Recycle Your Stereo for Surround Sound

You like your stereo system, but now you want a surround-sound home theater as well. Does that mean you have to throw out your existing receiver and speakers and start over from scratch? Or can you somehow use that equipment as a base to build on?

Maybe you can start with what you've got.

Whether the incentive is to hold on to a pair of speakers you love or simply to save money, there is hope. It depends on the kind of equipment you have now, your plans, and the room in which the system will reside.

In this story, we'll discuss some surround-sound strategies (see "Four Scenarios for Surround Sound"), but before that, we'll give you the lowdown on the essential components you need for a surround-sound setup, along with some important things to consider, depending on how far you want to go with your system. We explain how surround-sound technology works, and we also provide some tips on how to evaluate the equipment you already own.

Getting Started: Basic Surround Sound

Surround sound involves four key elements: A source, a receiver, amplifiers, and speakers.

Source: Your source can be anything that carries a surround-encoded sound track, which would include DVDs and videotapes of just about any movie made in the last 20 years and many television programs. Taking advantage of these sources--DVD movies, videos, and TV programs--requires a DVD player, a hi-fi VCR, or a TV with line-level stereo audio outputs.

Receiver: Your standard audio/video receiver typically has a number of inputs--AM/FM, CD, DVD, and so on. The decoder, which can extract the four, five, or six audio channels that comprise a surround-sound sound track, is usually embedded in an audio/video receiver, though you can also have it as a separate component. The least common denominator for surround decoding is Dolby Pro Logic, or the more modern and superior Dolby Pro Logic II; any recent surround processor or receiver will also provide Dolby Digital decoding, which is better for sources such as DVD and HDTV.

Amplifiers: These are needed to power the speakers. As with the decoder, amps are usually built into an A/V receiver. The minimum number of amplifier channels is four, but current A/V receivers have five to seven. If the surround processor is a separate component, the amplifiers will be too.

Speakers: Your speaker system will include at least two more units than in a regular stereo system. You can have as few as four speakers or as many as seven, supplemented by a subwoofer or two. A four-speaker setup, for example--where you have left and right speakers at the front, along with left and right surround-sound speakers--can give a very pleasing result. In this case, the two additional speakers are placed at the sides or somewhat behind the listening area to generate the ambience and sonic envelopment that make surround sound so much more realistic than plain old stereo.

That's your basic setup, but if you want to go a step or two further, you may want to think about including a center speaker. You might also want to look at some possibilities for more advanced speaker positioning. For these situations, it helps to look at how surround-sound technology works.

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