Surround sound without waking the neighbors? [Archive] - Audio & Video Forums


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12-13-2003, 11:23 AM
Hi all, very impressed with the knowledge here. I've learned alot already. One thing I haven't learned yet, is are there systems that give excellent sound without shaking down the house? Sound clarity is MUCH more important to me (and more importantly, the missus :)) than loudness. My brother has a surround sound system, pretty high priced (>$1000), yet we couldn't hear the voices for the background/ambient sounds of the movie. So I was very disappointed in that. He had the system volume turned up so we could hear the dialogue, but that made the musical score, background noises, off screen noises that much louder.

Also, we have a 2 story family room. About 22 feet long by 16 feet wide. Our 52" projection is on the short axis so I'm not sure how much surround we could actually use. But more importantly, our son's room is at the top of the stairs, so cranking up the volume is not an option for Saturday night movie watching.

The problem then is this. We want very good surround sound and clarity of dialogue without having to crank up the volume. A powered subwoofer is a must for when we want to feel the movie, but we can always crank the bass down for the nighttime viewings. Does such a system exist? I get the impression that all these surround sound systems are designed to play VERY loud. So I would guess I'd need a lot of wattage to power lower volumes, but I'm not sure on that either.

Any and all help appreciated. Thanks

12-13-2003, 11:58 AM
pretty much all modern recievers (that I can think of) will have something called midnight mode, or something that does the same thing with a different name. Basically, it compresses the dynamic range of a passage. That means that the loudest parts will be a little quieter, and the quiet parts will be a little louder. Thus you can hear the whispers, but not be constantly fiddling with the volume to avoid waking the neighbors. I'm sure that someone else here can explain how it works a little better.

Jim Clark
12-13-2003, 12:08 PM
Just my opinions here so take it or leave it.

First-Settle the problem with the off axis TV. Surely there is something that can be done. I've never been in a theater with an off axis screen (ie. in a corner) and that alone is going to severely compromise any HT set up you get.

Next-Make sure the speakers are all calibrated using the test tones from the receiver/pre-pro if need be or better yet a calibration DVD that offers test tones. Calibrate carefully using a SPL meter. This step is almost universally ignored and probably the biggest barrier to getting good dialog from a center channel speaker. While I don't know for certain I'd bet your bro doesn't know jack about using a SPL meter. After yours is set up and blows his away you could share your little secret-or not. A meter is about 40 bucks and most people piss away more than twice that on monster cable. What a waste.

Finally, the midnight mode suggested earlier would probably be helpful for keeping the kiddies in bed although I've never used that feature so I don't know how well it works.

final tip-in a family situation it can help to free up the spending by figuring out how much you spend on movie theaters. If you build yours and stay away from theaters it's fairly easy to recoup your investment. I haven't felt the need to go to the movies in years and my system isn't all that great.

At any rate, good luck to you and have fun.


12-13-2003, 12:24 PM
As far as not hearing the dialogue,turn up the centre channel,and you can turn down the surrounds as well.Some receivers have a dynamic range adjustment so you can alter the level of sound effects.It's good to have ample wattage for the times when you do want dynamics,say 80 watts per channel.The amp will hold this in reserve until it's called upon for sound tracks that are demanding at times.If you don't have enough power it puts a strain on the amp which can effect sound quaility or worse case senario,the amp will clip which could cause damage to the amp or speakers.All else being said,you control the volume.

12-14-2003, 12:49 AM
Given that your speakers are decent enough, you should be able to get good sound clarity without cranking up the volume. Make sure also that surround configuration is set up properly (by help of SPL meter or at least by the test tone built in the receiver). You can control the volume of individual channel so if your main concern is dialogue, you can boost the center channel as previously suggested, or simply turn down the subwoofer level. I think some receivers has 10 dB defeat for subwoofer (LFE) level. And also already suggested, receivers have dynamic compression but some only work on Dolby Digital source, not DTS. Anyway, you are in control with current receiver if you setup properly.

12-14-2003, 06:04 AM
The center channel is the most important speaker in HT. I chose my center first, and then built an HT speaker system around it. For a time I used non-matched speakers, but it sounded GREAT from the first time I put the center in. The center I am using is a Cambridge Soundworks MC500. It is a LARGE center channel, and capable of playing very loud, and low. The thing that sold me though was it's ability to play dialog accurately and clearly. A lot of HT systems miss the boat when it comes to the center, and it shows right away, (at least to me) when you try to listen at a low to moderate level, and you miss the dialog, and/or low level details.

You can attenuate the sub with the receiver, or turn it off altogether if you go into the setup on your receiver. My Pioneer has what's called "Midnight Mode" that compresses the dynamics so you can hear the quiet passages without turning the volume up.

