It doesn't matter how large your TV screen is. If you’re lacking great sound, then you're only getting half the experience. Trust us: your TV speakers aren’t doing you any favors. Fortunately, upgrading to a home theater system is possible regardless of budget - just check out our list of the best below. And to complete your system, you can read our list of the Best A/V Receivers.
 


Table of Contents



Best Overall Home Theater System

1. SVS Prime Satellite 5.1 ($1,199)

SVS Prime Satellite 5.1 Surround: 5.1
A/V Receiver Included: No
Wireless Speakers: No
What We Like: Compact speakers and genuinely great sound quality.
What We Don't: The system won't impress those looking for raw power.

SVS get it. They understand what most people are looking for in the world of home theater: compact, good-looking speakers that are easy-to-use and offer excellent surround sound. The Prime Satellite 5.1 home theater system is one of their best sellers, and for very good reason. It offers five of the company’s brilliant Prime Satellite speakers, which you can use to provide sound from either the side or the rear, and also includes the landmark SB-1000 subwoofer to round out the bass. In our opinion, the system easily undercuts competitors like the Onkyo HT-S5800, below, with its great sound and looks. We like it so much that we’ve made it our office test system—literally the standard by which we measure other gear.

However, as good as the sound quality is, it lacks power. It doesn’t deliver quite as much volume as something like the KEF T305 system, below— if you like your surround sound loud, you may want to look at that as an upgrade over the SVS speakers. And although the individual speakers are solid, the system does not have a dedicated center speaker. If you value ultra-clear dialogue, the Q Acoustics 3000i Series 5.1 is a better choice, although of course the SVS is much more affordable. Bottom line, we think the SVS Prime Satellite 5.1 puts it all together more than any other home theater system with tested, and it’s an easy choice for our top spot
See the SVS Prime Satellite 5.1
 

Best Budget Home Theater System Under $500

2. Yamaha YHT-4950U ($430)

Yamaha Yht-4950UCategory: 5.1
A/V Receiver Included: Yes
Wireless Speakers: No
What We Like: Good features and sound quality at a very affordable price.
What We Don't: Sound can distort at high volumes.

Let’s be real: many people just need a home theater system that will get them good surround sound, and they prefer not to pay the earth for it. If that’s you, then we strongly recommend the Yamaha YHT-4950U. It’s a sub- $500 system that has sold by the truckload, and for very good reason. The compact speakers deliver crisp and impressive sound, and particularly excel with movie audio. We also think the additional features push the YHT-4950 over the top. There’s Bluetooth connectivity for music streaming, and Yamaha’s YPAO room calibration to help you get the best quality sound no matter what size or shape your living room is. There’s an A/V receiver included too, which means this package contains absolutely everything you need to get started.

What do you lose out on? At high volumes, the YHT-4950U tended to distort a little. If you’re the kind of person who likes blasting sound at top volume, you may want to look elsewhere. The Onkyo HT-S5800 may be a good place to start. And as a general rule, the sound here is good, rather than spectacular. It’s also true that the YHT-4950U is a couple of years old now, but a home theater system this good doesn’t go out of style. We’d much rather recommend something affordable than try to push the newest and most expensive gear on you. Great home theater shouldn’t come at a high price, and we think the YHT-4950U delivers.
See the Yamaha YHT-4950U
 

Best Wireless Home Theater System

3. Sonos 5.1 Surround Set ($2,356)

Sonos 5.1 Surround SetCategory: 5.1
A/V Receiver Included: N/A
Wireless Speakers: Yes
What We Like: Simple to setup and use, great wireless audio.
What We Don't: The price has just gone up and up and up.

There is, quite simply, nobody doing wireless home theater better than Sonos. It’s actually quite remarkable how good their 5.1 Surround Set is. This powerhouse wireless system, which consists of twin surround speakers, a subwoofer, and the new Arc soundbar, is super simple to set up and use, and the only wires you’ll see here are those connecting the components to wall plugs. One of the biggest complaints we had about the old Sonos systems was the lack of Dolby Atmos, but that’s no longer a problem—the Arc handles it just fine. Were it not for the huge pricetag, it might have unseated the VIZIO SB46514-F6 as the best home theater system for Dolby Atmos as well as the best wireless system. That’s how good it is.

We do need to take into account the pricetag, and on that note, we have to say that we think it’s too high. The 5.1 Surround Set is great, and unquestionably one of the best wireless systems in the world. But in our opinion, it’s not worth the near-$2,500 price. If you’re looking for a more affordable wireless option, the VIZIO system is worth a look, as is the even less-expensive Enclave Audio CineHome HD 5.1. But despite the high pricetag, we still think the 5.1 Surround Set offers exceptional wireless home theater sound.
See the Sonos 5.1 Surround Set
 

Best Dolby Atmos Home Theater System

4. VIZIO SB46514-F6 ($851)

VIZIO SB46514-F6 Category: 5.1.4
A/V Receiver Included: N/A
Wireless Speakers: No
What We Like: Ridiculously good sound and great connectivity.
What We Don't: Setup isn’t as easy as it should be.

Soundbar systems have progressed in leaps and bounds over the years, challenging traditional multi-speaker systems in the home theater world. VIZIO have been leading the charge, and in our opinion, they produced one of the finest Dolby Atmos systems we’ve ever heard. The SB46514-F6 includes two surround speakers and a subwoofer along with the bar, and is one of the few sub-$1,000 setups to offer full Dolby Atmos audio, which includes height audio alongside that coming from the front, sides, and rear. It’s a 5.1.4 setup - five surround speakers, one subwoofer, and four height speakers - but the height speakers are embedded in the surround speakers themselves, which is clever as hell. This really gives it a leg-up in terms of sound quality, and it beats other Atmos-capable systems like the Sonos 5.1 Surround Set, which is far more expensive.

