How Do I Position Loudspeakers For My Home Theater System?

The secrets of surround sound speaker placement

The most critical part of a home theater set-up positioning loudspeakers and subwoofers properly. The type of loudspeakers, room shape, and acoustics affect optimum loudspeaker placement.

What Each Speaker Does In Home Theater

Before placing speakers in a surround sound setup you need to know what each one does.

  • Left/Right Channel Speakers: These speakers output most of the music and sound effects in a movie or TV soundtrack. They also provide a way for sound effects or dialog coming from the front of the listening area to move from left-to-right or right-to-left. If listening to stereo music, the L/R channel speakers operate the same way as in a two-channel stereo system.
  • Center Channel Speaker: The center channel speaker anchors dialog or music vocals. The vocals/dialog will still appear to come from a center position if you move your seating position from left to right. In most cases, the center channel speaker volume can be adjusted separately from the L/R channel speakers if the dialog is too low or too loud.
  • Surround Speakers: Surround speakers supplement the front L/R speakers by reproducing sound or music ambiance effects that provide a fuller, more immersive listening experience. Surround speakers may be positioned to the side, back, and above the listener, depending on the surround sound format used. 

Surround speakers aren't always active. If the soundtrack only requires dialog or sound coming from the front, the surround speakers may be silent or very subtle for periods of time. They jump into action when the soundtrack requires the reproduction of sound effects. 

Speaker Setup Options

There are general loudspeaker position guidelines that can be followed as a starting point, and, for most basic installations, these guidelines may be sufficient.

The following examples are provided for a typical square or slightly rectangular room. You may need to adjust your placement to other room shapes, types of speakers, and additional acoustical factors.

Harman Kardon AVR147 Home Theater Receiver - User Manual IIlustration - Speaker Setup Diagram
Official AVR147 Documentation provided by Harman International - Used With Permission

5.1 Channel Speaker Placement

  • Front Center Channel Speaker: Place the Front Center Channel Speaker directly in front of the listening area, either above or below the television, video display, or projection screen.
  • Subwoofer: Place the Subwoofer to the left or right of the television.
  • Left and Right Main/Front Speakers: Place the Left and Right Main/Front speakers equidistant from the Front Center Channel speaker, about a 30-degree angle from the center channel.
  • Left and Right Surround Speakers: Place the Left and Right Surround Speakers to the left and right side, just to the side or slightly behind the listening position - about 90-110 degrees from the center channel. These speakers can be elevated above the listener.

6.1 Channel Speaker Placement

The Front Center and Left/Right Main speakers and Subwoofer are the same as in a 5.1 Channel configuration.

  • Left and Right Surround Speakers: Place the Left and Right Surround Speakers to the left and right side of the listening position, in line with or slightly behind the listening position about 90-110 degrees from the center. These speakers can be elevated above the listener.
  • Rear Center Channel Speaker: Directly behind the listening position, in line with the Front Center speaker – May be elevated.

7.1 Channel Speaker Placement

The Front Center and Left/Right Main speakers and Subwoofer are the same as a 5.1 or 6.1 Channel set up.

  • Left and Right Surround Speakers: Place the Left and Right Surround Speakers to the left and right side of the listening position, in line with or slightly behind the listening position – about 90-110 degrees from the center. These speakers can be elevated above the listener.
  • Rear/Back Surround Speakers Place the Rear/Back Surround Speakers behind the listening position – slightly to the left and right (may be elevated above listener) - at about 140-150 degrees from the front center channel speaker. Rear/Back channel surround speakers can be elevated above the listening position.

9.1 Channel Speaker Placement

The same front, surround, rear/back surround speaker and subwoofer setup as in a 7.1 channel system. However, there is an addition of Front Left and Right Height speakers placed about three to six feet above the Front Left and Right Main Speakers directed towards the listening position.

Dolby Atmos, DTS:X, and Auro 3D Audio Speaker Placement

In addition to the 5.1, 7.1, and 9.1 channel speaker setups explained above, there is also immersive surround sound formats that require a different approach to speaker placement.

Dolby Atmos

For Dolby Atmos instead of 5.1, 7.1, 9.1 etc... there are new designations, such as 5.1.2, 7.1.2, 7.1.4, 9.1.4, etc...

  • Speakers laid on in a horizontal plane (left/right front, center, and surrounds) are the first number.
  • The subwoofer is the second number (maybe .1 or .2)
  • The ceiling-mounted or vertical drivers represent the last number (usually .2 or .4).
Dolby Atmos Speaker Setup Examples
Onkyo/Dolby Labs

For additional illustrations on how the speakers can be placed, go to The Official Dolby Atmos Speaker Setup Page.

The DTS:X surround sound format doesn't require a specific overhead speaker setup, but the same setup options that work for Dolby Atmos will work with DTS:X.

Auro 3D Audio

Auro3D Audio employs a 5.1 speaker layout as a foundation (referred to as the lower layer) but adds an additional height layer of speakers slightly above 5.1 channel lower layer speaker layout (5 more speakers above each speaker in the lower layer).

There is also an additional top height layer consisting of a single speaker/channel positioned directly overhead (in the ceiling). This speaker is referred to as the "Voice of God" channel. The VOG is designed to seal the immersive sound "cocoon".

The entire setup consists of 11 speaker channels, plus one subwoofer channel (11.1). Auro3D can also be adapted to a 10.1 channel configuration (with the center height channel but without the VOG channel), or 9.1 channel configuration (without the top and center height channel speakers).

Auro 3D Audio 10.1 Channel Speaker Setup
Image provided by Marantz

To aid in any speaker setup, take advantage of the built-in Test Tone Generator that is available in many Home Theater Receivers to set your sound levels. All Speakers should be able to output at the same volume level. An inexpensive Sound Meter can also help with this task. Most home theater receivers also have automatic speaker/bass management setup features.