The 5.1-channel surround audio system has been around for two decades now, and has become the absolute standard for home theaters. But if you go up to the somewhat luckier-sounding 7.1 surround system, the cinematic audio experience is delivered through seven speakers and a subwoofer. What this bigger set does to the audio ambience is substantial, and the improvements to the directionality and continuity of the surround sound movements are immediately noticeable. We've broken down the absolute best 7.1 systems available right now, as well as offering some solid buying advice.
 

How We Choose:

First, a big caveat. One of the best ways to put together a 7.1 system is to mix and match individual components from different companies: satellites from one, sub from another, floorstanding speakers from a third. We can’t really list those here; each room and listening situation is different, and listing individual components would make this roundup unwieldy as hell. 

What we’ve done instead is focus on companies that offer 7.1 ‘packages’ - sets of matched speakers, ready to go. Where indicated, we’ve paired these packages with a good receiver. To our mind, this is by far the simplest method of doing this, even if it does mean that excellent companies like Paradigm, Harman Kardon or SVS don’t make the list. Those companies, unfortunately, don’t offer dedicated 7.1 packages for purchase - although their individual components feature on plenty of other product roundups on this site, and we’d absolutely recommend them if you go the component route. Our approach does mean that some companies, like Klipsch, do dominate. Don’t worry - these are all good, offering superb quality and value-for-money.


Our 7.1 Picks:

1. KEF R Series ($7,700) paired with the McIntosh MX122 ($7,000)

KEF R Series 7.1Receiver Wattage: Unknown
Surround Tech: Dolby Atmos, DTS:X, Auro-3D
Expandable To: 11.2
What We Like: Unbelievable power and clarity, huge range of surround sound codecs.
What We Don’t: Unbelievable price tag.

To our way of thinking, this is by far the best 7.1 package available on the market right now – although it will take some serious coin to set up. Surprisingly few high-end speaker companies offer dedicated 7.1 packages (although they do, of course, allow you to assemble them from individual components). KEF is one that does, and their R Series speakers are absolutely phenomenal. The package includes two R50 Dolby Atmos-enabled upward-firing speakers, meaning you can take full advantage of this incredible surround sound codec.

We’ve paired it with a receiver that we think shows it at its absolute best. McIntosh might be better known for making dedicated stereo amps, but they do a nice line in receivers too, and the MX122 is arguably the top model. It offers a huge range of features, including the ability to expand to 11.2 channels if you decide to go bigger. The only downside to this package is that it costs nearly $15,000 to put together! Unfortunately, great 7.1 sound often comes at a price, but we would be remiss not to bring this up as the best out there - although it doesn’t offer quite as much value-for-money as the Klipsch THX Ultra2 7.2 system, below.
See the KEF R Series
See the McIntosh MX122


2. Klipsch THX Ultra2 paired with the Onkyo TX-NR3010 Receiver ($12,972 - Package)

Klipsch THX Ultra2 7.2 Receiver Wattage: 160/8Ω, 2Ch Driven
Surround Tech: Dolby (Various), DTS (Various)
Expandable To: 11.4
What We Like: Perfect pairing in a single package.
What We Don’t: Perhaps not quite as revealing as we’d like.

The THX Ultra2 7.2 system is arguably Klipsch’s top surround sound package. As you can probably tell from the name, it’s got THX certification – meaning the sound it puts out is nothing short of glorious. It's definitely one for bigger rooms, but if you’re looking for a convenient solution, this package, which includes the Onkyo TX-RN3010, is beautifully matched.

The receiver itself, while it wouldn’t be absolute first choice, works wonders with this particular set of speakers, delivering audio quality that is rich and powerful. While we don’t think it’s quite as revealing as the KEF/McIntosh combo that leads this roundup, we do believe that it offers stellar value for money. At just short of $13,000 at the time of writing, this package will deliver you unstinting, magnificent sound for years and years to come. Consider it an investment, and you're good to go. And if you can’t stretch to this, then don’t worry: we got plenty of other, just as good picks coming up.
See the Klipsch THX Ultra2 / Onkyo TX-NR3010 Receiver
 

3. Klipsch RF-7 II 7.1 System paired with the Denon AVR X4000 ($6,293 - Package)

Klipsch RF-7 II 7.1Receiver Wattage: 125/8Ω, 2Ch Driven
Surround Tech: Dolby (Various), DTS (Various)
Expandable To: 9.2
What We Like: Astounding value.
What We Don’t: No good for expanding beyond 9.2.

It might not look it, but this is our value pick. For a shade over $6,000, you get what is arguably one of the best 7.1 systems available, with the ability to go all the way up to 9.2. You can’t go higher than that, making this a little unsuitable for bigger rooms, but it’s ideal for when you want to take a serious step into the world of multichannel surround. Denon’s AVR-X4000 receiver is a great model from the company, and offers just about all the features you could possibly want. In addition, it pairs beautifully with this particular speaker system

Klipsch are set to bring out a new version of the RF-7 II speakers soon, but in the meantime, this sound system is incredible. Pound for pound, this speaker set is among the best. Movies and music really come alive with the powerful, deep bass response delivered out of the 200 watt powered subwoofer, and what you have here is superior vocal and dialogue intelligibility with even coverage across a wide listening area. If you don’t want to spend five figures on the Klipsch and KEF/McIntosh picks above, this is arguably the top pick to go for.
See the Klipsch RF-7 II 7.1 System / Denon AVR X4000


4. MartinLogan Motion 7.1 Ultimate ($7,095) paired with the Anthem MRX 1120 ($3,599)

MartinLogan Motion 7.1Receiver Wattage: 140/8Ω, 2Ch Driven
Surround Tech: Dolby Atmos, DTS:X
Expandable To: 11.2
What We Like: Two companies working in perfect synergy.
What We Don’t: Not too much for this price!