One of the issues we did have with the SB46514-F6 was the setup. It wasn’t nearly as smooth or effective as we would have liked; the VIZIO SmartCast app is good, but we frequently ran into trouble with connectivity. That’s not an issue that the Sonos system house, and of course, it’s not something you’ll run into with a traditional wired speaker setup either. However, for under $1,000, the SB46514-F6 still represents one of the better home theater systems on the market, and one of the most affordable ways to get Dolby Atmos...Read our in-depth review
See the VIZIO SB46514-F6
 

Best Home Theater System for Small Rooms

5. Logitech Z506 ($100)

Logitech Z506Category: 5.1
A/V Receiver Included: No
Wireless Speakers: No
What We Like: Pint-size speakers and good sound that doesn’t suffer in small spaces.
What We Don't: Dialogue can be unclear, Bluetooth costs extra.

Small rooms (under 150 square feet) can be challenging for home theater systems, and you need to take special care to select speakers that aren’t going to give you muffled or muddy sound. That’s why the Logitech Z506 truly surprised us. It not only pulls this off, but does it for around $100, which is significantly cheaper than just about every other system here.You get five speakers and a subwoofer, and the sound quality—particularly the bass—never gets phased by small spaces. We think it’s significantly better than other more expensive systems, like the $259 Rockville HTS56. We also appreciate how easy it is to set up and use: the Z506 is simple enough that you can have full surround sound in minutes.

It must be said that, at this price range, the expectations for sound quality shouldn’t be huge. That’s definitely the case with the Z506. Elements like dialogue can occasionally be indistinct, which is a little frustrating, but it’s hard to be too upset considering the price. If you want features like Bluetooth, you’ll need to pay a little extra for an included receiver, which may deter some people–especially since less-expensive models include it as standard. This isn’t the newest Logitech system available—they’ve released the more powerful Z606 and 906 setups—but we think it offers the most value. If you have a smaller room, the Logitech Z506 could be the perfect system for you.
See the Logitech Z506
 

A Great Sonos Alternative

6. Enclave Audio CineHome HD 5.1 ($1,199)

Enclave Audio CineHome HD 5.1Surround: 5.1
A/V Receiver Included: N/A
Wireless Speakers: Yes
What We Like: The smartest wireless speaker system we’ve seen.
What We Don’t: Sound quality isn’t quite there.

Wireless home theater speakers are slowly becoming more common, and right now, we think the Enclave Audio CineHome HD 5.1 is the one you should get. It's easily the most affordable alternative to the Sonos 5.1 Surround Set , above. It has a particularly clever piece of technology that creates its own Wi-Fi network, so you don’t have to sign it up to the one already in your home. That’s different to what the Sonos system does, which connects to your existing network. If you have issues with dropout on your network already, or think you might in the future, then the CineHome HD 5.1 is a particularly smart solution. The Sonos is a better system overall, but it definitely has its issues.

The downside is that, as good as the technology is, the sound quality isn’t quite up there. The audio isn’t nearly as rich or powerful as something like the VIZIO SB46514-F6, which is significantly less expensive. That’s a bit of a black mark against the Enclave, and you may want to think carefully before buying. However, it still delivers good, if not quite great, sound and is very much in contention if you’re looking for a convenient system. The Enclave Audio CineHome HD 5.1 is an unusual and effective home theater option.
See the Enclave Audio CineHome HD 5.1
 

Basic But Super-Affordable

7. Monoprice 133832 ($297)

Monoprice 133832Category: 5.1.4
A/V Receiver Included: No
Wireless Speakers: No
What We Like: One of the most affordable 5.1.4 systems we’ve ever seen.
What We Don't: Low-end isn't nearly as good as other systems on this list.

Monoprice are simultaneously one of the most impressive and most infuriating companies with ever come across. On the one hand, they make excellent home theater gear at ridiculous price points, like the Monoprice 133832, a 5.1.4 system that incorporates height speakers for Dolby Atmos and costs under $300. On the other, their availability fluctuates, and the convention of using strings of numbers for package names can often make them frustrating to track down. That being said: if you want a basic system that over delivers for the price you pay, we strongly recommend the 133832 package.

The sound is solid, if unspectacular. It’s the height audio that is the main draw here, and while you shouldn’t expect miracles, it’s probably the only system in this price range that offers it. And although the low end of the Monoprice 133832 is easily bested by packages from Yamaha, we think that the amount you get here more than justifies the purchase. Ultimately, this is a good, basic system that will suit most living rooms, even if the sound quality doesn’t quite measure up. If you can find it, we also recommend the Monoprice 33309 system, which is even less expensive at around $250. At the time of writing, that system is no longer available new.
See the Monoprice 133832


Best of the Rest

8. Klipsch HDT-600 ($400)

Klipsch HDT-600 Category: 5.1
A/V Receiver Included: No
Wireless Speakers: No
What We Like: Dialogue and high notes are crystal clear.
What We Don't: Needs careful positioning.

It’s very possible to spend thousands of dollars on Klipsch speakers. They make some of the best in the world. What’s truly surprising about them is that they also cater to the budget market, and with the HDT-600, they produced a truly fantabulous system. It’s not quite as user-friendly as the Yamaha YHT-4950U, however. We found it demanded more time, especially regarding speaker placement. You may have to be prepared to put some time into finding the sweet spot, but once you do, it’s clear why this system has stuck around. Dialogue, in particular, really shines through, and it’s clear that Klipsch knew what they were doing. Given the attractive price, this means it could be a winner for many people.

If you do just want a plug and play system, there are definitely better options than the Klipsch HDT-600. Not just the more expensive Yamaha, mentioned already, but the super simple and forgiving Monoprice 33309, which doesn’t sound as good but costs significantly less. If you’re prepared to spend some time setting it up, however, the Klipsch HDT-600 is a winner. Like other models on this list, it’s a little old, but we think it still performs well, and we’d rather save you money than force newer models on you.
See the Klipsch HDT-600
 

9. Onkyo HT-S5800 ($699)

Onkyo HT-S5800Category: 5.1.2
A/V Receiver Included: Yes
Wireless Speakers: No
What We Like: Dolby Atmos sound at an achievable price.
What We Don't: Included receiver isn’t great.

