Sound advice

Putting together a quality surround sound system can be a challenge and if you don't want to get lost, tune in as WINDOWS demystifies the world of amplifiers and speakers...

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By  Jason Saundalkar Published  July 18, 2007

Depending on how serious you are about the quality of your sound, your home's set-up and the content you plan to pump through your surround system, your choice of what system to buy can vary greatly.

It's hard to find a set that will blow your socks off in every department unless you don't mind spending a small fortune on your system.

When buying an amplifier for your home, there are a number of factors to consider, relating to the size of your room...

Before you do anything however, it's important to study the room in which you plan to place your surround sound system. Depending on the size of the room and its actual layout, you'll need to buy speakers accordingly.

If you have a huge room measuring 30 x 30 feet for example and have a system with speakers which can only deliver 50 watts RMS of power, you'll have to crank your system up to maximum to cover the whole area. This may cause the speakers to produce distorted sounds. As a general rule of thumb, a system that can deliver 100 watts RMS is a safe bet for most large rooms but if you've got a particularly big space to cover, look for power outputs of 150 watts RMS or higher per speaker.

Similarly, the layout of the room is also very important simply because it will affect how and where you position the speakers. If you've got no floor space to spare, opt for wall mounted, also known as bookshelf, speakers. Alternatively, if you've got ample room to spare, opt for tower speakers because these ultimately deliver better overall sound quality.

Once you've had a think about the environment, the next order of business is to work out whether you want to buy an off-the-shelf surround system, which includes the amplifier, speakers and woofer, or if you want to build a super system piece-by-piece. The former route is great if you're new to speakers and amplifiers but if you're out for the best possible experience, building a system yourself is the way to go. (This article assumes you're building your surround system yourself.)

At this point, it's best to figure out how much cash you're willing to spend. In terms of importance, the amplifier is arguably the most important component of a surround system followed by the speakers. In fact, if you're short on cash, it's best to allocate the maximum possible to the purchase of a quality amplifier first and then gradually add speakers, as and when cash become available. This way, you don't have to worry about replacing your amplifier for a while and you can concentrate on getting the speakers you want.

When buying an amplifier, there are a number of factors to consider and this relates to the size of your room as well. If you've got a room that's relatively large (say 30 x 30 feet), you should aim for an amp that can deliver 100 watts RMS of power to each satellite speaker. Next, you should think about the speaker configuration you want to invest in, for the room mentioned above, we suggest a 7.1 system though if your room is smaller, you can make do with a 5.1 set-up.

It's also a good idea to check on the surround standards supported by your amp (Dolby Pro Logic, DTS etc). At the very least, it should offer Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS support. The next consideration has to do with inputs and outputs. Depending on the number of source devices you have, you should make sure your amp can accommodate all of them without cable swapping. Remember to check exactly what output ports your source players have (optical, digital coaxial or RCA etc) and make sure your amp is compatible with all these.

It's now time to add speakers and a subwoofer to the mix. In terms of speakers, if it's possible, always opt for tower speakers. These are capable of producing a good deal of bass and are great at producing a wide range of mid- and high-range frequencies. This is thanks to the size and the number (up to several) of different cones or drivers (these actually produce the sound you hear) they employ. A bookshelf speaker by comparison uses far smaller drivers and will, in general, also feature just one or two cones at maximum.

Depending on the amp you've purchased, you should look for speakers with matching power outputs. Where possible, if you can pair a 100 watt per channel amp with 100 watt satellite speakers, this is ideal. If this is not possible, opt for the closest possible match; try to avoid using a massively powerful amp with speakers that have far lower maximum power outputs. This is simply because there is nothing to stop you turning up the volume on your amplifier beyond what your speakers can actually take. If this actually happens, the speakers and subwoofer could easily be damaged or destroyed.

It's also worth noting that if you don't want to deal with cable clutter and aren't interested in investing in a cable management system, you can opt for wireless rear speakers. In a system such as this, the forward speakers are wired though the rear speakers receive audio data via a wireless connection. The disadvantage here is that the rear speakers generally lack the clarity and sharpness of sound offered by their wired counterparts.

As far as choosing a subwoofer is concerned, you first have to choose between a passive model and an active one. A passive woofer doesn't draw power from the mains socket on its own; instead it is powered by the amplifier. This generally means a lower wattage (power) rating and thus less booming and deep bass. An active model on the other hand must be powered via a wall socket and thus can be fitted with a massive driver capable of room shaking bass.

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