It doesn't matter how large your TV screen is. If you don't have great sound, then you're only getting half the experience. Some TVs have built-in speakers that can pack a decent punch, but anybody serious about their entertainment should invest in a home theater system. No matter what your budget, you'll find a great home theater system to fit your price range on our list below. For more background information on home theater systems, see our comparison table and buying advice below the picks.
 

Best Overall Home Theater System

1. Yamaha YHT-4930UBL ($460)

Yamaha YHT-4930UBLCategory: 5.1
A/V Receiver Included: Yes
Wireless Speakers: No
What We Like: The perfect small system, easy to set up and use.
What We Don't: Sound can distort at high volumes.

The Yamaha YHT-4930UBL is a superb home theater system. It provides an accessible, simple, and great-sounding way to equip your living room with surround sound. It’s a complete package, with a decent receiver included. The speakers are compact, but deliver crisp sound, and the bass coming out of the subwoofer is just magic. What really pushes the YHT-4930UBL into the top spot, however, are the additional features. There is Bluetooth, 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. If you have a TV capable of 4K video, the receiver in this speaker package will partner nicely with it. You can even buy this package with included speaker wire.

We did find that, at high volumes, the YHT-4930UBL tended to distort a little. If you’re the kind of person who likes blasting things at top volume, you may want to look elsewhere – we recommend something like the Onkyo HT-S5800 or the SVS Prime Satellite 5.1, which are a bit more assured. However, that’s one of the few negatives here. It’s true that the YHT-4930UBL 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 you something affordable than try to push the newest and most expensive gear on you. Ultimately, the Yamaha YHT-4930UBL is the perfect all-around system, which delivers great sound at an affordable price, and will slip seamlessly into your living room. Great home theater shouldn’t come at a price, and we think the YHT-4930UBL delivers.
See the Yamaha YHT-4930UBL
 

Best Budget Home Theater System

2. Logitech Z506 ($100)

Logitech Z506Category: 5.1
A/V Receiver Included: No
Wireless Speakers: No
What We Like: Excellent sound on a budget, terrific bass.
What We Don't: Dialogue can be unclear, Bluetooth costs extra.

Logitech are best known for making gaming gear, but their Z506 speaker system performs very well in a home theater setup. At $100, it’s an exceedingly affordable way to get started. You get five speakers and a subwoofer here, and the sound quality – particularly the bass – is excellent. We think it’s significantly better than more expensive systems, like the Rockville HTS56 ($161). Although there’s no HDMI, connection is still quick and easy through the 3.5mm or RCA connections.

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 Logitech Z506. Elements like dialogue can occasionally be muddy and indistinct, which is a little frustrating, but it’s hard to get too mad about it – especially for this price. If you want features like Bluetooth, you’ll need to pay a little extra for an included receiver, which may turn off some people – especially since less-expensive models, like the auna Areal Active 620, include it as standard. This isn’t the newest Logitech system available – they release the more powerful Z606 and 906 setups – but we think it offers the most value for money. If you’re on a budget, the Logitech Z506 could be the perfect system for you.
See the Logitech Z506
 

Best High-End Home Theater

3. Sonos 5.1 Surround Set ($1,399)

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: No support for advanced surround sound like Dolby Atmos or DTS:X.

Thank the lord; Sonos finally gets smart. They now offer their fantastic wireless speakers and soundbar in a single home theater package. The Sonos 5.1 Surround Set includes a Sonos Beam soundbar, two Play:1 surround speakers, and a Sonos Sub. The system delivers wireless audio that is easily comparable to other sets in this price range, like the Q Acoustics 3000i Series 5.1, below. In addition, the Sonos 5.1 Surround Set is probably the easiest system to set up and use on this entire list, and switches between music and movies with ease. While we do wish the surround speakers were the newer Sonos One smart speaker, there's nothing stopping you from substituting them if you need access to virtual assistants like Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant.

