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Home theater systems & soundbars

Home theater system & soundbar buying guide

Last updated: January 2014

Getting started

Buying separate components can be time-consuming and expensive, and connecting them can sometimes be a challenge. The easiest solution is a soundbar, which has several speakers in one thin module that you connect directly to your TV, with no need for a receiver. You can avoid some of the hassle by buying a prepackaged system that combines a receiver with a set of matched speakers, wiring, and often a DVD or Blu-ray player. In most cases, a package will cost less than your own system built from scratch. You'll see some home-theater-in-a-box systems starting at about $200; systems that include an integrated Blu-ray player generally cost $300 or more.

Unless you're a serious audiophile listening to music critically, or a movie fan craving theater-like excitement, you'll probably find the sound quality to be just fine, and better than what you'd get using just your TV's speakers. These systems typically have less power and fewer features than separate components, so they're not the best choice if you want a system with plenty of power for a very large room or noisy setting. Most are not designed for expansion and don't let you add or replace speakers. This home-theater guide will help with your choice.

Types

A typical 5.1-channel home-theater package includes a receiver that can decode multichannel digital-audio soundtracks and five compact speakers--two front, one center channel, and two surround speakers for the rear, plus a subwoofer for deeper bass sounds. A 6.1-channel system adds one more rear speaker, and a 7.1 system adds two more rear speakers. A 2.1-channel system has only the two front speakers and a subwoofer, but it might use special processing to simulate multi-channel sound. These prepackaged home-theater systems usually come with all the cables and wiring you need to connect the speakers, typically color-coded or labeled for easy setup. Some systems include a disc player, either a Blu-ray or DVD player, but others have no player. Some home-theater-in-a-box systems use wireless amplifiers for the surround speakers. Then there are soundbars, which eliminate the need for a receiver.

Systems with a player


Many home-theater systems include a progressive-scan DVD player or a Blu-ray player, and some newer models include a 3D-capable Blu-ray player. The player might either be built into the receiver or be a separate unit. Systems that integrate the disc player and the receiver in one box tend to offer a bit less functionality and fewer connections than those that have two a separate receiver and disc player. Integrated units are somewhat simpler to set up, but they might not allow you to connect video devices other than a TV to the receiver.

Systems without a player


You can also buy a home-theater system that doesn't have a disc player. This gives you the option of using a player you already own, or simply buying one of your choice. You'll have to make another connection or two, but you might have more flexibility in setting up the system. Although an integrated device that uses a single remote control may be a bit simpler to use, a system that has separate remotes for the receiver and player may provide more comprehensive control over each device's operations and features.

Sound bars


If you have a small space or want a simple way to enhance your TV's sound without going to the trouble of assembling a full surround-sound system, you might be interested in sound bars. These are thin bars, sometimes about 40 inches or longer, that are hung on the wall or placed on a shelf above or below the TV. Some pedestal-style soundbars, called sound bases, can serve as a base for a TV. (Check the weight of your set to make sure the stand can support it.) Most bars house two to five speakers (some might have more) in a single enclosure, and some come with a separate subwoofer (often a wireless model). A few also have rear surround speakers. Some models now include a Blu-ray or DVD player built into the system. The advantage is that you can connect a sound bar directly to your TV, without using a receiver, and you'll have few wires to deal with. (And you'll have no wires running across the room with two-channel soundbars or models that use wireless amplifiers for the subwoofer and rear surround speakers.) Speaker arrangement or electronic techniques are used to simulate surround sound.

Features


Bundled all-in-one HTIB systems might not have as many features as standalone components, so make sure that any system you're considering has all the features you want. Virtually all have enough speakers for at least a 5.1-channel surround setup and such basics as FM tuners and Dolby Digital and DTS surround-sound support. Other increasingly popular features are an integrated Sirius XM satellite-radio tuner, or a USB port or iPhone/iPad/iPod dock for connecting an iPod or other Apple device. There is usually an auxiliary output for connecting other brands of portable music players so you can listen to your digital music through the sound system. Some models now include wireless technologies, such as Bluetooth or NFC (Near Field Communication), for pairing with smart phones and tablets. Soundbars typically have fewer inputs, but some have more and can pass through video signals from a cable box or Blu-ray player to the TV.

