Do You Really Need Rear Speakers in Home Theater?

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How many speakers do you really need in a home theater?

Echoing the same lines as the famous “the more, the merrier” argument, if it’s a case of adding rear speakers in your home theater, the more the merrier. But before you go ahead and buy extra rear speakers, listen up.

When it comes to rear speakers, you actually don’t need as many rear speakers as you might think. Most affordable sound systems today have two separate channels for surround sound and we need only one of them to get true Dolby surround sound.

You may be tempted to add extra speakers to the rear to enhance the effect or spread the sound all over the room, but the truth is, you won’t be able to hear the difference amidst the sounds coming from the front.

Although a couple of extra speakers will not harm your ears, if make that decision, just make sure you have control over the volume. Dolby claims that with 4 speakers, you can spread the sound around the whole room but that’s not necessarily true. If you have 2 speakers behind you and they are louder than the front ones, you will feel that the sound is coming from those 2 speakers and the sound will sound off.

Factors that will decide if you need rear speakers

Cinematic experience is still not complete without having the rear speakers in your home theater system. Even though you can get by without rear speakers, having them adds to the cinematic experience and enhances your setup.

It is true that you can always add rear speakers later but I suggest that you get it right the first time around. Don’t wait until you experience your friends’ setups and want to upgrade. Before you begin planning the layout of your home theater system, be sure that you plan properly the first time around. To be sure, you only need to consider these factors:

Space: Depending on your home theater setup, you may need the speakers to be pointed toward you. But for surround effects, you need your surround speakers to be pointed toward the ceiling or outward. The placement of the rear speakers will have a big impact on your installation decisions. For instance, the space between the front and rear speakers, the distance between the speakers, and the separation between the speakers and the side walls.

Room space

One of the most common myths about home theater surround sound systems is that you need rear speakers. But I will not get into that debate in this article.

I will focus on the fact that rear speakers are essential if the room is small.

For a given number of speakers, the distances are determined by the size and shape of the room itself. The best way to get the right distance between speakers for your room is to do the experiment.

Put a working and all the important components of your home theater system in position. Then do A/B testing between a set-up with rear speakers and one without. Listen to movies, and don’t forget to focus on dialog.

For a small room, adding rear speakers (if you want to) will most likely solve the dialog intelligibility issues.

Budget

The whole point of home entertainment systems is to get as close to the movie theater experience as possible in your own house. Do rear speakers in home theater systems really enhance that experience?

The whole point of home entertainment systems is to get as close to the movie theater experience as possible in your own house. Do rear speakers in home theater systems really enhance that experience?

The answer is, yes, they do, albeit in a subtle manner. While it is true the front three speakers have the most responsibility in getting you properly immersed in the experience, the rear speakers contribute to the scene. In simple terms, rear speakers help create a fuller sound. They can also help set the mood, especially in moments of tension or suspense.

And, it’s true, you don’t need rear speakers in the home theater system. However, your experience will be enhanced by rear speakers in home theater.

So, if you are shifting gears from watching TV content to watching movie content, you should consider adding rear speakers to your system. For those that don’t have the budget or space for rear speakers, a rear-speaker kit is an option that will expand your home entertainment system to include rear speakers. These kits come with an amplifier and two or three satellite speakers and they are connected to the front speakers.

Speaker use

Rear speakers are usually placed behind your listening position, so they enhance the sound of the action or general ambiance in the room.

The main reason rear speakers are needed is one of psycho-acoustics, or the way the human ear processes sound. The majority of the sound you hear comes from the front of the source, much lower than you'd think. The direction of the sound source is important for determining what is happening in a scene.

But, as you're well aware, in real life the sounds don't stop when you turn around. And when we watch movies at home, our TV's speakers don't convey that effectively. So speakers placed at the rear of the room, at the same height as the front, provide us with a much more realistic experience.

Do rear speakers need to match?

At the time of this writing, I don’t have rear speakers. I do have the option to add speakers to the sides of my viewing area, but I don’t want to. So, I’ve never experienced having 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound home theater. This means that I’m not going to make a judgment on how rear speakers should be positioned in your home theater setup.

What I will share with you, although I can’t verify it, is that most professional movie studios put emphasis on the front speakers. Also, the majority of viewers have their viewing position centered in the middle of the viewing area, and your auditorium won’t include rear speakers.

Given this information, I can understand why some people feel that rear speakers are not necessary. However, I think there is another way to look at this.

You should ask yourself, “is it possible that I will move my auditorium to a different room in my house, or will I be putting the equipment in a room that will be used to watch movies or sports at some point? If the answer to either of these questions is yes, then rear speakers can add an extra dimension to the experience.

How to get the most from your speakers

Home theater setups consist of a number of speakers. Most of the time, these speakers are placed in strategic locations in your room, usually close to the TV. This arrangement (5.1, 7.1) ensures that the sound effects and dialogue are positioned so that you are in the middle of the action with the best sound possible.

One thing that sometimes gets overlooked though, is what's happening behind you. If you've ever been to the cinema for an action movie you’ll know just how much a good audio experience adds to the thrills and spills of the film. The crack of gunfire and the impact of explosions make you feel like you're actually in the movie.

