It doesn't matter how large your TV screen is, or how impressive the resolution. 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 be looking at a home theater system. The market has a good range of options, ranging from 5.1's to 7.1 monsters with a serious presence in your room of choice. No matter what your budget, below you'll find a great home theater system to fit your price range. For more background information on home theater systems, see our comparison tables and buying advice below the picks.
1. ELAC Debut 2.0 5.1 ($1,830) paired with Denon AVR-S740H ($479)
Recommended Amp Power: 10-160W/6Ω
Low Freq: 35Hz
High Freq: 30kHz
What We Like: A stunning upgrade from ELAC, pairs really well with the Denon, offers excellent value.
What We Don't: Not a huge amount for the money.
ELAC continue to impress. You'd think the truly big dogs of home theater - KEF, Klipsch, Paradigm - would be in this top spot. But no: we've decided to award it to ELAC, and that's because for sheer value-for-money, the new Debut 2.0 5.1 system can't be beaten. The unbelievable sound quality you get from the included F6.2 floorstanding speakers and 3010 subwoofer have 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 Onkyo HT-S7800, below - at $899, it's a great system, but it also sounds like a $899 one. Not a problem with the ELAC.
And if you need a receiver, we strongly suggest the Denon AVR-S740H. It's a top-five contender, and although it offers a few more channels than you need for the ELAC system, at 7.2, that's no bad thing; it means easy upgrading later. And they pair spectacularly well, with the Denon's grunt bringing out the very best in the ELAC speakers. It takes something truly special for a 5.1 combo to make it to the top, but this particular system does it. For most people, it's the best home theater system you can get.
See the ELAC Debut 2.0 5.1 See the Denon AVR-S740H
A Close Second
Recommended Amp Power: 25-150W/6Ω
Low Freq: 28Hz
High Freq: 20kHz
What We Like: Great price, all-in-one setup.
What We Don't: Doesn’t do anything dramatically different to other models in this range.
The HT-S3910 is the latest home-theater-in-a-box from Onkyo. These packages can sometimes be a bit dreary, but after extensive testing with this one, we think it offers some of the best value available. Admittedly, it’s not especially dramatic or innovative – it’s a simple 5.1 system - but it’s one of the best 5.1 systems at this price. If you’re looking for something a little more high-class, then the ELAC/Denon combination above is the one we’d recommend. But for under $1,000, we think this package is one of the most competent systems available. The Monitor Audio MASS Surround Sound ($950) Arguably offers better audio quality, but it’s also a little tricky to find.
As a 5.1 system, the HT-S3910 does not offer Dolby Atmos – you need height speakers for that. It does however offer DTS:X, and also comes with Dolby Atmos Height Virtualiser tech, which is capable of upscaling non-Dolby sources. The sound quality is punchy and exciting, and elements like dialogue really shine through. If you want innovation, you should look elsewhere, but this is a superb second option.
See the Onkyo HT-S3910
Best Budget Home Theater System
Recommended Amp Power: Unknown
Low Freq: 20Hz
High Freq: 20kHz
What We Like: The perfect small system if you're on a budget, easy to set up and use.
What We Don't: Sound quality is outclassed by other models.
Here's the dirty secret that home theater manufacturers won't tell you. Updates to systems are often incremental, and it means that some systems can stick around for years, and still be worth your time. With that in mind, we think the Yamaha YHT-4930UBL is the best system for your budget. Yes, it may be a couple of years old now, but if it comes to picking between this system and a newer one that offers a few basic upgrades for a steeper price tag, we know which one we'll go for. This was our office testing setup for a long time, and although we have upgraded since, it still holds a spot in our hearts. If you have a small room, a tight budget, or you're just getting started, then this is the ideal way to go.
Despite our fondness, we have to admit that the sound of the YHT-4930UBL isn't perfect. Compared to pricier models, like the Onkyo HT-S7800, it has a way to go. The YHT-4930UBL tends to distort if pushed to the limits, and although we love the surround sound, the detail isn't quite as good as we'd expect. But for under $500, you get an competent HTIB that delivers everything you could need for a base system. If you're looking for something a little ritzier, we suggest the ELAC/Denon combo or the Onkyo package.
See the Yamaha YHT-4930UBL
Best High-End Home Theater System
4. Aperion Verus III Grand Tower Surround 10D ($5,394) paired with the NAD T 777 V3 ($2,499)
Recommended Amp Power: Unknown
Low Freq: Unknown
High Freq: Unknown
What We Like: An excellent combination, with some of the best speakers around.
What We Don't: Very light on stats, making customization tricky.
Aperion make some incredible gear. Their new Verus III Grand Tower Surround 10D is the newest generation of the Verus series, and it's a bruiser - albeit an expensive one. The speakers you get from the American company are just out of this world, with hefty cabinets and beefy, rich audio quality that will satisfy all but the most hard-core of audiophiles. While we don't really approve of the lack of specifications available on the company's website, which can make swapping out receivers a little bit tricky, we do love the speaker set – and the company offers several cheaper ones, if you want to experiment.
