So, you got yourself a nice set of speakers, a good home theater amplifier, a fancy blu-ray player, and a giant flatscreen. Now you just want to hook it all together and enjoy the lovely 7.1 channel sound. Piece of cake, right?

No.

In fact, it is relatively easy to connect everything together and make it “work”, but it is downright mind-numbing to figure out if you are getting the full experience. Or, one thing may work, but other things do not.

For example, maybe Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks play nicely in surround sound, but 7.1 channel sound like Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio do not.

And sometimes, nothing works at all.

Don’t worry, though: you are not alone. Do a simple search on Google, and you will find tons of posts on multiple forums with people who are just as confused as you are.

Frankly, I’m not surprised. There are so many standards and little technical details involved, you darn near need a PhD in electrical engineering just to enjoy a movie with HD sound.

And so, I present my quasi-guide to Home Theater Setup!

You’ve already completed Step #1: Buy stuff.

Good job. Now the fun begins…

First of all, in order to help you out a bit, here are some nice pictures of the types of cables you need to know about:

HDMI cable, male-male, standard Type A connectors – Carries high-definition audio & video from/to your amplifier

HDMI jack

Optical (S/PDIF) Cable – carries only digital audio from your blu-ray player to your amplifier

Digital Coaxial (S/PDIF) Cable – same as optical cable in that it carries only digital audio from blu-ray/dvd to amplifier

Optical and Coaxial digital audio jacks (also known as S/PDIF jacks)

Right. With that out of the way, you know what you are looking for.

Next, you will need to know the following information:

  1. Does your blu-ray player have an HDMI output?
  2. Does your amplifier have an HDMI input? If it does, it most likely has an HDMI output to connect to your TV.
  3. Does your blu-ray player have an optical or coaxial digital output?
  4. Does your amplifier have an optical or coaxial digital input?
  5. Do you want 3D high-def TV, or just normal hi-def? If you want 3D, you may need newer HDMI cables.
  6. Does any of your equipment connect to the internet? If so, does it use Ethernet-over-HDMI? If it does, you will need HDMI version 1.4 cables!
  7. Do you have a cup of coffee or tea? If not, go get some, because this will get hairy…

Now, you may have noticed that your amplifier supports 7.1 channel audio, and it has HDMI jacks, but it only has 5.1 channels in terms of analog speaker outputs. This is normal, unless you purchased a very high-end amplifier. For the rest of us, 5.1 speakers is more than enough.

If you only have 5.1 speakers, your amplifier will “convert” the high-definition 7.1 channel audio into 5.1 channels for listening through your speakers. But, there are several “gotchas” to be aware of.

I want the best HD audio possible!

Great. In that case, you CANNOT use an Optical or Coaxial cable for your audio. Well, you can, but you won’t be getting the full HD bitstream. Or, you might – kind of.

Basically, no one knows exactly, because it depends on your equipment and (apparently) the standard implemented for your S/PDIF jacks in your blu-ray player and amplifier.

What we do know is that the bandwidth for S/PDIF Optical and Coax cables is not nearly as high as that of an HDMI cable, and thus if you want the best possible quality, ditch your optical and coax cables for transporting digital audio from your blu-ray player to your amplifier.

Instead, you must use an HDMI cable for the audio connection between the blu-ray and the amp for 7.1 HD audio.

Some audiophiles actually buy special blu-ray players that have 7.1 channel analog outputs. They then take those analog outputs, feed them into the 7.1 analog inputs on their fancy amplifier, and that’s how they get 7.1 channel sound.

That’s a bit too fancy and cable-intensive for my tastes, though!

I only have 5.1 speakers!

In my own case, my old 5.1 amplifier could NOT handle a normal bitstream output from the blu-ray player when a 7.1 channel movie was playing. The new 7.1 amplifier (with 5.1 speaker outputs) does handle the normal bitstream output via Optical cable, AND it also supports the blu-ray player’s “Bistream – Audiophile” output setting. In both cases, the new amp identifies the input data stream from the blu-ray player as “Dolby Digital”.

And here is where it gets hairy: Sometimes, even if your amplifier IS getting the full, 7.1 channel bitstream from the blu-ray player via HDMI, it will still report that it’s “only” using Dolby Digital 5.1 or DTS. In other words, it’s reporting what it has “down-converted” the sound to, not the actual input bitstream format.

Or, is that what’s actually happening? Who knows! Probably only the engineers who designed the damn thing…

Are you confused yet?

The good news is that if you use an HDMI cable to connect your blu-ray player to your amp, everything should “just work” in terms of bitstreams and 7.1 HD audio and all that jazz.

If you know that the digital audio getting to your amp is uncompressed, full 7.1 HD, then the only impediment to great sound is the quality of your amplifier itself!

What kind of HDMI cable do I need?

Also, to save yourself any potential headaches, go out and buy some HDMI 1.4 or 1.4a cables, sometimes known as “high speed HDMI”, or “high speed HDMI with ethernet”.

