5.1-channel surround audio has been around for two decades now, and it’s become the benchmark for home theater sound, offering a far more immersive audio perception than regular two-channel stereo. The format’s popularity has gotten bigger and bigger, and kitting out your home entertainment with a 5.1 setup nowadays is dead-easy. If you’re planning to jump on the 5.1 o’clock train, check this out - we’ve rounded up the most exciting home theater systems for this year. 
 

How We Choose:

Before we go: this isn't about just shoving the most expensive speakers and receivers into a list. It's about pairing - about finding the combos that work well together. Obviously, price is an indicator of quality, but we also take into account sound quality, value, build quality and easy-of-use. The brands featured in our quest for pointing you to the best 5.1 surround systems are all mostly very well known, with decades of experience in the field of home theater. Our picks start with the top of the premium range where you can expect the very best quality and features - although of course, quality will cost you. Keep reading, even if you don’t have thousands to spend. Our mid-level favorites are particularly tasty, with lots of savvy features, modern specs and audio performance rivalling that of many top-dollar systems. We’ve also picked a few cool ready-in-the-box systems at around $400 and all the way down to $89, as they are a hassle-free way to get into surround sound. If the products at the bottom of our list may not be the loudest or smartest kids on the block, they still do the job with aplomb. 
 

Our 5.1 Picks:

1. Klipsch 5.1 RP-250 ($1,927) paired with the Denon AVR-X7200WA ($2,999)

Klipsch 5.1 RP-250

RMS Wattage: 150W/Ω
HDMI I/O: 8/3
Wireless connectivity: WiFi/Bluetooth
4K capability: Yes
7.1 Upgrade Available: Yes
What We Like: A superb, blockbuster combination.
What We Don’t: Nothing.

We're really hitting the ground running with this system. At the time of writing, it would be really hard to beat this combo for the price. Yes, you can spend even more on a 5.1 surround kit but this Denon - Klipsch combo just sounds stupendously good, and Denon have really ticked every box in terms of features, connectivity, control and sheer power with this receiver. The AVR-X7200WA is so well-endowed with modern tech that is guaranteed that it would move you ever so slightly forward into the future. It will connect to every audio-visual gizmo in your house, including iOS devices with Apple AirPlay, PCs or Macs via your home network with DLNA compatibility.  It supports all major third party codecs such as Dolby Atmos, DTS:X and even Auro 3D (Of course you would need additional ‘ceiling’ speakers for these somewhat three dimensional sounding modes of surround and the Denon can take care of that). 

With each the receiver pushing up to 150 watts into two channels, this is one loud system, but thanks to one of the industry’s favorite surround speaker systems, made by Klipsch, it is not only loud but incredibly detailed as well. We have featured this speaker package on TMS before, due to its clean and most natural sound reproduction. Not keen on wires? This speaker package comes with a wireless speaker kit, and at this point, you’re already running out of reasons not to pick it up.
See the Denon AVR-X7200WA
See the Klipsch 5.1 RP-250


2. Monitor Audio Mass ($1,246) paired with the Onkyo TX-RZ620 ($791)

Monitor Audio MassRMS Wattage: 100W/8Ω
HDMI I/O: 7/2
Wireless Connectivity: WiFi/Bluetooth
4K capability: Yes
7.1 Upgrade Available: Yes
What We Like: Excellent, affordable sound.
What We Don’t: Won’t satisfy serious audiophiles.

We think this combination offers some of the best value for money on the market. While we don’t think that the audio quality is going to absolutely blow the minds of hard-core audiophiles, and you could argue that a 7.2-channel receiver is overkill, we think the sound of these two together is worth it. It’s rich, deep and complex, and we believe it’s one of the best combos around.

The Mass is a 5.1 system (there are 5.0 versions available for a little less on Amazon if you already own a subwoofer) that can quite happily be expanded with satellite speakers later on, and this version of Onkyo’s TX series is the perfect receiver to pair with it. Not just in terms of audio quality, but in terms of the sheer number of bells and whistles it comes with. Put simply, if you want to connect something to the receiver, the chances are excellent that you will be able to. It doesn't quite have the oomph of the Denon, above, but it’s a monster nonetheless.
See the Monitor Audio Mass
See the Onkyo TX-RZ620
 

3. ELAC Debut 5.1 ($1219) paired with the Denon AVR-X2300W ($499)

Elac Debut Series 5.1 SystemRMS Wattage: 125W/6Ω
HDMI I/O: 8/2
Wireless Connectivity: WiFi/Bluetooth
4K capability: Yes
7.1 Upgrade Available: Yes
What We Like: ELAC’s speakers are ace.
What We Don’t: Good pairing, but the receiver isn’t particularly special.