Let’s say you want Dolby Atmos height audio, but you don’t want to spend four figures to get it. You could buy the VIZIO SB46514-F6, but if you don’t want a soundbar system, or want to spend even less, then the Onkyo HT-S5800 could be the perfect option for you. It’s a complete system that even includes an A/V receiver. And unlike other similarly-priced systems here, including the top-ranked Yamaha YHT-4950U, the Onkyo HT-S5800 incorporates height modules into the front speakers. This makes the HT-S5800 one of the easiest ways to get full surround sound, and we highly recommend it. It may be a little more expensive than some of the other models on this list, but if you have a good sized room and want to fill it with sound, it’s a great option.

We aren’t, however, wild about the included receiver. It’s perfectly acceptable, but we got great results using receivers from other companies like Denon and Yamaha. The base receiver model never felt like it was flattering the audio or driving the speakers to their fullest potential. This may or may not be a problem for you, but regardless, we think it’s worth mentioning. If you have a bit more money, matching the Onkyo HT-S5800 with a receiver like the Denon AVR-S740H would be a very good choice.
See the Onkyo HT-S5800
 

10. Aperion Audio Novus 5.0.2 ($2,995)

Aperion Audio Novus 5.0.2Surround: 5.0.2
A/V Receiver Included: No
Wireless Speakers: No
What We Like: An excellent high-end choice, with great build and sound quality.
What We Don’t: Poor low-end, no mounting hardware.

Aperion make some incredible gear. Their new Novus system is a bruiser; the speakers you get from the American company are just out of this world, with hefty cabinets and sumptuous audio quality that will satisfy all but the most hard-core of audiophiles. This is a 5.0.2 system, meaning there’s no subwoofer included, so bear that in mind before you buy. We weren’t impressed with the bass, which felt a little bony and unfocused. This is the kind of system that really benefits from the inclusion of a subwoofer, and it was frustrating that it didn’t come with one.

If you’re spending over $2,000 on a home theater system, then it’s a shame to not have this option. Regardless, we love the Aperion Audio Novus 5.0. It isn’t for everyone, but it deserves a spot on this list. The high-end in particular is fabulous, with crisp detail and terrific dialogue... Read our in-depth review
See the Aperion Audio Novus 5.0.2
 

11. ELAC Debut 2.0 5.1 ($1,829)

ELAC Debut 2.0 5.1Surround: 5.1
A/V Receiver Included: No
Wireless Speakers: No
What We Like: A stunning upgrade from ELAC, offers excellent value.
What We Don't: Sound can be a little bit too neutral sometimes.

ELAC’s excellent Debut 2.0 5.1 system isn’t for beginners, but it absolutely deserves a spot in our top ten. The detail you get from the included F6.2 floorstanding speakers and 3010 subwoofer has to be heard to be believed. It's a $4,000 system, with a price tag of less than half that. Compare that to the Enclave Audio CineHome HD 5.1: at $723, the Enclave is a great system, but it also sounds like a $723 one. That’s not a problem with the ELAC.

If there’s one criticism – beyond the price which keeps it out of reach for beginners – it’s the sound. While the sound is good, it can be a touch unexciting sometimes. Depth and detail don’t necessarily mean liveliness, and while we can’t fault the Debut 2.0 5.1’s realism, it does sometimes fail to get the pulses racing. Regardless, if you can afford it, it’s an excellent 5.1 system that we think anybody will be impressed with.
See the ELAC Debut 2.0 5.1
 

12. KEF T305 ($2,200)

KEF T305Surround: 5.1
A/V Receiver Included: No
Wireless Speakers: No
What We Like: Great 5.1 sound, absolutely stunning value for money.
What We Don’t: Quite old-school design.

The KEF T305 is a little old now, but we don’t think that should stop anyone from considering it. If you’re interested in 5.1 surround sound with a high-end budget, without being quite as high-end as the ELAC Debut 2.0 5.1, then this is absolutely a system you should check out. Remember, when it first came out, it retailed for quite a bit more than $2,200. Nowadays you’re getting quite a lot for your money. KEF don’t usually put out home theater packages, as they’re more likely to offer individual speakers, which is why it’s so fantastic that this one is still available.

We will say that the design hasn’t really aged well. It looks like something you’d see in a bachelor pad in about 1995. However, that’s a minor point. The KEF T305 system delivers rich, uncompromising sound quality that feels genuinely impactful, and which we think will be impressive no matter what you put through it. As a bonus, we’ve had great results using these speakers on an inexpensive receiver (under $400). So you shouldn’t have to spend the earth to get them working.
See the KEF T305
 

13. Sony STR-DN1080 7.2 ($1,498)

Sony STR-DN1080 7.2Surround: 7.2
A/V Receiver Included: Yes
Wireless Speakers: No
What We Like: Perfect speaker and receiver pairing.
What We Don’t: Better options available in this price range.

Taken on its own merits, the Sony STR-DN1080 7.2 is a solid performer. It’s a system built around the excellent STR-DN1080 receiver, which is one of the company’s biggest successes, and which we think is going to be around for a long time. It also pairs well with Sony’s included speakers, which feature a pair of excellent height modules that allow you to get full access to Dolby Atmos surround sound.

All in all, the Sony STR-DN1080 7.2 is an excellent home theater package. However, once you compare to the competition, its faults start to become evident. While it’s true that very few packages in this price range offered Dolby surround sound, there are many less expensive packages that sound significantly better overall. We’re thinking specifically of the Onkyo HT-S5800 and the SVS Prime Satellite 5.1. Compared to those systems, the STR-DN1080 7.2 feels a little rough around the edges. There’s still a lot to recommend here, but it’s a second option, not a first one.
See the Sony STR-DN1080 7.2
 

14. Focal Sib Evo 5.1.2 ($1,690)

Focal SIB Evo 5.1.2Category: 5.1
A/V Receiver Included: No
Wireless Speakers: No
What We Like: Well-designed speakers give you Dolby Atmos without extra components.
What We Don't: Fiddly binding posts can be annoying to use.

More and more manufacturers are incorporating up-firing Dolby Atmos modules directly into their speakers. France’s Focal are one of them, and their Sib Evo 5.1.2 system users curved speaker design that is among the most elegant we’ve seen. The Dolby Atmos here is solid, even if, in our opinion, the slightly more expensive Sonos Surround 5.1 Set does a better job. The Sib Evo system uses individual speakers, however, meaning it may be a better option for those who want to position the speakers themselves, as opposed to relying on a sound bar such as the one found in the Sonos system.

