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Tech Take-Apart
Disassembling the Surround Sound System
by kp

Some of you may be investing in a new LCD or Plasma screen this season, but you can't have a great picture without a great sound system to complement it. Flat screen TVs usually have built-in speakers with stereo sound capabilities, but if you want to add an external surround sound system, you need to plan how to integrate the new hardware. Before purchasing a speaker system, it is helpful to know a few basic terms associated with this technology.

Surround sound separates the sound signal into separate channels creating a 3D effect. Each channel operates as a single path for an audio signal. A common surround sound standard, Dolby® 5.1, uses six channels - left, right, center, left surround, right surround and a low frequency subwoofer channel (.1). This is based on a Dolby® AC-3 encoding used with HDTV (high definition television) and most DVDs. There are other versions of Dolby® sound such as Dolby® Mono for a center channel only and Dolby® Stereo for two channels (left and right). Some other standards for surround sound are DTS™ (Digital Theater System) and THX®. DTS™ is also a 5.1 surround sound system, but THX® is a program setup to measure sound quality standards. Next time you buy a DVD, be sure to check for any of these standards on the back of the box to see if it is compatible with your surround sound system.

M-Audio's Revolution 5.1 24-bit PCI Sound CardM-Audio's Revolution 5.1 24-bit PCI Sound Card

Logitech Z-5450 Digital 5.1 Speaker System
Logitech Z-5450 Digital 5.1 Speaker System
To take advantage of surround sound, you need to have a compatible sound card installed in your PC or be using an AV receiver. If you own a media center PC you should already have a 5.1 PCI sound card installed, but if not, you can upgrade to a card such as M-Audio's Revolution 5.1 24-bit PCI Sound Card. Another option is connecting an AV receiver from a media device like a DVD player to the speakers. A receiver acts as a junction for all of your video, media and sound equipment and is usually sold separately from the speaker system. Logitech has designed a surround sound system that includes digital and analog inputs for media devices that doesn't require a separate AV receiver - Z-5450 Digital 5.1 Speaker System. The advantage of this system is not only can you connect your media player, but also a game console or MP3 player. Plus, the two rear speakers are wireless eliminating extra work to run wires to the back of a room.

Once you have selected the right speaker system, you need to plan where to mount all of the speakers. A 5.1 speaker system includes four satellites (2 front, 2 rear for left and right), a subwoofer and possibly a center channel speaker. Typically, the two front satellites will go on the left and right side of your TV respectively with the center channel speaker above the screen. The subwoofer should be placed near or on the floor to get optimal sound effects. The rear satellite speakers should be placed at the back of the room either on a shelf or mounted on a wall. If you are mounting speakers, make sure you have the appropriate hardware and to use a wall anchor for support. The final part of the installation is wiring all the speakers together.

Cabling can become a big challenge if you mismatch your wires or run out of footage. Your speaker system kit should have coded cables to distinguish which speaker belongs to a specific channel. If you need to more footage for your speaker cables, you should check the owners manual to verify the type of cable needed. There are several different cable gauges and material compositions available. Speaker wires are measured by the AWG (American Wire Gauge) system, and commonly found in 16 or 18AWG. The composition of the wire is typically cooper, but silver wire is available at a higher cost. The benefit of using silver is that the wire has lower resistivity and supports better electrical current flow. There is also wire with gold-plated connectors that improves signal transfer and prevents corrosion. Check the manufacturer's specifications for which is best suited for your speaker system.

With a little planning, you can easily build a theater quality environment right in your own home. Grab a bucket of popcorn and enjoy the show!

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M-Audio Revolution 5.1 24-bit PCI Sound Card
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