As with all things on this list, we look for particularly good pairings – cheese and wine, Starsky and Hutch, pick an analogy like. And while the AVR-X2300W isn’t a particularly amazing receiver, unlike its bigger brother at the very top of this list, it pairs beautifully with ELAC’s speaker system. And in any case, it’s not as if it does a bad job – you get full wireless connectivity, a huge selection of HDMI ports, decent power, and the ability to add on more speakers at a later date.

Let’s talk about the ELAC’s though. What a glorious set of components. In the entire package, you get two of the extraordinary B5 bookshelf speakers, two F5 tower speakers, an S10 subwoofer, and a C5 center speaker, all of which combine to deliver detailed, intricate sound that makes short work of both dialogue and heavy hitting elements like explosions. It’s not quite the best available, but it’s still an excellent set of speakers, and we think it’s very much worth your time – especially with this particular Denon.
See the ELAC Debut 5.1
See the Denon AVR-X2300W


4. axiim Q HD 5.1 ($2,499)

axiimRMS Wattage: Unknown
HDMI I/O: 6/1
Wireless Connectivity: WiFi/Bluetooth
4K capability: Yes
7.1 Upgrade Available: Yes
What We Like: No wires!
What We Don’t: Great - but hard to find. And expensive

A wireless home theater system? With five speakers? What wizardry is this? Admittedly, there’s no magic here, just really clever electronics. And although we think axiim (no capital letter) have a little way to go before they perfect the concept, the Q HD 5.1 system is a lot of fun to mess around with. And it comes with its own dedicated media center/receiver, too!

It sounds terrific, and you really can’t grasp what a pleasure it is to not have to fiddle around with speaker wire after you’ve been mixing and matching receivers and floorstanders for a while. The downside, of course, is that you’ll have to plug each speaker in separately – they all need to get their power from somewhere, after all. This can also be quite a difficult system to find. At the time of writing, it’s no longer available on Amazon, which means you have to go direct to the manufacturer. Still, that’s a minor point, and we look forward to the day when this list is comprised of nothing but superb wireless systems.
See the axiim Q HD 5.1
 

5. Paradigm Cinema 100 CT ($799) paired with Pioneer VSX-1131 ($577)

Paradigm Cinema 100 CT 5.1RMS Wattage: 100W/8Ω
HDMI I/O: 7/2
Wireless Connectivity: WiFi/Bluetooth
4K capability: Yes
7.1 Upgrade Available: Yes
What We Like: Paradigm and Pioneer were made for each other.
What We Don’t: Bass suffers - just a little bit.

In comparison to the big dogs at the top of this piece, the combination of the Paradigm Cinema 100 CT 5.1 setup, and the Pioneer VSX-1131 receiver isn’t going to shake the walls. But we think they work exceptionally well together, especially for things like movies. Like other models on this list, the receiver checks all the boxes – 4K, additional channels, for wireless connectivity and a decent level of power – and really gets the job done. But it’s the speakers we’ve truly fallen in love with. Maybe it's the fact that their Amazon product photo makes them look like a gang of flocking cybernetic pigeons.

Paradigm are a legendary speaker maker, and they’ve got a gem here. The technology includes domes made of anodized aluminum, as well as highly tuned crossovers that really make an impact on audio quality. We are not wild about the subwoofer, but it’s far from bad – just not out of this world in comparison to other models. All the same, you’ll be extremely happy with this selection of kit, which will set you back less than $1,500 – always a win in our book. And don't forget: just because we recommend a particular pairing doesn’t mean you shouldn’t feel free to mix-and-match. If you see a receiver you like the look of, and think it will go nicely with a set of speakers, fire away! These days, most components will play nicely together.
See the Paradigm Cinema 100 CT
See the Pioneer VSX-1131

 

6. Klipsch - Onkyo 5.1 ($1,834)

Klipsch-OnkyoRMS Wattage: 100W/8Ω
HDMI I/O: 6/3
Wireless Connectivity: WiFi/Bluetooth
4K Capability: Yes
7.1 Upgrade Available: No
What We Like: A staggering wealth of features. It kicks like a mule.
What We Don’t: This modular approach takes a lot more tweaking to nail the ultimate sound setting. 

