Should You Get a Surround Sound System?

Should You Get a Surround Sound System?


Surround sound content for music and movies is there and growing. Why not take advantage of it?

You’d be excused for thinking surround sound was a fad and died a long time ago, because it sort of was, and did. Once all the rage, home theatre systems quickly lost favour with mainstream consumers, but surround sound never entirely left. Turns out it’s been evolving and now seems poised for a revival. If you’re not part of it, you might be missing out on some awesome home entertainment.

For more than 20 years, I’ve been building, upgrading, and fine tuning my home theatre / audio system. When I started, it was common for people to have a 5.1 or 5.2 surround system to play movies or SACD/DVD-Audio discs mixed in surround.

How many among us used go to the local Blockbuster or other video store on the weekend to rent movies? It was popular in those days for people to have a movie night with friends and neighbours, complete with popcorn, snacks, and drinks. The biggest change since then is that we used to have discs to spin in our DVD or Blu-ray players and now much of our media content is streamed from the Internet. At least now we don’t have to face the prospect of showing up at the video store only to find out that all the copies of the latest movie we wanted to see are out.

Today, countless TV shows and movies on Netflix, Disney Plus, Apple TV, and a growing list of content providers offer surround sound material in 5.1 or even in 9-channel Dolby Atmos. So many of my favourite TV shows and movies are now in 5.1 surround, and I love watching a sporting event or music concert whose ambient sounds put me at the centre of the action, as if I were there.

I also own quite a bit of music in 5.1. My library includes many SACD, DVD-Audio, DTS, and Blu-ray music discs, so owning a quality surround sound system that can play surround music in great sound is a priority for me.

There are several key factors to consider when assembling a surround sound system, including:


Budget is perhaps the most critical factor to consider. How much are you willing to spend on your surround system? The answer will make it easier for you to know in what direction to go, not only pricewise, but in terms of features and functionality, and the size of your setup.

There are many “budget” home theatre systems available from the big box stores that offer all-in-one 5.1-channel speaker packages. Just add an A/V receiver with enough HDMI inputs and outputs, speaker wire and interconnects, and you’re all set. There is also a widening selection of good sounding soundbars that can, to various degrees, simulate a surround experience from a single speaker enclosure. 

All the above choices are going to give you a far better movie and TV experience than the built-in speakers in your TV, but they can’t replicate an authentic movie theatre or concert experience in your home. For sound to rival that of a real cinema, you’ll need to spend money. In return, you’ll have a sound system that offers a far more engaging audiovisual experience, that can also double as an excellent two-channel sound system.

Choose the Right Room

The room you choose must be big enough to accommodate not only the number of speakers you’ll need, but the sonic environment that a surround setup is supposed to recreate. Consider factors such as room size, layout, and room acoustics. The ideal room for a surround experience is generally rectangular-shaped, with enough room and flexibility to position the front, centre, and surround speakers so they’re spaced symmetrically, if not identically, around the listening position. For example, I sit approximately 10’ away from my front and centre channel speakers, while the surround speakers are positioned slightly behind my sofa and my listening position. A bigger room would have been even better for me, but the cost of homes in Vancouver doesn’t allow for that in my budget.

Ideally, your home cinema is away from interfering noises from the kitchen, either from appliances or areas where people tend to congregate. Worst case scenario is a home theatre in a room that is an open concept family room—a kitchen and dining room area—where noise can be prevalent. The best-case scenario would be to have a dedicated, soundproof listening room, perhaps in the basement.

The ceiling should be at least 8’-high, and accommodation must be made for large reflective surfaces such as windows and doors, and reflective floors such as those made of hardwood or tile. Pay attention to room acoustics to optimize sound quality. To mitigate harsh highs, muddy mids, and bass bloom that can impinge on the sound’s clarity, you can use acoustic treatments, such as a carpet, rugs, curtains, and acoustic wall panels, or you can buy speakers or an amplifier equipped with a room correction feature such as DSP.

Select a High-Quality Display That Provides an Exceptional Picture Quality

The centre piece of any home cinema system is the display. Compared to years ago, screen technology has improved considerably and gotten generally cheaper in the process. There is a myriad of TVs based on OLED, LCD, QLED and MicroLED technologies in 1080p, 4K or 8K resolution. Image quality being equal, when it comes to screen size, bigger is usually better for upping the immersive quotient of whatever you’re watching. While screen size is ultimately a matter of personal choice, Samsung suggests this simple formula to determine a good screen size for your room: “Viewing distance (in inches)/2 = recommended TV size”.

I have found that using a latest spec HDMI cable—currently, that’s version 2.1—can provide a better picture and sound quality compared to older spec HDMI cables and is one of the cheapest upgrades you can make.

But it’s not just the HDMI cables you should consider optimizing. I obtained much richer colours and crisper detail from my 4K OLED TV by using better quality power cables and power conditioning, as well as by grounding my system properly.

Surround sound 7.1 speaker system

A/V Receiver or Higher End Electronics 

A more modest cinema surround system would require an A/V receiver that supports your desired audio formats (e.g., Dolby Atmos, DTS:X) and has enough inputs for your devices. There are many options for entry level and moderate level A/V receivers from Sony, Yamaha, Denon, Marantz, Emotiva, and so on, many of which feature Wi-Fi or Bluetooth connectivity to wirelessly connect to speakers and stream music and other media from your smartphone or mobile device.

If you want clearer dialogue, a richer-sounding environment, greater dynamics, or music in higher fidelity, I suggest going to the big brands known for their sound quality: B&W, KEF, Monitor Audio, Totem, Focal, etc. This will involve using separates, such as a music streamer, preamplifier, surround processor, and a multi-channel amplifier, but you’ll be rewarded with a more engaging movie / audio experience. Companies that produce these kinds of products have a large range of options for you to choose from.


How many channels should your surround system have? If you have a small or mid-sized room, the traditional 5.1 setup—two front speakers, a centre channel speaker, two back speakers, a subwoofer—should do the trick. Bigger room? Maybe you’ll want to go the 7.1, 9.2, or even 13.2 route, but keep in mind that when it comes to speakers, quality trumps quantity and the availability of 7.1 and 9.2-channel content is still very limited. It’s also easier to place less speakers optimally than more of them. Speakers that aren’t properly positioned might skewer the soundstage or create standing waves that will cause bass boominess or sound waves to cancel each other out. Perhaps you could start with a 5.1 setup and move up from there, but if so, make sure your A/V receiver has the features and number of channels you’ll need to expand.

To achieve the most seamless audio experience, it’s best to have all your speakers in your surround system be from the same manufacturer and preferably the same model range. It’s also a good idea to wire your system with quality matched power cables and interconnects.


I’ve built up a home cinema system that I enjoy immensely, that I feel is equally adept at reproducing high-quality stereo music, multichannel surround sound music, TV shows, movies, music concerts, and sporting events. The technology to enjoy these different forms of entertainment to their potential is here, for everyone to enjoy.

Surround sound never really left, but its light did dim for a while as its novelty wore off and its sound quality was questionable. Now that it’s had time to mature and improve, I don’t think there has ever been a better time to get into surround sound than now. It might not change your life, but it’ll likely make it more entertaining.

2024 PMA Magazine. All rights reserved.

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