If you’re ready to spend some money on a multi-speaker home theater system, make sure you choose the right one. Home theater can be a confusing topic, but luckily, we can help you navigate through it. Here, we’ve broken down the key steps for selecting a home theater system, from surround sound and wireless systems to subwoofers, accessories, and more. For our top picks, see our article on the best home theater systems.
1. 5.1 versus 7.1
The first decision you’ll have to make when choosing a home theater system is deceptively simple: how many speakers do you want? Since home theater is all about surround sound, you’ll need at least a few speakers – but how many?
Aperion Audio Novus home theater system
There are basically two main types of home theater setup. The first is known as 5.1-as-in, five speakers and a subwoofer. This typical set of low-cost systems consists of three front speakers (left, right, center) and two surround speakers that can be placed on the sides of the couch or on the back. The 7.1 system, which will obviously cost more, uses seven speakers – three on the front and four surround speakers. These extra speakers can be placed to the sides and back of the listening position, but it’s also possible to incorporate the height speakers into a 7.1 setup for a much more immersive surround sound experience. More on that below.
Basically, whether you choose 5.1 or 7.1 depends a lot on the size of your room. A larger room – over 200 square feet in size – is likely to accommodate a 7.1 system, while a smaller room will be better with fewer speakers. Of course, your choice will be influenced by your budget – as we mentioned, 5.1 systems can be cheaper than 7.1. However, if you have the money to spend, you can easily have a system with more than seven speakers and one subwoofer, such as a 9.2 or 11.4 speaker system. Your setup is only limited by your budget and room size. If you want an idea of what’s out there, you can start with our list of the best dedicated 5.1 home theater packages.
Klipsch RP-500SA High Loudspeakers
2. High speakers
The next question is, are you going to include high speakers in the mix? These are the speakers that make the sound sound as if the sound is coming from above your head. They do this by bouncing sound off the ceiling or sitting high on a wall and shooting right at you. That sounds like a great idea and can be very rewarding. But before investing in a tall speaker, it’s worth learning about its intricacies.
To use high speakers efficiently, you need a room that serves them. This means that you either need a relatively low ceiling for the sound to bounce, or you need to conveniently mount the speakers high on the wall. You also need to think carefully about what kind of surround sound you’ll be using – you can read more about it in the Surround Codec section below.
Not every system requires tall speakers. In fact, if you’re just starting out, you may want to avoid them and focus on the right underlying system. When you decide to buy high speakers, you have many options. Some front speakers have up-firing built-in speakers; if not, you can definitely buy them separately. Our current favorites are the Klipsch RP-500SA (full review here) which costs around $ 400.
A / V Receiver Denon AVR-S740H
3. A / V receivers
The speakers need a power supply to function, and they also need to receive the right signal at the right time. In the home theater world, these two things are done by an audio / video (A / V) receiver. It is basically a large black box that acts as an air traffic controller. This ensures that the right part of the sound reaches the right speaker at the right time, and also provides enough power for the speakers to reach a sufficient volume. It also transmits video signals from the source to the TV. If you don’t have a wireless home theater system, you’ll also need an A / V receiver. It’s just a fact.
The good news is that many home theater systems come with included A / V receivers. Even if you don’t like the one you like, it’s very easy to get your hands on a decent receiver for just $ 250. Their configuration is simple, despite the large number of cables. A good receiver can really change your setup, taking your speakers to the next level and giving you the best possible sound quality. It’s worth doing some research before purchasing, so click the link above to find out what’s in there.
SVS PB16 Ultra subwoofer
Great home theater systems need great bass. What’s the point in watching a movie if you can’t feel every punch and kick? Not literally, of course. But if your speakers don’t have good bass, you’ll be severely disappointed with your system. To get this, you need a solid subwoofer.
Unlike AV receivers, which often have to be purchased separately, subwoofers are usually part of home theater systems. This has many advantages; not only convenience, but the fact that the subwoofer will already be acoustically matched to the speakers. This means you’ll get good results right away. However, if you really want to improve the sound quality, it is worth investing in a separate subwoofer with a slightly higher quality. You don’t have to worry about powering the subwoofer from the receiver as almost all modern subwoofers are amplified and plug directly into a regular wall plug.
Please note that for the best performance from the subwoofer, please carefully position it and place it indoors. You’ll have to experiment a bit, but luckily there are some tricks you can use to make your life easier.
Sonos home theater system
5. Wired versus wireless home theater
Wireless speakers are gaining immense popularity, so it was inevitable that home theater companies would start producing their wireless speakers. One of the worst parts of traditional home theater systems is the endless wiring. And if you can do without it, it can only be a good thing. Okay?