Sometimes, you’re able to pay a single price for a home theater combo that has already been pre-matched by the manufacturers. Like this one, for example – and it’s a doozy. With these two names together, it’s a bit like having Batman and Superman DJing at your party, and the quality associated with the brands really brings a peace of mind that this will be more of an investment than expenditure. Powered by the Onkyo TX-NR636 receiver, you’ll immediately notice that this is a 7.2 capable device (allowing up to seven satellite speakers and two subs). Onkyo was among the first to introduce the exciting Dolby Atmos surround-sound format to home theater environments, and this surround mode is present here, though to enjoy it you will require additional speakers. 

The five Gallery G-12 Flat Panel speakers are quite small and thin, but they pack a jaw-dropping punch for their size. Employing a horn-loaded technology in an extremely thin speaker, they still manage to deliver the renowned Klipsch sound. Ultimately, the idea with the Klipsch is to have a killer speaker system suitable for modern living spaces - sharing the duties of a regular living room and a home theater. The speaker set is unobtrusive, attractive-looking, and sounds absolutely stunning with film soundtracks, deep-bass electronica, or whatever you like to shake your bottom to. Whether or not superheroes are behind the decks.
See the Klipsch - Onkyo 5.1
 

7. Cambridge Audio Minx S215 v3 ($775) paired with the Denon AVR-S510BT 5.1 ($230)

Cambridge Audio Minx S215 v3 - 5.1 System (Black)RMS Wattage: 75W/8Ω
HDMI I/O: 5/1
Wireless Connectivity: Bluetooth
4K Capability: Yes
7.1 Upgrade Available: No
What We Like: The amazing Cambridge Audio speaker system, plus the receiver offers real good value.
What We Don’t: Nothing much.

This particular setup, a combination of two packages we love, is bursting with features. You’ll find five HDMI ports (three of which feature 4K Ultra HD support), a USB port on the front panel for streaming your favorite tracks (and charging your portable device - result!), and even a setup assistant utility to help you get things moving. Plus, there’s Bluetooth, and Denon have cleverly made the most of the feature by including a remote app, allowing your Bluetooth device to control many of this Denon’s features. 

This receiver’s perfect partner in crime is the third generation of the renowned Cambridge Audio Minx S215 speaker system - a worthy choice for any home theater. The included five Minx 12 speakers are smallish in size (3.15 square inches), but thanks to the company’s BMR drivers, which handle speaker and tweeter duties simultaneously, they produce power defying their size. The 200  watt X201 subwoofer deserves a special mention, featuring forward-firing drivers as well as additional passive woofers, which Cambridge Audio call Auxiliary Bass Radiators (ABRs). The result is a punchy low end efficiency, despite the fairly compact design. With more than enough power to handle a medium-sized home theater, this combo system sounds larger than life. 
See the Denon AVR-S510BT
See the Cambridge Audio Minx S215 v3
 

8. Onkyo HT-S7800 5.1.2 ($859)

Onkyo HT-S7800RMS Wattage: 100W/8Ω
HDMI I/O: 8/2
Wireless Connectivity: Bluetooth/WiFi
4K Capability: Yes
7.1 Upgrade Available: No
What We Like: Stupendous value-for-money, probably the best in-the-box system around.
What We Don’t: Very little.

On a previous list, we featured one of the smaller versions of this Onkyo package, the HT-S3700. This is a much improved version, we can’t quite believe it costs less than a grand. Although it doesn’t have the ability to push things to 7.1 without adding in an additional zone, it does offer 5.1.2 connectivity, allowing you to add height speakers… Yes, we know that technically a 7.1 system, but you know what we’re talking about.

The included receiver puts out a decent level of power, and has all the requisite mod cons, including a very respectable number of HDMI ports. As you can imagine, it’s matched very well with the speaker system, and delivers audio quality that belies its three figure pricetag. Keep an eye on this one – we suspect but there are going to be even bigger systems coming out from Onkyo soon, and this may undergo a price drop, which makes its value even more staggering.
See the Onkyo HT-S7800 5.1.2

 

Pioneer SP-PK52FS9. Pioneer SP-PK52FS Andrew Jones 5.1 ($605) paired with the Pioneer VSX-830-K ($340) 

RMS Wattage: 80W/8Ω
HDMI I/O: 4/1
Wireless Connectivity: Bluetooth
4K Capability: Yes
7.1 Upgrade Available: No
What We Like: Value-for-money.
What We Don’t: Sound is OK, rather than fantastic.