It was hard to find a receiver to pair with this, but we decided to go with the NAD T 777 V3. It's a grunting beast of a receiver that really kicks the Verus speakers up the backside, and we think it's a superb match. It also delivers modular design, an unusual idea whereby you can swap cards in and out to increase the number of channels, and to add new surround sound codecs when they become available.
See the Aperion Verus III Grand Tower Surround 10D See the NAD T 777
Best Soundbar Home Theater System (and Best Wireless Home Theater System)
Recommended Amp Power: N/A
Low Freq: 40Hz
High Freq: 20kHz
What We Like: Unbelievable convenience, killer sound for the price, Dolby Atmos support.
What We Don't: Soundstage and spacing needs some work.
VIZIO's SB36512-F6 soundbar system is killer. If you're in the market for a wireless home theater system, or one that relies on a simple sound bar solution for the front speakers, then this is the solution to go for. It's much less expensive than the Sonos 5.1 soundbar system, below, and offers support for Dolby Atmos sound - a crucial element missing from the Sonos system. That's one of the main reasons we chose VIZIO over Sonos for this category, along with the much more reasonable price.
By the way, if you're wondering about the two height channels needed for Atmos, they are cleverly located inside the soundbar itself. It would be wrong to say that the VIZIO SB36512-F6 is the best Atmos system on this list. Compared to other Atmos-compatible systems, like ELAC/Denon combo at number one, it can't compete. The SB36512-F6 doesn't have the spacing and realism in the sound that we prefer, but we still think it's a great soundbar-based, wireless system. By the way, here's a quick primer on how VIZIO's seemingly complicated product names work. VIZIO also offer a more powerful setup, the SB36512-F6, which goes for $999.
See the VIZIO SB36512-F6
Best Home Theater System for Gaming
Recommended Amp Power: N/A
Low Freq: 50Hz
High Freq: 20kHz
What We Like: Good close-range sound quality, insane value, Bluetooth functionality.
What We Don't: Not suitable for anything but gaming.
Thought we'd forget about gaming? Not a chance. At the moment, if you're looking for surround sound for your gaming rig, then Logitech are the ones to trust. Their brand-new Z606 5.1 system is ideal for close-range surround audio, allowing you to become fully immersed in your games. The Bluetooth-equipped system is loud as hell, with 80 watts of RMS power and 160 watts of peak power. Compare that to 100 watts RMS for the much more expensive Yamaha YHT-4930UBL. For the price of the Z606, the sound quality is more than adequate. It's warm and engaging, but does lack some detail. However, we love the Bluetooth functionality - a huge plus, and something that many gaming surround systems don't include.
If you plan to use this setup for movies or in a larger space, there are much better options available – like the aforementioned Yamaha. The Z606 requires six different RCA inputs for true surround sound. This isn't an issue for PCs, but becomes a real pain if your source is a console or Blu-ray player. Connections aside, the Z606 is an insanely affordable option if you want surround audio for your gaming. And while it won't trouble the big dogs on this list, it's an easy top-ten pick, and winner in this category.
See the Logitech Z606 5.1
Best of the Rest
7. SVS Prime Satellite 5.1 ($1,000) paired with the Denon AVR-S740H ($429)
Recommended Amp Power: 20-150W/8Ω
Low Freq: 24Hz
High Freq: 25kHz
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 which system we'd choose to test our gear, it was this one. For quality sound, manageability, and experience, the SVS Satellite 5.1 was the top choice. You could argue that SVS's other systems, like their Prime Tower 5.1, offer more energy. But the pint-size nature of the Satellite system, coupled with its great sound, made it a winner.
The Denon is an easy choice to pair, too. It offers great value, with solid sound and decent functionality. Testing the system revealed a cohesion that others lacked, and it's a setup we're proud to endorse. It's not just for us, either: this is the perfect system for smaller rooms and smaller budgets, and is an excellent choice if you're looking for an upgrade. The ELAC system, above, is better in terms of sound quality, but it's also more expensive, and this is an excellent alternative.
See the SVS Prime Satellite 5.1 See the Denon AVR-S740H
Recommended Amp Power: N/A
Low Freq: 25Hz
High Freq: 20kHz
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 - finally Sonos 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 Paradigm/Onkyo combo, below. In addition, the 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.
Despite our enthusiasm, the Sonos 5.1 Surround Set simply can't compete with the VIZIO SB36512-F6 system, above. Unlike the VIZIO, 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. Even if you went for the much larger 46" VIZIO soundbar package, you'd still be paying less, as that package retails for $999. The Sonos 5.1 Surround Set is a good second option, and definitely has its merits, but it's beaten out on a few key points that couldn't keep it in our top five.
