Have you ever watched a movie or TV show and felt that the audio was lacking impact and immersion? The sounds were coming only from the front, as if the on-screen events were confined to the space between your speakers. What you were missing was the magic of surround sound – audio that envelops you from all directions, transporting you right into the action.
A dedicated home theater surround sound system can transform your viewing experience and make you feel like you’re right there in every scene. But with so many components and configurations to choose from, it can be difficult to know where to start when selecting the right system for your needs and budget.
In this guide, we’ll demystify the world of home theater surround sound and walk you through everything you need to know to build your dream system, from understanding the different technologies and speaker setups to giving you specific product recommendations across a range of price points. Follow along and you’ll have the knowledge to create a surround sound system that provides jaw-dropping, cinema-quality audio in your own home theater.
How Surround Sound Works
Surround sound leverages multiple audio channels and speakers strategically placed around the listener to envelop you in sound from all directions – left, right, front, back, and even above in some cases. This creates a much more immersive listening environment than standard stereo audio from just left and right front speakers.
With a stereo system, all sounds are confined to the front, so the auditory experience is two-dimensional. Adding more channels and surround speakers makes it seem like audio elements are occurring all around you, replicating how sounds behave in the real world. Surround sound transports you into the scene rather than just presenting it in front of you.
Home theater surround sound systems come in different channel configurations but the most common are 5.1 and 7.1 setups:
- 5.1: Five main channels comprised of left and right front speakers, a center channel speaker, and left and right surround speakers. The “.1” refers to the subwoofer channel for deep, low frequency bass.
- 7.1: Building on 5.1 by adding left and right rear surround speakers for an even more immersive experience. The extra channels enable more accurate sound positioning and localization.
Each channel serves a specific purpose:
- Front left and right: Provide the majority of audio like dialogue, sound effects and music. Should be positioned at ear level relative to the main seating position.
- Center channel: Dedicates the dialogue/vocals to a central anchor point on screen. Critical for clear speech intelligibility. Place directly above or below the TV.
- Surrounds: Add ambience and spatial dimensionality. Side wall placement improves immersion by “surrounding” the listener.
- Rears: Enhance directional audio cues and “behind you” effects. Rear wall placement.
- Subwoofer: Provides the low frequency bass for sound effects and soundtrack. Place along the front wall or a corner.
Altogether, the strategic speaker placement makes sounds seem to occur at precise points around the room, fully enveloping you in the audio experience.
Key Features to Look for in a Surround Sound System
When researching home theater surround sound systems, you’ll want to look at a variety of features to determine performance and suitability to your needs:
The audio decoding technology is what allows multi-channel surround formats to be accurately processed from sources like Blu-ray discs and streaming content. Dolby and DTS are the most predominate:
- Dolby Digital: Supports 5.1 and 7.1 setups. Most common format. Found on all Blu-ray discs and streaming platforms.
- Dolby Atmos: Immersive format that adds height channels for overhead audio. Requires Atmos-enabled speakers. Supported on newer Blu-ray and Netflix/Prime Video titles.
- DTS: Similar quality to Dolby Digital. Used across Blu-rays and streaming. 5.1 and 7.1 variants exist.
Speaker design determines audio reproduction quality. Higher-end drivers and cabinet materials improve frequency response, detail, and clarity:
- Driver size: Larger woofers and tweeters have increased low/high frequency extension and output capability. Aim for at least 3″ woofers and 1″ tweeters.
- Cabinet material: MDF (medium density fiberboard) baffles with quality lamination resist distortion and resonance better than cheap plastic.
- Directional designs: Specialized speaker shapes like horn-loaded tweeters or dipole surrounds enhance immersion.
- Timbre matching: Using the same brand speakers ensures a cohesive sound between channels. Mismatched speakers sound disjointed as you pan audio around the room.
The amplifier or receiver power dictates how loud and dynamic your system can perform. More watts give headroom before distortion kicks in. Target at least 80-100 watts per channel.
Connectivity determines how audio signals get routed into the system:
- HDMI: Supports all major surround formats in uncompromised digital quality. Used to connect modern 4K Blu-ray players and streaming devices. Allows on-screen menu control with CEC.
- Optical/Coaxial: Used to input surround sound from TVs or older Blu-ray players. Limited to basic Dolby Digital 5.1 quality due to bandwidth constraints.
- Bluetooth/Wi-Fi: Convenient wireless streaming from mobile devices and music apps. Sound quality not as robust as physical connections. Bluetooth range is limited.
Sound processing features optimize the listening experience:
- Room correction: Measures the room acoustics and applies EQ adjustments for smoother in-room response.
- Dialogue enhancement: Makes speech easier to hear over other sounds in the mix.
- Automatic loudness leveling: Maintains consistent volume levels across different content, like between TV shows and commercials.
