Home theatre systems can offer much more fun and functionality when watching movies than a stereo hi-fi system, and you don't have to be a sound engineer to get one working. Just follow these steps and you'll be enjoying your music and movies in no time.
For the purposes of this guide we'll assume you've already bought your system and have lots of large boxes and cables to deal with. Whether you buy a theatre-in-a-box system or individual components, the set up process is very similar.
Follow these three steps:
Step 1 – Putting everything in the right place
Every room is different and it's up to you to choose where the speakers and other components go.
- Ideally all the speakers should be the same distance from the listener – this is rarely practical, but it's a good idea to get at least the front left and right speakers roughly the same distance from where you'll be sitting. If possible, try to place them at about head height and about 2.50 to 3m from your sitting position.
- The centre speaker should point directly at the sitting listener and preferably be at about head height. It's a big mistake to put it on the ground well below the screen, or somewhere up above the screen, as this will make voices feel as if they're coming from the sky or under the ground.
- Rear speakers can be closer to or further from the listener, but try to put them just above and behind the sitting listener's head. Again try to keep the distances as equal as possible. Don't point them directly at the listener; angle them slightly towards the front of the room.
- Subwoofers make great plant or magazine stands. Try to keep them at least a few centimetres from the wall and don't shove them in a corner – it will make the low frequencies muddy and overstated. The best place is usually near the front speakers.
Cables and wires
Connecting the cables and wires is probably the second most difficult part of the set-up process after the speakers. They're an aesthetic nightmare and a trip-hazard to boot, but essential unless you're planning on using your speakers as nothing but decorations.
- Wireless rear speakers will eliminate the need to have wires running from the front to the back of the room, but they still need power so there will be wires running from a control box to the speakers at the back of the room.
- In general the best option is to run wires under the floor, or hide them under carpet. Failing this, it's a good idea to buy some clips to fix them to the floor or along the skirting boards at the bottom of the wall where you're not going to trip over them.
- Be careful to make sure the wires that go into the AV receiver red speaker outputs also go into the speakers' red input connection, and the same with the black ones. Some systems will come with colour-coded wires for each speaker and in this case you should follow the manufacturer's instructions.
- An AV receiver is the main controller for your system and contains all the amplifiers that drive your speakers. It'll get hot, so don't lock it away in an airtight cabinet. Also, make sure you can get to the back of the receiver to connect the wires, and place it so you can point the remote control at it.
- CD/DVD/Blu-ray players, PVRs and other devices can go anywhere you like, as long as you have cables that are long enough. Use HDMI wherever possible to limit the ugly "cable spaghetti" look that makes finding the right connection a nightmare if something goes wrong.
- The television should be close enough to give you the feeling that you're in the action (just as you would hope to have in a real theatre), but not so close that you feel overwhelmed or can see the individual pixels on the screen.
Tip: As a general rule for a HD TV screen, the minimum distance you should have between you and the TV is about one and half times the diagonal size of the screen. For a 106cm TV that would be around 160cm, which is still pretty close. Most people we've surveyed have said they sit around two to three metres from the screen.
Step 2 – Making it sound good
Once you've finished connecting everything you'll probably need a cup of tea. Which is a good time to find the operating instructions for the AV receiver or your out-of-the-box system. Although it is possible the system will sound OK without you doing anything more, it's very unlikely.
- Most new systems have an automatic set-up system where you just place a supplied microphone in your listening position and press a button to tell the system to sort it self out. It's an OK place to start, but don't expect too much from it.
- If your system doesn't have an automated set-up, you'll have to dive into the AV receiver's menus as a first step.
- Most systems will show you what the automated set-up has decided to do with your room. There'll be distances for each speaker from the listening position, which may be correct but can be wildly wrong – we've seen subwoofers that were positioned metres outside our testing room by the automated set-up's suggestions. Check the distances recorded in the system and if they're wrong use the controls to correct them. This makes sure the sound from speakers that are at different distances from you all arrive at the right time.
