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September 22, 2010

Three Home Theater Sound Enhancers You Can Try This Weekend

Home theater fans, audiophiles, and newcomers alike all have one goal in mind: to make their home theater or reproduced music sound better. It’s the engine driving most of our loudspeaker and equipment purchases, which is hardly surprising. After all, it’s an amazing era we live in where a savvy consumer can assemble some good loudspeakers, an amplifier and CD/DVD or Blu-ray player and achieve sound reproduction or home theater that can often rival or surpass the real thing, and do it in the comfort of your own home.

However, not all sound enhancers require huge outlays of dollars; often a simple tweak of existing equipment, a modest purchase, or simple adjustment can make substantial audible improvements — and I emphasize audibility as the criterion by which any proposed upgrade should be judged.

Frequently (with a couple of exceptions I’ll get to later) it’s through no intrinsic fault of the newly purchased audio-video equipment, but rather just plain old mistakes in system setup.

Here are three sound enhancers that will audibly improve your surround or musical experience:

1. Adjust the Height, Location, and Type of Surround Speakers

It may seem obvious, but if you have the surround speakers in a 5.1-channel system behind you, try moving them to the side walls and getting them 2 feet or more above ear level. It’s the surround output from each side that our hearing is most sensitive to (our external ears are on each side of our head and focused forward). ‘Surrounds’ are often mistakenly called ‘rears’ – and that’s where they often end up – on the rear wall. Moving them to the side walls and slightly behind the listening area will markedly improve listeners’ impressions of depth and ambient sound in movies and music.

If you have a larger room, you can add a second pair of surround speakers for the rear wall, which will complete the 7.1-channel setup and likely enhance the experience even more. If you’re using direct-radiating rather than a multi-directional (quadpolar or bipolar) surround speaker, consider switching from direct-firing to quadpolar surrounds, which are extremely effective at spreading ambient surround information throughout the room.

2. Move Your Subwoofer (or Add a Sub)

Axiom's EP400 Subwoofer in a Custom Oak FinishEvery room develops its own particular set of standing waves that generate specific peaks in bass (too much deep bass) or nulls (cancelations where no bass will be heard) throughout the room, and those are dependent on dimensions of the room, which you can’t easily change, and the relative subwoofer and listener locations. Too many subwoofer buyers decide in advance where the subwoofer should go in their room, without understanding how that will vary with every different room. You may get lucky, or course, and find that plunking the subwoofer down in a corner just happens to work really well in your room; but that scenario is not typical or common. To find the best sub location and improve the bass performance, do the subwoofer crawl.

Finally, if you have not yet added a subwoofer for the deepest bass tones in music and profoundly deep effects in movie soundtracks, consider getting one. A subwoofer will impart the musical foundation to any selection–reggae or Rachmaninoff– and once you hear it, you won’t go back.

3. Listen to Music in Dolby ProLogic IIx, dts Neo:6, or Logic7
I’m always amazed at the willful resistance to multi-channel music listening which I encounter among some otherwise agreeable acquaintances. Our ears and brain are sensitive to direct and slightly delayed sounds arriving at our ears from every direction whether we’re at an indoor concert, outdoor event, or small cabaret or club appearance by favorite musicians. Yet plenty of music lovers confine their music playback to stereo: two speakers at the front of the room trying to reproduce all the direct and reverberant late-arriving sounds, associating ‘surround sound’ with home theater playback of movies. This weekend, do yourself a huge favor and try playing back virtually any stereo CD or 2-channel recording through your AV receiver’s decoding algorithm – Dolby Pro Logic IIx, dts Neo:6 or H/K’s Logic7 (the latter if you happen to own a Harman/Kardon receiver or Lexicon preamp).

Any of those ‘algorithms’ will extract the ambient information hidden on stereo recordings and route it to the surround speakers at the sides/rear of your room, restoring the missing reflected sounds which provide much of the ‘you are there’ realism often lost with pure stereo playback. Note that some types of music may not benefit, but most do. And if you have limited yourself to a stereo-only system, ease up and open yourself to the wonderful enhancement of surround-sound music reproduction.

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