If you’ve only ever used the built-in speakers on your TV, you don’t know what you’re missing out on. The differences a supplemental sound system can bring to your viewing experience are tremendous.
Seriously, if you watch a lot of TV or movies, a good home audio setup is an investment well worth the money. And thanks to the continuous advances of modern technology, you can get a downright amazing home audio experience for a downright amazing price.
When it comes to sound systems, there are a lot of options. From simple soundbars to eight-speaker setups, there’s something to suit every living room and budget. We’ll walk you through everything you need to know before you make your decision.
Things to Consider When Choosing Your Sound System:
Do I Need a Soundbar or Surround Sound?
When looking at sound systems, the first thing you need to decide is whether you want a soundbar or a surround sound system.
A soundbar is an all-in-one speaker enclosure designed to sit in front of or under your TV. You plug in your source—probably your new 4K TV—and you’re good to go. The only other thing you really need to do is set up your remote. Many soundbars also come with subwoofers, and you can also add satellite speakers to get a taste of that surround-sound life, but none of that is necessary. A soundbar on its own is going to contain everything you need to significantly upgrade the sound coming out of your TV—no wires or extra components required.
Many soundbars advertise “virtual surround sound.” This is intended to mimic the effect of a surround-sound setup without requiring all the speakers and hassle. Does it work? In short—no. While it can add a bit of depth to the sound, the reality is if you want surround sound, you’re going to have to pony up for a real surround sound system.
- AV Receiver: This is the brain of a surround sound setup. The receiver takes your TV’s audio signal, splits it into separate channels, amplifies it enough to drive a bunch of huge speakers, and then routes it to those speakers.
- Subwoofer: Most audio tracks include a channel dedicated specifically to bass reproduction, which is sent through the subwoofer. In short, this is what makes the bombs in your war movie rattle your windows.
- Center Speaker: This speaker channel takes care of most of the dialogue in your movie, and works with the front left and right speakers to create a stereo sound effect. The center speaker anchors the left and right speakers, handling sounds that come from the center of the screen.
- Front Speakers: These work with the center speaker to create a stereo effect. There are two front speakers—left and right. Sounds from the left side of the screen come more from the left speaker, and sounds from the right side of the screen come more from the right.
- Rear Speakers: These are what make the system “surround sound.” They play various sound effects that would be located behind the listener, giving the impression that you’re present in the scene. There are two possible setups: 5.1 channel and 7.1 channel. The 5.1 is older, more common, and uses two rear speakers, for a total of six speakers in the set. The 7.1 uses four rear speakers, for a total of eight, which allows for even more depth.
Which Sound System Is for Me?
This choice does not necessarily come down to budget—you can get a complete surround sound system for much less than some of the pricier soundbars. The decision mainly depends on your preference around ease of use, space, and aesthetics.
A soundbar is going to be much easier to find space for, and you won’t have to worry about routing wires and cluttering your living space with speakers. Soundbars also tend to be pretty much plug and play.
On the other hand, a surround sound system can provide significantly better sound—albeit at the cost of more setup, more clutter, and more components.
What Else Should I Consider in a Sound System?
Once you decide which direction you want to go, you can get into the nitty-gritty features. Let’s look at some of the most important things to consider in a sound system:
Budget: With a component surround sound system, you can prioritize either the AV receiver or the speakers. Go for the speakers. The differences are much less noticeable between cheap and expensive receivers than they are between cheap and expensive speakers.
Connectivity: Check to ensure your soundbar or receiver of choice has enough ports to connect all your gear. Most options also offer some wireless connectivity, such as Bluetooth, which is nice to have for streaming music from your phone.
Tech Advancement: You’ll see a decent number of receivers—including our top pick—mention Dolby Atmos. Atmos is essentially the next generation of surround sound, with sounds routed in front of you, behind you, and also above you. This is an exciting new technology, but it’s still young, so few take advantage of it. Still, to prepare for the future, look for a receiver that can support it.
Our Top Sound System Picks
Best AV Receiver
Amazon Rating (4 / 5)
Our pick for the best receiver overall is the Denon AVR-S720W. This receiver pairs outstanding ease of use and a thorough setup process with excellent output—and does it all at a reasonable price. While you can go more expensive to get even better sound, we feel that your money is better invested in speakers in this case.
The S720W has all the inputs most people will ever need: six HDMI ports, plus Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. It also has built-in support for Apple Airplay, Pandora, Spotify Connect, SiriusXM, and local DLNA streaming. And it’s Dolby Atmos-ready, so if you want to really take your listening up a notch, you can.
Best Speaker System
Q100 Rating (4.8 / 5)
Q200 Rating (4.8 / 5)
Q400b Rating (5 / 5)
Our pick for the best surround sound speakers are the KEF Q Series. The set consists of the Q200c center speaker, the Q400b subwoofer, and the Q100 bookshelf speakers—you’ll need four for a standard 5.1 setup or six for a 7.1 setup. The KEF Q Series stands out due to its unique driver design. These speakers deliver an added clarity over the competition, while the subwoofer provides a surprising amount of bass for its size.
The unique driver design, which the company calls Uni-Q, takes the tweeter (high-frequency driver) to a new position. While the tweeter typically sits above or to the side of the mid- and low-range driver in a speaker, KEF puts it right in the center. This causes all the sound to originate from the same point in space and reach your ear at the same time, contributing to the depth and detail of the sound. The KEF Q series is a little pricey, but if there’s one thing you don’t want to skimp on in your system, it’s speakers.
Amazon Rating (3.8 / 5)
Our pick for the best soundbar is the Paradigm Shift SoundScape. It’s a little expensive at $1,499, but when it comes to home audio, you get what you pay for. This thing is a monster, dishing out fantastic sound in an easy-to-use package. Just plug it into your TV and you’re good to go. The included remote is also user-friendly, and the built-in display is a nice touch.
The SoundScape uses seven speaker drivers to deliver a balanced sound with excellent bass for a soundbar. If you want to add a subwoofer, this soundbar includes a wireless adapter that works with any brand. In terms of connectivity, the SoundScape features Bluetooth for streaming from your phone, plus two digital optical and one digital coax inputs for your TV, Blu-ray player, and other gear. The one flaw here might be the lack of HDMI input, but the digital-audio connections get the job done just fine.
Amazon Rating (3.8 / 5)
If you want big sound on a little budget, the Yamaha YAS-203 soundbar is a clear winner. This is hands down the best soundbar under $500, delivering excellent audio quality with smart features. It even includes a bundled subwoofer to round out the sound. The Yamaha YAS-203 also handles music very well, with a balanced sound that works across a variety of genres. To get that sound into the speakers, the YAS-203 gives you one digital optical input, one digital coaxial input, and one analog audio input, plus Bluetooth connectivity for music streaming.
Other features include a handy IR repeater that will pass your remote’s signal through the soundbar. This is a nice inclusion, since there’s a good chance the relatively tall YAS-203 will block the receiver on your TV.