My Home Theatre Epiphany


Speaker You finally decide to drop some serious cash on a home theatre surround audio system. You get it home, set it up and turn it on. It sounds great. But could it sound better?

In our family I’ve got something of a reputation as being the guy who spends more time with the manual than with the gadget – I just love knowing all of the cool features that my new toy has and how to take advantage of them. Yep, I’m a geek.

So no one was more surprised that me when I learned recently that I may not have set up my home theatre surround system for the best possible sound.

Let me give you some history first. I bought our system from Bay Bloor Radio in Toronto about 4 years ago. It consists of a Denon home theatre receiver and a 5.1 speaker system from Energy. As you probably already know the "5" is for the five satellite speakers that provide the majority of the sound you hear while the "1" refers to the audio that gets sent to the sub-woofer for low-frequency bass. And yes, I did read the manuals that came with these products quite thoroughly and – I thought – had understood them and made all the required adjustments for my particular room etc. I was hearing sound through all 5 speakers and the sub-woofer and it was by far the best audio I’d ever heard at home. I was delighted.

Fast forward to this past New Year’s Eve. My wife and I were invited to dinner at our friends’ house which had been recently renovated. As part of their new gourmet kitchen, they had installed a new, premium sound system, including a sub-woofer that the husband had built himself.

As he was giving me the tour (which I confess had my total attention – I just love this stuff), he casually asked what frequency I had my cross-over set to.

My what?

Now I’m no slouch when it comes to tech terminology and I had heard of cross-over settings before, but I really hadn’t given them much thought since I hooked up our home system and heard all that wonderful sound coming out of it.  Cross-over smosh-over.

But I admitted my ignorance to our host and he graciously explained what cross-over was and why I should care.

In a nutshell, "cross-over" is your receiver’s way of making sure that the right amount of sound is sent to the regular speakers and to the sub-woofer.

If you ignore this setting (which I had) or if you hook up your sub-woofer in such a way that you settings are ignored (which I had), you’ll still get plenty of sound from your system, but it won’t necessarily be best sound your system is capable of.

By following the recommended cross-over settings from your speaker manufacturer, you ensure that only the frequencies that your main speakers are unable to reproduce faithfully are sent to the sub-woofer.

This is really important if you’ve invested in decent speakers, since the default cross-over setting on your receiver (if you even have it enabled) is likely cheating your speakers out of some of the frequencies they should rightfully be getting.

Don’t forget that your main speakers create the majority of the sound that defines your audio experience. A sub-woofer is simply there to fill out the low-end and (in the case of movies) give you that earth-shaking rumble that we all associate with the home theatre experience.

As it turned out, not only was my sub-woofer not connected correctly to the receiver for true cross-over control, but I also had the factory settings still in place for the cross-over on the receiver. A quick e-mail to the engineering staff at Energy revealed that my speakers should be crossed-over at 120 Hz as opposed to the 80 Hz that the Denon receiver was set to.

By now you’re either wondering how a guy like me could end up writing for a tech blog as I’ve clearly demonstrated near-criminal audio negligence, or, you’re wondering if my newly acquired cross-over knowledge made any difference at all.

It did. And not just a little bit. I quite literally felt like I had been given a new home theatre system. Every audio track, from the cloying songs of my children’s favourite TV shows to the full 5.1 Dolby experience on a movie like The Matrix, was now being delivered with a clarity and depth I had never experienced. The sound is now richer, and warmer. Even dialogue seems to be enhanced.

So to all of you who, like me, may have eagerly set up their home theatre equipment as fast as they could and declared their homes to be the next best thing to an IMAX theatre, I say this: dig out your manuals, check your wiring and find out if you’ve been missing something. It might be the best investment you’ve made in your home audio since buying your system.

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4 comments

  1. A Navales

    Good Post Simon.. I do home theatre instalations as well and you are absoloutely correct about the cross-over level and even the distance measurments for the speakers are key. Heck!! Just having the polarities right can make a difference. But what i have noticed with the average Joe… most of them dont understand what suround sound really means… I set up one of my customers with everything perfected… (I even used decimeters). Bought a SONY STRDA5300ES 7.1 6 HDMI with an ENERGY speaker set… After a couple of hours of calibrations, I played Star Wars for him for a demo. He noticed that the rear speakers were not working. I told him it only works when it has too.. It depends on the sound track… He wasn't too happy about it and said that he wanted it on all the time.. Being the customer, I said OK.. and put the setting on Multi-Stereo. This happens a lot of times. Of course… there is also the extreme opposite where they want to sound like IMAX but wants to pay $500 for it…

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  2. McGrath Dot Ca

    Thanks, I made some adjustment to my receiver(std speaker instead of large, distance…) but did not find the cross over options in the menu of my Kenwood VR-509(around 2001). Is it something new(2-3 years) or it's standard but also using other names?

    I found the crossover on the Energy speakers manual.

    P.S. Sound is semi-important to me. A Navales, good point on the rear speakers.

    Simon: You are learning new stuff everyday expert or not ;)

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  3. Simon Cohen

    Hey McGrath, it's possible your receiver doesn't have a crossover setting, but if it has a discreet output for your sub-woofer, I'm betting the setting is there somewhere. Also, Energy advised that the setting for their speakers be set to LARGE, which again allows them to get more of the sound that they can reproduce. Lastly, this whole cross-over stuff probably doesn't apply to anyone who has a HTIB (Home Theatre In a Box) since the speakers, sub and receiver all came from the factory with (supposedly) optimal crossover settings.

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  4. A Navales

    Simon is correct here… Changing the speaker setting to Large gives them more of the range. It depends of course on Rec/Amp. If you put it on small.. Your giving the mid range and low end to the sub-woofer (around 120Hz and below) but I dont recommend that because you miss a lot on the midrange. That's why i never recommend small speakers in the fronts.. If you are using tower speakers for your mains with a sub-woower… try to cut off the Crossover to around 80Hz so you dont drown the room with Bass… Of course it also depends on your room… Open vs walls, Carpet vs Hardwood.. etc… but like I said… Normal Joes can't give a S#$%

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