One thing you might consider is to move the sub next to your seats. This is not a perfect setup, but you will be able to get the low frequency effects without setting the LFE volume to high. I've toyed with the idea of setting a sub behind my couch to use just for the LFE effects.

12-14-2003, 07:29 AM
Study this list, it will give you some good pointers on how to assemble and set up a Home Theater.

Home Theater Mistakes:

1)Non-realistic budget/expectations: If you want to get in cheap, there are some decent Home Theater in a Box systems in the $500-1000 price range. Don't expect every feature in the book, don't expect it to shake down the house. DO expect that it will provide reasonable transition between the satellite speakers and the subwoofer, and decent midrange performance. Listen to see that the voices, especially male voices are clear on any system you buy.

2)Improper set-up/adjustment: Rears and subwoofer too loud are the most common if the system was set up by someone inexperienced. Otherwise, many people skip the set-up all together and just play it out of the box. It is worth a few minutes of time to go through the instructions and try to get it better. Every surround receiver has a "test tone" mode which allows you to set the volume level of the center and surround speakers. It is best to use a sound level meter (available at Radio Shack for about $50), but if you are on a budget, your ears will do okay if you pay attention. Just try to get them so they sound like they are playing at the same volume. On some movies you may not get a lot of surround information, so don't worry. Action movies will have more. The ground rule is "If the rears pull your attention away from the fronts they are too loud". Make sure the receiver is set up for the speakers you are using. There is a part of the menu that will let you select "large" or "small" and it will ask you if you are using a subwoofer.

3)Buy a system based on the scale of your room: This is most important in a big room where a budget system will get "lost". The subwoofer, especially, won't be able to generate decent bass if the room is too big for the system. The opposite happens, but not on a budget. I've seen a couple of small rooms that should have had a system half the size in it, but these were multi-thousand dollar systems. It was still better than the $300 system in a huge main room with vaulted ceilings. That was a painful experience.

4)Be patient if you are on a budget: It is possible to buy the receiver and a small pair of speakers, then save up for rears, center channel, and a subwoofer in that order. You will end up with a much more satisfying system in the end.

5)Be willing to change the room around to adjust for the new system. You can fudge a bit here and there, but you need to make sure that the right and left fronts are the same distance apart on either side of the TV and that they are no more than 2-3 of feet apart in height. The closer to being a straight line the better. Your surrounds need to be positioned evenly in the back. It is best to get them up on a wall, preferably 5-6 feet up. They need to be someplace behind you on a side or back wall.

6)Buy an "upscale" brand receiver or boxed system . Personally I'm a Yamaha fan, but Denon, Marantz, Onkyo, and h/k are all a whole lot better than "the brands you probably know". This advice alone is worth $1,000,000.

7)Speakers: Make sure they match the scale of your room. Big rooms need more speaker to provide a satifying fill. There are some small speakers that can do it, but you probably haven't heard of those brands either. The brand you have heard of, THOSE should be avoided at all costs, but that's not an issue when you are on a budget. Look North!!! some of the best deals on speakers now are coming from Canadian companies. Energy, Mirage, Athena, Paradigm, PSB are a good place to start. There are probably 500 brands of speakers available in the US. Take out the ones that are hideously expensive or hideously awful and you are down to 15-20 brands. Budget/availability will probably cut that in half. There are some good ones out there, but here again, they are brands you have probably never heard of. Be more wary of the ones that you have heard of.

8)Subwoofers: There are three things to consider here outside of budgetary concerns. First, the size of your room. Second, the size of the speakers. Third, how the woofer was tuned. Listen to music with the subwoofer on for part three. If the woofer seems to play one note really well and not others, run. The vast majority of the woofers you will find out there will fail this test horribly. The best example I can think of for a really bad woofer is probably the entry level Klipsch. The enclosures are tuned very high in frequency and have a very limited range of bass notes they can play, but they will play them pretty loud. Loud isn't the issue here, it is playing the notes you want to hear. Bring some music with some good bass guitar or better yet, a stand up bass jazz disc. The bass should be tight and well defined, you should be able to clearly hear when a different note is being played.

9)Finally, avoid Consumer Reports on this one. There heart is in the right place, but their lack of knowledge in the audio category is lethal. Trust your own ears and go listen using the other 8 parameters I've "handed down". No mention was made of any mountains in this statement. The only good thing to come off of mountains in the past 5000 years has been water.


12-15-2003, 07:06 AM
outstanding. I never would have thought to spend money on a sound meter, but that sounds prudent.

when I say short axis, I do not mean in a corner, I mean in a rectangular room with the TV in the center of a wall with the viewing distance being the shortest. In a 16x22 room, the surrounds would be 22 feet apart while the center speaker would be about 14 feet in front of you if you sit right in front of the TV.

Thanks for the advice on height of speakers. I knew to keep them at the same height, but not to what degree of separation I could cheat on. 2-3 feet is entirely realistic in my setup.