- EQ presets: Tailor the sound signature to different content like movies or music via preset modes.
Nice bonus features to have include 4K video passthrough, voice control, easy setup wizards, and multi-zone expandability. Prioritize the core audio performance features first before these extras.
Home Theater Room Considerations
To get the best possible surround sound performance, you’ll need to optimize your room’s layout and acoustics:
Room size significantly impacts your experience – a smaller room can feel more enveloping due to the closer speaker proximity whereas larger spaces may lose immersion unless you increase speaker volume or add more surround/height channels.
Seating position should be centralized, about 2/3 back into the room, to get an ideal balance between all the speakers. Avoid cramming right up to the back wall.
Speaker placement follows general home theater guidelines:
- Front L/R speakers should have an equidistant spacing from the center seat and be at ear level. Angling them in slightly improves the soundstage.
- The center channel sits directly above or below the TV aligned with the front L/R.
- Surrounds go to the left and right side walls, 2-3 feet above ear level.
- Rears (for 7.1) place behind the seating position facing forward.
- The subwoofer goes along the front wall or in a corner for room gain.
Room acoustics play a big role. Bare walls and hard surfaces create problematic reflections and echoes. Use thick curtains, rugs, and acoustic panels to absorb sound energy and tame reverb for clearer audio. Also close any openings like under the door that leak low frequency energy.
Top 5 Home Theater Surround Sound Systems
Ready to look at some excellent home theater systems that deliver sensational surround sound? These are my top recommendations across a range of budgets and needs:
1. Sony HT-A7000 7.1.2ch Dolby Atmos Soundbar – High-End Pick
This all-in-one Dolby Atmos soundbar system offers a stunningly immersive audio experience without the complexity of separate AV components.
- Class-leading surround sound performance with Dolby Atmos height channels
- Vertical and side-firing speaker design provides enveloping 3D audio
- Integrates neatly with Sony Bravia TVs; HDMI eARC connectivity
- Expensive; HDMI input is limited
- Lacks the expandability of an AV receiver-based setup
Ideal Room Size: Medium to large spaces
Key Specs: 7.1.2 channels, upfiring and side-firing speakers, wireless subwoofer, DTS:X support, built-in Chromecast
Price Range: $1,300 – $1,500
2. Klipsch Reference Wireless 5.1 Home Theater System – Value for Money Pick
This reasonably priced wireless 5.1 system delivers powerful, room-filling surround sound that punches well above its price class. An great entry point into immersive home audio.
- Superb audio quality with detailed highs and punchy lows
- Wireless rear speakers and subwoofer for flexible setup
- Easy to assemble and operate
- Analog connections only; no HDMI
- Setup requires manual speaker level balancing
Ideal Room Size: Small to medium rooms
Key Specs: 5.1 channels, bookshelf and tower fronts, 10″ wireless sub, Klipsch Proprietary WAVE wireless tech
Price Range: $650 – $850
3. Sonos Arc Soundbar – Best Wireless Connectivity
This premium-tier soundbar integrates Sonos’ excellent wireless multi-room audio platform for seamless streaming.
- Big, three-dimensional sound thanks to upward-firing speakers
- Works with entire Sonos ecosystem; wireless surrounds and rears can be added
- Voice control options include Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa, Apple Siri
- Atmos effect is limited without satellite speakers
- No DTS support; HDMI-ARC only
Ideal Room Size: Smaller media rooms
Key Specs: 5.0.2 channels, upward and side-firing speakers for Dolby Atmos, Sonos app control, speech enhancement, 4K HDR passthrough
Price Range: $900 – $1,100
4. Vizio M51ax-J6 5.1.2ch Soundbar with Wireless Subwoofer and Satellites – Easy Setup with Soundbar
This compact soundbar package makes it simple to add impactful surround sound to your TV with minimal wires and fuss.
- Complete 5.1.2 system in a single box
- Wireless subwoofer and surrounds for clutter-free setup
- DTS Virtual:X for spatial 3D audio
- EQ and tuning lacks refinement
- No advanced circuitry or room correction
Ideal Room Size: Smaller living rooms and media spaces
Key Specs: 5.1.2 channels, Dolby Atmos/DTS:X support, 6″ wireless subwoofer, HDMI ARC connectivity
Price Range: $450 – $600
5. Onkyo HT-S3800 5.1 Channel Home Theater Receiver and Speaker Package – Best Starter 5.1 System
This value-focused 5.1 channel system provides an easy path to better-than-TV audio if you’re willing to deal with basic cables and wiring.