Speakers

HTIB surround-sound systems come with five to seven speakers and a subwoofer. All have been matched for sound, eliminating the need for you to do that. Some systems use small satellite speakers for the front and rear, though others might have floor-standing models for the front. A number of systems have surround speakers powered by wireless amplifiers that eliminate the need to run cables from the receiver to the rear of the room; these generally communicate with the receiver by radio frequency. You will have to plug the wireless amplifier into a wall outlet and connect it to the rear speakers, though, so they're not completely cordless. Some subwoofers can also connect wirelessly, further reducing cable runs. The speakers included may use proprietary connections, so you can't add more speakers or use these speakers with other receivers. A subwoofer might be powered or not powered; powered models must be plugged into an electrical outlet. A powered subwoofer often provides more control over bass.

Receiver


The receivers in HTIB systems tend to be more basic than standalone models. They usually include Dolby Digital and DTS decoders for handling surround-sound tracks when playing a DVD or Blu-ray disc. A few models offer newer Dolby and DTS surround formats that process 6.1 or 7.1 channels, which support an additional one or two rear-surround speakers, respectively. Some may support the latest audio formats, Dolby TrueHD and DTD-HD Master Audio, which are used on most Blu-ray discs. Many of the newer HTIB systems are 3D enabled and can send signals from a 3D Blu-ray player to a 3D TV.

Online access

Many HTIB systems that incorporate a Blu-ray player also offer access to streaming movies or TV shows from services such as Amazon.com, CinemaNow, Hulu.com, Netflix or Vudu; Internet radio stations such as Napster/Rhapsody, Pandora or Slacker; and social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Some allow you to make Skype video calls when used with an optional webcam.

A/V connections


These are critical, because the receiver in a home-theater system is often the hub of your home-entertainment setup. You might want to route video as well as audio signals through the receiver so you can easily switch among sources such as a DVD or Blu-ray player, video game console, cable or satellite box, and DVR. Consider which devices you'll want to channel through the home-theater unit and which you will hook up directly to the TV. Analog connections can be used with standard-definition TVs, standard DVD players, or VCRs. HDMI or component-video connections on the receiver let you feed high-definition signals from a cable or satellite box or a Blu-ray player through the receiver to your TV. HDMI inputs can also be used to connect standard DVD players, especially models that can upconvert standard DVD to quasi-HD resolutions.

Many HDMI connections now support audio return channel (ARC), which lets a TV send audio back to the HTIB receiver or soundbar.

A digital-audio input can route undecoded digital audio from your disc player, digital-cable box, or satellite receiver. Make sure the input on the home-theater system matches the output on the other device. Some of these units have an optical digital-audio output, while others have a coaxial digital-audio output. But increasingly, newer equipment, such as cable boxes or a Blu-ray player, send digital audio signals over the HDMI cable.

Switched AC outlets let you plug in other components and turn on the whole system with one button. These are less common with HTIB systems than on component receivers.

Controls

Look for a front panel with displays and controls grouped by function and labeled clearly. Check the display for readability. Some models let you set up and adjust functions using the TV screen rather than the small display on the console. You're more likely to find this on models that have a DVD or Blu-ray player integrated with the receiver. Remote controls are most useful when they have clear labels and different-shaped, color-coded buttons grouped by function. A backlit remote will be easier to use in a dark room. A universal remote can control a number of devices from different brands.