The speakers in this combination are the Pioneer SP-PK52FS Andrew Jones 5.1 Speaker Package, which is a good one. Designed by Pioneer’s former long-term head honcho Andrew Jones, all of these can be also sold as separates. When put together in a package, though, they form an impressive yet still affordable 5.1 system, consisting of two floor-standing speakers, two bookshelf loudspeakers, a center-channel speaker, and the SW-8MK2 powered subwoofer. 

The Pioneer VSX-830-K 5.2 receiver completes this home theater package. This is one of the most advanced receivers in its class, with UltraHD 4k visual support, Dolby TrueHD, DTS-HD Master Audio, built-in Bluetooth Wireless Technology with aptX support, plus a very cool app for complete WiFii integration. The energy-saving ECO Mode in its amplifier is another smart technology and the amp itself has more than enough power to push the system. The sound doesn’t quite measure up to the titans, but for under $1,000, we think this offers some of the best value around.
See the Pioneer VSX-830-K 
See the Pioneer SP-PK52FS Andrew Jones 5.1
 

Yamaha YHT-4920UBL10. Yamaha YHT-4920UBL 5.1 ($460)

RMS Wattage: 70W/8Ω
HDMI I/O: 4/1
Wireless Connectivity: Bluetooth
4K Capability: Yes
7.1 Upgrade Available: No
What We Like: Audio clarity and good features.
What We Don’t: Lacks bells and whistles in the spec department.

Yamaha YHT-4920UBL home-theater-in-a-box is quite a stylish-looking package, featuring the RX-V743 A/V receiver powering a fairly compact 5.1-channel speaker system. The speakers are medium sized, and the included subwoofer is well chosen, complimenting them with its not-overly-dominating 100W capacity. 

Size can be deceiving of course - even if not the biggest system in size, the clarity and spread are impressive. This is in no small part helped by Yamaha’s built-in acoustic optimizer system which (with the supplied calibration mic) analyzes your room’s acoustics. The result is a substantially improved audio performance. And if you like beaming your music wirelessly, you’ll welcome the Bluetooth capability. All the same, we can’t help but feel it lacks a few things, including a certain parsimoniousness (we’ve been waiting forever to use that word) with the HDMI ports. Still, it’s a solid system in the sub-$500 range, and we think it deserves a spot on this list.
See the Yamaha YHT-4920UBL 5.1


11. Sony BDVE3100 ($248)

Sony BDVE3100RMS Wattage: Unknown
HDMI I/O: 0/1
Wireless Connectivity: Bluetooth
4K Capability: Yes
7.1 Upgrade Available: No
What We Like: Perfect for small rooms.
What We Don’t: Upgrades? Hah!

In this particular price range, you’re starting to get packages that won’t really let you upgrade things. While we don’t think that’s a particular problem – you wouldn’t be on this page if you are looking to start with a massive system – it’s still worth bearing in mind. And this particular system from Sony does an excellent job, and offers solid features at a decent price.

While it doesn’t indicate the continuous power, Sony does say that the total output is 1000 watts, and we can confirm that offers reasonable volume. Although there is a lack of HDMI ports, you do get Bluetooth and WiFi, as well as 4K capability. The sound is good: solid, efficient, slightly lacking in detail but still with a decent amount of power. If you’ve got a small-ish room and want to experience surround sound, you could do worse than checking out this pint -sized Sony package.
See the Sony BDVE3100


12. Yamaha NS-SP1800 BL ($150) paired with the Sony STRDH550 ($198)

Yamaha NS-SP1800BLRMS Wattage: 90W/6Ω
HDMI I/O: 4/1
Wireless Connectivity: None
4K Capability: Yes
7.1 Upgrade Available: No
What We Like: Good pairing at a bargain price.
What We Don’t: Not going to blow your mind.

We think Sony did a stupendous job with the STRDH550 receiver. While it might not be the most powerful, and doesn’t offer things like wireless connectivity, the sound quality it puts out is good enough that we think it may even be underpriced. If you do want to go for it, and aren’t worried about Bluetooth streaming or future upgrades to 7.1 surround, then you should expect a solid, effective little receiver.

It works particularly well with Yamaha’s NS-SP1800BL. The pint -sized satellite speakers and a decent subwoofer more than translate the audio components contained in the receiver, and together, they do an excellent job of providing a basic 5.1 system. The audio quality – as you’ll no doubt be absolutely stunned to hear – is about what you’d expect for a little under $400, but this is a package that will certainly get the job done. We’ve also seen prices fluctuate, so keep an eye out for bargains.
See the Yamaha NS-SP1800 BL
See the Sony STRDH550
 

Sony DAVTZ14013. Sony DAVTZ140 ($205)

RMS Wattage: Unknown
HDMI I/O: 0/1
Wireless Connectivity: None
4K Capability: No
7.1 Upgrade Available: No
What We Like: Good sound quality.
What We Don’t: It only likes DVDs - and there’s a serious lack of features.