However, the Sib Evo 5.1.2 system does have one particularly annoying element. Unlike other speakers which offer external binding posts for the speaker wire, the Sib Evo’s speakers use tiny ports which can only take bare wire, and which are deeply annoying to use. That makes set up a challenge, although in our opinion, the result is worth it…Read our in-depth review
See the Focal Sib Evo 5.1.2
 

15. Q Acoustics 3010i Cinema Pack ($1,142)

Q Acoustics 3010i Cinema PackSurround: 5.1
A/V Receiver Included: No
Wireless Speakers: No
What We Like: One of the best systems for audio detail.
What We Don't: We'd suggest using a different subwoofer than the one provided.

The Q Acoustics 3010i Cinema Pack is an upgrade to the original 3000i system, and not only is it significantly less expensive, it also offers rebooted internal electronics and a crisper sound quality. The detail in particular here is solid, with excellent depth, especially on dialogue. Q Acoustics are among the manufacturers who straddle the world of hi-fi and home theater without falling over, and we think of the system as an excellent alternative to the slightly more expensive SVS Prime Satellite 5.1.

There is one element where the SVS system has the edge on the Q Acoustics 3010i Cinema Pack: the bass. The included Q 3060S may have a slim profile and eye-catching design, but it sounds awkward. Not only is the bass fluffy and uncontrolled, but the side firing drivers make positioning trickier than it needs to be. It’s quite puzzling, considering that Q Acoustics make excellent subwoofers like the Q B12. That may be worth substituting here. If you can deal with that, however, you’ll find this a competent, high performing home theater package.
See the Q Acoustics 3010i Cinema Pack
 

16. Polk Audio T Series ($686)

Polk Audio T SeriesSurround: 5.1
A/V Receiver Included: No
Wireless Speakers: No
What We Like: Hugely customizable package.
What We Don't: Sound can be a little hit-and-miss.

Most of the packages on this list are standard 5.1 – as in, five surround speakers and a subwoofer. But what if you need fewer speakers than that, or you already have a subwoofer? In that case, we’d recommend checking out the Polk Audio T Series. The advantage of this package is it lets you pick exactly the number of speakers and components you need. Three speakers and a receiver? Not a problem. Five speakers and no subwoofer? You got it. It helps that the construction and design is solid, and that the price is attractive. The $485 listed here is for the 5.1 package, and it’s easier to spend more or less depending on your needs. This kind of flexibility is something that other packages in this price range, like the Yamaha YHT-4950U, don’t offer.

One of the slight downsides here is that as good as the flexibility is, the sound quality doesn’t always match up to other packages on this list. Dialogue, in particular, can often sound a little bit thin. We also aren’t huge fans of the Polk subwoofer, as we think there are better options available. However, a package that lets you customize to your heart's content deserves to be on this list, as it opens up options that other packages don’t.
See the Polk Audio T Series
 

17. Rockville HTS56 ($289)

Rockville HTS56Surround: 5.1
A/V Receiver Included: No
Wireless Speakers: No
What We Like: Big volume, light-up looks.
What We Don't: Dubious claims about sound quality.

If volume and power are what you’re after, then we recommend the Rockville HTS56. The included five speakers and subwoofer put out huge wattage, with more than enough energy to rattle the windows. You’ll particularly feel this with elements like explosions and gunshots, and if you have a larger than average living room, this could make the Rockville HTS56 ideal for gaming. Rockville aren’t known for their subtlety, either in terms of audio quality or in looks, and that’s definitely the case here. We rather like the styling, and the four-color light system, while a little silly, is actually quite fun.

However, we’re less convinced about the sound quality. “The sound on this system is better than anything that costs twice the price!” Rockville boasts. Unfortunately, that’s not even remotely true. The sound here may be loud, but if you want detail, nuance, or clear dialogue, you can forget it. We strongly recommend buying the Logitech Z506 over this.
See the Rockville HTS56
 

And One Home Theater System to Avoid

18. Bose Lifestyle 650 ($3,999)

Bose Lifestyle 650Surround: 5.1
A/V Receiver Included: Yes
Wireless Speakers: Yes
What We Like: Bose ADAPTiQ room calibration is pretty good.
What We Don't: Everything else is pretty bad.

Bose make some of the best noise-canceling headphones and wireless speakers around. But when it comes to home theater, they seriously drop the ball. Sadly, the Lifestyle 650 is no exception. If you have any thoughts about buying a Bose system, we suggest you take another look at our list. In our opinion, they’re smoked by just about every other four-figure system here. ELAC and KEF, in particular, are much better options.

Let's look at the Lifestyle 650 objectively. It's Bose’s flagship system, but there's no Dolby Atmos or DTS:X compatibility. It's also impossible to upgrade beyond 5.1 channels, and only the rear speakers and subwoofer are wireless. Don't even get us started on the price; the Lifestyle 650 system costs a staggering $4,000. For less money, you could buy the Aperion Audio Novus with a $1,500 receiver and get virtually all the features you could ever need. Essentially, there's absolutely no reason to spend money on Bose home theater of any sort - especially not when there are so many less expensive products that do a much better job. Many other sites will try to sell you on the Lifestyle 650, but fortunately, we're not other sites.
See the Bose Lifestyle 650
 

Home Theater Comparison Table

System Price Surround A/V Rec.* Wireless RAP** Atmos DTS:X
SVS Prime Satellite 5.1 $1,199 5.1 No No 20-150W No No
Yamaha YHT-4950U $430 5.1 Yes No Unknown No No
Sonos 5.1 Surround Set $2,356 5.1 N/A Yes N/A No No
VIZIO SB46514-F6 $851 5.1.4 N/A No N/A Yes No
Logitech Z506 $100 5.1 No No Unknown No No
Enclave CineHome HD 5.1 $1,199 5.1 N/A Yes N/A No No
Monoprice 133832 $297 5.1.4 No No 20-100W Yes No
Klipsch HDT-600 $400 5.1 No No 20-100W No No
Onkyo HT-S5800 $699 5.1.2 Yes No 10-115W Yes Yes
Aperion Audio Novus 5.0.2 $2,995 5.0.2 No No 20-150W Yes Yes
ELAC Debut 2.0 5.1 $1,829 5.1 No No 10-160W No No
KEF T305 $1,600 5.1 No No 10-110W No No
Sony STR-DN1080 7.2 $1,498 7.2 Yes No Unknown Yes Yes
Focal Sib Evo 5.1.2 $1,690 5.1 No No 25-200W Yes Yes
Q Acoustics 3010i $1,142 5.1 No No 25-120W No No
Polk Audio T Series $686 5.1 No No 10-150W No No
Rockville HTS56 $289 5.1 No No Unknown No No
Bose Lifestyle 650 $3,999 5.1 Yes Yes Unknown No No

