HDTV's Secret Weapon: Sound

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The "5.1" reference that appears at the start of many primetime shows is the networks' advisory to switch on your home theater's speaker system. When you do, you'll enjoy the program the way it was meant to be heard. A show broadcast in Dolby Digital 5.1 can deliver audio to five full-range speakers (front left, center, front right, surround left, and surround right) plus a low frequency effects channel (designated by the ".1") to the subwoofer.

To increase your awareness of what you're missing if you happen to be watching a TV that doesn't include an external sound system, we've listed some of the ways a program's sound director enhances the show by steering audio to discrete speakers in your home theater.

Yamaha HTR-6140BL 5.1-Channel Digital Home Theater Receiver

Yamaha HTR-6140BL 5.1-Channel Digital Home Theater Receiver

BUMPERS- The most famous sound that accompanies scene changes is the doink doink on Law & Order. With surround speakers, the cue slaps you across your ears. Mysteries and crime dramas often employ flashbacks to tell the story. Besides a visual effect like a literal flash to bookend the scene, there's almost always an audio cue. For example, when the dramatization of a witness's memory plays out in Without A Trace and the audience is returned to the present, there's a whoosh from the surrounds.

IMMERSIVE MUSIC- Narration and dialog emanate from the center speaker supplemented by the front left and front right speakers. You'll hear them at work during a drama's prologue. But then the theme song cuts in firing from all speakers, and the fanfare surrounds you. The CSI: NY series theme song, "Baba O'Riley" from The Who, exploits all your speakers. You can also feel immersed for an entire broadcast if the show is mainly music and is produced in Dolby Digital 5.1. Expect your speakers to get the full workout during the Great Performances presentation of "Dance in America: San Francisco Ballet's Nutcracker" premiering Wednesday, Dec. 17th, on PBS.

JBL Cinema Sound CS6100 5.1 Home Theater Speaker System
JBL Cinema Sound CS6100 5.1 Home Theater Speaker System

AMBIANCE- A city street scene is enhanced with sirens and car horns, a suburban street with a dog barking, an office with phones ringing or conversations subdued in the background. If you're watching the detectives in Life on Mars, you'll hear typing or the rolling drum of a mimeograph machine. A slamming door comes from a specific speaker, tracking the path of a character exiting.

ACTION EFFECTS- Whether you're watching drug dealers spraying bullets on CSI: Miami or Jack Bauer firing at terrorists on 24, the trajectory of the sound mimics the motion. You should be able to close your eyes and know where the heroes and villains are situated on screen. If there's an explosion, you'll feel the boom thanks to the subwoofer.

Harman Kardon CP 40 Home Theater System
Harman Kardon CP 40 Home Theater System

STADUIM SEATING- Sports enthusiasts unable to make it to a game in person are almost always impressed seeing it on a big screen HDTV. Yet, they may be unaware that the reason they feel so engrossed is that fans in the stadium are screaming from the surround speakers.

So, what do you need to equip your TV with a 5.1 (or higher) sound system? A typical home theater includes a Dolby Digital-compatible receiver, four satellites (two front and two surround speakers), a center speaker, and a subwoofer. (Sometimes the center speaker is counted as one of five satellites.) Your best bet is getting the full set of speakers from the same manufacturer so that they sonically match. The receiver can be a different brand. Alternatively, some people prefer to get the receiver in the same package as the speakers, a bundle referred to as a home theater in a box. An HTiB may also contain a DVD player, and a few include a Blu-ray Disc player. Make sure you get a 5.1 or higher system. A 7.1 system comes with two extra satellites meant for placement in the rear of the room.

Western Digital's My DVR Expander

With all that sound coming at you, staying up-to-date with your favorite HDTV shows isn't easy if you have a life away from the couch. That's why busy viewers delay consuming their series by recording first and watching later. The best way to do that is with a digital video recorder (DVR). Sadly, the DVR's internal hard drive tends to fill up, causing unintended deletions. Some DVR models, however, enable you to attach additional storage using such peripherals as Western Digital's My DVR Expander. See the "Increase Program Storage" section of "Three Ways to Get Your Money's Worth from Cable TV."

Equipment Links:

Dolby Digital Receivers

5.1 Home Theater Speaker Systems

Home Theaters In A Box