If you have a $200 and change to spend, check out Sony’s starter 5.1 system, the DAVTZ140. It’s not going to satisfy anyone with demanding preferences - like, at all - but it certainly gets the job done.

The first impression though is that its set of speakers are already pre-wired, which means that they can only go that far from the listening sweet spot, unless you extend the wiring. The spec is a bit ancient in regards to connectivity - no optical input, but only an analog RCA In at the back. There is, however, a USB port and one HDMI link. The pleasant surprise though, is that the system looks quite slick for its price. And with a neighbor-friendly power rating of around 25W per speaker (although again, no RMS power is listed), you get a clear surround sound with sufficient enough level, if only just for smaller rooms. If you have a bunch of DVDs at home, you’d be just fine with this 5.1 package. If you want to play Blu-rays though, this isn't for you.
See the Sony DAVTZ140


And For When You're Really On A Budget...

14. Theater Solutions TS522 ($79)

TS522

RMS Wattage: Unknown
HDMI I/O: N/A
Wireless Connectivity: None
4K Capability: No
7.1 Upgrade Available: No
What We Like: Good for DVD playback, gaming and so much more.
What We Don’t: Barebones it may be, but it is so affordable that we can’t dislike it.

At the (almost) bottom of our list we have this Theater Solutions TS552 system - it is super-cheap indeed, but in our opinion it still has a lot of potential. This package is so self-explanatory that it’s actually liberating. It represents a certain class of speakers, and there are many similar systems on the market, aimed for peeps with just a smartphone or a laptop at hand. It’s easy to be snobbish about this, but come on. For $80, you’re getting a basic, functional bit of gear that will do the simple stuff well.

We especially like the USB/SD card slots - so easy to turn this into a self-contained multimedia player, especially when considering that the supplied remote control can access every feature. The total system power is rated at 500 watts, though let’s note that this is a highly optimistic measurement of the peak power. Still this is more than loud enough to cater for a small party, a cranked up movie session or even a barbeque gathering. The yellow-on-black theme is reminiscent of the KRK speaker color combo - it may be a bold look but somehow the TS552 pulls it off!
See the Theater Solutions TS522


15. Acoustic Audio AA5102 ($100)

Acoustic Audio AA5102

RMS Wattage: Unknown
HDMI I/O: N/A
Wireless Connectivity: None
4K Capability: No
7.1 Upgrade Available: No
What We Like: Decent sound for the price.
What We Don’t: Plasticky build.

There are actually some pretty decent small systems available at the moment. As technology becomes cheaper, systems at the bottom end of the market begin to see better quality components. Don’t set your expectations too high, but this is a surprisingly good little model. Even if it is never, ever, ever, going to challenge the big boys for the top spot.

That doesn't stop it being worth your while. If you can handle the plasticky design, the electric blue colour scheme, and sound that does tend to distort a little bit at high volumes, you'll be able to get perfectly competent 5.1 audio for a very, very good price. Don’t expect this to be on the list for very long; as home theater components get cheaper, so will the ability to afford dedicated receivers and speakers for the low three-figures. But for now, it’s solidly OK.
See the Acoustic Audio AA5102


Specs Tables:

Usually, we’d just have one table, but in this case, we’ve got one for speakers and one for receivers. 

Speakers are up first:

System Price Receiver Lowest Freq. Highest Freq.
Klipsch 5.1 RP-250 $1,927 Separate 24Hz 24kHz
Monitor Audio Mass $1,246 Separate 30Hz 30kHz
ELAC Debut 5.1 $1,219 Separate 35Hz 20kHz
axiim Q HD 5.1 $2,499 Included 20Hz 20kHz
Paradigm Cinema 100 CT $799 Separate 32Hz 20kHz
Klipsch - Onkyo 5.1 $1834 Included 24Hz 24kHz
Cambridge Audio Minx S215 $775 Separate 31Hz 20kHz
Onkyo HT-S7800 5.1.2 $859 Included 25Hz 50kHz
Pioneer SP-PK52FS $605 Separate 38Hz 20kHz
Yamaha YHT-4920UBL 5.1 $460 Included Unknown Unknown
Sony BDVE3100 $248 Included Unknown Unknown
Yamaha NS-SP1800 BL $150 Separate 28Hz 50kHz
Sony DAVTZ140 $205 Included Unknown Unknown
Theater Solutions TS522 $79 Included Unknown Unknown
Acoustic Audio AA5102 $100 Included Unknown Unknown

And then the receivers. Inc. means it's included in the speaker package.