Other connections

Some models with integrated Blu-ray players may include built-in Wi-Fi, or the ability to add it via an optional adapter. This will make connecting the system to your home network or Internet connection easier if a wired Ethernet jack isn't nearby. iPod connectivity through a dock or a cable allows you to attach your iPod, iPad or iPhone, and often control its functions with the system's remote control. An MP3 mini-jack lets you plug a portable music player into the system. A USB port lets you connect a player or a flash drive to hear music or view digital photos. An SD card slot allows you to insert photos or video for viewing directly on your TV. Bluetooth capability allows audio to be sent wirelessly to a home theater system from a Bluetooth-enabled device, such as a smartphone or portable media player, or from the system to Bluetooth-enabled speakers or headphones. Some newer models may include Bluetooth or NFC for pairing with smart phones and tablets.

Radio capabilities


Most receivers have about 20 or more presets that you can use for AM and FM stations. Satellite-ready models have a satellite-radio tuner, but require a subscription and an optional special antenna. Some receivers might also have an HD radio tuner, so you can receive that free over-the-air service.

Audio and other features

Many systems have preset or custom equalizers (EQ) and/or bass/treble adjustments. DSP (for digital-signal processor) modes use digital circuitry to duplicate the sound quality of, say, a concert hall. Each mode represents a different listening environment. A bass-boost switch amplifies the deepest sounds. Most receivers also have a sleep timer, which turns them off at a preset time.

Brands

Bose arrow  |  Boston Acoustics arrow  |  Coby arrow  |  Denon arrow  |  Haier arrow  |  Harmon Kardon arrow  |  Insignia arrow  |  JVC arrow  |  LG arrow  |  Onkyo arrow  |  Panasonic arrow  |  Philips arrow  |  Polk Audio arrow  |  RCA arrow  |  Samsung arrow  |  Sharp arrow  |  Sony arrow  |  Vizio arrow  |  Yamaha arrow

Most of the major electronics companies make home-theater-in-a-box systems. Some offer systems across all categories while others concentrate on a specific price range. You can use this alphabetized guide to compare home-theater-in-a-box systems by brand.

Bose

Bose offers a variety of home-theater systems.  Including sound bars, 2.1-, and 5.1- channel systems that do not include a DVD or Blu-ray player.  Bose products tend to be higher priced.

Boston Acoustics

Boston Acoustics is a midpriced audio brand best known for its speakers.  The company, part of D&M Group--which also includes Denon, Marantz, and McIntosh--now sells sound bars to complement flat-screen TVs.

Coby

Coby is a value brand that is widely distributed at almost all consumer electronics retailers.

Denon

Denon--part of D&M Group, which also includes Boston Acoustics, Marantz, and McIntosh--is well known for its products in all home-theater categories, including 2.1- and 5.1-channel units. The 5.1 systems do not include a DVD or Blu-ray player, and now come with Boston Acoustics speakers and a Denon A/V receiver, while the 2.1 systems sometimes include a CD player. The products tend to be mid-to-high priced.

Haier

Haier, perhaps best known for its appliances, is a relatively new brand to sound-bar speaker systems.  It now makes several models, including a few with integrated iPod docks.  Its electronics products are typically priced toward the lower end of the spectrum.

Harmon Kardon

Harman Kardon--part of Harman International, which also owns the AKG, Infinity, JBL, Lexicon, and Mark Levinson brands--is well known in several categories of home-theater products, including 2.1- and 5.1-channel units, which may include a Blu-ray player.  The products tend to be mid-to-high priced.

Insignia

Insignia is Best Buy’s step-up electronics house brand, exclusively sold by the retailer. (The company also uses the Dynex brand for lower-priced products.)  Insignia’s products are positioned as a value line offering a decent number of features at a relatively modest price.

JVC

Perhaps better known for its video products, JVC also offers sound-bar speaker systems in the lower-to-middle price range.  

LG

LG Electronics is an emerging consumer electronics powerhouse that manufactures a wide range of products under the LG and Zenith brands in the United States. Its products include 1.0- and 1.1- sound-bar systems, and 5.1- and 7.1- channel home-theater systems with an internal Blu-ray or 3D Blu-ray player.  Prices are typically in the lower-to-middle price range.  

Onkyo

Onkyo products include 5.1- and 7.1-channel systems without an internal DVD or Blu-ray player, although all of those systems will support 3D pass-through video.  Prices start at the midrange and increase with additional features.