- Genuine surround sound from separate speakers
- Solid power and performance for the price
- 4K HDR passthrough
- Requires manual speaker wire connections
- Audio clarity and bass impact is just average
- No advanced processing features
Ideal Room Size: Smaller living rooms and dens
Key Specs: 5.1 channels, 125W power per channel, Dolby Audio/DTS decoding, optical and HDMI inputs, simple plastic remote
Price Range: $350 – $450
Buying Advice by Price Range
Here are some general shopping recommendations based on common budget tiers:
At this entry-level, concentrate on soundbars or HTIB (home theater in a box) systems. Sound quality takes a backseat to ease of use and setup:
- VIZIO 2.1 Soundbar – An ultra-budget option with surprisingly good audio punch for its size.
- Samsung HW-Q600A Soundbar – Solid wireless soundbar with a large 10″ subwoofer. Good for music too.
- JBL Bar 2.1 All-In-One Soundbar – Compact 300W soundbar with wireless subwoofer. Ideal for smaller rooms.
$500 – $1000:
Look to step-up 5.1 speaker packages or higher-end soundbars that start to deliver a real sense of surround immersion:
- Yamaha YAS-209 Soundbar – Impressive surround virtualization and clear mids/highs thanks to its dual subwoofers. Alexa voice control built-in.
- Pioneer SP-PK52FS 5.1 Surround Speaker System – Capable starter speaker kit good for small to medium-sized living rooms.
- Polk Audio MagniFi Mini Home Theater Surround Soundbar – Sweet spot in terms of price and performance with wireless 5.1 speakers built-in. Also does 3D audio.
$1000 – $2000:
In this range, you can get excellent quality floorstanding speakers and advanced AV receivers with the full 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound experience:
- Denon AVR-S760H Receiver with ELAC Debut 2.0 Speaker Bundle – High value 7.2 channel receiver paired with top-rated bookshelf speakers for immersive surround.
- SVS Ultra 5.1 Home Theater System – Their signature ultra speakers and powerful SB-1000 sub deliver outstanding cinema audio with pinpoint surround placement.
- Definitive Technology Procinema 600 5.1 System – Gorgeous compact speaker system using proprietary bipolar technology for enveloping surround effects.
For serious home theater enthusiasts with larger spaces, the sky is the limit for high-end amplifiers, large floorstanding speakers, and bigger powered subwoofers:
- Anthem MRX 740 AVR + MartinLogan Motion 40 Towers and Center Speaker – Joyous trifecta of Anthem’s audiophile receiver paired with MartinLogan’s precise dipole speakers.
- Klipsch Reference Premiere System with R-625FA Atmos Speakers – Epic 7.2.4 system with huge two-way towers and four height speakers for fully immersive object-based audio.
- Revel Performa3 F208 3-Way Floorstanding Speakers – Top-of-the-line audiophile speakers with four 8” kevlar woofers and a 1” beryllium tweeter in each cabinet. Incredible bass and clarity.
Let’s wrap up with answers to some frequently asked questions:
Do I need a subwoofer for surround sound?
A dedicated subwoofer is highly recommended to complete a home theater system. The low frequency effects and LFE channel audio get their proper impact from a sub that your regular speakers can’t reproduce. Even budget subs make a worthwhile difference.
How do I wire up the speakers in a surround sound system?
Use good speaker wire to connect the positive/negative terminals from your AV receiver output to each corresponding speaker input. For surrounds, run the wires discreetly along baseboards or under carpet edges. Wireless speaker kits make placement easier without having to hide long wires across walls.
Should I get an AV receiver or powered speakers?
If expanding your system over time, get an AV receiver (AVR). This offers flexibility like adding more channels or swapping out speakers. Powered speakers are a simpler all-in-one solution but lack upgradability. Soundbars are easiest for their convenience but aren’t as customizable.
How loud should my home theater be?
There’s no absolute ideal volume, but in general, you want clear audible dialog during quiet scenes, while still retaining plenty of headroom for loud peaks and dynamics that hit you without distortion. Don’t max out the system volume routinely.
What issues should I look out for?
If you hear buzzing, ground loop hum, or interference, ensure electrical connections are secure and use high quality cables. Popping and cracking could point to loose wire connections. No audio from some speakers means they aren’t properly configured. Also check for obstacles blocking surround channels.
We’ve covered everything you need for selecting the perfect surround sound system to build your dream home theater – from decoding the technologies to tailoring it for your room and budget. The most important advice is to focus first on powerful front channel speakers to anchor the system, then add quality surrounds for that enveloping experience.
Compared to TV speakers, even an entry-level surround package can make your movies and shows burst into life with more excitement and immersion. And scaling up to high-end components will make it feel like you’re at a real cinema without leaving your living room.
Hopefully this guide has provided helpful suggestions like our top recommended speaker systems across different price points. Bring the magic of surround sound home to fully enjoy your media collection with maximum thrills and excitement!