See the Sonos 5.1 Surround Set
9. Monitor Audio MASS Surround Sound ($950) paired with the Onkyo TX-NR686 ($490)
Recommended Amp Power: 25-100W/8Ω
Low Freq: 35Hz
High Freq: 34kHz
What We Like: We love the design and rich sound quality.
What We Don't: Probably a little expensive for what you get, center channel is a bit weak.
Monitor Audio have been a fixture on this list for some time, as well as others on this site. They make splendid equipment, and the new MASS Surround Sound is no exception. The fabric covered speakers look superb, reminiscent of high-end bookshelf speakers like the KEF LSX. The system ships with included stands, and comes with a very capable subwoofer. While it is only 5.1, it’s a fantastic system for small rooms.
Unfortunately, $950 is quite a bit to pay for the MASS Surround Sound. It’s not that the system is poor quality, but it doesn’t quite reach the heights of something like the SVS Prime Satellite 5.1. This is especially true in the center channel, where it is clear that the satellite speaker doesn’t have the grunt of a similar model in the SVS range. Don’t get us wrong, it still sounds great overall – and it sounds even better when paired with a good receiver like the Onkyo TX-NR686. This receiver has 7.2 channels and full Dolby Atmos compatibility, meaning it easy to upgrade later if you want to. Together, this combo certainly holds its own with comparable systems like the Paradigm Cinema 100 CT
See the Monitor Audio MASS Surround Sound See the Onkyo TX-NR686
10. Q Acoustics 3000i Series 5.1 ($1,500) paired with the Onkyo TX-NR787 ($799)
Recommended Amp Power: 25-180W/6Ω
Low Freq: 35Hz
High Freq: 30kHz
What We Like: One of the best systems for audio detail.
What We Don't: We'd suggest using a different subwoofer that 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. The Onkyo TX-NR787 receiver is more than enough to make them sing, offering everything you could possibly need to create a killer home theater setup.
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 - 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 See the Onkyo TX-NR787
11. KEF T305 ($1,700) paired with the Yamaha RX-A880 Aventage ($900)
Recommended Amp Power: 10-110W/8Ω
Low Freq: 30Hz
High Freq: 30kHz
What We Like: Great 5.1 sound, absolutely stunning value for money.
What We Don’t: Not a huge amount for the money.
This was previously at number one on this list, but it's become tricky to find - a shame, for it's fantastic. KEF and Yamaha make a great combination, and for most people, this is all the home theater you'll ever need - unless you have a massive room! And: it's proof that you don't always need a four-figure receiver to make speakers sing.
While the Q Acoustics / Onkyo combo, above, arguably offers even more value for money, this is a stunning deal which gives you some of the best audio quality around for a very good price. The audio quality is excellent, and while it would have been nice to get the option to expand upwards natively, it's not a dealbreaker. KEF's speakers and Yamaha's circuitry make for great partners. The A880 Aventage is one of Yamaha's flagships, and a moderate improvement on the old A870. By the way, it's worth mentioning that another receiver, now discontinued, previously held this spot: the Cambridge Audio CXR200. If you can find one, it too makes a great pairing with the T305.
See the KEF T305 See the Yamaha RX-A880 Aventage
Recommended Amp Power: N/A
Low Freq: 20Hz
High Freq: 20kHz
What We Like: Great wireless sound, super convenient.
What We Don't: The sound quality can't compete with wired systems.
The Axiim 5.1 WM Series is the company's best system, and a huge leap from the Q HD 5.1 (previously on this list). There's also a 7.1 system available, but we believe it's way too pricey for what's included. While other wired systems have the 5.1 WM Series beaten, by offering better sound for a fractionally-more-expensive price tag, this system still manages to be among the best. The Axiim 5.1 WM Series offers unbelievable wireless audio, quite happy competing with more expensive systems. It also offers full 4K functionality, and an absolutely gorgeous receiver/central unit that kicks some of the bigger names into the dirt. While you will need to plug each individual speaker into a wall outlet, there's no better way, right now, to introduce cable free home theater into your life. Do check this out: it's spectacular.
Be aware, wired systems – like the Fluance/Denon combo, elsewhere on this list – can be cheaper, while offering sound that is a little bit better. If you want a more affordable wireless system, we'd recommend checking out the Sonos or VIZIO systems, above.
See the Axiim 5.1 WM Series
13. MartinLogan Motion 7.1 Ultimate ($7,095) paired with the Anthem MRX 1120 ($3,599)
Recommended Amp Power: 20-440W/4Ω
Low Freq: 20Hz
High Freq: 25kHz
What We Like: Splendid pairing.
What We Don’t: We prefer the KEF and Klipsch setups.
MartinLogan and Anthem a part of the same group of companies, so it's no surprise they pair well together. We adore the Anthem MRX 1120 receiver, which recently placed highly on our list of the best A/V receivers available, and paired with a dedicated mix of MartinLogan speakers, it results in one of the best sound signatures in home theater: deep, rich, with a thundering low-end that will reach right into your stomach and give it a good old shake.
