them on the walls or directing them at your head also works.  These are good guidelines for placement you may want to get as close to as possible.  Sub placement is always debatable so try a few spots and choose what sounds best to you.  I have one behind me and one in the front of the room.
Subwoofer Placement

There are a few variations for subwoofer placement, depending on how many subwoofers you have for your system. If you have four subs, place them cross pattern in the middle of each wall. If you have two, put them in the middle of opposing walls. If you have one, place it in the middle of the front wall.  However, this is all debatable depending on the shape of your room and the listening position distance from the sub.  End of the day, change positions and test the effect it has on the sound until you find what works.

More Detailed Speaker Placement or Setup instruction here

Nearly There:

With nearly all new receivers a mic is included.  When you plug this in and place it in your listening position, it will equalize all the speaker levels to balance them out so none are overpowering and you have an effective surround experience.  This can make up for discrepancies in positioning, or room defects. Make sure the room is completely silent when you run this mic test.

This is when the complicated part comes.  The mic is a base for configuring your system.  Almost guaranteed the sound will get better as time progresses you'll notice that you can tweak the sound to make it better to your ear.  The only reason I call it complicated is because you'll find new ways to alter the configuration then you'll test it for a while then modify again test it for a while...etc until you have it down;  Honestly, with that Yamaha I had way back when in "the olden days" :) I didnt really do this because the options weren't there but now sound systems let you do all kinds of neat stuff to make your surround experience absolutely amazing.
Your old system

This is a basic overview of setting up a 7.1/5.1 surround system.  You should always read the receiver manual to learn the setup and full capabilities and options for tweaking.

Once you are done just sit back and relax.  Try it I bet you'll hit play and be glad you did!  Not to mention, you can get rid of that old crap one you've been trying to pass off as a stereo.

Surround sound has arrived.........................