- Automated systems often do a reasonable job of balancing the speakers for volume, but there'll be a manual way to do this too. Normally it's just a button press, to tell the system to start sending white noise to each of the speakers in turn. You can change the volume for each speaker to make them all the same; either by ear, or using a cheap sound pressure meter which you can get from an electronics store or a free smartphone app that does the same job. The instructions will have a suggested sound level, but around 75dB is common.
- Now play some music or watch a bit of a movie that you know well. If the system sounds dull or lacking in some other way, it could be that the automated set-up has suppressed some frequencies. To fix this you need to find the setting for something called "equalisation" or "dynamic" control. Sometimes it'll have a proprietary name like Audessey or Dolby, but whatever it's called just turn it off and the sound should improve.
- Subwoofers can have controls on them for volume and the frequencies they'll respond to, which is called "crossover". If you have an out-of-the-box system all this will be controlled in the on-screen menus. Other systems may have a separate manual for the subwoofer.
Tip: Always choose the suggested settings to begin with and only vary them if you're sure you can't fix the problem by just moving the device itself. Sometimes just a few centimetres will make a big difference.
For more help on getting the right sound for your room, follow our 'Four simple tips for tuning your room' below.
Step 3 – Getting the right connections
Out-of-the-box systems often come with a Blu-ray player built into the head unit, which is also the AV receiver. If you want to connect anything else there will usually be an extra one or two HDMI ports, but they can be quite limited for analogue inputs.
One of the advantages of standalone AV receivers is that they come with what can seem like a dizzying array of inputs and outputs. Apart from the speaker outputs, the ones you'll most likely use are HDMI ports for connecting inputs from your various players and PVR, as well as at least one output to the TV. All these should be clearly labelled and you should find a diagram with some instructions in the manual.
In most cases it's just a case of putting the PVR cable in the PVR port and so on, but some systems will ask you to go into the on-screen menu and choose a name for each port that is reflected on the remote control. This is to ensure when you press the Blu-ray player button on the remote you don't get the PVR. The good news is that you shouldn't have to do this again after the initial set-up.
The main thing to do now is to listen. Take your time and make a note of any setting you decide to change, so you can go back if something isn't quite right.
Four simple tips for tuning your room
It can be pretty disappointing to go through the pain of set-up only to find the home theatre system you bought doesn't sound as good at home as it did in the shop. One possibility is that your room is reflecting sound very differently to where you first heard the system. Even if it sounds OK, following these tips will help you get the best out of your system.
Sometimes called "brightness" or "brittleness", this is when the high notes grate and voices can be hard to hear. This is a common fault with cheaper speakers, but all is not lost. If the room has a hard floor and/or lots glass without too many soft furnishings, even good speakers can sound too bright. Adding a floor covering such as a rug, or even some heavy curtains will likely improve things. You can buy special sound absorbent materials that attach to the wall, but they can be expensive and probably won't fit with your décor.
If drummers sound like they're thumping a cardboard box and bass notes feel like they're wearing woolly jumpers, you've either got a dull room – or a very poor system. Typically rooms like this will have lots of soft furnishings, carpet on the floor and heavy curtains.
They can be a challenge for home theatre systems, but adding some hard surfaces can help. Even just hanging a couple of pictures on either side of the room can help bounce the sound to your ears and reduce that flat feeling.
Try to keep whatever you add or subtract in balance. Sound travels like a ripple in a pond and if it is only bouncing off one wall it'll feel unbalanced.
This is a common problem which can often be solved by just moving the subwoofer a little. Keep it out of the corners and away from the wall. If this doesn't work, you might find putting soft furnishings or even open bookcases in the corners of the room can help.
Rattles, bumps and squeaks
There's nothing like a subwoofer for rattling the windows, but some things might also be moving about at higher frequencies when the volume is turned up.
It's a good idea to play something at the loudest volume you're likely to use and walk around the room listening for things that are vibrating. Your system will sound a lot better if Smaug's terrifying roar doesn't have a babies' rattle following along behind it.
If you need help deciding what to buy, check out our AV receivers buying guide.