It must be said that we do prefer other models over this pairing, including the Aperion / NAD combo, which costs quite a bit more but is also definably superior. However, if you have a little less to spend but still desire elite quality, this is unquestionably a top pairing, with just about every possible option you could want, able to equip rooms up to 9.2 surround sound. Expect this tag team to dominate for years to come.
See the MartinLogan Motion 7.1 Ultimate See the Anthem MRX 1120
14. Fluance Reference Series 7.1 ($1,225) paired with the Denon AVR-X4500H ($1,599)
Recommended Amp Power: 25-200W/8Ω
Low Freq: 40Hz
High Freq: 20kHz
What We Like: Looks great, sounds terrific.
What We Don't: Included subwoofer isn't as impressive as it should be.
This isn't one for bassheads. Sure, it'll do very well - the DB12 subwoofer sounds decent enough. But it never feels like the bass extends far enough. Compared to packages from SVS and ELAC, above, the Reference Series feels a little lacking in the low-end. Explosions don't punch quite as hard as they should, and it's less meaty than it ought to be. To qualify: this is an excellent package, and Fluance know their stuff. It's just not quite as good as the others.
It definitely helps if you pair the Reference Series with a solid receiver, like the Denon AVR-X4500H. They work well together, bringing out the best in one another. There's a good reason why the Denon is, at the time of writing, top of our list for best receivers. It'll stay there, unless another company comes up with a receiver that makes you breakfast, or something. The AVR-X4500H has dynamism and weight, as well as pinpoint timing to accentuate sounds in the mix, even when there's a lot going on. For under $3,000, this is a stellar combination. One word of caution: Fluance recently released a new line of speakers called the Signature Series - although there's no word of a 7.1 or 5.1 package just yet. There is a Signature Series 5.0 package, but for now, the Reference Series 7.1 is still the top choice.
See the Fluance Reference Series 7.1 See the Denon AVR-X4500H
15. Paradigm Cinema 100 CT ($699) paired with the Onkyo TX-NR787 ($799)
Recommended Amp Power: 15-100W/8Ω
Low Freq: 32Hz
High Freq: 20kHz
What We Like: Solid sound.
What We Don’t: Paradigm don’t offer huge bang-for-buck, in terms of HTIBs.
You might reasonably wonder why Paradigm don't feature higher on this list. After all, they are among the most storied speaker makers ever, with some fantastic models. What they don't do, in most cases, is offer complete speaker packages. If we were putting together a system from individual components, we would absolutely consider them. But in terms of this list, we have to take into account their existing package options, and while the Cinema 100 CT is good, other packages on this list offer more value for money.
We think the best pairing for this – one of the best – is the Onkyo TX-NR787. It's a workmanlike machine, in terms of features, but it does give you good sound when paired with this particular speaker system, and absolutely gets the job done. We really can't stress just how much respect we have for Paradigm, but in terms of single packages, this wouldn't be our first choice over something like the ELAC/Denon combo, above.
See the Paradigm Cinema 100 CT See the Onkyo TX-NR787
Recommended Amp Power: 30-150W/8Ω
Low Freq: Unknown
High Freq: Unknown
What We Like: Value-for-money.
What We Don't: Sounds like it costs.
This basic 5.1 system from the folks at Yamaha is still a very solid budget buy, offering a complete system in the box, and allowing you to spec up your home theater just how you like it. It doesn't offer anything hugely special - certainly when compared to something even a little bit more expensive, like the Onkyo HT-S8700, but it does bring quite a bit to the table.
The sound is decent, if unspectacular, and is perfect for small rooms. You get Bluetooth, an Eco mode, full 4K HDMI pass-through, and decent usability. As home theater systems go, it's fairly anonymous, unfortunately, with off-the-shelf components - but there's nothing to say it won't make the perfect entry-level system. There are plenty of options if you want to for separates, by the way: try the Yamaha NS-SP1800 5.1 system, or the Sony TRDH550 receiver. Get those two together, and you're still well under $500.
See the Pioneer HTP-074 5.1
17. Monoprice 10565 ($234) paired with the Pioneer VSX-934 ($479)
Recommended Amp Power: 20-100W/8Ω
Low Freq: 110Hz
High Freq: 30kHz
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 10565 is a slightly older system that has proven to be a keeper. It definitely doesn't have the low-end thump and punch that other systems do – its subwoofer only goes down to 100Hz. That's still relatively high, especially when compared to the 50Hz bottom line of the cheaper Logitech Z606 5.1. However, the included speakers offer decent detail and a no-frills attitude, making it an excellent choice for those on a budget.
