Just discovered I've been home theatering wrong!

“Theatering” is not a word apparently. Never mind.

I bought a nice Denon receiver and set of B&W home theatre speakers with a subwoofer about six months ago. They’re not top of the range stuff or anything, I was working to a budget, but I thought they’d fit my needs and they were on special.

Anyway, I was looking forward to having my new toys and opened everything up when it arrived, spent several hot and sweaty hours routing wires through the walls and roof for the speakers, and ran the Audyssey setup program on the amp to get all the levels and EQs “right”.

I didn’t have any great expectations because the room it went in is not ideal. Tiled floors, an open wall to the kitchen on one side, that sort of thing. But I was a bit disappointed when watching a movie for the first time and discovering that the surround sound just seemed all kinds of wrong. Very boomy and over powering base, dialogue that was inaudible over the sound effects, and surround sound that seemed way to loud from the rear speakers.

I initially made some adjustments got it roughly acceptable and put it all down to a bad movie mix and a bad room.

I was disappointed further when playing a game on the Playstation (Dragon Age: Inquisition) that again it seemed like the surround sound was out of whack. I had to have subtitles on and the centre channel turned right up to be able to understand dialogue. Meanwhile background noise that was behind me in the soundscape was improbably loud. For example when my character was talking to an NPC right in front of them, I could hardly hear the NPC’s dialogue but if I panned the camera during the dialogue so that the NPC was behind me the dialogue was very loud, too loud.

I figured the speaker levels were wrong but when I did the manual setup for them, adjusting each volume subjectively by listening to a test tone from each while I sat in the main listening position, I made very minor adjustments only, nothing that could explain the surround sound problems I was having.

It wasn’t just Dragon Age that had this problem, other games had very loud surround from the rear speakers and dialogue that was too quiet from the centre speaker. I actually gave up playing The Witcher III after having some supposedly background atmospheric noise from behind me completely drown out the dialogue I was trying to listen to.

After believing I’d exhausted all options in the setup of this system I came to the conclusion that it must be them, not me. The movie sound editors mix for impressive explosions at the expense of dialogue and video game sound mixers believe we don’t care for the dialogue in front of us but would rather listen to the waterfall behind us. In short, I gave up.

Then today, I was playing around with a setting called “Dynamic EQ”. Apparently it “continually adjusts the EQ for optimum sound at all listening levels”. It sounds useful and I’d pretty much had it on this whole time, whenever I turned it off the sound was anaemic so I’d immediately turned it back on. Then I thought, well what if I turn it off and then adjust for the anaemic sound myself by adjusting EQs and subwoofer levels etc.

Well what do you know? It seems this “helpful” setting does something horrible to the surround levels. Yes it “fills out” the room but it destroys any realism in the sound image, unnecessarily boosting the levels of the rear speakers.

I went back to the Witcher and walked through a town. I passed some NPCs who were muttering to themselves, WOW! as I walked passed them, their muttering went from quiet to loud to quiet again and the sound source went from the front around to the right, to behind me, all very naturally.

I can’t believe it took me 6 months to work this out.

Moral of the story, setup your home theatre “nude” to start with, then, and only then, start playing with the extra features.

Yeah, most of those “helpful features” are complete BS used only to increase the price. Sadly, most consumers don’t even know what decent (let alone good) sound sounds like.

I think that “dynamic” setting is for when the surround speakers are disconnected. Glad you have it worked out now, though!

Do you want a Dolby with it?

Oh how I wish you hadn’t planted this image in my brain.

It is designed for surround sound. It is supposed to keep movies sounding similar at low volumes as they do at high volumes, but I think the result is a bit unnatural. There are some additional settings with it that I might play around with, but OFF seems to be a pretty good one for now.

That sounds like it’s just dynamic compression. But that’s far more useful in a noisy environment or when wanting to listen to something at low volume to avoid disturbing others.

It’s not just compression. There is a separate compression setting. It’s to do with losing base at low volumes. Definitely an EQ thing but it has an effect on volume as well.