Despite our enthusiasm, the Sonos 5.1 Surround Set does have a few issues. Unlike the less-expensive VIZIO SB46514-F6, there's no Dolby Atmos functionality, just basic Dolby Digital. The 5.1 Surround Set is also wildly expensive for what you get, and while we do love Sonos, we think the VIZIO offers much better value. Regardless, if you’re looking for high-end audio, the Sonos set delivers. It may be expensive, but it is superbly convenient, delivers great sound, and is also easy to upgrade. Adding additional rear speakers – perhaps a couple of Sonos One smart speakers - is as simple as it gets.
See the Sonos 5.1 Surround Set
 

Best of the Rest

4. VIZIO SB46514-F6 ($817)

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

The VIZIO SB46514-F6 is an absolute monster. It’s a soundbar-based system that includes two surround speakers and a subwoofer, and is one of the few sub-$1,000 setups to offer full Dolby Atmos audio. It’s a 5.1.4 system - 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 we think it’s a terrific buy. The connectivity, which offers both Bluetooth and HDMI, is excellent and thanks to the SmartCast VIZIO app, using the SB46514-F6 is a pleasure.

However, we still prefer the Sonos 5.1 Surround Set. It may be more expensive, but it’s fully wireless, and offers such a sleek experience that we really think it’s worth paying the extra money. Set up, in particular, is somewhere the VIZIO SB46514-F6 struggles – it just isn’t as smooth or as effective as the Sonos. But for under $1,000, the SB46514-F6 still represents one of the better home theater systems on the market, and one of the cheapest ways to get Dolby Atmos.
See the VIZIO SB46514-F6
 

5. Monoprice 33309 ($251)

Monoprice 9723Category: 5.1
A/V Receiver Included: No
Wireless Speakers: No
What We Like: A good system at a great price point.
What We Don't: Low-end isn't nearly as good as other systems on this list.

Like the Yamaha YHT-4930UBL, the Monoprice 33309 is a slightly older system that has proven to be a keeper. Monoprice may have virtually no brand identity to speak of, but what they lack in marketing budget they more than make up for in quality. The company is known for producing low-cost gear that really delivers, and the 33309 is no exception. Although there is no included receiver, like that found on the aforementioned Yamaha, the 33309 5.1 system is cheap enough that you’ll be able to buy a comparable receiver without breaking the bank.

It definitely doesn't have the low-end thump and punch that other systems do. Despite being a 12” model, which is relatively large, the subwoofer lacks a little power. The less expensive Logitech Z506 5.1 does a better job, although it lacks the finesse in the highs and mids. However, the included speakers on the Monoprice 33309 still offer decent detail and a no-frills attitude, making it an excellent choice for those on a budget. By the way, we've confirmed with Monoprice that this package is known as the 33309, not the Monoprice Premium 5.1-Ch. Home Theater System with 12in Subwoofer (9723), as appears on the Amazon listing. If you're going direct, look for that package number.
See the Monoprice 33309
 

6. 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 in the HDT-600, they produced a truly fantabulous little system. It’s not quite as user-friendly as the Yamaha YHT-4930UBL, 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.

It must be said that, 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 9723, which doesn’t sound as good but costs significantly less. If you are 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
 

7. Onkyo HT-S5800 ($500)

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. The Onkyo HT-S5800 could be the system you’re looking for. It’s a complete system, including an A/V receiver. And unlike other similarly-priced systems here, including the top-ranked Yamaha YHT-4930UBL, 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
 

8. SVS Prime Satellite 5.1 ($1,000)

SVS Prime Satellite 5.1 Surround: 5.1
A/V Receiver Included: No
Wireless Speakers: No
What We Like: One of the best-value systems on the market.
What We Don't: Won't impress those looking for raw power.

Want to know what testing system we use in The Master Switch offices? This one. While we wish we had an unlimited budget, we don't, and when it came to choosing a system we’d use to test our gear, this was our top pick. For quality sound, manageability, and experience, the SVS Satellite 5.1 is a stellar choice. The pint-size nature of the Satellite system makes it easy to use, and friendly to a wide variety of rooms.