The new Pioneer VSX-934 is an excellent foil for the inexpensive Monoprice speaker set. Mono price and Pioneer have always played well together – our previous pick was the old VSX-532 – and this upgraded version is no exception. Like the receiver on the Onkyo HT-S3910 package, you get Dolby Atmos Height Virtualiser, which is great for expanding the perception of surround sound. For under $800, this is a superb combo.
See the Monoprice 10565 See the Pioneer VSX-934
And One Home Theater System to Avoid
Recommended Amp Power: Unknown
Low Freq: Unknown
High Freq: Unknown
What We Like: Bose ADAPTiQ room calibration isn't bad.
What We Don't: Everything else is pretty bad.
To be honest, we don't have a problem with Bose. They 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, every other comparably-priced system on here completely smokes them.
Let's look at the Lifestyle 650 objectively. It's their 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. And don't get us started on the price: the Lifestyle 650 system costs a staggering $4,000. For less money, you could buy the Fluance Reference Series 7.1 plus the amazing Denon AVR-X4500H receiver, and get virtually all the features you could ever need. The only thing missing from that pairing would be wireless functionality, but you could always spring for the $3,499 Axiim system, which allows for the later addition of more channels, sounds way better, and costs less. 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
New Home Theater Systems Coming Soon
This year is likely to be a big one for home theater systems, and it has nothing to do with 8K TVs. The audio side is getting some serious attention too, and there are a couple of big announcements we'll be keeping our eye on. Klipsch - already on this list with their stellar Black Reference Theater Pack 5.1 - are getting back into the wireless game. Their upcoming Klipsch Reference Wireless system is set to solve all the issues they had with their previous wireless speakers, and make it easy to create a convenient surround sound package. You'll have to plug each speaker into a power source, of course, but WiSA-powered technology will make it easy for the speakers to connect to each other and communicate with your receiver. We're really excited to hear this system and will update with our full thoughts as soon as we do.
Were also intrigued as to whether ELAC will make a home theater system out of their new Carina line. It boasts some fantastic speaker technology, including Air Motion Tweeters, and we love to see them do a full range of home theater setups as they’ve done with their Debut line, currently top of this list. Watch this space for updates.
First we'll do the specs for the complete speaker systems. The Lowest Freq. and Highest Freq. stats indicate how low and how high the complete system can go. RAP stands for - you guessed it - Recommended Amp Power. We explain that in more detail in the Buying Advice below.
|ELAC Debut 2.0 5.1||$1,830||5.1||10-160W/6Ω||35Hz||30kHz|
|Aperion Verus III Grand Tower||$5,394||7.1||Unknown||Unknown||Unknown|
|Logitech Z606 5.1||$129||5.1||N/A||50Hz||20kHz|
|SVS Prime Satellite 5.1||$1,000||5.1||20-150W/8Ω||24Hz||25kHz|
|Sonos 5.1 Surround Set||$1,299||5.1||N/A||25Hz||20kHz|
|Monitor Audio MASS||$950||5.1||25-100W/8Ω||35Hz||34kHz|
|Q Acoustics 3000i Series 5.1||$1,500||5.1||25-180W/8Ω||35Hz||20kHz|
|Axiim 5.1 WM Series||$3,499||5.1||N/A||20Hz||20kHz|
|MartinLogan Motion 7.1 Ultimate||$7,095||7.1||20-440W/8Ω||20Hz||25kHz|
|Fluance Reference Series 7.1||$1,225||7.1||25-200W/8Ω||40Hz||20kHz|
|Paradigm Cinema 100 CT||$699||5.1||15-100W/8Ω||32Hz||20kHz|
|Pioneer HTP-074 5.1||$449||5.1||30-150W/8Ω||Unknown||Unknown|
|Bose Lifestyle 650||$3,999||5.1||Unknown||Unknown||Unknown|
And now for the recommended receivers. Watt. refers to Wattage, or power output, and Conn. refers to connectivity - Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. If the receiver is included in the package, you'll see an Inc. in the Price column. Also of note: we don't list our soundbar or wireless systems here, or any systems powered by a PC.
|Denon AVR-S740H||$479||7.2||Dolby Atmos, DTS:X||75W/8Ω||Blue./WiFi|
|Onkyo HT-S7800||Inc.||7.2||Dolby Atmos, DTS:X||100W/8Ω||Blue./WiFi|
|Yamaha YHT-4930UBL||Inc.||7.2||Dolby True HD, DTS HD||100W/8Ω||Bluetooth|
|NAD T 777 V3||$2,499||9.2/11.2||Dolby Atmos||160W/8Ω||Blue./WiFi|
|Onkyo TX-NR686||$490||7.2||Dolby Atmos, DTS:X||100W/8Ω||Blue./WiFi|
|Onkyo TX-NR787||$799||9.2/11.2||Dolby Atmos, DTS:X||100W/8Ω||Blue./WiFi|
|Yamaha RX-A880 Aventage||$900||7.2||Dolby Atmos, DTS:X||100W/6Ω||Blue./WiFi|
|Anthem MRX 1120||$3,599||11.2||Dolby Atmos, DTS:X||140W/8Ω||Wi-Fi|
|Denon AVR-X4500H||$1,599||9.2||Dolby Atmos, DTS:X||130W/8Ω||Blue./WiFi|
|Pioneer HTP-074 5.1||Inc.||5.1||Dolby True HD, DTS HD||100W/6Ω||Bluetooth|
|Pioneer VSX-934||$479||7.2||Dolby Atmos, DTS:X||100W/8Ω||Blue./WiFi|
|Bose Lifestyle 650||Inc.||5.1||Dolby Digital Plus, DTS HD||Unknown||Bluetooth|
- Which Home Theater System Is Best For Me?
