How to Set Up a Surround Sound System

Introduction

Setting up your own surround sound system can be incredibly rewarding, and provide an excellent audio experience.

This guide will give you the tools and knowledge you need to create the setup at home you've always wanted, bringing your audio listening experience to the next level.

1 Surround Sound vs. Home Theater

There is a lot of overlap between Surround Sound and Home Theater. For the purposes of this guide, we will make a distinction between the two when it comes to video.

A surround sound system is focused on audio. Allowing you to listen to a record player, cassette deck, MP3 player, CD player, or any other audio source. The receiver tends not to have much, if anything in the way of HDMI or video ports.

Some surround sound systems can accept audio from your TV, but it's not as closely integrated as it is with a home theater system.

A home theater system is the integration of sound and video. It allows you to watch your favorite movies and music. The receiver has HDMI and video ports to route and connect all of your components easily.

One of the easier distinctions between the two can be made by simply looking at the connections on the receiver itself. Home theater receivers typically will have many HDMI and video inputs. Surround sound receivers typically will not in favor of focusing on audio only.

Home Theater Surround Sound
home theater receiver back surround sound receiver back

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Setting up your own surround sound system can be incredibly rewarding, and provide an excellent audio experience.

This guide will give you the tools and knowledge you need to create the setup at home you've always wanted, bringing your audio listening experience to the next level.

There is a lot of overlap between Surround Sound and Home Theater. For the purposes of this guide, we will make a distinction between the two when it comes to video.

A surround sound system is focused on audio. Allowing you to listen to a record player, cassette deck, MP3 player, CD player, or any other audio source. The receiver tends not to have much, if anything in the way of HDMI or video ports.

Some surround sound systems can accept audio from your TV, but it's not as closely integrated as it is with a home theater system.

A home theater system is the integration of sound and video. It allows you to watch your favorite movies and music. The receiver has HDMI and video ports to route and connect all of your components easily.

One of the easier distinctions between the two can be made by simply looking at the connections on the receiver itself. Home theater receivers typically will have many HDMI and video inputs. Surround sound receivers typically will not in favor of focusing on audio only.

Home Theater Surround Sound
home theater receiver back surround sound receiver back
Show Me How

Clicking this button will open a new guide that will provide you with steps to resolve your issue.

Like any hobby or job, there's a lot of very technical terms used to describe the various elements of a surround sound system. Because of this, this guide cannot be exhaustive, but we'll be focused on a few, common terms you'll be encountering throughout this process.

  • Source
    • Something that generates audio. Your CD player, turntable, and tape deck are all sources of audio.
      CD Player

  • Output
    • This is where the device creates signal to go to another device. For example, the RCA ports on the back of your CD player are an output that sends its audio to whatever it is plugged into.RCA, Coax, and Optical Line out

  • Input
    • This is where a device takes in the signal from another device. For example, the RCA ports on the back of your receiver are inputs that accept the audio your CD player is sending to it.
      Input spots on back of surround sound receiver

  • Receiver or Amp
    • This is the 'hub', or the central point where everything connects to. Your Receiver will take in inputs from various sources, and route them to various outputs. For example, you would connect your CD player, turntable, and cassette deck to your receiver, which would then allow you to switch between them, playing the audio through the speakers connected to it.
      Receiver Front
      Receiver back

  • Audio Zone or Zone 2
    • An audio 'Zone' refers to a specific location for audio. Some receivers or amps have a 'Zone 2' feature that allows for control of either the same or a separate source for audio that is different than the one being listened to in your main room. For these receivers, if this is possible, you will see a set of speaker terminals for 'Zone 2' and possibly even a separate output for a dedicated Zone 2 source as well. For example, one set of speakers connected normally playing CD player audio in your living room, and a separate set of speakers connected to Zone 2 playing AM/FM radio in your kitchen.
      audio zones highlighted

  • RCA or Composite
    • Common type of cable used to connect home theater equipment. Named after the Radio Corporation of America. Used mostly for audio, and older video equipment.
      RCA cables RCA jacks
       
  • Optical
    • Common type of cable and connection for home theater equipment. Sometimes called TOSLINK. It is a fiber-optic cable for audio.

      TOSLINK cable TOSLINK port

Like any hobby or job, there's a lot of very technical terms used to describe the various elements of a surround sound system. Because of this, this guide cannot be exhaustive, but we'll be focused on a few, common terms you'll be encountering throughout this process.