One of the things we set out to do when writing this piece was to see if we could include all the big speaker makers – and one of the ones that missed out was Paradigm, on account of them not offering a dedicated 7.1 speaker package. That’s not a problem for their sister companies MartinLogan and Anthem. MartinLogan offer a dedicated setup they call the Ultimate, and while we don’t think it beats the KEF R Series, it’s still incredible. The audio is incredibly detailed and textured, particularly the bass, which is served by the company’s top-of-the-line Dynamo 1500X subwoofer.

To go with it, we’d recommend a receiver from Anthem. As part of the stable of companies, the engineers will work closely together, and these two elements absolutely sing. The MRX1120 may have slightly limited codec support, but what it does offer is Anthem’s famed Room Correction, expertly tuning the speaker system to your room. And besides, this goes up to 11.2 channels if you ever decide to go really big. Go on: you know you want to.
See the MartinLogan Motion 7.1 Ultimate 
See the Anthem MRX 1120


5. Klipsch RP-HD Wireless 7.1 ($3,394)

Klipsch RP-HD Wireless 7.1

Receiver Wattage: N/A
Surround Tech: Dolby (Various), DTS (Various)
Expandable To: N/A
What We Like: The best wireless 7.1 system available.
What We Don’t: Still can’t quite matched wired systems.

Wireless home theater systems are slowly gaining ground, and while we don’t think they are quite good enough yet to make it into the really big leagues, there’s no denying that the RP-HD is an absolutely spectacular system. Not only does it do away with the receiver entirely, relying on a wireless control system that offers four HDMI inputs and a good half-dozen surround sound codecs, but it also means you are forever free from speaker wire. Once you’ve done it, you’ll never go back.

As for the speakers themselves, they offer an absolutely wild ride, with soaring highs and deep, pounding bass. There’s a reason there are so many products from Klipsch on this list – while home theater purists may scoff, it’s only because they haven’t really had a chance to sit down and listen. One thing to be aware of from this entry: unlike the models above and below it, you won’t be able to later expand to 9.2 or 11.2. That means this, in many ways, is an endgame system. Still, it’s one hell of an endgame.
See the Klipsch RP-HD Wireless 7.1


6. Definitive Technology 7.1 System ($4,522) paired with the Yamaha RX-A3070BL ($2,000)

Definitive Technology 7.1 System Receiver Wattage: 150/8Ω, 2Ch Driven
Surround Tech: Dolby (Various), DTS (Various)
Expandable To: 11.2
What We Like: Unbelievable sound, at a very good price.
What We Don’t: No Auro-3D, despite the sound parity.

Yes, Definitive Technology do in fact offer a dedicated home speaker package, albeit with a BIC Acoustech subwoofer thrown in (you can buy it all in one go, so it totally counts!) The 7.1 system, which combines speakers like the BP9060 floorstanders and four SR9040 surrounds, does a great job of articulating the position and depth of the audio elements in the mix. Although we don’t think it reaches the heights of the MartinLogan Ultimate 7.1, it definitely makes a good account of itself – especially when it’s paired with the receiver in question.

The Yamaha RX-A3070BL recently topped our roundup of the best receivers of this year, as we couldn’t find another receiver that offered more features for this much money. It’s an absolutely stupendous bit of kit, with multiple surround codecs, and the ability to expand upwards to 11.2 channels of sound, should you so desire. While we do wish it had Auro3D functionality (which would mean we could have a speaker on the ceiling, colloquially referred to as the Voice Of God speaker), it pairs beautifully with the Def Tech speakers.
See thr Definitive Technology 7.1 System 
See the Yamaha RX-A3070BL


7. axiim Q HD 7.1 ($2,999)

axiim Q HD 7.1 Receiver Wattage: N/A
Surround Tech: Dolby (Various), DTS (Various)
Expandable To: N/A
What We Like: Supremely convenient.
What We Don’t: The Klipsch does a better job.

At long last! axiim (the lack of a capital is intentional) have long been threatening to add 7.1 functionality to their Q system, and they’ve finally gone and done it. The resulting package doesn’t quite match the heights of the Klipsch RP-HD, which we still feel just edges it, and of course it isn’t going to better its wired counterparts just yet, but for under $3,000, you do get one hell of a system.