- 5.1 vs. 7.1 vs. 9.2
- Dolby, DTS:X and Auro-3D: Surround Formats Explained
- Other Surround Sound Formats Explained: Dolby TrueHD vs. Dolby Digital Plus vs. DTS: Neural X
- Connecting Your Home Theater System
- Frequency and Crossover Explained
- Wattage and Speaker Matching
- 3D and 4K Explained
- Additional Home Theater System Equipment to Buy
- Building a Home Theater System From Individual Components
A home theater system combines speakers, amplifiers, subwoofers and A/V receivers into one complete package. All you'll need is a TV, and you'll be good to go. You'll also need a video source, such as a Blu-ray player or gaming console. When we talk about the 'kind' of home theater system you want to buy, it's largely a question of how many speakers you have, and how many features you require. While there is some correlation with price, in the sense that more money will give you more options, this isn't always the case. We are going to lay out the individual elements of a home theater system in the sections below, but it's worth talking about the big, guiding questions you should have in mind when making your choice. This is, after all, quite a substantial purchase, and it's worth having a look at the big picture first.
Let's assume for the moment that you're not going to expend a huge amount of effort and energy picking out individual speakers for each part of the room - fun, but total overkill for most people. You want to buy a complete speaker system, sometimes known as a HTIB (Home Theater In a Box). Any of the models on this list should give you absolutely everything you need to produce high-quality sound. No question of that. But you need to think about what you're going to use it for. Choosing the right system is a decision you'll have to make based not only on the price or even the size of your room. It's worth bearing in mind the question of what you are going to be using the system to listen to. Are you going to be blasting dance music through it? Orchestral stuff? Or perhaps you're hooking up specifically so you can binge on The Crown or Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D? Maybe even an enormous, explosive action movie? A bigger system will lend itself more to movie watching, and if that's what you're going to be using it for, it's worth spending a little bit extra. If you plan to use it as a music system in addition to this, then it may be worth considering slightly fewer speakers, as you're simply not going to be getting a musical advantage out of more than about five speakers.
In addition, take a look at the receiver. This is the box that not only routes your individual video and audio signals to the right places, but also generates the power for your speakers. Even cheap receivers will have a staggering number of features, including the ability to play 4K video, as well as multiple inputs and outputs. Make sure you aren't paying for features you aren't going to use! If you know you are unlikely to expand beyond, say, 5.1 – which we will explain a little more detail below – then there's no point paying more for a receiver that offers the ability to expand up to 11.2 and beyond. You're better off spending more money on your speakers!
These terms refer to different types of surround sound technology, and the number of speakers in a given system. More importantly, they refer to channels. They could have two, five or seven (sometimes even nine or eleven) channels, which means two, five, or seven speakers. The .1 (or .2, or .4!) refers to a subwoofer present in the system. Such a setup will have a dedicated speaker designed to push out bass frequencies. It's usually squat and boxy, and is designed to be placed at floor level, where the effect will be the strongest. 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.
Like Tetris, channels are simple to grasp, but tricky to master. Which do you go for? Do you leave yourself the ability to expand later? Obviously, the more speakers you have, the more likely you are to get deeper and more accurate surround sound, but you also have to be aware but adding more speakers to a system increases the amount of effort you will need to spend, as well as the amount of time you'll spend installing speakers and connecting speaker wire! 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. Once you start putting speakers above your head – moving things into 9.1 or 11.1 territory – you need to start considering whether you can actually drill into the walls, or how much effort you're prepared to put in to mount things. Something like the Aperion / NAD is ideal for this, not only because you get world changing sound, but because it gives you the ability to expand later on. You may also see terminology like 7.2.4, which is functionally the same as 11.2 – in other words, seven floor speakers, four height speakers, and two subwoofers. That's one mother of a system!
Surround sound can be quite confusing. It's a world of bizarre acronyms and obscure jargon, and if you're not hip with the lingo, understanding it can be frustrating. Fortunately, we're here to save the day. Like Superman. But only if Superman was an audio geek writing this in a darkened office while stuffing his face with Doritos. Anyway…surround sound is made possible by more than just the number of speakers in a particular setup. You still need to tell the individual speakers which parts of the audio to play, and that's where the surround sound codec comes in. This is a piece of software that acts as air traffic control, separating the signal into discrete parts, sending it to the right places, and producing an effect which will blow your mind. There are three main codecs you need to know about - although they all have their individual variations and flavors. Trust us, there are way too many to detail here!
