Although fine for the news and maybe even the occasional scripted TV show, built-in TV speakers just don’t cut it when watching a movie, playing an action-packed game, or getting lost in your favorite tunes. Enveloping yourself in every detail and filling the room from all sides so that each word, raindrop, rumble, and note wraps around you—that’s entertainment.
The best home theater systems draw you in and encourage suspension of disbelief so you can shut out reality for a while and chill. Read on to learn about the important factors to consider as you shop for a home theater system and discover a selection of products that are among the best you can buy.
- BEST OVERALL: Nakamichi Shockwafe Ultra 9.2.4 Channel 1000W
- BEST BANG FOR THE BUCK: Onkyo HT-S3900 5.1-Channel Home Theater
- BEST SOUNDBAR: JBL Bar 9.1 – Channel Soundbar System with Speakers
- BEST FOR SMALL ROOMS: VIZIO Sound Bar for TV, 36” 5.1 Channel Home Theater
- BEST FOR LARGE ROOMS: SAMSUNG HW-Q950T 9.1.4ch Soundbar with Dolby Atmos
- BEST HOME THEATER SPEAKERS: Polk Audio 5.1 Channel Home Theater System
- BEST SMART: SAMSUNG HW-Q900T 7.1.2ch Soundbar with Dolby Atmos
What to Consider When Choosing the Best Home Theater System
This is often an expensive investment, so when shopping for the best home theater system, make sure it fits the size of the room. Too big, and it can overpower the space; too small, and you won’t get the effect you’re seeking. Consider ease of installation and how much you want to reconfigure the room. Make sure you have everything you need—space, layout, equipment—to enjoy everything the system has to offer.
A home theater system comes with multiple speakers or channels that immerse you into the action of a movie. Each channel can have multiple drivers. Midrange drivers handle midrange frequencies, and tweeters produce high-frequency treble ranges. A full-range driver puts out both sounds.
- A center speaker sits below the TV and delivers most of the dialogue and 50 percent of the soundtrack and sound effects.
- Front left and right speakers replicate the original music of a film and heighten emotion.
- Side and/or rear speakers produce ambient sounds like raindrops, crowds, or birds.
- Subwoofers create dedicated and deep bass—to help you feel the explosions and tension.
- Soundbars sit under the TV and contain all the speakers in one long bar. Some soundbars house the three front speakers and come with separate side or rear right and left speakers.
- Ceiling or upward-facing speakers provide overhead sound effects.
Wired vs. Wireless
Wired home theater systems don’t require a wall outlet; however, each speaker must connect to an AV receiver. Consider cable management for large rooms, where side and rear speakers can require feet or even yards of wiring. The wire must be purchased separately and prepared for each speaker, which involves stripping it to an appropriate length.
Minor inconveniences aside, these setups are often more affordable than wireless models. Additionally, unlike their counterparts, wired systems experience no frustrating audio and video lag (delays).
On occasion, a wireless system will require a wired connection between the rear speakers and the subwoofer, but more often than not, the only cabling needed is a power cord from each speaker to a power outlet. Sometimes the receiver is replaced by a soundbar or a wireless transmitter.
Number of Speakers
The two most popular setups are:
- A 5.1 surround sound system comprises the center channel, front left, front right speakers, and satellite speakers on the side or the rear and one subwoofer. This configuration works well in smaller rooms less than 350 square feet.
- A 7.1 surround sound system includes the center channel, front right, front left, side, and rear speakers with one subwoofer.
Some home theater systems have more than one subwoofer. A seven-speaker setup with two subwoofers is a 7.2 surround sound system. You can also add two or four ceiling or up-firing speakers for a 7.1.2 or 7.1.4 speaker setup.
The more speakers you have, the more surrounded you’ll feel, and the higher the home theater system price will be.
To get the most out of a new home theater system, correct speaker placement is essential. The center channel or speaker should sit below the TV, while the front left and front right speakers should sit on either side of the TV. Picture a triangle between someone sitting on the sofa and all three speakers, if you want the best sound. Don’t stress if that triangle isn’t possible; you likely won’t notice a difference. An entertainment center could help with front speaker placement.
The rear speakers should sit behind you, one on the right and one on the left, and the side speakers should sit to the right and left of your listening position. Subwoofers should sit on the front wall in the corner—this couples it better with the room and provides the best bass.