Receiver Price 3D Ready? Chan. 4K HDMI I/O RMS Conn.
Denon AVR-X7200WA $2,999 Yes 9.2 Yes 8/3 150W/Ω WiFi/Blue.
Onkyo TX-RZ620 $791 No 7.2 Yes 7/2 100W/8Ω WiFi/Blue.
Denon AVR-X2300W $499 Yes 7.2 Yes 8/2 125W/6Ω WiFi/Blue.
axiim Q HD 5.1 Inc. No 5.1 Yes 6/1 Unknown WiFi/Blue.
Pioneer VSX-1131 $577 No 7.2 Yes 7/2 100W/8Ω WiFi/Blue.
Klipsch - Onkyo 5.1 Inc. Yes 5.1 Yes 6/3 100W/8Ω WiFi/Blue.
Denon AVR-S510BT 5.1 $230 Yes 5.2 Yes 5/1 75W/8Ω Bluetooth
Onkyo HT-S7800 5.1.2 Inc. No 5.1.2 Yes 8/2 100W/8Ω WiFi/Blue.
Pioneer VSX-830-K $340 No 5.2 Yes 4/1 80W/8Ω Bluetooth
Yamaha YHT-4920UBL 5.1 Inc. No 5.1 Yes 4/1 70W/8Ω Bluetooth
Sony BDVE3100 Inc. No 5.1 Yes 0/1 Unknown Bluetooth
Sony STRDH550 $198 Yes 5.2 Yes 4/1 90W/6Ω None
Sony DAVTZ140 Inc. No 5.1 No 0/1 Unknown None 
Theater Solutions TS522 Inc. No 5.1 No N/A Unknown None
Acoustic Audio AA5102 Inc. No 5.1 No N/A Unknow None

 

Pioneer SP-PK52FS | The Master Switch


Buying Advice:

What Is A 5.1 Home Theater System?

This type of system consists of five speakers (often called satellite speakers) and a subwoofer, all connected to an A/V Receiver. The speaker arrangement includes a center channel speaker, left and right front channel speakers, a subwoofer and left and right rear surround speakers. The A/V Receiver is linked to a TV (one or more, depending on the receiver’s specs) and converts all audio-visual data received from your sources - Blu-Ray/DVD/CD players, Bluetooth, Wifi etc. into surround sound playback, where sounds can freely “hover” between the surround speakers. 

And if you want more? Like a 7.1 system? Here's a good breakdown of the differences.
 

How Much Do I Need To Spend?

You can find 5.1 Home theater systems from as little as a hundred bucks these days. Cheaper setups have become surprisingly good, but many of them still have very limited connectivity. Entry level sound quality is mainly dependant on inferior quality speakers and subs, which can be described as ‘honky’ and ‘boomy’.

At the mid-price tier, which for home music systems is generally between $200 and $1000, you will find a noticeable jump in quality and arguably the best value deals. Systems in this price range proudly show off their increased power capacity, proper speakers and up-to-date connectivity, as well as various cool surround mode technology under their bonnets. 

Top dollar systems are just proper - the quality is immediately evident. Here you can expect the latest connectivity - all the current-spec digital and analog wired connections. Wireless connectivity such as WiFi and Bluetooth are also present here, almost universally. There are more surround modes, also known as codecs, made by Dolby and DTX among others, enhancing the surround experience. Last but not least, top systems are graced with the best speaker designs, top-notch components, punchy amps…the works.

Pioneer SP-PK52FS | The Master Switch

What Is RMS Wattage?

Any home theater system is going to have, at minimum, two things: a receiver or amplifier, and a set of speakers. Right?

(Please say yes. Thank you.)

Now obviously, it’s the receiver that sends the power to the speakers, and to get the best out of your system, you need to be sending approximately correct levels of power out to the speaker drivers. To do that, we rely on a statistic called RMS wattage.

RMS stands for Root Mean Square. Please don’t run screaming. You absolutely do not need to know the mathematics of how this works to understand what it means put simply, RMS wattage. It how much power an amplifier or receiver can put out over an extended period of time. Sometimes, you’ll see it referred to as continuous wattage.