Dolby Atmos Surround Sound
Dolby Digital is a name that pops up in many scenarios. 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'. There's a catch, of course: 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, for example, 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.
DTS:X Surround Sound
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 Fluance Reference Series 7.1 ($1,225), and still enjoy the result.
Auro-3D Surround Sound
It's also worth mentioning Auro-3D. This is quite a rare codec, and is best suited to enormous rooms with space for multiple speakers, including several in the ceiling. It's not too popular yet, but while several receivers offer this functionality, you will almost always need to pay for the upgrade. An example of a receiver with Auro-3D built-in is the Denon AVR-X4500H. Of course, if you have the space to go for Auro-3D, chances are this is pocket change to you!
It can often be a real challenge to navigate through the thicket of Dolbys and DTSs and True HDs and Neural Xs and whatever other surround sound programs a particular receiver offers. Often, there is no explanation given on manufacturer webpages, so it's up to you to figure out what they all mean, and which ones you can use. Fortunately, we're here to help. We've already dealt with the three main surround sound programs in the section above - Dolby Atmos, DTS:X, and Auro-3D. What we're going to do now is give a very brief explanation of some of the other types you'll encounter. As there are quite literally dozens of them, we won't break down some of the more obscure ones. But there are a few but you'll see cropping up over and over, and we think we can demystify what they mean.
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 DTS-HD Master Audio or Dolby TrueHD. These essentially do the same thing either a DTS or Dolby source, taking the material and outputting 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 very good sound. What is 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.
Another one you'll often see: DTS Neural:X. This is a fascinating bit of digital wizardry from DTS, and essentially, it allows you to take a source that doesn't have any height information – say, 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 a little bit of thinking to wrap your head around, but it's still super-useful to have. There are many, 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.
Now this is a topic! We could spend a lot of time talking through the individual connections, elements, and multitude of cables you might encounter while connecting your home theater system up. It’s not that it’s difficult. It’s just that there are a staggering number of individual components available – even the ones on this list, which at least are in the same product categories, vary wildly – and it’s impossible for us to Go through every single scenario. However, we can do a quick rundown of the basics, talking about the most common cables you will need.
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.
The other one to worry about is speaker wire. Very obviously, this connects your receiver to your speakers. For each speaker, you need to connections: positive (red) and negative (black). You will usually have two binding posts on the back of each speaker, and once you strip the wire from your cables, all you have to do is insert the exposed metal strands, and screw the binding posts down, doing the same on the back of your receiver – and making 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! 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.
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. Using the above example, you could quite comfortably set the crossover of the Def Tech subwoofer at 16Hz, although most systems are likely to be from around 20-40Hz. Setting the crossover is important in getting the best bass, so take some time to fine-tune it.
Good news! If you go for any of the packages in the list above, you won’t need to worry about this. They are all matched really well, and you shouldn’t have to do any squinting at spec sheets to see if you’re going to blow your speakers through the roof. We are kidding – it’s actually quite hard to do that. And it’s always good to know how to pair speakers and amplifiers, so here’s a very short summary. If you’d like something with a little bit more detail, you should check out our full explainer.
Essentially, every set of speakers will come with the recommended range of amplifier power. The ELAC Debut 2.0 5.1 for example, recommends you have an amplifier that generates power of between 10 and 160 watts. A perfectly matched amplifier will have a power range that neatly slots into this bracket. You don’t necessarily need to worry about having an overpowered amplifier. Even if you have an amp that generated 300 watts, you will almost certainly never be delivering this amount of power to your speakers unless you really, really crank it. It’s far more important to make sure that you have enough power, rather than too much – in the above example, that means more than 20 watts. If you can’t deliver enough power to your speakers, things can go very wrong indeed. Fortunately, with modern systems, this is quite hard to do.
In our comparison table, you will also see the symbol Ω. This refers to ohms, or electrical resistance, and it’s the second part of the equation. Every recommended amp rating will be at a certain level of electrical resistance – in the case of the ELAC Debut, it’s at 6Ω, which is a standard rating for most modern speakers. If you’d like more details, check out the explainer above, but as long as the amplifier output is equal to or less than the impedance rating of the speakers, you should be okay.
3D is a term that probably doesn’t need a lot of explaining. You’ll see it in every overpriced movie you watch at your local theater, and you’ll also see it in a lot of home content, too. To take advantage of 3D films and series, you will need a receiver that allows you to encode for it. Obviously, you’ll also need a film that was actually made in 3D, but that’s a separate matter entirely. The good news is, most modern receivers are setup for this, and as long as your TV can handle it too, you shouldn’t need to do much to actually get it going.