The combination of the WM and XM series of speakers and subwoofers delivers silky, detailed sound, and all feeds into axiim’s Q.9100MC-UHD media center, which replaces the traditional receiver and offers everything you need to control your home theater. You get six HDMI inputs (which is an improvement on the Klipsch, as that only offers four), a full range of Dolby and DTS codecs and, of course, wireless functionality. And although you will have to plug in each speaker to the mains, it’s totally worth it.
See the axiim Q HD 7.1


8. Infinity Reference 7.1 ($1,860) paired with the Marantz SR7012 ($2,199)

Infinity Reference 7.1Receiver Wattage: 110/8Ω, 2Ch Driven
Surround Tech: Dolby (Various), DTS:X (Various), Auro-3D (With upgrade)
Expandable To: 11.2
What We Like: Great pairing.
What We Don’t: SR7012 due to be replaced soon, Infinity don’t offer many specs.

This pick, while very good, does come with a couple of caveats. The first is that the receiver, the Marantz SR7012, is due to be replaced by a newer model (the SR8012) very soon. You may find it more worthwhile to wait a little bit before pairing these two, as the new receiver does contain better features and, we presume, better sound quality. The second is that while these speakers are very good indeed, Infinity as a brand don’t offer a lot of information about them. While we like them, we can’t vouch for their specs.

That being said, in the sub-$5,000 range, this combination does a lot to impress. It doesn’t quite hit the heights of something like the Definitive Technology 7.1, which we think offers better low end and better clarity, but you certainly get a lot for your money. It also helps the both the receiver and the speakers look incredibly cool, with an aesthetic that will work well in just about any room. Not a top-five pick, but a viable one nonetheless.
See the Infinity Reference 7.1 
See the Marantz SR7012


9. Fluance Reference Series ($1,060) paired with the Onkyo TX-NR838 ($699)

Receiver Wattage: 130/8Ω, 2Ch Driven
Surround Tech: Dolby Atmos
Expandable To: N/A
What We Like: Fluance and Onkyo work really well together.
What We Don’t: Limited features.

You’ll have to cut us some slack here. The Fluance Reference Series is technically a 7.0 system, rather than a 7.1. But honestly, at this price, you could quite happily spend another grand on a good subwoofer, and still come away laughing. And besides, decent packages are a little bit thin on the ground (surprisingly) so you’ll have to bear with us.

The real draw here is the pairing. Onkyo’s receiver matches very well indeed with this speaker system, producing sound that delivers bell-like clarity with a deep low-end and terrific dynamics. That being said, it would be remiss of us not to point out that you don’t get a huge number of features with this receiver, being limited to Dolby Atmos as well as no more than 7.2 channels of audio. The sound quality makes it worth it, but if you want to expand, it may be worth looking at something like the Infinity Reference/ Marantz 7012 combo above.
See the Fluance Reference Series
See the Onkyo TX-NR838


10. Polk Audio Signature 7.1 System paired with the Denon AVR-X1300W ($1,954 - Package)

Polk Audio Signature 7.1 SystemReceiver Wattage: 80/8Ω, 2Ch Driven
Surround Tech: Dolby Atmos, DTS:X
Expandable To: N/A
What We Like: Very affordable system.
What We Don’t: Bass could be a lot better.

If you’ve only got a couple of thousand dollars…we can’t believe we just wrote that, because two grand is still a sizeable amount of money. But if that’s your budget for a home theater, then this delectable package is worth looking into. 

The Polk Signature 7.1 system combines several speakers from the company’s excellent S range, all of which offer decent sound – although it definitely won’t compete with things like the Infinity Reference 7.1, which we think offers much better sound quality. Better bass, too: Polk’s DSW PRO 550 subwoofer is a bit mediocre, to be perfectly honest, although there’s nothing stopping you from swapping in a subwoofer of your choice – and the same goes for all the other speakers. Paired with this system is a gorgeous Denon receiver that offers basic features, but which really brings out the best in this particular speaker set. It certainly isn’t going to punch its way onto the top of this list, but it’s very good for the cost.
See the Polk Audio Signature 7.1 System / Denon AVR-X1300W
 

11. Onkyo SKS-HT993THX ($699) paired with the Denon-AVR-S710W ($419)

Onkyo SKS-HT993THX

Receiver Wattage: 80/8Ω, 2Ch Driven
Surround Tech: Dolby Atmos, DTS:X
Expandable To: N/A
What We Like: One of the better sub-$1,500 combos.
What We Don’t: Nothing special.

If your budget is less than a grand and a half, and you absolutely must have 7.1 surround sound, then take a close look at this pairing. It might not be the most exciting combination on the planet, but it definitely gets the job done – and is arguably the best budget pick on this list.

With the Denon receiver, it’s apparent that tech like Dolby Atmos, DTS:X, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, UltraHD capability, access to online streaming services and built-in room acoustics calibration are all features expected from a unit around the $500 mark (for the receiver alone), and the Denon delivers. But once again, if planning to take advantage of the bad boy Dolby Atmos surround mode, it would mean that a different (Atmos enabled) speaker setup would be required!  The Onkyo speakers, meanwhile, offer detailed mid presence and rich bass character. Having the Odyssey Mule automatic room calibration built into the receiver makes dialling in the optimal sound an easy task. This system is very versatile and can sound clear, punchy and dominant even in a large home theater room - and all for a decent price.
See the Onkyo SKS-HT993THX 
See the Denon-AVR-S710W


12. Onkyo HT-S9700THX 7.1 A/V Receiver/Speaker Package ($795)

Onkyo HT-S9700THX 7.1Receiver Wattage: 95/8Ω, 2Ch Driven
Surround Tech: Dolby Atmos
Expandable To: N/A
What We Like: Features and audio performance.
What We Don’t: Again, this can ‘talk’ Dolby Atmos, but you need additional gear for that talk to happen.