However, as good as the sound quality is, it lacks a little power. There’s not as much oomph and grunt as you’d find in the Sonos Surround 5.1 system - although that system costs around $300 more. We also found ourselves wishing for a decent center speaker, as there’s no dedicated one here, only five satellite speakers that you can place however you choose. Using one as a center speaker makes sense, but you won’t get the full benefit. Ultimately, this is a very good system that isn’t quite ready for greatness.
See the SVS Prime Satellite 5.1
 

9. ELAC Debut 2.0 5.1 ($1,830)

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 continue to impress. Their 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, below. At $750, it's a great system, but it also sounds like a $750 one. That’s not a problem with the ELAC.

If there’s one criticism – beyond the price which keeps it out of the range of beginners – it’s with 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
 

10. KEF T305 ($1,700)

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 $1,700. So, 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
 

11. Enclave Audio CineHome HD 5.1 ($750)

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 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 means it also won’t suck your bandwidth while it is in use. Given that there are six speakers here, as well as a small receiver box, that’s quite important. There are other wireless speaker sets, like those made by Klipsch and Axiim, but the Enclave Audio CineHome HD 5.1 is the smartest of the lot.

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 Onkyo HT-S5800, 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
 

12. 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
 

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 one 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 are 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 only really worth it if you want Dolby Atmos on a budget.
See the Sony STR-DN1080 7.2
 

14. Q Acoustics 3000i Series 5.1 ($1,500)

Q Acoustics 3000i 5.1Surround: 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.

With the new Q Acoustics 3000i Series 5.1, you'll be able to hear everything - every gunshot, every bit of dialogue, every note - with the utmost clarity. And that's not marketing puff. The included speakers may not deliver a ton of power, compared to others on this list, but they more than hold their own. They are among the best speakers you can buy for detail, but you’ll have to be comfortable with the price tag. They are more expensive than, for example, the Sony STR-DN1080 7.2, which is a complete package with included receiver.

The main complaint we have for the 3000i Series lies with the includer subwoofer. It's adequate - an improvement on the original 3000 series subwoofer - but still doesn't feel quite right. Q Acoustics make terrific speakers, but even a cheap subwoofer, like an ELAC Debut 2.0 SUB3030 or a BIC America F-12, will make a big difference to the overall experience. We'd suggest picking one of them up to complement the Q Acoustics 3000i Series 5.1.
See the Q Acoustics 3000i Series 5.1
 

15. Yamaha YHT-5950U ($600)

YAMAHA YHT-5950USurround: 5.1
A/V Receiver Included: Yes
Wireless Speakers: No
What We Like: Yamaha MusicCast works well.
What We Don't: Doesn’t offer enough for the price.

While we don’t necessarily believe that home theater systems are ideal for music – more on this below – they are quite capable of playing it given the right circumstances. The Yamaha YHT-5950U is proof of this. It is essentially the top-ranked Yamaha YHT-4930UBL system, with an added Wi-Fi module. While the speakers are still traditional wired models, requiring speaker wire to connect them to the included receiver, you’ll be able to use Yamaha’s MusicCast streaming service. This means that, if you have any Yamaha wireless speakers, you can turn your entire home into a multi-room system controlled through a single app. It works well, and we think it deserves a spot on this list.

However, if you don’t plan on listening to music, then you can avoid the YHT-5950U. Essentially, you’ll be paying nearly $150 over the base system for a music streaming service that you may or may not use. We think, to be frank, that you can simply cut your losses and by the Yamaha YHT-4930UBL system, at the very top of our list.
See the Yamaha YHT-5950U
 

16. Pioneer HTP-074 ($430)

Pioneer HTP-074Surround: 5.1
A/V Receiver Included: Yes
Wireless Speakers: No
What We Like: Excellent subwoofer and receiver.
What We Don't: Poor construction, flimsy surround sound.

The Pioneer HTP-074 Is a basic, straightforward system that gives you everything you need for home theater at a very affordable price. What makes this model special is the included subwoofer, which offers more grunt and excitement than we’d expect, and the receiver, which works superbly well. In terms of bass, we actually think it beats similarly priced systems, like the Klipsch HDT-600.

