Home theater calibration guide: Manual speaker setup

Learn how to calibrate your home theater speakers for sheer audio bliss

Speaker

These days, even entry-level A/V receivers are likely to come with some form of auto-setup system that promises to make crucial speaker-related adjustments by simply plugging in a microphone and hitting the go button. Sounds appealing, right? Why would anyone want to spend an hour reading a manual, busting out a tape measure, and fiddling with a decibel meter when the auto-setup will do it for you, hassle-free, in a matter of minutes?

Why, indeed. Before the advent of the auto-setup routine, the frustration experienced by consumers while trying to set up their A/V equipment was a major cause for product returns. Auto-setup manages to mitigate that problem and helps to keep A/V equipment in buyers’ homes instead of in the return line. Unfortunately, the measurement and crossover settings provided by these systems aren’t always accurate, and if you don’t know what to look for, you might never know it. Also, these auto-setup systems usually make EQ adjustments that don’t always improve sound quality. In fact, for those with high-quality speakers, using auto-setup can actually make your speakers sound less than their best. What’s the point of buying the best speakers you can afford if you’re not actually hearing what they’re capable of?

With a couple of tools and some guidance, even the most electronically-challenged can get the very best sound quality by performing a manual speaker setup. Here’s our plain-language guide to doing just that.

Step 1

Make sure you can see your receiver’s on-screen display (OSD) on your TV

Trying to set up your receiver using its tiny LCD display is a hassle you don’t need. Instead, make sure you can see your receiver’s display on your TV. Nearly all modern receivers will put out the on-screen display via HDMI, but some older receivers (like, more than five years old) require an old-school video connection. If you don’t see a menu pop up on your TV when you press the “menu” or “setup” button on your receiver’s remote, make sure you have at least an RCA cable handy for connecting the receiver’s composite video (yellow RCA jack) output to your TV’s composite video input.

home theater calibration guide manual speaker setup onkyo on screen menuOnkyo OSD (image via)

Step 2

Know your receiver’s menu

You can spend time looking at the manual, sure, but getting a hands-on experience with your receiver’s menu by hunting and pecking through it with your remote provides significant benefits. After browsing for a while, you’ll find that you remember where a lot of the menu options are because you actually navigated there before. Don’t worry if you don’t understand what some of the terms mean. We’ll explain some of them below.

Step 3

Place your speakers

We understand that the room in which your speakers live can dictate where the speakers must be placed, and placement can also vary based on the types of speakers you’re using. Some of us have entertainment centers with specific places for speakers, or we only have a handful of open spots in which to put a speaker. With that in mind, do the best you can to follow these basic speaker placement rules.

First, take a look at the simple speaker location graphic below:

home theater calibration guide manual speaker setup diagram

Note that the center channel should be placed directly below or above your television. Since almost all dialogue comes from this speaker, it needs to be as close to the TV as possible to maintain the illusion that the voices are coming from the picture itself.

Try to place your left and right speakers as far away from each other as your central listening position is from your TV, creating an equilateral triangle between your head and the two speakers. For most, the central listening position is the seat located directly in front of the TV. If this doesn’t apply, then choose the spot in the room where most of the listening will be done. It also helps if you place the top of the speaker at about 40 inches off the floor (average ear height).

Next, place your surround speakers above ear level (somewhere between 48 inches and 72 inches) and just behind your listening position. If you have surround back speakers (the sixth and seventh channels), mirror them in the same positions as the front speakers, but on the wall behind you.

If you’re adding Dolby Atmos/DTS:X speakers (i.e. height speakers for 3D/object-based surround setups), you’ll want to position upward-firing speakers (those that bounce sound off the ceiling) directly on top of each of the front left and right speakers and, if you’re adding back height speakers, directly on top of the left and right surrounds. If this is not possible for some reason, Dolby recommends you make sure they’re within three feet of those speakers at the front and back respectively. Dolby also recommends you assure the speakers are at or slightly above ear level.

If the speakers are wall-mounted they can be higher, but no more than half the height of your wall. If you’re mounting them in the ceiling (and if you’re installing them yourself, bravo), Dolby recommends the ideal height as between 7.5 and 12 feet, with 14 feet as the maximum. If you’re only adding two ceiling mounted speakers, they should be mounted directly above the central listening position at an angle of around 80 degrees from the top of your head, as shown in this diagram.

If you’re adding four ceiling-mounted height speakers, you’ll want them mounted equidistant from the front, back, and side walls, and set above the central listening position. The front speakers should be set about 45 degrees forward from the central listening position, while the back should be about 135 degrees behind, as shown in this diagram.

For the subwoofer, avoid placing it flush with a corner of the room or within another cabinet like an entertainment center. Subwoofers usually sound best placed a third of the way into the room from the side and front (or back) wall. It is OK to place a subwoofer in the back of the room, but make sure it is at least 3 feet away from your head. If you can’t find a good place in your room to adhere to these instructions, make sure to keep at least 1 foot of distance between the sub and any given wall.

With your speakers placed and connected to the terminals, it’s time to set up the receiver to handle them properly. Start by accessing your receiver’s menu and selecting the “speaker setup” option. Most receivers offer the same basic adjustments. These include speaker distance, speaker size and crossover setting, and speaker level. We’ll go through each setting one at a time.

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