Next, we have the Onkyo HT-S9700THX, a 7.1 package with an Onkyo HT-R993 receiver included, and there are clear parallels between this and other (cheaper) Onkyo packages. This one comes with a THX certificate for quality, so rest assured that this is a really well calibrated and perfectly matched system. THX are an independent quality advisor certifying that products meet the highest standards for quality and compatibility right out of the box - good news, then! And while we think the SKS-HT993THX above is a better Onkyo product, this is still the biz.

Loaded with the latest Atmos technology, the Onkyo set is fully capable of taking any audio-visual source, from online music streaming services to 4K/Full HD video. Worth noting: if you plan to use the Atmos mode you will need the optional Atmos-enabled speakers (which would make the system into a 5.1.2). All the same, it’s a great budget system, which we highly recommend. 
See the Onkyo HT-S9700THX 7.1 A/V Receiver/Speaker Package


13. Onkyo SKS-HT870 Speaker System ($473) paired with the Sony STRDN1080 ($498)

Onkyo SKS-HT870Receiver Wattage: Unknown
Surround Tech: Dolby Atmos, DTS:X
Expandable To: N/A
What We Like: For budget speakers and a receiver, the pairing is excellent.
What We Don’t: Ugly, boxy speakers.

And now: a system for blind people! For while we do love the pairing of this Sony receiver and this Onkyo speaker system, which we think punches far above its weight for the money you pay, there’s no denying that this is not the most aesthetically pleasing setup on this list. The SKS-HT870 speakers may sound alright, but their boxy design and overly large enclosures make them a pretty utilitarian choice. 

Having said that, they do offer some very good 7.1 sound on a budget, including access to both Dolby Atmos and DTS:X. Sony don’t provide the output wattage of their receiver, so we can’t confidently pair it with other speakers but it still makes for one hell of product. Again, it’s no looker, with a clunky interface and slightly 90s looks - and not in a nice, nostalgic way. Ultimately, this is a package that will get the job done, even if it isn’t the most exciting option available.
See the Onkyo SKS-HT870 Speaker System 
See the Sony STRDN1080


14. Acoustic Audio HD-725 7.2 ($239) paired with the Onkyo TXNR575 ($377)

Acoustic Audio HD725

Receiver Wattage: 80/8Ω, 2Ch Driven
Surround Tech: Dolby Atmos, DTS:X
Expandable To: 5.2.2
What We Like: Offers Chromecast, decent sound quality.
What We Don’t: Nothing special.

This Acoustic Audio system consists of speakers only - all you need is a 7.2 (or larger) A/V receiver to run it, and pretty much any example from our previous picks can be suitable for the job. Perhaps we should mention that in-wall installation might require considerable DIY effort, particularly when cutting the holes (in ceiling or walls) to get exact measurements so you can match the speaker brackets.

Other than that, this is a great way to have a very discreet-looking surround home theater setup and we assure you that the audio quality will certainly impress. This is especially true if you pair it with a decent 7.2 receiver, like the Onkyo TXNR575. While far from the biggest or baddest receiver on the block, this model does offer some good features, like Chromecast compatibility, as well as the standard Dolby Atmos and DTS:X. Nothing special, but a good budget combination.
See the Acoustic Audio HD-725 
See the Onkyo TXNR575

Pyle PT798SBA 7.1
15. Pyle PT798 SBA 7.1 System ($200)

Receiver Wattage: Unknown
Surround Tech: None
Expandable To: N/A
What We Like: For $200, it’s much better than you think!
What We Don’t: Poor digital connectivity.

While not having the bells and whistle of an elite system by any means, the Pyle PT798 SBA  is an inexpensive way to get into 7.1 surround sound. The sound quality is decent enough - you certainly get things nice and loud here, even if the speakers lack in detail and clarity when compared to expensive systems.

One major drawback is the lack of digital connectivity - no HDMI or optical connections here. You will have to use those old-fashioned RCA phono cables instead, which is far from cool. But don’t despair: the Pyle has a built-in Bluetooth wireless, which makes streaming from your phone, tablet or laptop a breeze. If this is the way you like your home entertainment, then this will do the trick for you, and for $200 it can fill your room with 7.1 surround glory. If you absolutely must have 7.1, but don’t have a lot to spend, pick this up.
See the Pyle PT798 SBA


And For When You Win The Lottery…

16. Bowers & Wilkins CT800 ($90,000)

Bowers & Wilkins CT800Receiver Wattage: N/A
Surround Tech: N/A
Expandable To: N/A
What We Like: Arguably the most powerful home theater package on the planet.
What We Don’t: Only millionaires need apply. 

Hoo boy. Where to begin? This is such an expensive package (custom installs only, if you please) that it’s not really in contention for the main part of our list. But oh man, does it sound good. We’ve only ever heard it at audio shows, and then only once, but…damn.

