02.07.2023 | Education

Behind The Sound®: How to set up a surround sound system

McIntosh home theater surround sound system
McIntosh Westchester II Home Theater System.

Whether you have a large home theater system, or you’re transforming your cozy living room into a home theater, high quality surround sound is a major game changer. The average built-in TV speaker can’t handle the sonic nuance of a soft rainfall or the deep bass of an explosion scene. But a high-end home theater AV processor can help translate those details with precision, spanning many room sizes.

Sound plays such a major role in storytelling. The details of soft footsteps approaching or a protagonist clearing their throat in discomfort, communicates the stakes of a story. That’s why investing in a high-end home audio system that pairs speakers with a well-engineered home theater AV processor makes all the difference when it’s time to watch your favorite movies, or fall in love with a new one.

Before we dive into the science behind clear sound, or which speaker types we recommend, let’s refresh ourselves with the basics of how surround sound works, and what precisely it is.

What is surround sound?
Simply put, surround sound is an audio enriching technique that was first used in movie theaters. The idea is to enhance the fidelity (reproduction of sound) by surrounding the listener with multiple audio channels from nearby speakers. The best surround sound creates the sensation of noise approaching the listener from multiple directions. This could induce the feeling of a creepy villain tip-toeing behind you, or a bird flying and cawing at your face, or a passing train getting louder then quieter.

McIntosh home theater surround sound system
McIntosh Westchester III Home Theater System.

Before surround sound was implemented, many theaters used three screen channels of sound. These channels of sound played out of three loudspeakers (left, center, and right) directly in front of an audience. This set-up delivered the necessary sound for general movie viewing. But it didn’t give audiences the full immersion of a soundtrack swelling around them, or the gripping feeling of sounds coming at them from behind or beside them.

How does surround sound work?
Now, we’re refreshed on the basic definition of surround sound, and how it utilizes multiple surround sound speakers to elevate the listening experience. But you still might be wondering exactly how a sound system can produce such an emotional and physically intense experience. What magic wavelengths are these speakers tapping into?

Surround sound as a technique intensifies sound spacialization by tapping into sound localization. Theater and surround sound systems spread discrete sound channels across a bevy of loudspeakers, find the sweet spot for speaker placement (in relation to where people sit and the average height), and crank up your sensory experience.

While the speakers deliver the sounds, home AV processor and preamplifiers are the brains behind any home theater system. Just like the human brain processes the physical actions of the body, a home theater AV processor enables source switching and decodes all the surround sound formats and volume control to facilitate an amazing immersive movie experience. The more advanced models (like the MHT300 from McIntosh) also allow for growth, which means you can add external amplifiers if you want even more audio channels for your system.

McIntosh home theater surround sound system
A home theater powered by the McIntosh MHT300 Home Theater Receiver.

To summarize how surround sound works in layman’s terms, sound localization is a listener’s ability to pinpoint the origin of a sound. If your mom calls you from the kitchen in real life, you’re able to decipher what room she’s standing in because of sound localization. This same principle is applied to make the high-speed car chase in your favorite movie feel real. The relationship between space, sound, and our brain’s built-in auditory processing allows hifi technology to deliver us piping hot movie magic.

What do you need to create surround sound?
We know the cinematic genius that’s made possible by a surround sound system, and we know which techniques create such an immersive experience. Which brings us to the common question: what do you need to create surround sound?

The beauty is, there is no one-size-fits all surround sound system, because different products offer different strengths. Growth and adaptation is part of the nature of a home theater system, so upgrading and adding in new components is always an option.

Who makes quality surround sound?
Luckily, McIntosh has made it easy for audiophiles, movie buffs, and casual TV binge watchers alike. As a brand dedicated to elevating the art of sound, McIntosh has engineered powerful home theater collections that capture everything from the faint pitch of a single wind chime to the crashing fight scene between superheroes.

Their home theater systems are curated to give you the best of all worlds when it comes to sound quality, power, and precision. Each system includes a different combination of high end products to be installed by a professional.

The beloved McIntosh Reference Home Theater System includes seven speakers, and over 10,000 watts of power. Form meets function with the artfully designed and superior sounding products in this collection, including the McIntosh XRT1.1K Floorstanding Loudspeaker, the new and highly anticipated McIntosh XCS1.5K Center Channel Loudspeaker, and the full range McIntosh XRT2.1K Floorstanding Loudspeaker. The full system was engineered to bring cinematic glory into any home space.

McIntosh home theater surround sound system
McIntosh Reference Home Theater System.

That’s only the beginning, McIntosh continues to innovate home cinema with the blockbuster power of the brand new MHT300 Home Receiver (available for purchase in March 2022). One major feature that sets MHT300 apart from other AV processors is that it delivers 120-150 watts of McIntosh excellence to all 7 speakers all the time, while most other home theater receivers on the market have their power output measured with only one or two speakers connected, and may, in fact output only one-half to one-third of their rated power to each speaker when all channels are driven.

With the state-of-the-art Dirac Live® Room Correction, the MHT300 gives you the ability to fine tune your system so the sound matches the unique acoustics of your space. This means that every splash of water, every fight between lovers, and every cannon shot on screen will not only be powerfully detailed, but it will flawlessly travel through your unique space.

Getting your system installed
In order to ensure your McIntosh surround sound system is set up for an unbeatable cinema experience, you’ll want to find your local dealer or your custom integrator in order to ensure smooth sailing.

The invention of surround sound as a technique and technology has revolutionized the way we watch movies, both in the theater and in our home theaters. McIntosh is on the front lines of the radical evolution of surround sound technology.