While avante-garde speakers may put the sound effects up front, they miss out on the full immersive effect. Because the rear speakers are not positioned in just any old position behind you. Their placement is carefully thought out to make sure that they are not just behind your listening position but also are aimed at it.

Ensure your speakers are placed correctly

The most important step in setting up any surround sound system is positioning your speakers properly. For home theater systems, this means placing them in the Mains, Side, Surround, and Subwoofer positions. Ideally you should have a minimum distance of 1.5 times the distance between the speakers for all speakers except the front left and right speakers. This distance ratio is 3:1 for the front left and right speakers.

If the subwoofer is in a corner, you should consider bringing the left and right speakers forward from the front of the subwoofer to the middle of the wall. When you are positioning the Front L/R speakers, put them just in front of the seating area in your listening position so that the sound is emitted directly to your ears.

The Center Channel speaker should be placed directly over or slightly to the side of the viewing area. The ideal height of center channel speaker should be 3-4 feet above the floor.

The best way to find the position of the surround speakers is to sit in your preferred seating area and play a sound on your test track. Then slowly move the speaker back and forth until you find the sweet spot.

Don’t forget to test your system through all the channels making sure to close your eyes and listen to the sound not just your eyes and ears and adjust as needed.

Adjust your AV settings

One of the primary home theater issues is that the quality of the surround sound can be affected by the size of the room. Large rooms, that aren’t treated properly, will experience loss of definition and clarity in the surround sound. This is imroved with rear surround speakers.

The rear speakers in a solid home theater system, are used to add an extra level of clarity and definition, which is especially important in large or less than ideal rooms. The small but perceptible sounds in your surround sound track come from the rear speakers. If you are watching a movie in a room that is too small, you are not able to hear the sounds that are supposed to be played back.

so, place rear speakers to “enlarge” the room.

The rear speakers are critical for the door slams, distant voices, swirling winds, and other effects. These sounds are often almost inaudible without the help of rear speakers.

In a corner, the rear speakers are banished to the outer regions, becoming a part of the background when viewing a movie. Not just your AV experience, but the original intent of a filmmaker is fulfilled with rear speakers because they are intended to be placed in a room so that a viewer gets the full benefit of the experience.

Think about your room’s acoustics

Rear speakers in a home theater setup are essential for making the overall effect of sound even, especially in larger rooms. While you may not have a dedicated home theater, you should include the same principles of speaker placement and channel configuration in any system.

If you have a larger room, you may not be able to place the front left and right speakers close enough to each other to achieve a true stereo effect. However, if you place the front left and right speakers on the left (for example) edge of the room for left-channel audio, and then place the front right speakers at the opposite side of the room for right audio, then the speakers may actually be too far apart for good sound with this configuration.

In order to get the sound from the left and right speakers to blend into a more cohesive stereo image, your rear speakers also play a role by adding the opposite channel’s audio from the front speakers. The further the rear speakers are placed from the front speakers, the more they should work to fill in the sound, and conversely the closer they are to the front speakers, the less they need to add to the overall audio effect.

When setting up your rear speakers, think about this, and find the best place to put them based on where they will sound the best, not just the place where they can be placed easily.

Some final thoughts

Rear speakers are probably the single most misunderstood component in home entertainment. The most common reason for purchasing rear speakers is, to improve the surround sound experience. Also, some people fear losing center channel, if they choose home theater systems that don’t include a center channel model.

But rear speakers do not produce any intelligible, or useful surround information. They only exist to reinforce the center channel speaker. Most modern home theater receivers have numerous surround modes. These modes change how the surround speakers/subs handle the surround information. For example Dolby Digital, DTS and THX all use 5 speakers, but they don’t use them the same way. For example Dolby uses an extra surround channel called the surround back channel, and DTS uses a surround back channel that is filtered to only produce effects. DTS also has a mode called DTS Neo, which requires 7 speakers and one sub. All of these modes are available to the surround speakers, and each gives a good surround sound experience.

Ideally, you should set your audio system to match your room size. So if you have a small room, set your speaker mode to small. If you have a medium room, set your speaker to medium. A medium room is between 13 – 16ft wide.

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It should be a given that the sound coming out of your TV or sound system through the front two speakers is meant to be heard by one person… the person who is sitting directly in front of the screen. Unfortunately, intruding noises or chatter by others might make the task a challenge for the movie watcher.

With rear speakers in the home theater system, movie watchers can tune out of distractions and immerse themselves in the movie by hearing sounds – rain, music, and other sounds – from the back speakers. This helps with the top-notch movie theater experience – regardless of the theater size.

Besides separating the actor's voice from the intruding noises, the rear speakers also help the movie watcher distinguish distance. For instance, the sound coming from the rear speakers may be closer to the viewer with the music in the background – far away.

Additionally, the audio coming through rear speakers helps the viewer convey emotions. For instance, a scene where people are sitting around a table, a baby is crying, and there is a light drizzle outside may create an eerie feeling to the movie watcher.