4K is a trickier beast. It refers to a type of visual protocol which is ultra-high detail, with an absolutely staggering number of pixels on the screen. It used to be that this was very uncommon, with only a few TVs and receivers set up to handle it. While almost all current models can do it now, the problem is that there just isn’t enough content to take advantage of it. This is something that is likely to change in the future, but the good news is you don’t need to worry about future proofing too much right now, as most receivers and TVs can handle it.
It's not just about speakers and receivers. If you have the money to spend, there are a few things you can buy to further improve your home theater experience. Let's break down a couple of the items available.
Home theater nerds absolutely swear by what they call clean power, which is essentially electricity without any voltage spikes or voltage drops, which can sometimes impact the sound. There is a debate about how much of an impact this is likely to have. It's only useful in very high-end components, and in almost all cases, an effect that ranges from subtle to inaudible. If you're interested in testing it out, you should take a look at power supplies from names like Furman. It's worth noting, however, that unless you have a very high-end system, you're probably better off spending your money elsewhere.
In most cases, you shouldn't need to buy your room calibration separately – it often comes with the receiver, in the form of a microphone that you place in your listening position. Your receiver plays varying tones through your speakers, which are picked up by the microphone after being bounced around the room, and the receiver adjusts the sound accordingly. The $479 Denon AVR-S740H, mentioned above, has some excellent room calibration.
If you’re interested in getting the best of the best, we recommend the upcoming Anthem ARC Genesis software, which should be rolling out to various A/V receivers as we speak. It not only offers automatic and nearly flawless room customization, but allows you extensive personalization - if that’s your thing. We have more information on room calibration contained in our guide to buying A/V receivers.
The final element to take into account, which is especially useful if you're serious about your home theater setup, is acoustic proofing. Essentially, this takes the form of soft foam, fabric, or canvas panels placed in key positions around your room. These have the effect of absorbing sound waves, instead of reflecting them back, which means less muddying of the sound, and a clearer result. The actual science of acoustic proofing is a bit too weighty to explain here, but if you're thinking of trying it out, you might want to look at products similar to this ATS panel set.
Let’s have some fun. One of the things we couldn’t do on this list is actually build each individual entry from multiple components. It would simply make things too long, and too unwieldy. Reluctantly, we had to go for complete systems, but you can still have a huge amount of fun – and spend a ton of money – building your ideal home theater system from individual components. That’s what we’re going to do here. It’s not only a fun exercise, but is a useful primer in how to get started if you really do want to go down this route. For the sake of argument, let’s give ourselves a budget: $20,000. Yes, it's way, way more than most people will spend, but what's the point in a thought experiment if you can't have a little fun? In any case, the point is to show how to build a system from complimentary components. Also it's our thought experiment, so we're in charge. We’ll use this imaginary money to complete an 11.2 system, consisting of a receiver, two front speakers, a center speaker, four surround speakers, four height speakers, and a subwoofer.
Let’s start with the receiver. We could, technically, buy individual pre and power amps – both of which are needed, and both of which are always contained in an individual receiver – but that would almost certainly torpedo our budget, as these components can be expensive. We’re putting together separate roundups of the best available on the market right now, but until we finish those, we’re going to stick to a simple A/V receiver. We need something that can handle at least 11.2 channels, with the ability to deliver Dolby Atmos (we do have height speakers, after all!) Let’s go for the Anthem MRX 1120 ($3,599), which we have a real soft spot for.
Now: the two front speakers, which really do need to be floorstanding/tower models. It’s a tough call, but we are going to go for a pair of KEF R500s ($2,600 for the pair). As an alternative, we might look at speakers from MartinLogan, SVS or Paradigm, all of which are excellent.
In fact, you know what? Paradigm make such terrific individual components that there’s no reason we shouldn’t invest in a few of them. Let’s make a center channel out of the Prestige 55C ($1,480), and buy four Prestige 25S speakers ($880 each) as side and rear surrounds. These offer multiple drivers on each speaker, delivering a huge amount of bang for buck, and the fact that they come from the same manufacturer means they'll compliment each other nicely.
Height speakers? No question in our mind. We’ll go for the SVS Prime Elevations - four please, at $400 a pair. These terrific height speakers are hugely versatile. We actually did a full review on them a while back, which you can read here. And finally, the subwoofer - or rather, two of them. We’ll stick with SVS, and go for the absolutely monstrous 1,500 watt PB16-Ultra ($2,500 each). That’ll shake your damn tree.
So that’s eleven speakers, and two subs. They are all individually fantastic, and they all complement each other, delivering unbelievable audio quality. They fulfill our requirements exactly. Divide the seven, carry the three…our total is $20,499. Boom! And it’s perfectly possible to mix-and-match individual components at a fraction of the cost, so definitely don’t let that stop you!
Oh, wait, we didn't include delivery. Oh well.