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Shopping Guide for Best Surround Sound Systems

Since the dawn of time (or at least for the last thirty years) mankind has striven for the best surround sound system. You can get all the 4K TVs and projectors in the world, but if you can't hear anything you're trying to watch, the fancy visual devices aren’t worth much. Furthermore, if you're getting that much visual fidelity, you should strive to get the most out of your sound to accompany.

You could get a soundbar, but why not take it a step further? Nothing beats the sound of a good surround system, and there's no reason to be intimidated by what might seem to be a more complicated product. Setting your own surround sound system up can be a snap, especially with the devices above that can be bought as a kit.

If you've been dealing with your flat screen's little speakers, you'll find that a new surround sound system can enhance all your favorite forms of entertainment in ways you couldn't imagine. If you want sharper dialogue, and to feel like you're right there in the movie, this is an upgrade to your home theater you'll want to make.

At BestReviews our experts have researched the huge number of surround sound systems on the market to find products for any type of shopper. From affordable to extravagant, we've reviewed the best the audio world has to offer. Also, we purchase all the products ourselves, so you can be sure that our guides are free of bias, with your best interest in mind.

To create their surround sound effect, movie theaters may use over 30 speakers arrayed on the walls and ceiling.

What to Look for in a Surround Sound System

Which surround sound system you get depends on how much space you have, and what kind of equipment you intend to use with it. One drawback to a dedicated surround sound setup is that it takes up a lot more space than a soundbar or smaller audio solution. If you live in an apartment, you’ll also need to make sure that your system isn’t overwhelming, even at low volume.

Even if you live in an apartment though, you can absolutely improve your audio experience with a smaller 5.1 surround system. The smallest surround speakers are typically of better quality, and will put out better sound, than any soundbar. The only real blocker for a surround system is space, and as long as you have room to space at least a small speaker in multiple places around your sitting area, you’re good to go.

Product in Depth

Product in Depth

Klipsch 5.1 RP-280 Reference Premiere Speaker Package with R-115SW Subwoofer

Luxurious, but High-Priced

Klipsch's Reference Premiere line contains some of the company's most quality speakers. With this package, you get a top-of-the-line 5.1 surround sound system, with room to expand. You can expect a distortion-free, theater-quality audio experience with these speakers. However, be prepared to purchase a quality A/V receiver separately. Even though this home theater speaker set is priced at over $3,500, you'll need to provide your own device to power and output to it.

Types of Connections

Before you can use your impressive surround sound system, you actually have to have some audio piping into it. There are a number of different types of audio connections, and knowing which one is right for you is essential to getting the best sound possible out of your speakers.

There are three major types of input connections you can use to transmit audio data to your receiver.

Types

HDMI

These days, the preferred connection for audio and video is HDMI. Not only can you use your device as a passthrough for audio and video with HDMI, but it's also the only way to use the latest audio formats.

While you likely won't be able to tell much difference on lower- or mid-range audio systems, if you want to use Dolby TrueHD, DTS HD Master Audio, or Dolby Atmos signals, the only way to do so is through HDMI.

As for what type of HDMI cord you use, it doesn't matter. Don't be fooled by retailers trying to get you to buy gold-plated cables or any of that nonsense. As long as the packaging says the cable is a "Hi-Speed" HDMI cord, you're good to go.

EXPERT TIP

If you want actual surround sound, you should avoid soundbars.


Staff  | BestReviews
Types

Digital Optical Audio (TOSLINK or Mini-TOSLINK)

Instead of using copper wire to transmit data, digital optical audio connectors use laser light passing through a fiber optic wire to beam audio to your receiver. The whole thing seems kinda futuristic, but the TOSLINK connector has been around since 1983.

TOSLINK (from Toshiba Link) was designed around the same time CD players were first starting to hit the market. The connector was intended to provide a standardized format that can transmit digital audio to an audio output device.

There's a big chance you've never used this type of connection, unless you're big into audio/visual equipment. Most people skipped from analog RCA (composite/component) connectors straight to HDMI, and TOSLINK was always geared towards enthusiasts.