So I gather just about any HT system ~$1000 US can give excellent clarity at low volumes but I would need bigger speakers for a 2 story room to fill the room with sound and would have to calibrate them with a sound meter.

Jim Clark
12-15-2003, 02:53 PM
when I say short axis, I do not mean in a corner,

Sorry 'bout that. I had off axis on my brain and was going to read off axis no matter what words were actually there.

Glad to hear you're moving towards a meter. I believe that the folks that say you can do it by ear are mistaken, except for maybe a few lucky accidents.


12-15-2003, 07:22 PM
Space summarized the buying considerations really well. Take that advice and then some, and you won't go wrong. As far as good surround sound without waking up the neighbors. Others have already mentioned the dynamic range compression (i.e. midnight mode). That will dramatically reduce the distance between the loudest and softest sounds and allow you to retain a more consistent volume. But, it will sound compressed and lower in audio quality. Keep in mind that the compression feature is only available with Dolby Digital soundtracks -- won't work with DTS.

The trickiest part though with neighbors is when you're using a subwoofer. You might have to just switch the subwoofer off at certain times. Why? Because unlike highs and midrange, low frequencies pass through apartment walls fairly easily, and their wavelengths are long enough so that what may seem like reasonably low bass levels from where you're sitting might sound like an earthquake in your neighbor's bed!

Maximizing the audio quality with your system, the setup and calibrating are crucial. With your brother's system, it could simply be that the center channel level is set too low. That's why the SPL meter is so important. Your speakers might have different efficiency levels, and your room acoustics will affect how loud the sound from a particular speaker is when it reaches your listening position. Any kind of irregularities in the shape of the room, arrangement in the furniture, slope of the ceiling, differences in distance, etc. will ensure that the sound levels at your listening position are different and require correction.

piece-it pete
12-16-2003, 11:52 AM
As a guy who's VERY tuned into the neighbor problem - I'm on a 40 x 120 lot with a new baby next door - I know you'll have to turn off the sub (props to wooch). Nothing will make this big of a difference at the same volume (I can feel his driveway vibrate with it on at "reasonable" movie watching levels).

The second thing is the higher part of the midrange, particularly through a door or window. This can be quite well handled with a treatment (heavy drapes, piece of carpet). So if you turn off your sub & get something on or over your sons' door it should make a very appreciable difference inside his room.

I'd also like to mention a particular brand of speakers I think are well suited to this application: Magnepan.

Of all my mid-pricerange speakers the Maggies had the best dialog reproduction hands down. Clear and easily heard. And since clarity is your concern that adds another check mark, dialog & effects. They also don't have overwhelming bass :) - even when I cranked mine it didn't rattle the neighbors windows(even though they rocked & they sounded wonderful!)!

My only concern would be the ability of the cheaper Maggies to fill your largish room when you AREN'T trying to be quiet. But hey - you can find out cheaply. Buy a pair of MMGs' off Audiogon for $400 +frt. Disconnect your surrounds & center & see if they're to your liking. If so, buy the center ($400-500), then either another set of MMGs' down the road for surrounds, or if you really like them but feel the need for "more", buy a set of better maggies for your mains & use the MMGs' for surrounds.

If you don't like them, sell them on Audiogon for $400.00 & all you're out is frt.

Or you could simply find your local dealer & audition them at home - they're $550/pr new, & if you don't like them take them back.

See how easy it is for me to spend your time & money :)??

Good luck - have fun!


PS I'm telling Magnepan I want a commision lol!

12-16-2003, 12:25 PM
when doing the test tone should the sub be equally loud to the other speakers or is the test tone mainly for the 5 speakers ???

12-16-2003, 01:35 PM
when doing the test tone should the sub be equally loud to the other speakers or is the test tone mainly for the 5 speakers ???

With a wideband test tone, that can also be used with the sub.

But, it's more accurate to use a narrower band test tone for the main/center/surround speakers like in the S&V, Avia, or DVE test discs because the low frequencies in the wideband test tone can give you erroneous readings with those channels. Those discs have separate test tones that isolate the subwoofer. You should use that test tone to match the subwoofer level with the mains.

12-16-2003, 01:59 PM
With a wideband test tone, that can also be used with the sub.

But, it's more accurate to use a narrower band test tone for the main/center/surround speakers like in the S&V, Avia, or DVE test discs because the low frequencies in the wideband test tone can give you erroneous readings with those channels. Those discs have separate test tones that isolate the subwoofer. You should use that test tone to match the subwoofer level with the mains.

sorry are these disks CD or DVD

12-16-2003, 02:02 PM
ahhh I see....I'm not sure where to get this disk (in canada) Ottawa)) I think I need one my system sounds good but its all done by ear and when I do my test tone from the receiver I can barely hear the this disk will make it audible ??