However, it’s this deep on the list for a reason. Whereas the Klipsch HDT-600 ($360) and Yamaha YHT-4930UBL ($460) both feel like budget systems with high-end surround sound, the Pioneer HTP-074 doesn’t really deliver. Not only are the speakers flimsy and plasticky, but the surround sound is a little unconvincing, despite the powerful bass. It’s a good alternative, and great for bassheads, but everyone else can look elsewhere.
See the Pioneer HTP-074
 

17. auna Areal Active 620 ($80)

auna Areal Active 620Surround: 5.1
A/V Receiver Included: No
Wireless Speakers: No
What We Like: One of the few systems worth buying under $100.
What We Don't: Sound quality is uneven.

We’re cautious about recommending any home theater systems under $100, where the construction and sound quality tend to be subpar. The auna Areal Active 620 isn’t going to dethrone anything at the top of our list; for those on a budget, the much better Logitech Z506 should be your first port of call. But if that model isn’t available, or for someone with an incredibly tight budget, the Areal Active 620 is still an excellent alternative. It will give you five surround sound speakers and a subwoofer with more than enough power and energy to fill a small room. There’s even Bluetooth connectivity for music streaming.

At this price range, you shouldn’t expect stellar sound quality. For the most part, the Areal Active 620 performs well, but crank the volume to high, and you’ll risk distortion. We also have to say that the surround sound is unconvincing, and the detail a little lacking. If you can look past these issues, however, you’ll find that the auna Areal Active 620 is a steal.
See the auna Areal Active 620
 

18. Rockville HTS56 ($178)

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 are 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. Ultimately, once you put aside the looks and the volume, there are far better systems in this price range. We strongly recommend buying the Logitech Z506 over this. Even the cheaper auna Areal Active 620 does a better job with audio quality.
See the Rockville HTS56
 

And One Home Theater System to Avoid

19. 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. 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 are 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 RRP** Atmos DTS:X
Yamaha YHT-4930UBL $460 5.1 Yes No Unknown No No
Logitech Z506 $100 5.1 No No Unknown No No
Sonos 5.1 Surround Set $1,399 5.1 N/A Yes N/A No No
VIZIO SB46514-F6 $817 5.1.4 N/A No N/A Yes No
Monoprice 9723 $251 5.1 No No 20-100W No No
Klipsch HDT-600 $400 5.1 No No 20-100W No No
Onkyo HT-S5800 $500 5.1.2 Yes No 10-115W Yes Yes
SVS Prime Satellite 5.1 $1,000 5.1 No No 20-150W No No
ELAC Debut 2.0 5.1 $1,830 5.1 No No 10-160W No No
KEF T305 $700 5.1 No No 10-110W No No
Enclave CineHome HD 5.1 $750 5.1 N/A Yes N/A No No
Aperion Audio Novus 5.0.2 $2,995 5.0.2 No No 20-150W Yes Yes
Sony STR-DN1080 7.2 $1,498 7.2 Yes No Unknown Yes Yes
Q Acoustics 3000i Series 5.1 $1,500 5.1 No No 25-180W No No
Yamaha YHT-5950U $600 5.1 Yes No Unknown No No
Pioneer HTP-074 $430 5.1 Yes No 20-100W No No
auna Areal Active 620 $80 5.1 No No Unknown No No
Rockville HTS56 $178 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 one pick, the Yamaha YHT-4930U, comes bundled with a very capable receiver. At $460 for the package, 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 $1,399, bundles the front right and left speakers, center channel, and the receiver into a single soundbar, which you then connect directly to your TV.

Budget Home Theater speakers | 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 AV 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 ($1,000), 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.

Floorstanding Speakers are essential to a good home theater system | 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. If you’re interested, the speaker system with the widest frequency range is the Onkyo HT-S7800, which runs from 10Hz all the way up to 100kHz. For some reason.

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 by 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

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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.