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How to Hook up your Home Theater Receiver to Connect your Surround Sound
If you're new here, the way our How-To guides work is simple: First, you click a link, say, for Home Theater Receivers (which brought you here).
The first page contains a short introduction and will probably start by identifying components, inputs, outputs, and etc., as you will see below.
After that, you'll find some navigation links at the bottom of every page allowing you to continue to the next page in the How-To or select any page via in the how-to via a drop-down box.
Continue reading below to learn how to hook up your surround sound receiver.
When you're finished, you should have your receiver, speakers, TV, and other components (Blu-Ray player, etc.) all hooked up and ready to go.
What is a Receiver and How do I Connect it
A receiver is that big, heavy thing that you plug your speakers and other components into (like a Blu-Ray player, TV, CD player, Xbox, PlayStation, iPod, and etc.). Its the "brain" of the show. The idea of connecting all your components to a receiver is the concept of audio/video switching, allowing you to switch to different video sources (like TV, DVD, camcorder) via the receiver while never changing the TV input, and thus changing the audio source accordingly. This lets you play all of your sound through your surround sound speakers if you'd like.
Most receivers have a LOT of inputs; up to 9 speakers and a subwoofer (more commonly, 5.1, or five speakers and a subwoofer, although 7.1 is becoming very popular), several audio/video inputs, and HDMI inputs. Let's start with inputs and outputs. If you don't understand something, read through the entire How-To as most of it will be explained in detail.
How do I hook up my receiver and what are these plugs on the back?
Click on the picture below to zoom in and see a lot of common inputs on receivers.
That's the back side of a 7.1 receiver. Its a Harman Kardon AVR-247 - a great piece of home theater equipment, aimed at the mid to entry level market. Its quite a few years old now and doesn't have modern amenities such as HDMI.
Go ahead and click on it to see a much-enlarged picture!
Identifying Inputs and Outputs on a Surround Sound Receiver
If you don't know what any of that stuff is, let me break it down from left-to-right, top-to-bottom:
The first three inputs are for antennas. An FM antenna cable would slide on to the first jack while two speaker wires would plug into the remaining slots for AM.
You've probably heard of composite video. Its a very basic video connection used by most any component (TV, DVD, VCR especially). Its common and its cheap. As such, its very low quality (the lowest, in fact).Its useful when you need the extra input or the device you're connecting only has composite video. Otherwise, use something else, like component video (exlpained below). Sounds similar, but the two are very different. Note that composite video is usually a yellow cable accompanied by a red and white cable for stereo audio (low quality).
S-Video is next in line after composite. It uses a different type of connector (five pins in a circle) and gives you marginally better video quality. It is also a video- only cable, so you'll need to plug in audio separately.
Here we have a ton of composite audio inputs. These inputs use left channel and right channel RCA cables, typically red and white. They look just like the yellow composite video cable, and you could even use them for video and the yellow for audio, but let's keep the color scheme how it is (the cables are all the same on the inside, completely interchangeable). Composite audio is the bottom-of-the-barrel in audio. Its perfectly fine for most use stereo use (simple gaming system, old VCR, etc.).
Here we have one of the least-used features of a modern receiver: 6 channel direct input. This is only used for two purposes: SACD or DVD Audio. SACD is an acronym for Super Audio CD. It is a proprietary audio format developed by Sony for special CDs that are recorded in 5.1 surround sound. That means you need a CD or DVD/CD player that supports SACDs, a receiver with SACD support (as in the picture), and of course Super Audio CDs. DVD Audio is the same idea, different brand, different media (its a DVD, not a CD!).
DMP BRIDGE: You could skip this little item because it is unique to this brand of receiver (Harman Kardon). "The bridge" is a proprietary connection they developed for you to connect an iPod. Modern receivers usually have a simple connection now for iPods and other devices.
FIBER OPTIC and DIGITAL COAXIAL:
Here we have our high-end sound inputs/outputs. Basically the same performance wise, you have fiber optic connections (with the square shape) and digital coaxial (just like an RCA cable). Both of these are 100% digital, whereas composite is analog. The only way you can get true surround sound from any source is by using one of these connections (or preferably, HDMI, but more to come on that). Almost all DVD and Blu-Ray players these days have either optical or digital coaxial outputs (sometimes, both, plus HDMI). Many high definition cable and satellite boxes also come with these connections so you can enjoy 5.1 (or better) surround sound on high definition channels.
AC POWER: I don't think I need an image for the next plug. Its a pair of power inputs. One is for powering the receiver, the other for whatever you'd like. This way, when you turn on the receiver, you give power to the other device (be it a DVD player, CD player, cable box, whatever).
Something else you'll probably never use: D-bus RC-5 input/output. This is used for infrared remote controls to take over your home theater system. Handy for when the receiver is behind a door or a wall. You would connect a device to this and put another device by your TV which will wirelessly transmit your remote control commands back to the receiver.
Pre-outs, right under the Remote in/out. Pre-outs are used when you'd like to add an amplifier to your system to boost the power (and hence volume/audio quality). Average users will not use this for anything but the subwoofer preout. You'll want to run a subwoofer cable from your subwoofer to the subwoofer pre-out to provide it with the right frequencies. This is the proper way to connect your subwoofer to your surround sound system. The other inputs won't be used unless you plan on adding an amplifier. This is highly unnecessary for most home use. You might add an amp if you're trying to fill a room the size of a small house with enough sound, but you're not, right?
Here we finally get to the meat of the system: the speaker inputs! Harman Kardon receivers use bind posts for connecting speakers, as seen in the picture. They work by being loosened up as your turn them counter-clockwise, then you sneak the speaker wire in underneath the caps and tighten them back up by turning clockwise. This'll give your speaker wire a nice tug fit that probably won't loosen up on itself over time. Other brands may use other types of connectors, but bind posts are very common. You might have been able to tell this is a 7.1 channel receiver because of the speaker inputs ("surround" channels make it 7.1). If you have enough speakers, you can go ahead and plug in those extra 2 side ones, but they won't play any sound at all on a 5.1 DVD or Blu-Ray. You would need a DVD or Blu-Ray that supports 7.1 surround sound (look on the back of the box). CDs will gladly blast stereo surround through all 7 speakers, though, so for some larger rooms, that's an advantage.
Our final set of connectors for this receiver: component video. The best video you can get next to composite or s-video. You'll notice its a set of three cables (all for video), usually Red, Green and Blue. Component video can carry high definition signals, all the way up to 1080p, so it is the most cost effective and readily available high definition input. Not seen on this receiver are DVI and HDMI, the two most current, high-quality all-digital video connections, which surpass component video.
HDMI is the newest, fastest, sharpest video and audio connection available today. Its the only cable that can carry audio and video in one - not to mention, in high definition. HDMI must be supported by the source and the display you're connecting it to to use all of its features. Not all devices support both audio and video in HDMI, but any Blu-Ray player will and its the only connection you should be using for one. Its becoming more and more of a standard now to support both audio and video across all devices. The advantage is clear: less cable clutter, higher quality audio and video.
The last connection for this article is DVI. DVI is also all digital like HDMI, but it cannot process audio signals. HDMI may provide a technically superior image, but I don't think anyone could tell the difference. DVI supports high definition video all the way up to 1080p, just like HDMI. Its being used less frequently now, but if you've bought a new computer or video card for your PC recently, it probably has a DVI (or two) port on it. Most computer monitors use DVI now and video cards have followed suit. HDMI is edging its way into the PC market, but its dominance is seen in the home theater arena.