Unfortunately, optical audio doesn't have the bandwidth to carry the latest audio formats. If you want to use Dolby True HD, DTS-HD Master Audio, Dolby Atmos, or lossless audio, you'll want to go with HDMI.

There are a few scenarios in which you'd be better off to use optical audio though. TOSLINK isn't susceptible to elements that might cause static, like ground loops and radio frequency interference. So, if you live in a house where these conditions aren't avoidable, you might improve your audio quality by using TOSLINK. Also, if you're using an HDMI device and it suffers from input lag, a quick fix could be to switch over to using optical audio.

An audio/visual receiver is the brain of your surround sound system. Make sure to choose one that supplies the capabilities you want.

Staff
BestReviews
Types

RCA Connectors (Composite/Component)

It's hard to believe, but this venerable connector design has been around since the 1940s. Up until about a decade ago, if you connected just about anything with audio or video it was usually with a connection of this design. However, we've entered an all-digital audio era, and RCA jacks are becoming less frequently used in new product designs.

There are exceptions to the rule, though. Many subwoofers use an RCA-type connector, and if you're using older audio equipment or a record player, you're bound to see them. When it comes to home theater though, RCA connectors are the last type you should use. There is a standard that uses RCA for digital audio, but you're rarely going to find a TV or video player that's compatible with it.

RCA is best used as a legacy connector, so that you can still use some of the quality audio devices from the past instead, of throwing them in the dump.

DID YOU KNOW?

If you see an item that has "virtual surround sound," don't be fooled. It will use software to simulate a surround sound effect, but isn't nearly as good as the real thing.

Speaker Wire

Chances are your speakers are going to come with some wire. Whether or not you decide to use it is up to you. If you're an audiophile, or you’re the type of person who wants things by the book, you probably need to put that wire aside and buy some of your own. Below are some guidelines on what kind of cable you need for your perfect surround sound system.

Speaker wire

Connectors

Unless you opt for the fancier, more expensive, pre-measured wire, you're likely to have bare wire on both ends to deal with. If you've put some money into your speaker system, get some banana connectors for your wire. You can thread the wire through the connects and tighten it down, and you'll be left with a nice connector to make it much easier to insert into your speakers and receiver.

EXPERT TIP

For most systems, one subwoofer will be sufficient. If you just love that deep bass rumble, or have a larger room, many receivers do have the ability to output to a second subwoofer.


Staff  | BestReviews
Speaker wire

Gauge

A wire's gauge refers to how thick it is. The lower the gauge, the thicker the wire, and also the greater the expense. Thicker wire is also harder to work with. When installing your speakers, purchase the highest gauge possible that will work for you. The thinner the wire you can use, the more money you'll save, the easier it'll be to hide, and the easier it'll be to cut and manipulate.

However, there is a reason for thick, low-gauge wire. The longer the distance you want to run your wire, the lower the gauge you need. The thicker wire lowers resistance and allows electricity to flow more freely. Also, if you're having issues with powering your speakers from your receiver, a thicker wire can help make sure enough juice is flowing.

For the most part, though, your standby should be 16 gauge wire. This type of wire will work great in applications that are under 50 feet, and will typically be enough to supply power to any of your non-powered speakers under that distance.

Wireless rear speakers may be attractive to some. They're usually more expensive than their wired equivalent, and can be susceptible to interference.

Staff
BestReviews

Expanding your Surround Sound System

One of the most significant things a surround sound system has over a soundbar, besides far better audio quality, is that you can expand it. Even if your surround system comes pre-built and there's no room to expand to more speakers with the receiver you have, you can upgrade the receiver itself. Speakers are one of the few technologies that can last you for years and years, so once you've bought those, you can figure them into any plans you have for audio in the future.

Expanding surround sound system

Where to Start?

All the systems we've included here are at least 5.1 surround sound. This means they have five speakers and a subwoofer. A standard 5.1 surround system has center, left, and right front speakers, left and right rear or side speakers, and a subwoofer to your front left or right.

There are a ton of different standards of speaker placement for surround sound. Your only real limit is how many channels your receiver can output. The most common surround sound setups are 5.1 and 7.1. With the Dolby Atmos format gaining more popularity, though, 9.2 and 11.2 systems are getting more common.