*A/V Rec. = A/V Receiver Included
**RAP = Recommended Receiver Power

Surround sound for Home Theater | The Master Switch

Home Theater Buying Advice

5.1 vs. 7.1 Home Theater

The terms 5.1 and 7.1 refer to the number of speakers in a given home theater system. A system could have two, five or seven (sometimes even nine or eleven) speakers. The .1 (or .2, or even .4) refers to a subwoofer present in the system. Such a setup will have a dedicated speaker designed to push out the bass notes, and that’s done with the subwoofer. It's usually squat and boxy, and is designed to be placed at floor level, where the effect will be the strongest.

Speakers are also referred to as channels. So, for example, a five-speaker system can also be said to have five channels. You might reasonably ask where these speakers actually go and what they do, which is a relevant question. In a five channel system, you will have two front speakers – one left, and one right – as well as a dedicated center channel speaker, which will handle dialogue. You will also have two satellite speakers, which will be placed either to the sides of your listening position, or behind you. These will ensure you get surround sound. A 7.1 system, on the other hand, will have both side and rear speakers in addition to the three front ones. You can also replace either your side or your rear speakers for upward-firing ones - speakers which literally bounce sound off your ceiling - which will produce height audio as well. This article, by the way, is a list of the best overall home theater systems available right now – regardless of the number of speaker channels included in them. If you'd like, you can check out our individual lists of the best 5.1 systems, and the best 7.1 systems of this year. They all have options that weren't quite special enough to make this list, but are still fantastic in their own right.

As a guideline, the smaller the room, the fewer speakers you will need to fill it. Got a basic apartment living room? A 5 .1 system – three front speakers, two side speakers, and a subwoofer – will be more than enough to do the job. Given that space is limited, it may be worth considering a good wireless system. If you have a slightly larger living space, such as one in a house, you could quite comfortably move to 7.1 or beyond, placing additional speakers behind and above your listening position. Regardless, the key takeaway is here is that the size of your room dictates the number of speakers you should aim for, and that if you have a bigger room, you can always upgrade your system later by adding additional speakers.

Receiver for Home Theater | The Master Switch

A/V Receivers Explained

Here’s the thing about speakers: they only work if they have power. In the case of a home theater setup with multiple speaker channels, that power has to come from a specialised amplifier. That amplifier is known as an A/V receiver - the A/V stands for audio/video. An A/V receiver is a big box that not only provides spaces to connect all of your speakers, but will also allow you to connect your gaming console, Blu-ray player, or TV, handling the visual side as well as the audio.

The easiest way to understand an A/V receiver is to envision it like the quarterback on a football team. It handles the play, deciding who goes where, and at what time. It controls the offense. It not only provides power to the speakers, but is also responsible for syncing up the audio you hear with the picture you see. At this point, you may be wondering if you have to buy this piece of equipment separately from your speaker system. The answer, in most cases, is yes, but there are two pieces of good news here. The first is the good receivers don’t necessarily have to cost the earth – perhaps no more than a couple of hundred dollars. The second is that many speaker packages – including several on the list above – actually come with a receiver bundled in. This is the single easiest way to enjoy a home theater system, and these packages are known, somewhat predictably, as Home-Theater-In-a-Box (HTIB). They aren’t expensive, either. Our number two pick, the Yamaha YHT-4950U, comes bundled with a very capable receiver. At $430 for the package at the time of writing, it’s relatively affordable, but check the list above for several other cheaper options, if you can’t stretch to that.

A/V Receivers for Home Theater | The Master Switch

If you’re wondering what receiver to buy, you should look at the recommended amp power spec in the table above. Essentially, this lists the level of power the speakers are comfortable receiving. These days, you are very unlikely to blow your speakers, but getting a good power ‘match’ means that you’ll need a level of synergy between your receiver and your speakers that results in better sound. Let’s say, for example, that you bought the KEF T305 system, which has a recommended amplifier power of 10-150 watts at 8 ohms. Ignoring the 8 ohms part for the moment, all this means is that you need to match them with a receiver that puts out a continuous (sometimes called RMS) wattage of between 10-150. The 8 ohms is known as impedance, and for the most part, you can ignore it. It’s entirely possible to get technical when matching speakers and amplifiers, but for most people, all you need to do is match the recommended wattage. If you do want to get deeper into matching speakers and amps, we have a full guide here.

By the way, you might reasonably be wondering if the requirement for an A/V receiver extends to wireless systems as well. Those speakers, after all, don’t require a separate amplifier – they are powered by internal amplifiers that draw power from a wall plug connection. If they don’t need an A/V receiver for power, then do they need one at all? The answer is, in most cases, yes, but it will be a special receiver bundled with the wireless speaker package. This will enable you to link your picture and your sound. They are usually very easy to set up, too. Some of these systems are actually quite clever. The Sonos 5.1 Surround Set, a wireless home theater system costing $2,356 at the time of writing, bundles the front right and left speakers, center channel, and the receiver into a single soundbar, which you then connect directly to your TV.

Aperion Audio Novus home theater system | The Master Switch

Common Surround Sound Formats

Getting surround sound is not quite as simple as plugging the speakers in and then watching Netflix. You’ll be using a special little program called a codec. A codec lives inside your source material – encoded onto a Blu-ray disc, or inside a digital stream. Once you’ve fed it into something that can read it – like your A/V receiver – it will be able to send different parts of the audio soundtrack to different speakers, creating a more immersive and effective surround sound experience.

