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An external sound system completes a home theater, and turning one on yields unexpected pleasures. Recently, I stumbled upon a new TV series on HBO and a romantic drama on Blu-ray Disc both designed to indulge the ears.
The series, True Blood, features a waitress who can hear what people are thinking. As she works her way past tables, thoughts cascade toward her from every direction. And the audience hears the cacophony, too, brilliantly steered from multiple speakers at the sides of the TV and near the sofa.
The movie, August Rush, on Blu-ray and also available on DVD, features a humdinger of an opener: a child prodigy deciphers the musical nature of wind rustling the field in which he's standing. As the wind shifts, the sound washes over the audience from various directions. The powerful effect is all but lost on viewers relying on the TV's internal speakers alone. The same is true for the restaurant sounds in True Blood.
So, what does it take to transform your TV's stereo landscape into three dimensions? Basically, you need a new digital receiver plus at least four satellite speakers, a center speaker, a powered subwoofer, and wire to connect them. The "5.1" term refers to five discrete channels of audio decoded from a TV program or disc, each of which is sent to its own speaker. The ".1" represents the low-frequency channel sent to the subwoofer. (A receiver that supports 6.1 or 7.1 sound enables you to add speakers beyond a 5.1 set-up now or later.)
Speakers should be appropriately placed. The subwoofer squats on the floor, so that's easy. Perhaps the furniture holding your HDTV set can accommodate two of the satellites and the center speaker. The surround satellites need to be at about ear height when you're seated, with one to your left and another to your right or both separated behind you. As an alternative to furniture support, speakers can be mounted on stands or wall brackets. Specialty speakers called in-wall speakers use wiring embedded in the wall, but most people use visible speakers and hide the wires under a rug or tack them to the floor molding.
You can purchase a speaker system that includes the satellites and subwoofer or you can buy a home theater in a box (HTiB) which includes a speaker system and receiver. The receiver part of the HTiB may include a DVD or Blu-ray Disc player. If you prefer to purchase separate components, make sure they match sonically.
Here are links to the major home theater categories:
Surround Sound Systems