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August 19, 2011

Home Surround Sound vs Movie Surround Sound: What’s the Difference?

Home surround sound vs cinema surround soundWhat are the differences and the similarities between home surround sound and movie surround sound systems?

In the way both systems work, the goals of each are essentially identical—to provide a big stereo soundstage at the front, with a dedicated center channel speaker in the middle that anchors the actors’ dialogue at the movie screen or video display, and at least two or more surround speakers at the sides of the theater (or your room at home), with the option of two additional surrounds on the back wall. In both systems, an almighty subwoofer or two deliver the deep bass sounds of music and movie special effects.

Both systems use a total of 6 to 8 separate speakers, including one subwoofer, to envelop you, the viewer, into the video and sonic presentation.

Movie surround sound has its early beginnings way back in the 1950s, first introduced when Hollywood thought that the advent of television was going to kill the attendance for feature films.

Surround sound in the home really came into its own over the last two decades with the advances of Ray Dolby and digital encoding and processing of movie sound.

There are differences, of course, between installing home surround sound and the type used in movie theaters. For one thing, it’s a heck of a lot cheaper to fill your living room or dedicated basement home theater with top performing surround sound than it is a big movie theater. What’s even better, you’ll enjoy even greater fidelity and natural surround sound in your home if you get your home surround sound speakers from a dedicated hi-fi speaker manufacturer with a long history of research into loudspeaker design and surround sound setups.

Movie theaters are compelled to use big horn-loaded speakers in order to fill large movie theaters with powerful sound without having to use huge amplifiers (for the same reasons, horn speakers are also used for stadium and outdoor concerts). As such, horns will do the job, but there is a cost in fidelity and natural sound quality. Horns tend to make many sounds a bit aggressive and screechy at times, especially instrumental sounds.

Home surround sound doesn’t need to use horn speakers because the rooms are way smaller, so speakers that are more natural-sounding can be used instead.

The technical systems most commonly used to process movie sound in homes and cinemas are essentially the same as well; just about everyone knows the phrase “Dolby Surround” or “Dolby Digital”; fewer know “dts” but both those soundtracks are commonly used on DVDs and Blu-ray discs. And Dolby Digital is the standard for all Hi Def TV broadcasting (HDTV) and programs produced for broadcast. (Sony, incidentally, developed its own proprietary digital surround process for Sony movie theaters called “SDDS”, but it never marketed it for home surround sound equipment.)

One other essential difference between home surround sound and cinema surround is the placement of subwoofers for deep bass. In home surround sound, the subwoofers may be at opposite sides of the room, at the front, or even in the back. In movie theaters, the subwoofers are always at the front of the theater behind the screen along with the main stereo speakers and the center channel speaker.

While perforated projection screens are sold for home surround sound (perforated to let the sound pass through), there are certain image losses and audio compromises with a perforated screen at home, so few are used.

In most home surround sound installations, the center channel speaker is positioned below or above the video display or screen. And at home, two multi-directional surround speakers on each side wall and two at the rear are sufficient for all but the largest home theaters. As you may have noticed, most movie theaters use a row of at least four speakers on each side wall, and two on the rear wall for a total of 10 surround speakers. Those are usually conventional forward-radiating speakers, whereas the best home installations use a bipolar or quadpolar surround speaker. That’s because the reverb times in a large cinema are longer and result in a “wash” of surround sound enveloping the audience. At home, our rooms are comparatively small, with short delay times, so a surround speaker that “sprays” the surround information to all the reflecting surfaces in the room is more effective in creating the desirable mix of direct and reverberant reflections that heighten the realism of home surround sound.

Those are the main differences and similarities in home surround sound vs. movie surround sound. Now you know the basics; with all this talk out of the way, go and enjoy a great home surround sound setup.

Alan Lofft was, for 13 years, Editor in Chief of Sound & Vision, Canada’s largest and most respected audio/video magazine. He edited Sound & Vision (Canada) until 1996, when he moved from Toronto to New York to become Senior Editor at Audio magazine.
Lofft has been writing about hi-fi and video professionally for over 20 years, ever since his first syndicated newspaper column, “Sound Advice”, began appearing weekly in The Toronto Star, Canada’s largest-circulation daily newspaper. In the late 1970s, he became a contributing editor, columnist, and equipment reviewer at AudioScene Canada, the leading national consumer electronics magazine at the time. Find out more about Alan in his bio.

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  • polk tsi400
    August 24, 2011 at 7:45 pm

    Nice article. Personally I prefer a good home theater system over a movie theater system…that being said there’s nothing like watching a movie on a 30ft. screen.

  • August 25, 2011 at 8:04 am

    Hi Polktsi400,

    Thanks for your commments. My preferences are very like yours.

    Axiom Audio

  • nickbuol
    August 30, 2011 at 2:44 pm

    I agree with the preference to watch movies at home. It is still fun to get out from time to time and go to the theater, but there is so much enjoyment out of a good home theater setup. Plus, you can always pause the movie if someone needs to use the restroom (my wife likes that).

    I would somewhat disagree with the first comment. It is a matte of perspective. At a movie theater, due to the size of the screen, and my preference to sit in the “middle” to slightly “front middle”, I am still getting as big of an image feel with front projection at 13-15 feet, if not bigger, than the massive 30 foot screens or larger at a further distance.