Voice-matching and tweeters both enhance the sound quality of a home theater system.
- Using speakers made by the same manufacturer and from the same family or line will ensure the same “voice” or tonal quality. Voice-matching provides seamless and evenly balanced sound throughout the room.
- Tweeters produce high audio frequencies that woofers and other speakers can’t reproduce. Tweeters enhance crisp sounds like horns and vocals and help make the music feel like it’s coming from all around you. Tweeters are generally in the same enclosure as the woofer and midrange speaker. The woofer will handle the lower range sounds, and the midrange will handle the midrange sounds. All three work together to provide complete, accurate sound duplication.
Volume and Sensitivity
Speaker sensitivity refers to its capacity to turn power into sound or the amount of power needed for it to function correctly. Sensitivity is generally measured by placing a microphone or sound pressure level (SPL) meter about 3 feet away from the center speaker. With the amplifier connected and delivering a watt of power, a signal is sent. The measurement in decibels (dB) equals the sensitivity.
The higher the sensitivity, the louder the speaker will play. An average speaker has a sensitivity of 88 dB. Speakers with a 92 dB sensitivity or above are considered high-performance speakers. Low sensitivity of 84 dB or below will impact sound quality. Note that each speaker in a home theater system should have the same sensitivity level.
To put all of this into perspective:
- A normal speaking voice is between 65 and 75 dB
- A hair dryer is between 70 and 90 dB
- A motorcycle is between 95 and 110 dB
Some additional features to look out for:
- Bluetooth compatibility on the receiver or the soundbar so that you can connect your tablet, phone, and other mobile devices to stream music wirelessly.
- Compatibility with video streaming devices so you can stream your favorite TV shows and movies.
- Not all home theater systems come with the cables included, so finding one that ships with speaker wire, an HDMI cable, or any required cable is a bonus.
- Look for several inputs or solid wireless capabilities for all the different components you want to connect to the home theater system. These could include HDMI, component, RCA, or optical inputs to connect a TV, game console, and everything else you want to hear through your brand-new home theater system.
- Some receivers include voice control capabilities via Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant so you can incorporate it into your smart home.
Ease of Set Up
Installing a wired home theater system requires more effort than a wireless installation. You’ll need to connect each speaker to the amplifier for power—this calls for speaker wire, which could involve stripping the wire and installing banana clips. It also means figuring out creative ways of concealing the wire if you’re not planning on gutting the room and starting over. In a wireless setup, the speakers don’t connect to the receiver or the soundbar. Each speaker connects to a wall outlet for power instead. To protect your devices from power surges, you should consider plugging them into a surge protector.
In either install, look for products with clear setup instructions and information regarding the platforms, devices, and systems with which the product is compatible. Verify the product specifications to glean this information before making a purchase to ensure your new home theater system works with all of your devices.
Our Top Picks
Based on the shopping considerations above, the following are some of the best home theater systems on the market in a range of categories.
Nakamichi’s home theater system boasts a soundbar, two subwoofers, and four surround and rear speakers with an overall capacity of 1,000 watts. The all-in-one soundbar has six full-range speaker drivers and two tweeters that bounce sound off the walls for a 35 percent wider sound profile than other soundbars. The two subwoofers offer explosive energy to draw a user into the action, while the four two-way sound effect speakers deliver 360-degree sound. Users can utilize the four speakers individually in a large room or attach them to form a pair of dipole speakers in a smaller space—both setups ensure the same 360-degree effect.
With one HDMI ARC, three HDMI ports, one optical, and one coaxial input, users can connect the wireless surround sound to up to six devices. Users can also connect mobile devices via Bluetooth. The Shockwave supports 1,000-watts, 110dB, and Dolby Atmos.
There’s no need to break the bank for a home theater system. This reasonably priced package from Onkyo has five satellite speakers, a subwoofer, and an amplifier. The receiver supports Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio for authentic movie sound. It also has four HDMI and two RCA ports so users can connect a gaming console, a video streaming box, a PVR, and more. The five satellite speakers boast a 3-inch full-range driver capable of producing 50 watts of power, and the 6.4-inch subwoofer can produce 100 watts of power.
This compact home theater system also comes with Bluetooth capability, so users can connect their laptop, smartphone, or tablet and mirror their device on the TV. The compact speakers perform well in smaller rooms and come with speaker cables in the box.