    • Source
      • Something that generates audio. Your CD player, turntable, and tape deck are all sources of audio.
        CD Player

    • Output
      • This is where the device creates signal to go to another device. For example, the RCA ports on the back of your CD player are an output that sends its audio to whatever it is plugged into.RCA, Coax, and Optical Line out

    • Input
      • This is where a device takes in the signal from another device. For example, the RCA ports on the back of your receiver are inputs that accept the audio your CD player is sending to it.
        Input spots on back of surround sound receiver

    • Receiver or Amp
      • This is the 'hub', or the central point where everything connects to. Your Receiver will take in inputs from various sources, and route them to various outputs. For example, you would connect your CD player, turntable, and cassette deck to your receiver, which would then allow you to switch between them, playing the audio through the speakers connected to it.
        Receiver Front
        Receiver back

At first, setting up a surround sound system can be daunting, but a little careful planning can go a very long way in making it a fun, easy, and rewarding experience.

Write down what you have

To start, make a list of every device you have that you'd like to get connected to your home theater system. While this seems silly at first, it keeps things very organized for later, making this an invaluable step.

It's also helpful if you run into problems. If your CD player starts having problems, and you need to call someone for help, moving things around to look behind is a hassle. Simply glancing at a single sheet of paper with everything written down makes it a lot easier.

For each device, you'll want the following information:

      • What the device is, its make and model, and the types of connections it uses (both inputs and outputs). You can then highlight the connection you decide to use within your setup. For example:

        • Device #1
          Type Receiver
          Make/Model Yamaha R-S202BL
          Input Connection(s) RCA, Optical
          Output Connection(s) RCA, Speakers
           
        • Device #2
          Type Record Player
          Make/Model Audio-Technica
          AT-LP60
          Input Connection(s) None
          Output Connection(s) RCA

This lets you easily take stock of what you have, determine the number and types of cables you'll need, decide what is going where when it's time to connect everything, and generally organize your setup.

Draw a diagram

While this, too, can seem silly at first, it is key to understanding how everything connects. The best professional installers all have a 'map' drawn up simply showing where each component is, where it goes, and how it connects. When it comes to troubleshooting, adding a new device, or taking one away later, this will be the single most helpful document you have.

  • Audio Zone or Zone 2
    • An audio 'Zone' refers to a specific location for audio. Some receivers or amps have a 'Zone 2' feature that allows for control of either the same or a separate source for audio that is different than the one being listened to in your main room. For these receivers, if this is possible, you will see a set of speaker terminals for 'Zone 2' and possibly even a separate output for a dedicated Zone 2 source as well. For example, one set of speakers connected normally playing CD player audio in your living room, and a separate set of speakers connected to Zone 2 playing AM/FM radio in your kitchen.
      audio zones highlighted

  • RCA or Composite
    • Common type of cable used to connect home theater equipment. Named after the Radio Corporation of America. Used mostly for audio, and older video equipment.
      RCA cables RCA jacks
       
  • Optical
    • Common type of cable and connection for home theater equipment. Sometimes called TOSLINK. It is a fiber-optic cable for audio.

      TOSLINK cable TOSLINK port

While you simply need to power every device in your home theater setup, thinking about how to protect your investment from power surges is also something to consider.

This is an area where a little planning goes a very long way:

  • How many devices will you be connecting?
    • If you have six total devices, a small four plug power strip will not suffice.
  • Will you want to expand and add more devices later?
    • Most people will end up adding to and expanding with more devices in the future. You'll want to have extra outlets available to accommodate your future needs.
  • Do you want an easy way to turn on and off your whole setup?
    • Some power delivery devices will have front-facing power switches, or readouts for how power delivery is happening.
  • What shape of plugs do you have?
    • While most devices have moved away from the large, boxy AC to DC adapters that stick out of the wall or hang off the socket, they can still pose a problem. Depending on the type of power delivery accessory you choose, these types of plugs might interfere with neighboring outlets. Some power delivery device manufacturers have taken this into account, and rotated the plugs to make it less of an issue.

All power delivery devices wear out over time. Some may wear out more slowly, but expect to have to replace this part of your system every couple of years to avoid problems.

Different types of Power Protection

There are 3 different types of power distribution and protection devices.

It can be extremely dangerous to connect one power delivery device to another, or 'daisy-chain' them. Always plug these devices directly into a wall outlet, and not into another power delivery device.

Outlet Duplicator / Power Strip
Power Strip
  • Very low cost.
  • Minimal, if any, protection. Most power surges are just passed through to your equipment which can damage or ultimately destroy them. Some models have a small fuse in them which is destroyed when a particularly strong surge occurs.
Surge Protectors
Surge Protector
  • Average cost.
  • Provides decent protection to your devices. Some of these types tend to offer some extra protection as well for cable lines or networking lines. Many come with simple warranties that protect against power surge damage should your devices incur any while connected to one of these.
Power Conditioners
Power Conditioner
  • Very high cost.
  • Provides not only decent protection, but also 'conditions' the power, so there's little if any noise or power fluctuations introduced to your equipment. While subjective and very dependent on what is coming to your equipment in the first place, some people feel it can help with picture and sound quality.
  • These tend to be aesthetically pleasing, and integrate well with modern home theater and surround sound setups.