It’s actually designed to be a 7.3 channel system, which is crazy rare, and requires all sorts of additional components (switchers, power supplies, bespoke cables) to get the best out of it. You’ll notice how we haven’t actually recommended a receiver for this one. That’s deliberate - firstly, we’re not sure we’re capable of making that choice, which is something best left up to whichever B&W engineer visits your man cave to install this thing, and secondly, because we’re not sure a single-box receiver exists that could handle it! At a push, we’d pair this with some Krell separates, but it’s a big push.
See the Bowers & Wilkins CT800
 

Comparison 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. Note that the values for Freq refer to the lowest and highest frequencies all speakers in a system can reach, and RAP refers to Recommended Amp Power.

System Price RAP Lowest Freq Highest Freq
KEF R Series $7,700 25-150W/8Ω 39Hz 45kHz
Klipsch THX Ultra2 $12,972 Unknown 20Hz 20kHz
Klipsch RF-7 II 7.1 System $6,293 Unknown 20Hz 20kHz
MartinLogan Motion 7.1 $7,095 20-440W/4Ω 20Hz 25kHz
Klipsch RP-HD Wireless 7.1 $3,394 N/A 27Hz 27kHz
Def. Tech. 7.1 System $4,522 Unknown 22Hz 40kHz
axiim Q HD 7.1 $2,999 N/A 20Hz 20kHz
Infinity Reference 7.1 $1,860 Unknown Unknown Unknown
Fluance Reference Series $1,060 60-200W/8Ω 45Hz 20kHz
Polk Audio Signature 7.1 $1,954 20-200W/8Ω 30Hz 40kHz
Onkyo SKS-HT993THX $699 50-130W/6Ω 20Hz 45kHz
Onkyo HT-S9700THX 7.1 $795 50-130W/6Ω 20Hz 45kHz
Onkyo SKS-HT870 $473 50-130W/8Ω 25Hz 50kHz
Acoustic Audio HD-725 $244 Unknown Unknown Unknown
Pyle PT798 SBA $200 Unknown Unknown Unknown
Bowers & Wilkins CT800 $90,000 N/A N/A N/A

And then the receivers. 'Inc' under the Price section means it's included in the speaker package above. Exp. refers to the number of channels a receiver can be expanded to; Conn. refers to its connectivity.

Receiver Price Wattage Surround Exp. Conn.
McIntosh MX122 $7,000 Unknown Dolby Atmos, DTS:X, Auro-3D 11.2 Blue./WiFi
Onkyo TX-NR3010 Inc. 160/8Ω - 2ch Dolby (Various), DTS (Various) 11.4 Blue./WiFi
Denon AVR X4000 Inc. 125/8Ω - 2ch Dolby (Various), DTS (Various) 9.2 Blue./WiFi
Anthem MRX 1120 $3,599 140/8Ω - 2ch Dolby Atmos, DTS:X 11.2 WiFi
Yamaha RX-A3070BL $2,000 150/8Ω - 2ch Dolby (Various), DTS (Various) 11.2 Blue./WiFi
Marantz SR7012 $2,199 110/8Ω - 2ch Dolby and DTS (Various), Auro-3D 11.2 Blue./WiFi
Onkyo TX-NR838 $699 130/8Ω - 2ch Dolby Atmos N/A Blue./WiFi
Denon AVR-X1300W Inc. 80/8Ω - 2ch Dolby Atmos, DTS:X N/A Blue./WiFi
Denon-AVR-S710W $419 80/8Ω - 2ch Dolby Atmos, DTS:X N/A Blue./WiFi
Onkyo HT-S9700THX Inc. 95/8Ω - 2ch Dolby Atmos N/A Blue./WiFi
Sony STRDN1080 $498 Unknown Dolby Atmos, DTS:X N/A Blue./WiFi
Onkyo TXNR575 $377 80/8Ω - 2ch Dolby Atmos, DTS:X 5.2.2 Blue./WiFi
Pyle PT798 SBA $200 Unknown None N/A Bluetooth

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A/V Receiver | William Hook

Buying Advice:

What Is A 7.1 System?

A 7.1 surround system is a home entertainment package consisting of seven speakers and one subwoofer, connected to an A/V receiver with the right credentials - namely, enough separate speaker connections and wattage to power everything. The receiver acts as the main hub where all audio and visual sources such as Blu-ray/DVD players, game consoles, computers and wireless streaming are being connected into, and the speakers…well, they make noise. From the front, back, and sides, as well as shaking your stomach with bass.

The receiver is linked to your TV screen (or two or three, depending on the receiver’s specs) as well as decoding (or translating) audio data into surround sound playback, where sounds can freely ‘hover’ between the surround speakers. On rarer occasions you may find the same setup but with a separate power amp and receiver, which is the kind of thing that only dedicated audio fiends get into. It’s a bit much for our purposes here though!

As with any other technology, the quality of 7.1 system can vary depending on cost. You can find 7.1 systems from as little as a couple of hundred bucks these days. Cheaper setups will still let you experience surround sound motion, but many have very limited connectivity. And such entry level sound quality is quite comparable to a glorified ghetto blaster, really.

Oh, and if the idea of seven-plus speakers makes you break out in hives, don't worry. We've got a full guide to all the connections you'll need to get things up and running. And if you want a guide to the big differences between 5.1 and 7.1, check this out.

