Instant guide to home cinema audio

The high definition images with which your shiny new flatscreen is filling your living room are undeniably fantastic, but is the audio performance up to the job?

Hi-def images cry out to be partnered with the best possible audio for the ultimate movie experience. If you want to get the most out of the home cinema experience, we'd recommend investing in some serious audio equipment to complement your HDTV.

The question is: where do you begin? Read on as we guide you through some commonly asked questions on home cinema audio, then recommend four systems for the ultimate in home cinema. For more on these and other home cinema systems, see the 16-page Instant Guide to home cinema audio in the latest edition of What Home Cinema magazine.

Home cinema audio FAQ

What's wrong with just using my TV's speakers?

Most flatscreen TVs are so slim that there's not a lot of space left over to accommodate large speakers. Sound quality is often poor with seldom any surround modes incorporated. A separate amp and multi-channel speaker package will enable you to unleash a 5.1 surround soundtrack.

Do I actually need a subwoofer?

A subwoofer is the point one in a 5.1 home cinema system that handles gut-wrenching low frequency effects (LFE) in movie soundtracks. Without a subwoofer you're likely to be missing out on the full experience of a 5.1 soundtrack.

Where should I place my speakers?

All speakers should be placed equidistant from your viewing/listening position, with the centre speaker placed just above or below the TV screen and subwoofer at the front of the soundstage.

What works well with hi-def TV?

Sky HD shows many movies and other programmes in Dolby Digital 5.1. To hear the surround soundtrack you can connect your HD box to a multi-channel amplifier or 'one- box' system using the optical digital output. Alternatively, you can route the HDMI output from your high definition source through the amp using the HDMI loop-through sockets.

What works well with Blu-ray and HD DVD?

The two competing high definition video formats are supported by five new higher resolution formats. Dolby True HD and DTS HD Master Audio offer the highest quality hi-def audio, but it's only possible to listen to these if your amp is fitted with version 1.3 HDMI sockets. Dolby Digital Plus, DTS HD High Resolution Audio and linear PCM can be output by any HDMI socketry.

Top tips for choosing a cinema sound system

- Decide whether you want a 2.1, 3.1 or 5.1 speaker configuration

- Good stereo sound can often be more involving than some 'virtual' surround options

- You don't need a system with a built-in DVD deck if you already have a separate player

- Ensure that the speakers can be wall mounted if you want an unobtrusive installation. Choose between satellite and 'tall-boy' floorstanding speaker systems

How to connect various systems to your TV

All TVs have at least one RGB-enabled Scart socket. In most cases this will give decent picture performance, but if your TV set has component or HDMI video socketry, visible improvements can be seen by connecting your home cinema kit using these connections. Further benefits can often be achieved by selecting your DVD player's 720p or 1080i upscaling modes.

For those speaker systems that don't incorporate a built-in DVD player you'll need to decide whether to route the best quality video output available from a separate player to the multi-channel amplifier (if there's a corresponding video loop through connection) or directly to the TV screen.

Connect the digital optical or coaxial output from the DVD player directly to the multi-channel amplifier to allow it to decode 5.1 soundtracks.

Top tips for buying separate amps and speakers

- Decide on the number and type of speakers for the space available