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How to Shop for a Surround Sound System

Here’s what you need to know to start enjoying immersive home theater.

There’s nothing quite like the enveloping experience of a surround sound system. From virtual options offered by sound bars, to 5.1-channel discrete surround, all the way up to 11.2-channel systems, your home theater can be outfitted in a number of ways at a variety of price levels. Whether you choose to go with a single device or piece together a system component by component, the audio portion of your favorite blockbuster movies, sporting events, video games and hi-def concert videos will perfectly complement the visuals on your home theater screen. After all, good picture deserves equally good audio.

Let’s explore what you need to know when you start on your quest to give the gift of surround sound.

Sound Bars with Surround Capabilities

The simplest and least expensive way to surround sound is to purchase a sound bar that offers virtual and/or 3D surround options such as DTS® Virtual:X™,  DTS:X™ or Dolby Atmos®, all of which simulate sound effects that seem to move around you — even with a sense of height. Sound bars are relatively inexpensive and since they can be mounted on the wall or placed by your television, they take up very little space. Connectivity is easy too: All you need is a standard HDMI cable to hook up the sound bar directly to your TV. (Just make sure it supports the Audio Return Channel (ARC) feature. If not, you can also connect the sound bar via an optical cable.)

If you need an entry-level model and have limited space for surround sound, the Yamaha SR-C20A compact sound bar is a great option. At just 23″ long, the SR-C20A offers Dolby® 2D virtual surround sound, a built-in subwoofer and four surround modes to fit any mood and genre.

The Yamaha YAS-109 also provides an easy way to improve your sonic experience. It has Alexa built-in, along with subwoofers for deep bass, plus the ability to create virtual surround sound via DTS Virtual:X.

Black sound bar.

Yamaha YAS-109.

A big fan of low-end? Consider the Yamaha YAS-209. At 36″ long and with many of the same features as the YAS-109, this sound bar / wireless subwoofer combo helps boost your bass in pivotal action scenes, with the added benefit of placement versatility for the sub.

To take the sound bar experience a step further, check out the Yamaha MusicCast BAR 400. Like the YAS-209, it provides support for DTS Virtual:X as well as Wi-Fi®, Bluetooth®, Airplay 2® and Spotify Connect, plus voice control via Alexa and Google Assistant devices or Siri® via AirPlay 2. It includes a wireless subwoofer and because it’s part of the MusicCast family, you can easily create a 5.1-channel home theater by adding a pair of Yamaha MusicCast 20 or MusicCast 50 wireless speakers.

Sound Bar with Wireless Subwoofer.

Yamaha MusicCast BAR 400.

Individual Components

If you’re shopping for a true audio connoisseur, you’ll probably want to purchase individual components so they can create their own custom surround sound system. This isn’t nearly as daunting as it may seem. (There’s a wealth of information on the subject online, and right here on the Yamaha blog: Check out the article “Home Theater Basics” or the four-part “Home Theater on a Budget” series.) The heart of any such system is an AV receiver, and the good news is that most of today’s receivers can output at least a 5.1-channel signal consisting of front left, center and right speakers, plus rear left and right speakers, along with a subwoofer (that’s the “.1” channel, which consists of low frequencies only).

A great example of an entry-level AV receiver is the Yamaha RX-V4A. It has a sleek, modern design and an abundance of features, including 5.2-channel surround sound and voice control via Alexa and Google Assistant devices or Siri via AirPlay 2, as well as full 4K Ultra HD HDMI support. Along with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, AirPlay 2 and Spotify Connect, the receiver includes MusicCast multi-room playback options. If you want to avoid having to run cabling to the rear speakers in your setup, simply add a pair of Yamaha MusicCast 20 or MusicCast 50 wireless speakers.

Yamaha AV receiver.

Yamaha RX-V4A.

MusicCast_STEREO_20

Yamaha MusicCast 20 speakers.

MusicCast_STEREO_50

Yamaha MusicCast 50 speakers.

For those who want to take their home theater experience beyond five channels, you’ll need to start with a receiver that includes more speaker outputs. For example, to play back movies mixed in Dolby Atmos, you need a receiver with outputs for at least seven speakers and two subwoofers, plus, for the best immersive experience, at least two “height” speakers (which can be in-ceiling or upward firing). DTS:X has no official requirement in terms of the number of speakers (it adapts to however many your system has), but the more speakers, the better the experience. The Yamaha RX-A3080 offers 9.2-channel playback (with 11.2-channel processing) for playback of Dolby Atmos- and DTS:X-encoded material. It also features proprietary Yamaha Surround:AI® technology to automatically optimize the surround sound in real time. Like many other Yamaha AV receivers, the RX-A3080 also offers 4K Ultra HD support as well as voice control, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, AirPlay 2, Spotify Connect and MusicCast.

AV Receiver.

Yamaha RX-A3080.

Once you’ve selected the AV receiver, the next step is to choose the speakers for the system. This choice is largely subjective, so listen to as many as possible before making your final decision. Yamaha offers several good options for front and rear speakers, including NS-333 bookshelf speakers (designed specifically for home theater applications), or NS-555 floor-standing speakers, which have a three-way bass reflex design ideal for home theater.

Ns 333
Ns 555

The center channel normally carries dialog instead of music or background effects, and so the speaker you choose to carry that signal should ideally be designed for that purpose. A good option is the Yamaha NS-C444, which incorporates a two-way acoustic suspension and a waveguide horn that allows the sound waves to reach your ears without getting reflected off the walls.

Home Theater Speaker

Yamaha NS-C444 center channel speaker.

Finally, you’ll need to purchase at least one subwoofer (though, depending upon system configuration, sometimes two are required). This is a specialized speaker that has one job, and one job only: to reproduce the low frequencies that put the punch in action such as explosions, fight scenes and car chases. An excellent choice is the Yamaha NS-SW100 powered subwoofer, which features Advanced YST II (Yamaha Active Servo Technology II) for stable and accurate response of everything from the rumble of action movies to the low notes in a favorite movie musical or live concert film.

Powered Subwoofer.

Yamaha NS-SW100 subwoofer.

Check Out the Video

Here’s a video that shows you how to take a surround system to the next level:

Whether you decide to purchase a sound bar or select individual components, shopping for a home theater surround sound system can be fun and, dare we say, binge-worthy too!

 

Ready to learn more about surround sound? Check out these related blog postings:

Home Theater Basics

Home Theater on a Budget, Part 1: Starter System

Home Theater on a Budget, Part 2: Intermediate System

Home Theater on a Budget, Part 3: Advanced System

Home Theater on a Budget, Part 4: Luxury System

MusicCast Wireless Surround Sound for Your 5.1 Home Theater

What Is DTS® Virtual:X™

What’s So Good About Dolby Atmos® and DTS:X™?

 

Click here for more information about Yamaha sound bars.

Click here for more information about Yamaha AV receivers.

Click here for more information about Yamaha speakers and subwoofers.



ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rich Tozzoli
Rich Tozzoli is a Grammy-nominated producer/mixer/composer based in the New York area. His credits include work with artists such as Ace Frehley, Hall & Oates, Omar Hakim and Al DiMeola. Rich's music has appeared in over a thousand TV series in 36 countries, and he has written for such shows as Live PD, Pawn Stars, Counting Cars, Duck Dynasty and NBC Olympics. Tozzoli has also authored numerous articles on audio production and technology as well as a book on surround sound mixing.

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