Caveat: I am not an audiophile. My AV receiver and speaker set-up did not cost five-figure sums (quite the opposite). BUT, if you want to know how to achieve proper surround sounds.
The need for better sound from my PC
Some time now, my desktop PC has been connected to a pair of those Bose Companion II speakers, designed for computer use. While sounding great, they lacked bass and always left me somewhat wanting.
I had two main options.
The first was to find a similar system designed for a computer which included a subwoofer. There aren’t many of these on the market in the UK, and those that were seemed lightweight and didn’t have great reviews.
Also, as a keen movie watcher, part of me wanted a “proper” home theatre setup, with rear speakers as well as a decent subwoofer.
I went for the second option: an AV receiver attached to six speakers – front left, right and centre, rear left and right and a subwoofer.
The Set Up
I went to see my friends at Richer Sounds in Leicester.
They were extremely helpful, appreciating my low budget, and suggested a one box solution, including a Yamaha receiver.
I added some decent speaker cable and a five-metre HDMI cable. More on that later.
I unboxed, wired up my six speakers and was ready to connect to the computer.
Attaching a receiver to a computer like this isn’t typical. Most people prefer a DVD/BluRay player, CD player or media streamer as a front end, but as I watch most of my movies via the DVD player in my PC, it worked for me.
Most computers have an audio output port in the form of a 3.5mm jack, into which headphones or computer speakers can be plugged. My Dell PC had this but I was advised not to use it, as the digital-to-analogue conversion which would have taken place within the computer would be better done in the receiver itself.
Instead I was told I should connect the receiver to the HDMI output of the GPU, as this would provide an unprocessed digital signal which the receiver could then process properly.
I connected my HDMI cable to the back of my graphics card and found that I could indeed get excellent 5.1 surround sound from my DVDs, and other surround encoded media.
However, the setup was not without its issues, mostly connected with the use of Windows 10 on the PC.
Firstly, the HDMI cable going to the receiver was interpreted by Windows as a third monitor which appears in all the display dialogs within Windows.
I later realised that I could have passed through the receiver back to the second monitor to solve the problem but I didn’t have another expensive five-metre HDMI cable to hand!
I’ve learned to live with Windows thinking I have three monitors attached. I simply set the third one as the default sound output and use it for nothing else.
The next problem I encountered was that if I played a piece of music recorded in stereo on the PC, it was being interpreted as six-channel sound by the receiver, and the surround decode options such as Dolby Pro Logic II were not being offered.
Although I’m not a fan of DSP programs, I was frustrated by this, and felt that there were occasions when I wanted a pseudo surround effect from my system, even when listening to music encoded for stereo.
It turned out that when I set up the third HDMI output in Windows as the default sound device I told it I had a 5.1 speaker setup. Instead of interpreting that as the maximum numbers of channels to output, it interpreted that as the number of channels it should always output, even if the source was not recorded in that many channels!
There are two workarounds to this problem. I can right-click on the speaker icon in the Windows System Tray and change the speaker setup to Stereo every time I am listening to a stereo source, or I can leave it as 5.1 and do without Dolby Pro Logic II. Either way, not too drastic and I find DPL seems to lose a lot of bass anyway.
In conclusion, for not very much money – around £350-£400 I have a very capable surround sound home theatre, based around my PC. I can work on one monitor, watch TV or movies on the other, and enjoy surround sound as I do it. I also have the ongoing option to add pretty much anything I like to the system, upgrade speakers, add a TV etc. Very future-proof.