Chesapeake Home Theatre & Hi-Fi

Larry Dent is the owner of Chesapeake Home Theatre & Hi-Fi.

These articles were written for the Islander Weekly.

Comments can be forwarded directly to

Larry's Tech Talk

I Think We’re Surrounded!

I don’t mean surrounded as in “The Little Big Horn”, but surrounded as in “Surround Sound”. What exactly is it? Why would I want it? How do I get it? What is this 5.1 thing? And what was wrong with left and right Stereo?

It’s kind of funny, a lot of people’s perception of surround sound is a lot of speakers and loud volume. And that’s not totally incorrect. But let’s fine tune the definition a little bit. The most common type of surround sound is known as 5.1. There’s nothing complicated about the term. It means 5 speakers; left, right, center in the front, 2 speakers in the rear, and the dot 1 is a subwoofer. Larger rooms might implement a 7.1 system which adds 2 speakers on the sides (usually dipole speakers). Today’s largest systems go to 9.2. That’s a 7.1 system, add 2 more front speakers (usually up high) and a second subwoofer. Hey, stop rolling your eyes, I know 9.2 might seem a little excessive, but in larger rooms, 9.2 is awesome.

What can a person expect out of a 5.1 system when compared to a good ole stereo system? Believe or not, Compact Discs (CDs) are native 2 channel stereo and so is your IPod. I will be the first to admit,
sometimes music from a CD really sounds better in stereo. But when you add video, like a DVD or BluRay movie, surround sound really comes to life. The additional speakers give the audio depth, height, and directional realism. Example, if a train crosses your screen from right to left, you will hear it from right to left. If a helicopter comes in the picture from behind, the rear speakers kick in and you will hear the chopper from back to front and even coming down if it lands. The added data capacity of a DVD or BluRay disc allows 6 separate native tracks of audio to be experienced. Remember the 5.1 term? That’s 6 separate tracks of audio. And no, it doesn’t have to be loud. If a pin drops in the movie, you will sense where it landed. And if a door bell rings, you will sense where the front door is in the movie. Even footsteps or raindrops can be interesting effects if you sense where they are coming from.

Most of us focus on the video, but Hollywood will admit that the audio portion of a movie is more than 50% of the entertainment experience. That’s why movie producers have been more than open to the added expense of a surround sound production. The idea is to create realism, like loud explosions, tires squealing, or even a pin drop.

OK sound guy, so what is needed to set up a 5.1 system? Assuming you already have a TV, at a minimum you will need 5 speakers, a subwoofer, a surround sound receiver, and a DVD player (or BluRay). I think of the systems in 3 groups. On the low end there are systems called HTIBs. That means Home Theater in a Box. Everything needed is in one box, including the speaker wire. These systems are OK, but don’t expect Carnegie Hall. Stepping up in both price and performance would be purchasing everything separate. There are several well known manufacturers competing for you entertainment system dollar. Bringing in a professional to conceal the wires, integrate all of the components, and program a single remote control will cost you the most and usually give you the best performance.

And that subwoofer thing, is that really necessary? That’s an easy question to answer, YES! The subwoofer can go almost anywhere in the room because to the human ear, subsonic sounds are non-directional. All you need is an electric outlet to power the sub’s built-in amplifier. The subwoofer really adds presence, feeling and warmth to whole experience. If you don’t add a subwoofer, you will be missing out on a whole lot.

Treat the family to a fantastic home entertainment experience and get surround sound installed in your home.

Uh, General Custer, I heard something and it sounds like we’re surrounded!