Bowers & Wilkins Speaker | Derrick Noh

Are These All Home-Theater-In-A-Box?

Absolutely not.

For the record, we have nothing against single-purchase, complete home theater systems. You can be snobbish about it as you want, but they offer an undeniably convenient way of experiencing home theater, which is often ideal for smaller spaces. However, we would stop short of describing any of the above systems as HTIBs. Well, with the exception of the Pyle PT798 SBA, which actually is. Then again, it’s one of the very, very few.

What these are, as we stated at the very top of this article, are home theater speaker packages of at least seven speakers and one subwoofer, that are offered together for a single price. In almost all cases, we’ve recommended a separate receiver to pair with them. This kind of situation – where a speaker set up this large is actually offered in a bundle – is actually pretty rare. It’s meant we’ve had to leave a few manufacturers off the list, because while they all have a presence in the home theater space, they don’t actually sell bundles of their speakers beyond 5.1.

We hope you’ll forgive us for that. We discovered when putting this together that trying to create an ultimate best-of list that took into account at least four different types of products (subwoofers, floorstanding speakers, satellite speakers, and receivers) just made things way too unwieldy. We absolutely do recommend assembling a bespoke system out of individual products from your favorite manufacturers, if you have the money and patience to do so.

If that’s the case, you may want to look at some of our individual product roundups to get started. How about our floorstanding speaker lineup? Or our list of the best subwoofers of this year? In those articles, you’ll find fantastic products from fan favorite manufacturers like SVS, Paradigm, ELAC and more. We didn’t leave them out because we forgot them, we promise.

MartinLogan Dynamo 1000 Subwoofer | MartinLogan

7.1 vs. 9.1 vs 11.2

Let’s say you’ve already installed your 7.1 surround system. That’s your starting setup. What if you wanted to go bigger? What, you thought we’d just stop at seven? Nah, man.

You can add a second subwoofer if you really want monster bass, making it into a 7.2 system setup (where the number after the ‘point’ represents the subwoofer). This is easy enough - almost all receivers will be able to send audio to two subs, and then all you need to do is plug them into the mains.

Larger-format surround systems can also be split into zones (different rooms). If you had your kitchen next to the movie room, you could actually kit it out with a pair of stereo speakers and subwoofer (2.1) while leaving the remaining 5 speakers and the second subwoofer to act as a regular 5.1 in your main room - both zones would be powered by the same 7.2 receiver. In that way you can ‘keep up’ with the movie, while preparing dinner or having a chat on the phone. That is a thing you could do.

But let’s say you want to go bigger. It’s worth investigating 9.1 and up. To do this, you need to use what are known as matrix sound channels. If that sounds complicated, all you have to know is that the original seven channels (and one sub channel) from the back of your receiver are all discrete channels that carry an independent signal, whereas a matrix channel actually blends some of this audio, helped along by the surround sound codec to translate it for a height speaker. Because that’s what 9.1 and 11.1 (or 9.2 and 11.2, if you have two subwoofers apiece) are. They involve height speakers.

If you only have two, taking the system to 9.1, you would place these either above you and on either side of your listening position, or above your front speakers. If you had an 11.1 system, you would have speakers in all four positions, or alternatively, in the corners of the room.

If you wanted to get this effect and spend the least amount of money, then look at the Infinity Reference 7.1 system paired with the Marantz SR7012 receiver, which will take you all the way up to 11.2 channels for a little over $4,000. You can, by the way, keep increasing the channels, but you need specialised equipment to do so, not to mention an absolutely massive room. We’ll talk about that a little more in the next section.

Auro-3D Mixing Room | Auro-3D

Dolby Atmos vs. DTS:X vs. Auro3D

Dolby, DTS and Auro3D are the three big surround sound companies you need to know about. They make what are known as surround sound codecs: complicated software programs which take the sound source and use special algorithms to create a lifelike surround sound experience.

While each of the companies has quite a few different codecs on offer, there are only three you really need to worry about. We are going to take each one of them in turn.
 

Dolby Atmos

This is probably the most common. Chances are if you’ve been in a movie theatre in the past five years, you’ve heard this one. It’s a very big dog it uses what is known as object-based surround sound: instead of sending a sound to a certain channel just because that’s what it’s mixed as, it uses, located programming tricks to blend the sounds together, placing each one of them indistinct, predetermined positions around the room by mixing them between the speakers.

To get your Dolby Atmos system working, you need one of several things. You need a set of height speakers (ideally, four) along with rear ones, a set of speakers that are angled upwards to fire their audio off the ceiling, or a set of modules that you place on top of existing speakers. Either way, if you want to take full advantage of this, you need quite a bit more speakers than a basic 7.1 system. The good news: even if you don’t have the space or budget for this, your 7.1 system can still take advantage of plenty of other Dolby codecs.

By the way, Dolby often refers to their systems as 7.1.4, or 9.2.4. These are functionally the same as 11.1 or 13.2 systems - a bunch of ear-level speakers with four added height speakers. Don’t let the numbers get you down.
 

DTS:X

The thing about Dolby Atmos is that it absolutely requires height speakers to work. The thing about DTS:X is that it doesn’t.

