If you're a home theater enthusiast, a decent 5.1 speaker setup partnered with a receiver is a given. But what happens when theaters start upping their game? Sound engineers report the human ear is capable of discerning sounds well beyond what a 5.1 system can offer: 7.1, 9.1, 10.1 and even 11.1 surround sound setups are here, bringing home viewers closer to the movie theater experience one extra speaker at a time.
Upgrading to 5.1 from a stereo setup can be a huge leap forward; you'll notice the difference immediately upon plugging into your new receiver, the extra channels providing a dimensional quality to sound effects and musical scores once invisible during stereo playback. Below is a diagram of a regular 5.1 speaker setup — if you were precise enough to lay out your speakers with a protractor — illustrating an ideal position between speakers and listener and how sound travels to the ear.
A 5.1 setup provides a great foundation for audio, and much of today's television broadcasts, Blu-rays/DVD's, and movies are mixed using this channel setup, separating the audio between a left front, right front, center front, left surround, right surround speakers, and a supporting subwoofer.
7 Speakers: The next step up is 7.1 sound, and there are a few configurations to choose from — in fact, from here on out there are options to consider for speaker layout. These layouts below are ideal speaker positioning according to Audyssey Laboratories' sound research.
From Audyssey: "Wide channels are much more critical in the presentation of a realistic soundstage than the Back Surround channels found in traditional 7.1 systems."
They even determined wide channels speaker layout should take precedence over height - used in Dolby Pro Logic IIz mixes.
From Audyssey: "Imaging is also better horizontally than vertically and so good engineering also dictates that channels must first be added in the same plane as our ears before going to higher elevations."
9 Speakers: Throwing two extra speakers into the mix means you can now adjust the height of channels in your setup, very noticeable for movie scenes featuring rainfall and other vertically oriented sound effects.
From Audyssey: "The next most important acoustical and perceptual cues come from reflections above the front stage."
11 Speakers: Finally there's 11.1 surround sound, which obviously is a heck of a lot of speakers and requires a lot more planning than a traditional 5.1 setup. Here's what sitting in the middle of that system would should look like.
With the front speakers filled out, the last two speakers in the mix can add dimension by providing more rear fill for an improved immersive experience where sound can glide across from front to back, and vice versa.
With the introduction of Atmos in theaters — comprised of 64 discrete speakers positioned across, around, and above for a supposed unmatched audio experience — it'll be interesting to see where home theater manufacturers go in response.