Despite the immense enjoyment the average American household gets from audio/video entertainment systems, a good many setups are, technically speaking, haphazard affairs.
Speakers wind up on shelves and cabinets where there's room for them, not where there supposed to go for a proper home theater setup - one capable of mimicking the surround-sound experience you get in a good movie theater.
It's perfectly understandable that not everyone is willing to put technology first in a nicely appointed family room. That requires compromise, which means moving objects and furniture around to accommodate even a basic "5.1" home theater setup that has three front speakers (left, center, right), a pair of rear "surround" speakers and a subwoofer to produce the floor-shaking bass that fans of action/adventure flicks live for.
Proper placement of home theater speakers is the first step in creating a convincing experience that makes you feel happy, sad, or scared stiff - whatever the scene calls for. When a system is properly set up and calibrated (more on calibration in a moment), the speakers disappear and you find yourself in the middle of a lifelike acoustic environment where music and a myriad of sonic elements pull you into the movie.
Fortunately, there's leeway in what home theater experts would consider to be a perfect setup (we'll stick with 5.1 for simplicity). While you should try to come as close as possible to ideal placement - making sure the dialogue-carrying center speaker is more or less centered above or below the TV screen, for example, instead of off to one side - today's AV equipment contains sophisticated audio processing to overcome less-than-ideal conditions, which includes misplaced speakers, poor acoustics, or a combination thereof.
Even in situations where it's possible to follow THX or Dolby speaker set-up guidelines to a T, sonic fine-tuning still needs to be done to achieve a realistic soundscape. Professional AV installers use specialized software to ensure home theater sound is properly balanced, tonally and spatially.
Imbalances in tone can result in dialogue that is hard to discern or sound that is boomy or muffled, while spatial imbalances can wreak havoc on the illusion of "being there," which depends on sonic elements being properly located in the sound field - like the rat-a-tat-tat of machinegun fire moving across the screen or crickets chirping in the background.
The beauty of AV receivers and surround processors that form the heart of modern home theater systems is auto calibration, also known as auto setup or auto room correction. Place a supplied microphone in and around the listening position, and these systems literally do the work for you.
Of course, results will vary depending on the receiver or processor. Some companies use their own proprietary systems, while others license technology from companies like Audyssey. The bottom line: The best of today's automated audio calibration systems do an extraordinary job and make what used to be a highly complicated process shockingly easy.
To learn more about auto calibration, check out reviews of AV receivers on an enthusiast site like SoundandVision.com. And to delve deeper into the ins and outs of home theater, consult a CEDIA professional. Click here for a list of CEDIA-member home technology professionals in your area.