It’s a software codec that works with just about any speaker setup you can imagine. While it doesn’t have quite the positioning capabilities of a full Dolby Atmos system, it still manages to eke some terrific imaging out of even a basic 5.1 system. You also don’t need special hardware: in many cases, the DTS codec can be downloaded to a receiver as a software update, which is awfully handy.

Having height speakers definitely improves things dramatically. But all the same, this is a very useful codec to have. It should be pointed out that almost all receivers these days come with both Dolby Atmos and DTS:X built in, so you shouldn’t even have to choose.
 

Auro-3D

This is kind of a strange one – and even though it’s been out for a while, it hasn’t really managed to make significant inroads into the market held by Atmos and DTS:X.

Unlike Dolby’s codec, which relies on object-based sound, Auro-3D is all about the channels. It what you go for if you have not only the space for multiple height speakers, but also a speaker known as the Voice Of God - how cool? - which is installed in the ceiling directly over your listening position. You don’t absolutely have to have this to use Auro-3D, but you do have to have at the very least a 9.1 system.

There’s no denying that Auro-3D is amazing. We think it’s on par with Dolby’s codec, and in many cases, goes beyond it. But it’s still very much a dark horse in this particular race. If you do want to check it out, more and more receivers are including option for it, often in the form of an upgrade (which you’ll pay for). The McIntosh MX122 is a perfect example.

7.1 Surround System | MartinLogan

7.1 Speaker Placement Explained

A quick refresher: speaker sets for 7.1. surround systems include a center channel speaker, left and right front channel speakers, a subwoofer, left and right surround speakers and left and right rear surround speakers. We’ll steer clear of 9.1 and 11.1 systems here.

The rear surround speakers help to fill larger rooms more completely and add more depth to the experience by spreading the sound across four speakers rather than two (as found in 5.1 surround), resulting in more directed, immersive sound. The idea is to surround your listening position with speakers, putting the center channel, front channel and subwoofer in front of you, the left and right speakers on…well, your left and right, and the rear speakers behind you. Generally, you’re supposed to elevate these, but that isn’t always possible, so let’s break down placement of a basic system.

So you’ve got all this equipment, unboxed, and it’s sitting in the middle of your living room floor, staring at you. Chances are, you got some idea of where to put it all, because you have a brain. But that isn’t really the point, is it? The point is to put it not just in the appropriate place, but in the best place. And finding that takes a little doing.

Let’s assume for the moment that you have all three types of speakers knocking around. Let’s start with the easy bits: the floorstanding speakers. These go, as your probably shocked to hear, on the floor, usually on either side of the TV. The exact placement of these is largely dependent on the shape of your room, but you want them in a rough triangle with the place you’re going to be sitting. They should be roughly equidistant, and shouldn’t be too close to walls or corners, which can lead to their bass frequencies getting a little muddled.

Next up, the subwoofer. The received wisdom is to put the thing underneath or next to the TV, but there’s actually a little trick you can use to find the best place to put it. Wire up the subwoofer (and we’ll talk about wiring in the section below) then put it in the place where you’ll be sitting. Find something bass heavy. A track by Skrillex or Diplo would be ideal. Start playing, then crawl around the room at floor level. Yes, we know you look ridiculous, but there is a purpose to this, we promise. Find a spot in the room where the bass sounds the best, where it sounds as it’s meant to.

That’s where you want to put your sub. This trick isn’t completely full proof, and again, largely depends on the size of your room, but it’s still very useful tool to have in your arsenal.

The easiest one of these to place is the center speaker, which should be labelled as such. Put it in front of or just underneath your TV. Job done. Next, check out the front left and right speakers, which, again, should be labelled clearly. These are quite tricky to place. You need them at ear level when you’re sitting in your listening position, and you also don’t want them too far apart or too close together. Doing either of those things will mess with your sound. Start with the speakers around three feet from the TV on either side, and work from there. You’ll need to experiment a little bit to get it right.

Assuming you’ve got a 7.1 system, you will have four more speakers to place. Two of them should go directly to the sides of your listening position, again at eye level. The biggest mistake we see is people mounting them in the ceiling or in the corners of the room. Don’t do that. Don’t be a corner-mounter. Get two on either side, and two at the rear. And by rear, we mean a good three or four feet behind your listening position.

By now, you may be thinking: what if I have a small room? What is my listening position (usually the couch) is up against the wall? How do I place rear speakers then? Answer: you don’t. If you have a small room, a 7.1 system is going to be wasted. You’re far better off buying a 5.1 system, or better yet, ditching surround sound entirely and just going for a good pair of floorstanding speakers. It will save you time, money, and irritation. We know. We’ve been there.

Bowers & Wilkins Speaker | Jeff Wilcox

7.1 Speaker Connections

We’ll just go over the basics here. If you want a much more in-depth look at wiring things up, here’s a guide we put together explaining just that.

Looking at the back of your A/V receiver, you’d be forgiven for thinking that you’ll need a dozen types of cables that aren’t included in your purchase. This can send you running in a panic to Amazon, trying to decipher just what a coaxial audio D/Si200 cable is, and whether you need it to hook your sub up properly. It’s true that we used to need all sorts of different connections to get our system working, but that’s until one glorious thing came along and rendered most of them irrelevant: HDMI.