Experience 9.1 surround sound with this JBL soundbar. The user can place its two detachable magnetic satellite speakers anywhere, so it’s easy to get a full-on surround sound experience right at home. The speakers have a 10-hour battery life and can recharge within three hours when docked with the soundbar. Users can still enjoy their favorite movies and shows while the speakers are attached to the soundbar.
The soundbar has 820 watts of power for crystal clear audio, while the 10-inch wireless subwoofer enhances the action. Bluetooth capabilities allow users to stream music, podcasts, and more, while HDMI and HDMI ARC ports offer further compatibility.
Enjoy captivating soundtracks and sound effects without missing any of the dialogue with this 5.1 soundbar from Vizio. Ideal for small rooms, this system includes a slim subwoofer that can sit upright in a corner or lay flat under the sofa, as well as a soundbar with center, left, and right speakers and two rear surround speakers. The HDMI connection lets users control the soundbar through their TV remote, while Bluetooth support allows for connecting mobile devices.
Users can experience multidimensional sound through the support of DTS Virtual:X. The virtual 3D sound travels through the room and fills it from floor to ceiling.
Supporting Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, this soundbar from Samsung lets the user hear every distinct sound as it flows through the room. The nine surround channels, one subwoofer channel, and four up-firing channels that reflect the sound off the ceiling wrap the tones around the viewer, while the rear speakers help fill the space and enhance the experience. After analyzing the content for each scene, the intuitive soundbar automatically delivers optimized sound.
A built-in voice assistant makes the soundbar Amazon Alexa-compatible, so users can control their music, manage their day, and get information like weather forecasts, all with simple voice commands. With Bluetooth support, users can connect up to two smartphones to the soundbar at once and switch between playlists. The soundbar also includes an HDMI ARC port.
For those who want a true moviegoing experience, this home theater speaker system bundle from Polk delivers. Each of the two bookshelf speakers houses a 5.35-inch driver and a 0.75-inch tweeter. The center speaker has a 5.25-inch driver and a 1-inch tweeter, and each of the two towers has a 6.5-inch driver, one 1-inch tweeter, and two 6.5 bass radiators for room-filling sound. The 10-inch subwoofer has a 100-watt capacity and a uniquely configured directional port for deep and accurate bass. Each of the speakers in this home theater system has dynamic balance technology that provides wider dispersion with minimal distortions.
The Polk 5.1 channel home theater system is compatible with most AV receivers.
Amazon Alexa users may want to consider this Samsung soundbar that comes with a built-in Alexa voice assistant. Users can enjoy all the things they love about Alexa and experience optimized sound throughout the room.
This soundbar supports Dolby Atmos and DTS:X so users can enjoy every distinct sound as it flows through the room. The 7.1.2 home theater system consists of seven channels, one subwoofer channel, and two up-firing channels—providing enveloping sound, powered by a total of 16 speakers. The soundbar analyzes the content for each scene and automatically delivers optimized sound. With Bluetooth support, users can connect their smartphones to the soundbar and listen to their favorite playlists and podcasts.
FAQs About Home Theater Systems
Still have questions about home theater systems? Check out these answers to some of the more commonly asked questions.
Q. What wattage should I get for my home theater system?
This depends on room size. For an 18-foot by 18-foot room with 9-foot ceilings, look for something that supports at least 25 watts per channel. For low-cost speakers, perhaps bump this up to 40 watts per channel.
Q. For surround sound, is 5.1 or 7.1 better?
This also depends on the size of the room. Generally speaking, yes, the more speakers, the more immersed you’ll feel, but in a small space, the sound can be overwhelming. Use 5.1 in a room smaller than 350 square feet and 7.1 in anything larger.
Q. Can I use any speakers for surround sound?
It makes sense to purchase all of the speakers for a home theater system as a package or from the same manufacturer and from within the same line. Speakers have a unique voice-matching (the tone they use), and you want all of your speakers to use the same “voice.”
Q. What should I look for when buying home theater speakers?
- Get the right number of speakers for the size of your room.
- Choose between wired and wireless. Your level of confidence for installing the home theater system might help you choose.
- Determine what devices you want connected to your new system and make sure it has the necessary ports (HDMI, RCA, optical, coaxial, and so on).
- You can also look for extras like Bluetooth capabilities.