If this sounds complicated, we assure you it isn’t. Codecs largely take place automatically, with little or no intervention from human beings. What you might have to do is select the one that is most relevant to what you want, which is usually accomplished in the on-screen menu your receiver will prompt on-screen. Here are the main types; don’t worry, we’ll keep this brief.
 

Dolby Atmos

The name Dolby has become so synonymous with surround sound that it's virtually an adjective at this point, along with Google and Xerox. If you've ever been to a really good movie theater, chances are high that it was Dolby sound you were hearing. One of Dolby's most exciting recent technologies is the Dolby Atmos codec, which moves the surround sound in all directions, including up or down - just like real life objects. That's why it's often called 'object-based surround sound'. However, there is one slight catch. In order to make it work, you need additional receiver channels and additional up-firing or ceiling speakers. One of the more bizarre emails we've gotten was from a reader who said that he didn't believe that he needed additional height speakers to make Dolby Atmos work. As we said to him, you definitely do. Be warned: if you want Dolby Atmos sound, it's worth checking that your particular system can provide it. Not all systems do, including the expensive ones - as anybody who's had the misfortune to buy the $4,000 Bose Lifestyle 650 can attest to.

Another thing worth noting is that all your components, not just your speakers, also need to be Dolby Atmos compatible. That means, if you have a Blu-ray player, you need to make sure that a) the player itself can handle Atmos discs, b) the disc itself has an Atmos soundtrack, and c) that your receiver supports Atmos. If you want a simpler surround sound codec, try DTS:X, below.

A center channel speaker will take care of your dialogue | The Master Switch

DTS:X

Another equally famous company, by the name of DTS, produces a very similar surround mode. They call it DTS:X and this is another hugely important codec type, often found in latest generation A/V receivers' spec sheets. DTS do not use the term 'object based' but call it 'multi-dimensional audio' surround.

Unlike Dolby Atmos, the immediate advantage of DTS:X is that it does not require additional speakers. You can use it with a simple 7.1 system - in other words, one with no height speakers - making it far more versatile than Dolby Atmos. Of course, it doesn't have that additional realism from height speakers, but it means you can buy a relatively affordable system, like the SVS Prime Satellite 5.1 ($1,199), and still enjoy the result.
 

Dolby TrueHD

Let's say you have an Atmos or DTS:X-capable source, like a really good Blu-ray disc, but your A/V receiver isn't equipped to handle either Dolby Atmos or DTS:X. In that case, you'll find that you can use Dolby TrueHD. It essentially takes the material and outputs an eight-channel mix. It's not quite as good as Atmos or DTS:X, but it's very close, and as long as you don't have a 9.2-speaker setup or more, you'll be able to get a good sound. What ‘s slightly strange is that you'll sometimes see these two programs in receivers that are capable of Atmos or DTS:X output; the Denon AVR-S740H is a perfect example. Yes, we know, we find it strange too.

This Klipsch Atmos speaker will bounce height audio off the ceiling | The Master Switch

Dolby Digital Plus

Dolby Digital Plus is a little different to Dolby TrueHD, in that it’s meant to be used in systems without height speakers. It’s essentially a replacement for DTS:X and allows you to listen to a Dolby audio mix without having height speakers. Put simply, it's the standard non-Atmos Dolby software, and will give you surround sound without the height elements.
 

DTS: Neural X

Another one you'll often see is DTS Neural:X. This is a fascinating bit of digital wizardry from DTS. Essentially, it allows you to take a source that doesn't have any height information – a DVD with a 5.1 audio mix - and extrapolate height data that you can then use to impersonate a full 7.1 mix. It takes some thinking to wrap your head around, but it's still super-useful to have. There are many other types of surround sound software, and if you want more details on them, as well as the ones mentioned above, we explore them a little more in our list of the best A/V receivers of this year.

Aperion Audio Novus and Verus home theater center speakers | The Master Switch

Wireless vs. Wired Speakers

The big disadvantage with traditional home theater systems – as in, multiple speakers connected to a single receiver with miles of speaker wire – is just that: the miles of speaker wire. It’s not just the fact that you have to buy this separately. But it’s that you have to strip the wire, connect it to a banana plug, and then do that at least ten more times. Fun fun fun! We will cover this a little more in the section below, where we detail how to set up your home theater system. But for now, we want to talk about wireless home theater.

A wireless home theater system has speakers that are, very obviously, connected wirelessly to your TV or receiver. Although they each have to be connected to a wall socket, those are the only wires you’ll have to deal with. They will communicate through your Wi-Fi network, and give you surround sound without the mess of speaker cables. As you can imagine, that’s a huge advantage. We’ve got several wireless systems on our list, and we think the best one is the Sonos 5.1 Surround Set. Sonos are known for their wireless wizardry and their home theater system is a revelation.

The downside of wireless systems is that they are expensive. The Sonos system mentioned above costs $1,399. No matter how you slice it, traditional wired systems are far cheaper than even the cheapest wireless system. Sound quality doesn’t really enter into it – a wireless system can sound just as good as a wired one these days. It’s a question of convenience, and how much you are willing to pay for it. We think that most people will be okay with traditional wired systems – setting up speaker wire and connecting your speakers really isn’t that complex, as we shall see - but it’s good to have an option.

Floorstanding Speaker for home theater | The Master Switch

Movies vs. Music vs. Games

The key thing to understand is that home theater systems are set up for movies, TV, and gaming. They are designed to provide the best experience to accompany a visual medium, which means that all the systems on our list are predominantly designed to be used with a TV. The other key thing to understand is that all the systems on our list will be able to handle anything you throw at them. They will do just as good a job with an Xbox session as they would with a Netflix night. This is down to the audio mixing for games, series, and movies, which all share the same principles. All of them are mixed for surround sound, and as long as you have a system capable of translating that surround sound, you’re good. You don’t need to worry about buying a system that specialises in gaming or movies.