Most speakers will use very standard, simple 2-wire cables to connect them to your receiver.
Speaker Wire

  • Speaker wire has a polarity. In other words, it matters which side plugs in where. Most speaker wire will already be in a bundle of 2, and one of the cables will be a different color, or have a stripe of color or a label of some sort so you can identify them easily.
  • You will need one 'run' of cable (both wires) for each speaker. Make sure it is long enough to not only reach, but follow the contours of your room, and some extra for slack. This keeps them from being accidentally pulled out.
  • Depending on the model of the receiver you are using, the type of terminal you will plug your speaker wire into may vary.
  • Many receivers and speakers may allow for you to use something called banana plugs, which can be attached to the speaker wires before plugging them in to give a cleaner, easier to use, and more permanent solution for connecting your speakers to your receiver.


  1. Connect each speaker to your receiver. Pay close attention to positive and negative markings on each speaker wire, as not all speaker wire is color coded like the speaker inputs are on your receiver.
    back of receiver with speaker connection points highlighted

  2. Depending on the type of speaker terminals your receiver has, insert the wires following the illustration below.
    diagram of using clip-style speaker jacks diagram of using barrel connector jacks without banana plugs
     
  3. Connect your subwoofer. This tends to be a single RCA-style cable.
    back of receiver with subwoofer RCA jack highlighted
  1. Connect each of your sources (CD, tape, turntable, etc.) to the appropriate connector on the back of your receiver. Many connectors will have labels to guide you.back of receiver RCA inputs highlighted

  2. If you are using one, connect the coax cable for FM radio, and the 2-wire AM antenna lead on your tuner.
    back of receiver antenna clips and coax highlighted

Please be aware that the labels on the ports of your receiver are only a guide. These ports can accept any type of device being plugged into them and can easily be renamed within your receiver's settings.

For example, a port labeled "CD" or "GAME" does not indicate that this is the only type of device it can accept.

  1. Your receiver may have a non-removable power cable attached to the rear. If it does not, connect the supplied power cable to the rear of your receiver. Connect the other end to your power management device.
    back of receiver power cable highlighted

    back of cd player power connection highlighted
  2. Connect power for all your other devices to your power management device as well.
  • Turn on all of your surround sound system's devices.
  • Make sure each audio device works.
  • Make sure the speakers are in the correct locations.
  • If you have a Zone 2 area, test that zone and each component for it as well.
  • Test any other device you have setup as part of your surround sound system.

It is critical to perform this step before moving forward, as we will be cleaning up the cables behind, next. After this, while it is entirely possible to make changes, it is a much greater hassle.

We can now begin bundling together and making the cables behind your system neat and tidy.

You can use one, or multiple different methods to give the look, and accessibility you want to the wiring of your home theater system.

Cable bundling

Cable bundling will most likely be the first step in cleaning up the cables from your home theater installation.

Cable Ties

  • Sometimes called zip ties, these are plastic, with a groove on one side, and a simple locking mechanism on the other. After securing the cables, cut off the remaining end of the cable tie. Given their incredibly low price, they are disposable. When you need to add another cable, you cut the old one off, and just use a new one.
Cable ties

Velcro Straps

  • Much like cable ties, a simple Velcro strap has hooks on one side, felt on the other. The benefit is they can be easily un-bundled or added to, without cutting the strip and having to use another.
Velcro strip around a cable

Raceways

  • Sometimes called cable tunnels, these are for where cables are exposed, such as between your television and receiver, or going to your speakers. They place a cover over your cables to hide them in an aesthetically pleasing way. Many have little notches to lock your cables into.
Raceway

Leave slack at your bundle points.
Do not tighten down any strap too much, you want some give and movement in case something shifts, and you don't want to accidentally cut, bend, crimp, or otherwise damage your cables.

Adhesive Pads
Small, sticky pads to attach your bundles to. Some come built into various straps or ties, some are reusable, such as adhesive putty.

Do not bundle power cables with any other cables. 
Power, by its very nature, creates an electromagnetic field when flowing through a cable. This can severely degrade quality for other cables they are bundled with, especially speaker wire. It's best to keep these as far away from other cables as possible, in their own bundle, for example.

Label Everything

During your bundling process, it's often a good idea to use small labels near the ends of each cable, just in case you need to disconnect something in the future. You can use a label printer to make these, but a small strip of masking tape works just as well.

For example, on your Blu-ray player's HDMI cable, a little loop of tape saying "Blu-ray" where it connects to your Blu-ray player, and where it connects to the receiver, can help you immensely should you replace the player, or the receiver, somewhere down the line. Likewise for power cables.

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