EXPERT TIP

Surround sound systems are made to be expanded. If you buy a basic set now, just make sure the A/V receiver you choose has room to take more speakers down the line.


Staff  | BestReviews
Expanding surround sound system

Dolby Atmos

Dolby Atmos is a technology that uses specially designed speakers to enhance the feeling of surround sound. The speakers you need for Dolby Atmos are smaller units that mount on top of existing surround sound speakers, and are aimed at the ceiling.

The sound waves from these speakers are intended to bounce off your roof and down at your seating position. This helps to eliminate the effect of audio dead zones in the room, and gives a more even surround sound effect.

Sound systems that include Dolby Atmos typically have another decimal added to them. So a 7.1.2 surround sound system indicates there is seven surround speakers, one subwoofer, and two Atmos-compatible speakers.

DID YOU KNOW?

Dolby Atmos can help complete the illusion of speakerless sound by reflecting sound off your ceiling, and onto your sitting area.

Cost of a Surround Sound System

The price of a quality surround sound system can vary widely. Depending on the number of speakers, whether you include an A/V unit or not, and what kind of quality you’re looking for, you could pay anywhere from under $200 to over $10,000 for a sound system.

Price

Under $200

In this range, you’ll find starter surround sound packages. The speakers will likely be tiny, and the subwoofer won’t put out much bass. None of the deals in this price range that includes an A/V receiver either.

Price

$200 to $500

For this amount, you can typically find a decent set of 5.1 speakers, and possibly a low-end A/V unit. If you’re serious about improving the sound quality in your home, but you don’t want to commit to a big purchase, this is an excellent place to start.

Price

$500 to $1,000

This is a good price range for first time surround sound system owners. You can get a 4K-capable receiver and a competent set of 5.1 speakers and subwoofer. If you already have a receiver, for this amount you can look at purchasing some higher-end speakers to upgrade an existing system as well.

CAUTION

If you see a product has "2.1 sound," this isn't actual surround sound.

Price

$1,000 to $3,500

For this much cash, you can start getting into the heady world of 9.1.2 Dolby Atmos systems and up. If you’re spending this much on surround sound, your best bet is first to purchase a receiver that can handle the max amount of speakers you think you’ll want. Then you can start looking into getting a system that’s closer to studio-grade than consumer-grade.

Price

Over $3,500

Over $3,500 you start getting into real specialty builds. This includes in-wall speaker systems, and wacky 22-speaker home theater setups. You’ll also find the best consumer grade speakers in this price category, though you’ll get diminishing returns the more you pay.

If you want the absolute best sound out of your surround system, find a service in your area that can professionally calibrate and aim your speakers.

FAQ

Q. What constitutes "surround sound," anyway?

A. Surround sound systems use speakers arranged in a particular pattern to make you feel as though you're in a specific scene. It works by eliminating dead spots in the sound field around you, so that when you hear a scene, the sound feels as though it's surrounding you instead of coming from a particular speaker. So, while you may hear a sound coming from the side or behind you, because of the way your speakers generate the noise in a surround sound system, it should feel "natural," as opposed to being obviously made from a speaker.

Q. Why is a surround sound system with individual speakers better than a soundbar?

A. A soundbar (without satellite speakers) will never provide actual surround sound. Although many soundbars have a virtual surround sound setting, you'll notice that the results are often full of echoes, and only passable at best. Additionally, the speakers in soundbars are much smaller than the speakers in even the most basic bookshelf speaker. You're not going to get near the volume or frequency range from a soundbar that you will a proper 5.1 surround sound system.

Q. Can I use my older speakers with a new surround sound system?

A. If you have a set of speakers made in the last 50 or so years, you should have no problem using it with a modern system. For decades, speakers have used regular old speaker wire to connect to an output device, and a receiver from the 1970s uses the same type of connection as one you can buy at the store right now. However, speaker technology has improved dramatically in the last decade. If your speakers are ancient, you might want to consider upgrading them instead of reusing them, because they're not going to have the frequency range that a newer set will. If you've purchased a good set of speakers in the last ten years though, there's no reason not to use them to supplement a new set.

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