It’s a little bit different from dynamic, or peak wattage. This is the absolute loudest an amp can go, over a short period of time. Think of the differences between RMS and dynamic as being the differences between a marathon and a sprint.

Why is this important? Well, every set of speakers has certain power requirements – usually listed as a certain amplifier range (for example, some of the speakers in the ELAC Debut 5.1 system have a recommended amplifier power of 40-80 watts per channel. That means that, ideally, you need an amplifier where the RMS and dynamic power are both in that range.

We say ideally because in most cases, you actually don’t have to think too hard about matching speakers and amps. Unless you’re going to be playing things at ultrahigh volumes for extended periods of time, you’ll probably only be delivering a fraction of the amount of power required to damage a speaker. As long as you don’t hook up an amp with less RMS power than the minimum required by a speaker (which would be really bad) you’ll be fine.

One further point. See that weird symbol (Ω) after our wattage stats in the table above? That’s an ohm symbol, and it tells you the amount of power put out at a particular level of electrical resistance. Ideally, you should match these to the speakers. So: if a set of speakers has a recommended amplifier power of 50 watts RMS at an impedance of 8Ω (which you’ll sometimes see referred to as nominal impedance), then you need to make sure that your receiver puts out at least that amount of power at 8Ω.

Still confused? Don’t worry – even we get this wrong sometimes. One of our writers has put together what we consider to be one of the best guides out there to this very topic, which you should really check out. Once you’re done, you’ll have absolutely no problem matching two systems.
 

Setup Explained

To experience your system at its best, you might need to fine-tune your setup after some initial listening. Here are a few tips. Create a clear path between you and your speakers - if you can't see the speaker, sound is most likely being blocked and the resulting audio performance might be far from its best, due to external acoustic factors and not to the system itself. You can also achieve a far more balanced sound by minimizing bare walls and floors.

Having said that, many A/V receivers have flexible settings and presets, allowing you to adjust levels - not only between speakers, but also between the volume of movie dialogue or background music and special effects. This can make a huge difference to your viewing experience. If and when available we recommend using the built-in room calibration which normally involves the use of a measurement microphone (supplied with the receiver). You don’t need to be an acoustician or a sound engineer - just leaving the mic in the recommended position and pressing a button is all that’s needed. The internal acoustic DSP processing measures frequencies and levels from the subwoofer and each satellite speaker and optimizes them to suit your room!

By the way, if you're worried about how to connect your receiver, don't be. We've got you covered. Oh, and one more link, which you'll need if you hit any issues: our handy guide to the ten most common home theater problems, and how to solve them!


Upgrading To 7.1

If you want even more firepower, how about adding two more channels for a 7.1 system

Another savvy approach, especially for larger home theater rooms is using additional subs - the so called 5.2 or 7.2 setups, where the number after the dot represents the system subwoofer(s).

You might think that a regular 5.1 receiver might prevent you using a second subwoofer (due to all outs being already used up), but check at the back of the subwoofer speaker itself, as many of them have a line-level audio output, allowing for direct link to a second woofer. Larger format A/V receivers, such as 7.1, 7.2, 9.2 or 11.2 obviously make such extended setups simpler, and despite their higher speaker capacity, 7.2 (or higher) receivers are widely used in regular 5.1 surround setups, where the ‘additional’ speaker outputs used for separate zones - such as a 2.1 setup in another room for instance.

Pioneer SP-PK52FS | The Master Switch

Surround Audio Formats Explained

Surround Audio formats: DVD and Blu-Ray releases as well as premium streaming sources feature 5.1 encoded audio soundtracks now - and these can be in several formats, such as 5.1 channel uncompressed PCM, Dolby TrueHD, or DTS-HD Master Audio. What’s more, if soundtracks only contain stereo, such built-in presets (or modes, or codecs, or whatever you want to call them) can extract a 5.1 channel surround field allowing you to listen to CDs and other stereo sources in a fuller surround sound. We’ve got surround sound explained right here, and that goes into a lot more detail.
 

Can I Stream Music?