In fact, as in the home theater world, the answer is complicated. It cannot be denied that wireless speakers are comfortable. The Sonos 5.1 surround speaker system – a $ 1,856 wireless multi-speaker system – is an absolute dream to use. You’ll be up and running in minutes and won’t need to plug in a single speaker cable. But the Sonos system has two major drawbacks – and these are drawbacks it shares with other wireless systems. First, it’s much more expensive than traditional wired systems, and second, the speakers aren’t really wireless – each of them still needs to be plugged into an electrical outlet. This means you need multiple sockets throughout the room or very long extension cords. They are still excellent and if you invest in such a system you will have a great experience. But you need to know what the inconveniences are.
Another thing to keep in mind is that if you buy a wireless system, it will be very difficult to upgrade later. Traditional home theater systems, with separate speakers and amplifiers, are easy to upgrade. For example, if you find enough money to buy a larger pair of floorstanding speakers, it’s very easy to replace them, regardless of brand. You can’t do this with current wireless systems, which usually don’t work well with others.
Aperion Audio Novus home theater system
6. Surround sound software
Before you buy a home theater system, think about what kind of surround sound you will be listening to. Surround doesn’t just happen – the software has to decode the incoming audio signal and route it to the appropriate speakers. This software is called a codec. Knowing the codecs will make your life much easier – trust us.
We’ll find out in a moment why. Let’s talk about what first. Most people will only encounter two codecs from famous brands: DTS: X and Dolby Atmos. DTS: X is designed for systems without height speakers, using the DTS system is called “multidimensional sound” to provide a realistic experience. This is a very popular codec as it works well on cheaper 5.1 systems. However, Dolby Atmos requires dedicated height speakers to function and is only suitable for 7.1 or larger configurations. Dolby Atmos also sounds great, with an elevated level of realism. While DTS: X and Dolby Atmos are the most popular codecs, there are actually dozens of them available. Don’t feel, however, that you have to mess with others; A basic knowledge of whether to choose DTS: X or Dolby Atmos is enough.
Why do you need to know about other codecs? To save money. There is no point in buying an expensive AV receiver that can handle Dolby Atmos if you don’t plan on having tall speakers. Likewise, you’ll definitely want to get it if you think you’ll be upgrading later. Be warned that for any of these surround sound programs to work, you will need a source – such as a Blu-ray Disc – with a Dolby or DTS encoded soundtrack. Don’t stress if you don’t have one – your audio will still sound good no matter what
VIZIO SB46514-F6 home theater system
7. Soundbars for home theater
Traditional home theater systems have three speakers placed in front of the listening position: left speaker, right speaker, and center speaker (mainly for dialogue). But there’s nothing to say that you can’t replace all three speakers with a soundbar. This means you get a convenient one-piece solution that is easy to set up, will almost certainly produce good sound, and that can even come with dedicated surround speakers – like this VIZIO SB46514-F6 (full review here).
There is absolutely nothing wrong with this setup. This can be a fun and simple way to build a home theater system. However, keep in mind that the audio quality is unlikely to be as crisp or as strong as it would be with a traditional multi-speaker setup. That being said, there are relatively few downsides. So if you want to minimize the number of speakers in your setup, you should definitely consider purchasing a soundbar.
Focal Sib Evo 5.1.2 home theater system
8. Movies versus music
Home theater systems are of course designed for watching movies and series and playing video games. But you can also use them to listen to your favorite music. While you won’t be able to enjoy multiple channels of surround sound in a home theater system with all your music, your traditional stereo will still play well through the receiver and the two front speakers. There are also artists who release their albums in version 5.1! In this way, a home theater system can fulfill a double role. Keep in mind that it probably won’t sound as good as a dedicated hi-fi system, and you shouldn’t purchase a home theater system with the intention of using it only for music playback. If that’s the case, you may want to look at a good stereo amplifier, not a receiver.
9. Home theater accessories
You will need to purchase a few extra items for your home theater system. Unfortunately, that’s just the reality of having one. The good news is that these few things are inexpensive and will make your life so much easier.
The first is speaker wiring to connect the speakers to the receiver. Any brand is fine as long as the cable is around 16 gauge. To connect the wire to the speaker, you need to strip the insulation and either connect the wires directly to the terminals on the back of the speaker, or use a banana plug that lets you just plug it in. Sure, you can always buy speaker cables with banana plugs attached, but where’s the fun in that?
You probably need to buy the speaker stands as well, even if you only need them for the surround speakers. The speakers should always be at ear height, and a set of stands will make it easier. We use Sanus racks in our test room. It may be worth investing in a dedicated living room acoustic foam, but if you’re just starting out in the home theater world, you can probably avoid it.
10. How much do home theater systems cost?
Home theater systems are usually seen as expensive – after all, each will have at least five speakers and possibly a subwoofer. However, recent advances in technology mean you can really get an exceptional home theater system for as little as $ 100, like the Logitech Z506. If you can, we advise you to spend a little more. The real leap in quality is around $ 400, and for more money, you get much better sound.
Surprisingly, you can buy complete home theater systems at large electronics stores, which is a welcome achievement. However, you will have a much better online selection, especially from Amazon and specialized sellers. Don’t be afraid to shop around to find a good setup.
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