HDMI 1.3 cables fully support 7.1 channel Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio, but they do not officially support 3D video.

HDMI 1.4 and above also officially supports: 3D video, ethernet over HDMI, ARC (see below), and 4k x 2k ultra-high resolution (which isn’t really available yet).

You can check out a comparison of the different HDMI versions here.

I can’t use my TV speakers any more!

You are not crazy. When using HDMI, usually the setup works like so:

  • Blu-ray -> Amplifier with HDMI cable
  • Amplifier -> TV with HDMI cable

That makes sense, right? The blu-ray player sends the video and audio data to the amp. The amp processes the audio, and sends at least the video to the TV.

The one benefit of this setup is that if your amplifier has on-screen menus, it can display them on the TV. Or, if your amp plays music from a USB stick, you can use the amp’s onscreen TV menu to browse for files on your USB stick.

In any case, sometimes the amplifier has a setting for also sending the audio stream to the TV; sometimes, it doesn’t send the audio to the TV at all. Yet other times, your amplifier will be extra-fancy, and it will have a “Standby-Passthru” mode where, when the amplifier is turned off, it will keep sending the video/audio through to the TV.

In my case, once the amplifier is turned off, there is no sound OR picture on the TV. Lame!

A typical powered HDMI splitter

There is a very simple way to solve this problem, however. Run over to your local electronics superstore or hop on the net to Amazon and search for “HDMI splitter”. You will want to find one that is powered, as powered splitters contain an amplifier to prevent signal degradation and to help support longer HDMI cables.

HDMI splitters simply take 1 input stream and split/amplify it into 2 output streams. This allows you to connect things like so:

  • Blu-ray -> Splitter
  • Splitter -> Amplifier
  • Splitter -> TV

Voila! Now, when you want Big Sound, you turn on your amp, turn down the volume on your TV, and you’re rockin’ and rollin’.

When you want to just use the TV speakers, turn off your amp, and turn up the volume on your TV.

Problem solved.

One little note: it seems that if you want 3D video, using a splitter will generally cause problems…

There is also something called ARC, or Audio Return Channel. This is part of HDMI that allows you to use a single cable between the TV and amplifier to either output video/audio to the TV, or input TV audio to the amplifier. In any case, this doesn’t solve the problem of not wanting to have your amplifier on when you only want to use the TV speakers!

My Amplifier / TV / Blu-ray player are turning on and off when I use a different remote!

This is due to something called “HDMI Control”. HDMI Control allows you to operate external devices via HDMI. For example, if you connect a TV and amplifier that both support HDMI Control, you can control the amp’s power and volume with the TV remote control. You can also control other devices, depending on what’s connected to your amp and what devices support HDMI Control.

Usually there is also a setting called something like “Standby Mode” or “Standby Control” that uses HDMI Control to turn your amplifier on and off, for example, when your TV is turned on and off.

If you don’t like this automatic behavior, find the appropriate HDMI Control setting in your amplifier, TV, or other device’s Setup menus and disable it.

I’m using Coaxial – is optical better?

Yes and no. The fact is, both optical and coax cables use the same protocol to transmit data.

While it is true that coax is not immune to electrical interference like optical cable, the simple fact of the matter is that coax cable by its very nature is highly immune to noise already. Plus, if you step on a coax cable, you probably won’t damage it. If you step on an optical cable, bend it too much, or smush it accidentally under a piece of furniture, you may have to buy a new optical cable.

In any case, don’t listen to marketing hype about “gold-plated monster wires” and all that. It’s BS designed to get you to part with as much money as possible. The only thing “gold-plating” helps with is corrosion, and by the time your coax is corroded, you will have long since thrown it away and switched to HDMI – or whatever comes next!

Anything else?

Well, there is a lot more one could write… For example, calibrating the speakers on your amplifier is usually a semi-painful process for those who are less technically inclined. Some amplifiers have an auto-calibration feature, and the amplifier comes with a special microphone for this purpose.

If your amplifier doesn’t have this function, I still highly recommend calibrating all your speakers manually (refer to your amp’s user’s manual). Yeah, I know, that’s not the answer you were looking for, but in the end, it’s worth it. Each room is different acoustically speaking, so you might as well suffer a bit to get maximum enjoyment from your new toys!

Also, there is a big difference between 2.1 and 5.1 channel setups, especially due to 2.1 setups’ lack of a center channel speaker. Get yourself a high-quality, more full-range (read: bigger) center channel speaker, as well as 2 large full-range Left and Right speakers. The two surround speakers can be smaller. The center channel is where all the dialog in movies is fed thru, so don’t skimp on that particular speaker. You’ll be quite happy with the result in the end!

So, there you have it. I hope this helps somebody out there. I know I was darn near pulling my hair out just trying to find information on whether or not I needed to use HDMI, an optical cable, or what for 7.1 HD sound…

Have fun!

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