The one thing we would caution against is buying a home theater system if what you do is listen to music. Most music is mixed for two channels – left and right, to create a stereo image. Using a full five or seven speaker system to listen to a two channel audio mix is a bit like taking the motor out of a Ferrari and using it in a lawnmower. Fun, but pointless. All these systems are perfectly capable of playing music – several even have Bluetooth, to allow for Spotify streaming. You can even select a surround mix, and listen to the channels duplicated and played at you from multiple directions. It’s a fun exercise, rather than something worth paying money for. If you’re looking for a good system to play music, we recommend starting with something like a stereo amp.

Soundbar for Home Theater | The Master Switch

Soundbars for Home Theater

By now, you’ve probably come across something rather obvious. If part of a surround sound system is the front speaker channels, then what’s to stop you from using a soundbar to provide these? Why even bother with multiple speakers, when you can package several of them in a single convenient box – with perhaps a couple of satellite speakers to provide rear or side audio? The answer is nothing. It’s an excellent idea, a convenient and clever solution to the complexity of home theater, and there are several options on our list already. Models like the VIZIO SB46514-F6 not only provide this convenience, but do it while delivering extraordinary sound, including Dolby Atmos.

We have to admit, there aren’t any real downsides to doing it this way. The one negative we can see is that it restricts you from swapping out speakers later on. If you decide you’d like to try a pair of floorstanding speakers with your existing home theater system, but you rely on a soundbar for the front channels, then you simply won’t be able to add them in. To that end, we’d advise going for the soundbar option only if you don’t have any interest in customizing your system later.

It's worth taking some time to setup your home theater system carefully | The Master Switch

Setting Up Your Home Theater System

So you’ve ordered your home theater system, you’ve pulled the speakers out of the box, and now they are sitting in your living room, looking pretty but also complicated. What on earth are you supposed to do with them?

Speakers for Home Theater | The Master Switch

Speakers

The first thing to do is to put the speakers in the right positions. The front right and front left speakers should go on either side of your TV. If possible, try to form an equilateral triangle between you on the couch, and the speakers, as this will result in the best sound. However, don’t be stressed if this is not possible – you’ll still get good sound regardless. The center channel speaker should go between the two front speakers, directly under your TV. The easiest way to do this is to place it directly on a cabinet or shelf. However, it is possible to wall mount some speakers.

The rear speakers should be placed directly behind you and the side speakers to the left and right of your listening position. Note that some systems may only come with rear or front speakers. You may need to buy speaker stands to position these on. The good news is that these are generally cheap – we use Sanus stands in our testing room, at around $30 each.
 

Subwoofer

Once your speakers are in place, you’ll need to position your subwoofer. This is one of the more complicated parts of the process. Bass moves through the air more slowly, and is prone to sounding muddy and unfocused if the subwoofer is in the wrong place. However, there are some general principles you can stick to. A sub placed in the corner of the room, a foot away from the walls, usually sounds pretty good. Failing which, directly to one side of your front left or front right speaker, or around the side of the couch. Experiment to figure out which method sounds best.

If all else fails, you can use the method commonly known in home theater circles as the subwoofer crawl. Connect up your system – more on this below – and place the subwoofer in your listening position. Yes, that’s right, put it on the couch. Then play something bassy, and crawl around the room. The spot where the bass sounds most full almost pleasing is where you should put your subwoofer. Low-tech, but it works. We have more info on how to set up a subwoofer here.

Speaker cables | The Master Switch

Cables

Speaker wire connects your receiver to your speakers. You will need to buy a roll of speaker wire – we recommend color-coded 16 gauge. Then, you’ll need to measure the distance between each speaker and your receiver, and cut a length of wire. Always make sure you have a couple of feet left over.

Once that’s done, you’ll need to separate the strands at each end and strip them – cut off the insulating sheath. This is time-consuming, but relatively simple, and can be accomplished using a pair of wire cutters or, in a pinch, a set of kitchen scissors. What you will be left with is bare wire, and you need to twist this into a loose braid with a quick twist of your fingers. From here, you have two options. You can either leave the wires bare, to be connected directly to the speaker binding posts, or you can connect the wire to banana plugs. We strongly recommend the latter, as they make connecting and disconnecting speakers a total breeze. Banana plugs are very cheap, and a worthy investment. Then, with your receiver unplugged from the direct power, connect each speaker to the relevant port on the back. These should be clearly labelled beforehand.

For each speaker, there will be two connections: positive (red) and negative (black). Make sure that the positive terminal on the speaker connects to the positive terminal on the receiver, and ditto for the negative terminals. This may take a little work, but you’ll get there in the end - especially if you were smart and invested in color-coded wire! And if you want to know what each of those weird and wonderful connections on the back of your receiver does, you should check out our full guide.

You are almost certainly going to need a couple of HDMI cables, which you will use to connect your receiver to your TV, and your video source – like your console – to your receiver. If your signal comes from something like a Google Chromecast, or your TV’s own wireless streaming capabilities, then one HDMI cable will be perfectly acceptable; the TV can handle the video signal itself, and all you need to worry about is the audio signal. If this is the case, make sure your HDMI cable is connected to the ARC (Audio Return Channel) slot on your TV.

SVS Subwoofer | The Master Switch

Subwoofers and Crossover Explained

A subwoofer delivers the bass. It will make your system infinitely better, delivering low-end impact and making every explosion, punch and kick feel like it’s hitting you. Trust us, this is fun. You can tell if a system comes with a subwoofer by noting the number after the decimal point in the number of channels - a 5.1 or 7.1 system will have one sub, a 7.2 system, will have two, etcetera. And of course, we note in our list above whether or not a given system comes with a subwoofer (most do). But to get the best out of a sub, you need to know how to set it. To do that, you need to understand frequency.

Frequency is a measure of how low and how high a sound is. The lower in pitch it is – if it’s the rumble of an explosion, for example – the lower frequency it will have. A sound with a higher pitch, like a violin, will have a higher frequency. Easy, yes? Humans can hear a limited range of frequencies – from around 20 hertz (or Hz) to 20 kilohertz (20,000 Hz). Despite this, many manufacturers actually create speakers that can produce sounds outside of this frequency spectrum. No, we don’t know why. The accepted wisdom is that a speaker with a wider frequency range will be able to produce more effective sound, and while we don’t doubt that the speaker can technically produce audio at 40kHz, we’re not sure it makes much of a difference. Do feel free to fight us in the comments if you disagree! Regardless, we’ve listed the individual frequency ratings for each speaker system in the roundup, where available, indicating how low and how high they can go.