HDMI cables are instantly recognisable, and beautifully simple. They are thin rectangles with one edge cut at a slight diagonal, and they will take care of 90% of your home theater needs. Your TV? HDMI. Your console? HDMI. While it’s certainly a good idea to have additional HDMI cables knocking around, because they can be incredibly useful for a whole bunch of things, they certainly aren’t essential.

Okay, so there are a couple of other cables you may need to know about. Surround sound systems sometimes use a digital coaxial cable, a cylindrical orange or black plug with a little golden nubbin shooting out of it. You may also see a cable with two plugs on the end of it, also cylindrical, and also with the same gold nubbin. That’s a stereo audio cable, and you plug both bits in to activate both the channels in your speakers. You won’t find these in surround sound systems, but they do still pop-up from time to time.

You may (and this is rare) come across things like component video cables and composite video cables and optical cables. We don’t think it’s worth going into what they do here, as there is becoming increasingly uncommon. And by the way, ignore the thing that says S Video on it. Nobody in the history of home theater has ever used an S Video cable. Nobody even knows what they are.

Once you’ve got your cable type sorted, hooking things up should be relatively straightforward. Every system is different, so we can’t give you a completely all-encompassing way to do it here, the good thing to remember is signal flow. The output HDMI from your TV and Blu-ray player/console should go into the HDMI inputs on the receiver, and the speakers should connect up to their relative spots as well.

Klipsch Floorstanding Speakers | Jan Hammershaug

Wattage And Impedance Explained

When purchasing separate receiver and separate speaker system you need to make sure they match each other’s power. It’s a bit like weight scales - whatever power your speakers require, the amp should be able to deliver, and without struggle: they should be equally matched. It’s OK if the amp has a bit more wattage than the speaker, but try to avoid the other way round, which may potentially damage your amp!

The good news is, if you go with our recommendations above, you won’t actually have to worry about any of this. The amps and the speakers are reasonably well-matched already, so there’s no guesswork involved. But, for the purposes of this article, let’s do a practical example. This example is going to use two concepts: wattage (read, the amount of power something puts out) and impedance (a measure of electrical resistance)

Let’s take the Onkyo TX-NR838 receiver. It’s RMS wattage (the amount of power it puts out over a period of time, as opposed to peak wattage, which is max it can put out in one go - think a jog, versus a sprint) is 130 watts, which is what it’s capable of producing if it meets a set of speakers with eight ohms of electrical resistance.

Matching speakers to this is actually very simple. Every set of speakers will have a recommended amplifier power, which shows the range of power that they can comfortably take. For example, the Fluance Reference Series (which we’ve paired the 838 with in our list) can take amp power of between 80 and 200 watts, while offering eight ohms (8Ω) of electrical resistance. 

You will notice that in this case, the ohm levels are matched. In general, this is what you want. Try to avoid matching a set of speakers with a lower nominal impedance to an amplifier that doesn’t offer ratings of that impedance. If you ever do encounter speakers with a higher impedance rating than the amplifier, then go right ahead. You can read more about this in our highly detailed guide to matching amps and speakers

Speaker Driver | DeclanTM

Frequency Ratings Explained 

We don’t put a lot of emphasis on frequency ratings here at TMS. For the majority of people, we simply don’t think they are that useful, although you’re more than welcome to fight us in the comments if you disagree. However, when it comes to home theater speakers, we find they can give you a general idea of the range the speakers occupy.

A quick primer, if you don’t know what we’re talking about. A frequency measurement is a measurement of the pitch of the sound: how high or how low it is. It’s measured in Hertz (Hz). Humans can hear from roughly 20Hz (a super-low bass note) to 17kHz (a really, really high-pitched finger-on-a-glass-type note. kHz, by the way, means kilohertz, or a thousand hertz - as in, 17,000 Hz).

What we’ve done in our table above is give the lowest frequency of sound that given 7.1 speaker system can offer (usually via its subwoofer) and the highest it can offer via its other speakers. You shouldn’t read too much into this, mostly because these speakers can often generate higher notes that we can actually hear, and it’s annoying when manufacturers emphasise this. But it’s good to know, and in some cases, it can be useful when evaluating speakers.
 

Room Acoustics Explained

The most expensive speakers in the world won’t mean a damn thing if you don’t treat your room. That’s because most rooms have walls, and a ceiling, on the floor, and…actually, make that all rooms. If you don’t do anything to them, what those services will do is reflect sound back into the room, absorbing very little. That reflected sound will get together and get dirty, and generally mess up your beautiful surround sound image.

To rectify this, you need to add in some acoustic proofing. There are hundreds of solutions out there, and we don’t really have the space to go into them right now, but as a general rule, they take the form of thick foam panels that hang on the walls and ceiling at key points, as well as even thicker bass traps that go in the corners of the room. If you want to see an example, check out this ATS Acoustic Panel, although there are many different flavours of this particular piece of equipment.

We are in the process of putting together a full guide to treating a home theater room. In the meantime, here’s one of the better guides we found, which offers some very neat tricks for getting this done. Follow it, and thank us later.

Back To Our 7.1 Picks  Back To Our Comparison Tables

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