    I still understand what you mean though.
    Great article btw Alan!

  • Gort
    August 30, 2011 at 4:48 pm

    I disagree with the stereotype against horns. To date JBL Synthesis are the best sounding home theater speakers I’ve ever heard. They are an industry reference. Guess what, all of those speakers have horns. Horns have equal merit to any other design and if executed properly, they are usually a better option than domes as far as efficiency, power handling and directivity.

  • August 31, 2011 at 9:45 am

    Hello Gort,
    I have heard the JBL Synthesis system and it is very good; in fact, the design was largely driven by an old friend, Dr. Floyd Toole, in his role as vice-president of engineering at Harman International, the parent company of JBL.
    I wouldn’t disagree with you on the efficiency, power handling and directivity of well-designed horn systems and these traits are all required to fill large theaters, cinemas and big spaces.
    However, it’s my experience that horn-loaded speakers generally have audible coloration compared to the best non-horn loaded speakers; it’s especially noticeable on strings, female vocals and other instruments. Users of horn systems become accustomed to the colorations and to their ears the horn speakers sound “natural”.

    Alan at Axiom Audio

  • Gort
    August 31, 2011 at 10:53 am

    Harman designs per NRC gospel so why would JBL Sythesis be “colored” as you describe horns to be? I have heard at least 2 upscale home theaters employing JBL Synthesis and the results for music and movies were anything but colored. I listen to a lot of classical music and I play the bass so I know what instruments are supposed to sound like live and unamplified. thanks.

  • Nelson
    September 1, 2011 at 11:24 am

    Good article. However, I must disagree with the comment about perforated screens. I recently installed my home theater with the LCR and four inwall subs behind a perforated screen from Seymour electronics. Picture and sound quality are amazing. Hearing dialogue coming from behind the screen where the actor is speaking is very addictive and no turning back once experienced.

  • September 1, 2011 at 12:13 pm

    Hi Nelson,

    Thanks for your comments. I doubt you’d hear any frequency response losses or aberations from a perforated screen using movies and surround-sound programming. The losses are not dramatic, however, I tend to take a purist approach, and if you listened with music, in stereo, and used a blind comparison, I’m certain you’d detect the differences.

    Some of the best tests of perforated screens were conducted a few years ago by “Mix” magazine. One of the screens in those tests was excellent; the others had noticeable response anomalies which would be detectable with music playback in a controlled setting.

    Hearing the dialogue from behind the screen is certainly an advantage, although the same effect can be achieved with a non-perforated screen by using two center-channel speakers, one above the screen and one below, running in mono, so the dialogue images at the screen center. We’ve been recommending this approach at Axiom for some years, and the results are excellent.

    Alan at Axiom Audio

  • Gort
    September 1, 2011 at 2:48 pm

    Wow so you would recommend using two centers separated by a large physical distance over a virtually lossless perforated screen? The Comb Filtering issue of using dual centers as you suggest is far worse than any miniscule losses associated with Perforated screens. Your recommendations go against what any pro installers do and recommend. A good perforated screen losses would be on par with a loudspeaker grille cloth losses. Simply remove the grille of the speaker in favor of the screen. Of course its easier to sell (I mean recommend) two center channels as a “better” option. Try visiting a local IMAX theater and notice they don’t use multiple center channels. They use Horn loaded speakers behind perforated screens. The results are quite outstanding!

  • September 1, 2011 at 4:23 pm

    Comb filtering, which many audiophiles and, I suspect, plenty of “pro” installers don’t understand, is a measurement artifact, audible with pink noise but not an issue with music and programming material. In fact, our brains and hearing ignore comb filtering and, to a degree, even like it. Comb filtering occurs all the time when you’re listening in stereo or surround sound. To eliminate it, you’d need to listen in mono, preferably to a single driver.

    I am basing my negative comments regarding perf screens from the “Mix” magazine tests you can read about here: Judging by their frequency response curves, the losses are anything but “miniscule” for most of the perf screens.

    So yes, I would recommend using two centers as described over typical perf screens unless you have specific confidence in the perf screen you are using. Comb filtering is a red herring and hence not an issue. Axiom has conducted numerous double-blind tests of comb filtering artifacts and the results are very conclusive. It is also covered quite extensively in “Sound Reproduction” by Dr. F.E. Toole.

    * posted edited for curmudgeonlieness

    • Ian September 2, 2011 at 10:21 am

      The fact is that everyone here is technically correct. An acoustically transparent screen, like we have used for blind listen testing for years, will not impede the performance and horn tweeters if engineered properly can sound much better than dome tweeter systems not engineered properly. In fact they can be right up there with properly designed dome systems. The reason for avoiding these things is not that they cannot be done properly it is that they are rarely done properly making them both difficult things for us to recommend and leaving us disappointed with most of our past experiences with them.

      Great to see all the discussion!

  • Gort
    September 2, 2011 at 10:27 am

    Thank you Ian for a more even handed response and I agree with your thoughts.

  • Randy
    September 5, 2011 at 8:05 am

    Great article Alan. I built my dedicated home theater six years ago and my sound system is from Axiom. The sound is fantastic and does give me that big theater feel. I still love to go the the movie theaters and see movies on the BIG screens. I just enjoy going and I like to see movies on the first day of release. When the movie is released on BluRay I get it and enjoy it again in my theater.

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