Home theater systems have entered a golden age. With high-definition televisions, Blu-ray players, and a plethora of surround sound options, home entertainment systems are actually starting to compete with the cinema experience. But there's one area where home theaters often fall short: audio. And I can probably hazard a few guesses why.
Though they've plummeted in price, the biggest and best flat-screen TVs can still empty a piggy bank. And I think many of us don't evaluate the complete package when we're shopping for a home entertainment system. If the budget is $1,500, chances are, most or all of it will be spent on the screen, with little left over for other components. Since TVs come with built-in speakers, we choose to "get by" with our fabulously improved picture and leave the sound for another day.
But as TVs get slimmer, the built-in speakers are simultaneously shrinking. Result: Picture quality is getting bigger and better while sound quality continues to suffer.
Today's the day to complete the package, with an aim to replicate the lavish cinematic experience at home. You don't have to break the bank, but you should buy something that will make your corn pop.
The Stealth Option: Sound Bar
Once dismissed as strictly for amateurs, sound bars have dramatically improved over the last couple of years. They now represent a sensible, affordable option for improving the sound experience at home, especially in smaller rooms.
Sound bars are typically tube-like speakers that sit in front of your TV screen. While some are designed to be wall-mounted, most models are fashioned as a pedestal supporting the actual TV. Sometimes called a sound stand or base speaker, or, in the case of LG, a SoundPlate, these speakers occupy less space, are less distracting, and will elevate your screen by a few inches. They also won't block your TV's remote control sensor (or, egads, some of the actual picture). Best of all, they don't require a receiver to power.
Sound bars have become so popular that Samsung introduced a curved unit to align with its latest curved screen TVs.
At their simplest, a sound bar will offer a left, center, and right channel (one more channel than what a typical flat-screen TV offers). Most include a built-in subwoofer to generate the low frequency rumbles most of us associate with booming theater sound. A few models include a pair of rear speakers for true surround effects. While a separate subwoofer may be advertised as wireless, note that it (and any remote surround speakers) will still need to be plugged in to a power source.
Unless you pair a real low-end sound bar with a high-end TV, the sound bar will be a distinct step up in quality from your TV’s built-in speaker system. If you're buying a stand-style unit, double-check that it can support the weight of your TV. And, if you're counting on streaming music, be sure to look at models that have Bluetooth connectivity.
Budget: A decent sound bar runs $250-$400.
Advantage: Space-efficient, low profile; easy plug-and-play; speakers are largely out of view; great for smaller rooms.
Disadvantage: Most don’t provide true surround sound; there’s usually no way to add additional speakers.
The Compromise: Home Theater in a Box
Once upon a time, Home Theater in a Box (HTIB) was the de facto choice for millions of homes. It offered a convenient, easy-to-assemble home audio system that—through bundling—was downright cheap, or at least gentle on the wallet (i.e., the individual components would cost more if purchased separately).
Typically comprised of a receiver, a set of speakers and a subwoofer, the downside of HTIB has been inflexibility—it's usually impossible to add components (such as a CD player) or to upgrade individual elements. Sound quality is often poor, because the units tend to skimp on power.
With options for sound bars improving, the death knell for HTIB may be about to ring. But while audiophiles have long eschewed HTIB systems, shoppers with a mind for ease and simplicity might find them attractive.
I recently sampled an HTIB system from Onkyo, one of the foremost companies bringing Dolby Atmos (the most recent Dolby surround sound technology) to home theaters.
The versatile 5.1.2-channel package (model HT-S77000) includes a powerful receiver, five speakers (two of which have top-firing drivers for Dolby Atmos channels), and a subwoofer. It has a USB input, Wi-Fi capability, and no proprietary components (wiring, etc.) preventing you from upgrading your speakers, adding a Blu-ray player, or installing a turntable. The list price, $899, is also quite attractive (for comparison, the entry-level Bose HTIB system lists for $1,499).
When evaluating HTIB options, avoid two-in-one components like a receiver with built-in Blu-ray player. If one breaks you may have to replace both, or even the whole system. Verify that the box you're purchasing includes a true receiver, and not just a power amp for the speakers. It should have extra inputs for sources beyond the TV, such as a CD player or auxiliary (AUX) input. Extra outputs, so for adding additional speakers, are also helpful.
Questions to ask: If the unit doesn't come with its own Blu-ray player, can it decode audio formats beyond 5.1? And if you're pairing your HTIB with a 4K TV, can it decode Ultra-HD audio? (For more on this, see our articles on UHD formatting and hardware upgrades for 4K content.)
Budget: I've seen options priced less than $200, but they were rife with limitations and short on power; I'd budget at least $400.
Advantage: One-stop shopping, easy set-up; usually offers value (over piecemeal speaker systems).
Disadvantage: Components or connections may be proprietary (preventing upgrades or replacements); many models can be stingy on power; for a room smaller than 150 square feet, a sound bar should suffice.
The Total Package: Separate Components
The next step up is assembling your own system. This means buying speakers and a subwoofer that will fit your home perfectly—yes, both size and looks matter—with a receiver that provides all the power you need. The cost will definitely be more, but you'll be getting something that has the potential to outlive your needs. And for a room of 300 square feet or more (15 x 20 feet), a build-it-yourself system is a must if you want cinema-quality sound.
For your receiver, look for 7.1-channel capability (or better) with multiple HDMI inputs. You should also consider wireless connectivity; you'll want your receiver to be future-proof, ready for next-generation upgrades.
Size, design, and sound quality all play a role in choosing speakers. There are plenty of sleek, petite options that won't crimp your aesthetics, along with built-in speakers that can be virtually hidden from view. But these options may sacrifice sonic quality. Most of the best sounding speakers will require a chunk of real estate and possibly some style compromises. Take time to find an option that marries all of your needs into one product. Also note that, like HTIB, home theater speaker packages are available, and bundling can shave costs.
In broad terms, the more you spend, the bigger and better the system you'll wind up with (but by no means is that a rule). Start with the speakers—they should represent at least two-thirds of your investment—then find the receiver that meets their needs. But don't buy more than your room can handle. If you share walls with a neighbor, they're probably not going to want to hear "Also sprach Zarathustra" (the fanfare from 2001: A Space Odyssey) at full blast.
If budget is a concern, consider buying just the best left-right speakers you can afford. Then, as your wallet allows, add the center speaker, surrounds, and subwoofer a piece at a time. Even just plain old stereo sound—remember that?—will likely be better than the sound quality offered by most built-in TV audio systems.
Budget: A set of five speakers and subwoofer (5.1) can range anywhere from a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands. I'd budget $1,200-$1,500 to fill a decent sized room (around 300 square feet), with about a third of that total allocated for the receiver.
Advantage: You can get exactly what you need...
Disadvantage: ...but you'll spend more.