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Surround Sound 101

Disney's Fantasia

Just Another Sales Pitch

Like many things in life, it is easy for us to dismiss surround sound as just another way for people to get more money out of us. While this train of thought is not completely unwarranted, it would be sad if surround sound was yet another offering we just stuff in that category and never look back.

It actually all started in the 1940's with the Disney movie Fantasia. They wanted to make a bumblebee sound like it was flying through the theater. They weren't very successful at the time, but it birthed a new era of sound reproduction.

Just think about it for a moment. Have you ever been on a trip or experienced something extraordinary and wanted to share that experience with someone else? Have you ever tried to explain it to them and get them to be as excited about it as you are, but you seem to fall very short? They end up saying something like, "..Guess you had to have been there." Well, don't take it too personally. Sometimes we underestimate how important of a role our eyes and ears play when we experience things.

They're Everywhere!

Tent Surrounded by the Sounds of NightWhen we go on a camping trip to a beautiful national park, we see and hear things in 3D. The sound of a bee or a bird flying around is not just "on" or "off". It's alive! It's moving. It can be really quiet behind us, then gets a little louder over there to our left, then gets faint again in front of us, then moves around us, then is really load as it races by our face. Imagine being in a tent at night time. The sounds we hear are all around us, not just where we look, not just in front of us. They're everywhere! Well, that's surround sound!

7.1 Surround Sound Diagram

What's With All the Numbers?

There are several flavors of surround sound. There is 2.1,3.1,5.1,6.2,7.1, etc. There's also several different surround sound technologies - Dolby Digital, DTS-HD™,THX Surround EX™, etc., but we won't get into them here. Basically, the fist number is how many full-range speakers you have, and the ".1" or ".2" indicates how many subwoofers (LFE's) you have (or need) on the system.

What Should I Get?

Most newer DVD's are optimized for 5.1 surround sound. Many BluRay discs are also in 5.1, but the number of 7.1 movies are growing. A 7.1 optimized home theater system can play 5.1 movies with no problem, but you will not be able to take advantage of 7.1 surround sound unless your system is set up for that. If you are able to, go with 7.1. If you're on a budget, 5.1 will still sound nice. Remember, anything is better than trying to experience life-like sound from your TV's built-in speakers!

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