You sure can! Streaming wirelessly from a smartphone or a tablet to your 5.1 surround sound A/V receiver will naturally require you to ‘pair’ your device with the system exactly as you would with a stereo speaker system. With WiFi capable receivers, you really need to treat those as how you would when integrating a WiFi printer within your home network - any suitable media player can stream via WiFi to your receiver, as long as they are all ‘tapped’ into your Internet router. Bluetooth normal streaming practices apply - most devices operate best within a 10m range. As far as audio quality is concerned, Bluetooth is a lossy platform (really compressed), but look out if your system has the aptX - capable Bluetooth streaming. AptX has really grown in popularity in the last year or so, but to coax out its full CD-rivalling audio potential, it is important to make sure that both the source (your smartphone or tablet) and the receiver are compatible with the aptX mode. 

Pioneer SP-PK52FS | The Master Switch


Crossover And Frequency Explained

OK, you see the speaker table above? You see how we’ve listed the lowest and highest frequencies a particular system can put out?

This is important for a couple of reasons. The first is that it gives you an idea of just how wide the range of of sound your speakers can deliver. Humans can’t really hear anything above 17kHz (kilohertz) so don’t be swayed by a system that can go up to 50kHz, but it’s good to know nonetheless.

One of the things you may have to do at some point is set the subwoofer crossover. Simply put, this is the point in the bass playback at which the subwoofer takes over, meaning that the additional surround speakers don’t have to put out low bass notes. That means more power for the things they are good at.

Setting this is absolutely simple. Usually, it’s done via your receiver’s on-screen menu. All you need to do is look at your subwoofer specs, and see the highest frequency it can go. If it’s at, for example, 250Hz, that’s where you set the crossover point. You’ll be amazed at just how much of a difference this can make to your system.
 

Amp Vs. Speakers - The Balancing Act

It’s very important that your receiver wattage power is matched to that of your speakers, especially when you are not buying a system-in-a-box. You will often see a total (peak power) wattage figure in your surround A/V receiver spec sheet. With most subwoofers being self-powered, that means that the quoted wattage is the sum-total of power needed to feed the remaining 5 satellite speakers. So if the receiver’s amp is quoted at 500W, you would have 100 Watts per channel (meaning satellite speaker). On spec sheets, manufacturers quote wattage in peak power (unless otherwise stated). Peak wattage is roughly speaking double of the RMS wattage, also known as continuous (or actual) power. 

And OK, we’d be getting really picky if we moan about the poor quality of the supplied speaker wire on some systems. We know cables aren’t cool, but they still matter. Substituting cheap thin speaker wire with better stuff like a 16 or 18 gauge wire might further improve the sound - even if ever so slightly.

Back To Top

Home Theater

Best Home Theater Systems of 2017

It doesn’t matter how large your television screen is, or how impressive the resolution. If you don’t have great sound, then you’re only getting half the experience.
7.1 Home Theater System

Best 7.1 Home Theater Systems of 2017

The phrase 'surround sound' immediately makes people think of a number: 5.1. The 5.1-channel surround audio system has been around for two decades now, and has become the absolute standard for home theaters.
Floorstanding speakers

Best Floorstanding Speakers of 2017

Floorstanding speakers have one of the most recognizable profiles of all speaker types. They're designed to slot in next to bookcases and TV cabinets, and their shape has two major advantages...
A/V Receiver

Best A/V Receivers of 2017

An Audio/Video Receiver (AVR) is, if you’ll forgive a slightly clunky analogy, the quarterback of your home theater. It’s not just because it tells everything where to go, routing signals to different speakers and screens.
Pioneer SP-PK22BS Andrew Jones 5.1

Review: Pioneer SP-PK22BS Andrew Jones 5.1

Look, we get it. We’ve been there. Upgrading to a full surround system is a big step. We’re not saying this to be condescending, or patronising. Far from it. Everyone has to start somewhere, including us...
SVS PB16 Ultra

Review: SVS PB16-Ultra

There are some things in life you can’t say no to. Threesomes. That’s a good one. A ride on a private jet. A chance to meet Samuel L. Jackson, courtside seats to a play-off game. The SVS PB16 Ultra is one of those things.
SVS Prime Elevations

Review: SVS Prime Elevation

The problem with most modern living spaces is that they’re just not geared up for home theater.  When most people live in an apartment, or a moderately sized house, there’s no such thing as a dedicated media room...
Audioengine HD3

Review: Audioengine HD3

It’s hard not to be enamoured with Audioengine. They make some of the most enjoyable speakers available, from the superlative A5+ powered speakers to the thundering S8 subwoofer. And they've really turned heads with the HD3.
Sony STR-DN1070

Review: Sony STR-DN1060

There is one slightly strange thing that sets the Sony STR-DN1070 receiver apart from its competitors. It’s not the sound, which is meaty and satisfying, or the interface, which is easy to use...