Frequency can be useful, however, when tuning your system – particularly in getting the best sound out of your subwoofer. When setting up your system, using the on-screen menu of your receiver, you will need to set up the crossover – the point at which your speakers roll off, and the subwoofer takes over the bass. The good news here is that if you are buying a Home-Theater-In-a-Box (HTIB), the crossover will be set automatically. You won’t need to adjust it at all!

Room calibration microphone | The Master Switch

Room Calibration

Home theater manufacturers are smart. They understand that the ideal home theater room actually doesn’t exist. Outside of a custom build, there will probably never be a perfect room that will showcase their products in their best light. So, they got smart. They worked on software that could adjust the sound depending on the room the speakers are in. This is known as room calibration, and it’s becoming more common in the world of home theater. It will ensure that the sound takes your room into account, meaning you don’t have to worry too much about having the perfect space.

You’ll almost certainly come across room calibration when shopping for a dedicated A/V receiver – it is likely to come bundled with the one you buy. In our testing room, we use the Denon AVR-S740H receiver, a $400 model which comes bundled with a room correction microphone. Essentially, once this microphone is connected, all you have to do is place it around the room in various positions while the speakers and receiver play a series of tones. The microphone captures how the sound bounces around the room, and makes adjustments accordingly. As you can imagine, our testing room sounds fabulous.

You’re unlikely to get room correction if you buy a speaker system or receiver under about $300. But if you are looking for it, you could do worse than buy a product that features Anthem Room Correction (ARC) software, which is currently the best of the best.

Acoustic Proofing | The Master Switch

Acoustic Proofing for Better Sound

Let’s say the speaker system you buy doesn’t actually come with room correction. In that case, if you’re after better sound, you may need to do what is known as acoustic proofing. To understand this concept, you need to know a little bit about how sound works. Sound waves travel through the air, and in doing so, they interact with everything around them: you, your bookshelves, your windows, your dog, your mother-in-law. All of these things change the end result that enters our ears. The harder and flatter a surface, the more sound it will reflect. In the world of home theater, reflections are bad. The sound that is reflected back at you off a flat wall is not going to be nearly as good as the sound that comes directly from the speaker, yes? Acoustic proofing is the process of minimizing these reflections. And if you’re thinking you need to get rid of every flat surface in your living room, you can relax. What we are going to suggest is a little bit simpler.

Let’s imagine a standard, rectangular living room. Let’s imagine there is nothing in it – just the walls, windows, and doors. Obviously, this isn’t an ideal room to place a home theater system in. Play audio here, and you will be bombarded with nasty reflections. The solution? Start filling it with things that absorb the sound waves, instead of reflecting. This means soft furnishings: curtains, the couch, bookshelves, cushions. Given that we’ve just described the average living room, you can see how you are already well on your way to having an acoustically-proofed space that sounds good. The more soft stuff you have in your living room, the cleaner and more accurate your sound will be.

However, spaces aren’t perfect. You may have a room that is an odd shape, which has certain architectural features that you can’t control. Big windows, in particular, can play hell with soundwaves. If this is the case, you may want to invest in some acoustic solutions. These can take the form of panels which hang on the wall, and fortunately, many – like this ATS Acoustics panel – looks sleek and modern, and come in multiple colors. They should help tame any wayward reflections.

If you find you’re having a problem with your bass, and are getting muddy, unfocused, thin sound, then you may need to invest in a bass trap or two. Low frequency sound waves tend to collect in corners, so your goal should be to put something absorbent in those corners. We recommend the UA Acoustics Trap, which looks great and works well.

Dolby Atmos Home Theater Speaker | The Master Switch

Stepping up to a Bigger System

The time will come when you decide to expand your surround sound. Perhaps you moved into a bigger home, or you want to add things like height speakers and rear speakers into the mix. The good news is, as long as you have a separate A/V receiver (as opposed to a soundbar, or wireless receiver) you can go as big as you like. Most receivers these days go up to at least 7.2, and several go even further than that. This means you’ve got more than enough room to expand.

Adding height speakers is a cinch – there are several models designed specifically for this purpose. Adding height speakers means you can start playing around with surround sound programs like Dolby Atmos, which can really boost your sound. Our current favorite height speaker is the Klipsch RP-500SA (full review here). Two of those in a set up will give you phenomenal, realistic height audio.

If you want to start from scratch, and buy a dedicated 7.1 system, then we’ve got an entire roundup devoted to tracking down the very best. Consider it an excellent starting point for your dream home theater system.

Back To Our Home Theater Picks Back To Our Comparison Table

Best 7.1 Home Theater Systems of 2020

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.

Best 5.1 Home Theater Systems of 2020

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...

Best A/V Receivers of 2020

An audio video (A/V) receiver is the quarterback of your home theater. It’s not just because it tells everything where to go, routing signals to different speakers and screens. It’s because a good receiver will bring the best out of your home theater...

Best Floorstanding Speakers of 2020

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...

Best Subwoofers of 2020

You can survive with just a regular set of speakers. You don’t, strictly speaking, need a subwoofer. But you cannot believe the difference having one will make. This big box of wonder will do incredible things to your sound.

Best Blu-ray Players of 2020

Even in a world bursting with streaming content, Blu-ray players are still going strong. Technology has exploded over the past few years, bringing better and better picture options to the table. In this guide, we’re going to break down this year’s best.

5.1 vs. 7.1 Home Theater Explained

We get it. Home theater can be crazy confusing, especially if you’re just starting out. In one of the biggest decisions you’ll need to make is whether to go for a basic five-speaker system or a more powerful seven-speaker system.

10 Common Home Theater Problems

There’s no denying that home theater systems can be complicated. Actually, forget can be; they are complicated. When you’ve got a system with this many wires and settings, it’s surprisingly easy for things to go wrong.

Review: Focal Sib Evo 5.1.2

When they’re not producing the world’s best headphones, French audio wizards Focal spend their time producing some rather good speaker systems. We recently spent a month with one of these, the Focal Sib Evo 5.1.2.