Panasonic

Panasonic is a major consumer-electronics brand in several audio and video categories.  It manufactures 1.1- and 5.1- channel systems that come with an internal 3D Blu-ray player and wireless connectivity. The products are competitively priced and widely available.

Philips

Philips licensed its North American business to Funai in 2008--the deal was renewed through 2015--and a new company for those products, P&F, was formed.  Its current products are manufactured by P&F and Philips branded.  Philips sells 1.1 sound-bar systems without any included DVD or Blu-ray players.  Prices are low-to-mid range.

Polk Audio

Polk Audio is a well-known speaker company that has a full line of surround-sound sound bars with and without subwoofers.  Its products are mid-to-high priced.

RCA

Alco Electronics, a large Chinese consumer-products company, acquired RCA’s name and product franchise for video products in 2007 and continues to introduce new products to this category in the value market.

Samsung

Samsung is a powerhouse electronics brand in several categories, including home-theater systems.  It sells 2.1- channel sound bars, and 5.1- and 7.1- channel systems that include either a Blu-ray or 3D Blu-ray player and wireless connectivity. Prices vary, ranging from low to high.

Sharp

Sharp, perhaps best known for its Aquos LCD TVs, also sells sound-bar systems to complement its TV line with this midpriced product.

Sony

Sony, one of the world's most-recognized electronics brands, sells home-theater products in a wide range of categories, including 1.1-virtual surround-sound sound-bar systems and 5.1- channel systems that incorporate a 3D Blu-ray player and have wireless connectivity. Sony products cover the market, from low to high, with models for nearly every price category.  

Vizio

Leading LCD TV brand Vizio now offers 2.0-, 2.1-, and 5.1- wireless sound-bar speaker systems that complement its TV line.

Yamaha

Yamaha sells products in all categories of home theater, including sound bars, and 5.1- and 7.1- channel systems that do not include a DVD or Blu-ray player. Prices range from mid to high for the majority of its products.  

Shopping tips

With sound quality, your opinion is the one that matters most. Even speakers we judge to have similar sound quality will probably sound different because of the way they handle various frequencies and how they interact with the acoustics in your room. Audition systems in the store and ask about a return or exchange if the one you buy doesn't suit you.

Think about the kind of sound you want

If you want true surround sound, buy a system with a full complement of speakers for multichannel sound. Keep in mind that most rear speakers require you to run wires from the receiver to the back of the room. Only models with surround speakers powered by wireless amplifiers don't. If you simply want to enhance your TV sound, a system with two front speakers and a subwoofer, or even a soundbar, might give you the improvement you're seeking.

Decide whether you want a built-in disc player

If you already have a Blu-ray or DVD player, you can save money by buying a home-theater system without one. If you want a bundled disc player, we recommend a system with a Blu-ray player, which can play both high-def and standard discs and CDs, unless you have a standard-definition TV and no plans to buy an HDTV. If you think you might buy a 3D TV anytime soon, consider a system with a 3D-capable Blu-ray player, as prices have fallen significantly. Built-in Wi-Fi, or the ability to add it via an optional adapter, is convenient if a wired Ethernet jack isn't nearby.

Consider the connections

Determine how much equipment you want to route through the receiver and be sure that it has enough of the appropriate inputs and outputs. If you want to make occasional connections--perhaps for a camcorder or an MP3 player--look for a receiver with front-panel inputs, especially if your TV doesn't have any. If you want to play content stored on a mobile device such as a phone or tablet, consider a model with Bluetooth or NFC wireless technology.

Compare warranties

Some manufacturers provide 12 months of coverage, while others offer 24.

Speakers

A long-term investment, speakers can last for years

Speakers are a critical component of any home-entertainment system, and their sound quality can make or break your listening experience. A passionate audiophile might spend well into five figures for speakers, but you don't have to pay a fortune for decent sound. Any money you spend for good speakers is an investment, because they generally last a long time and are less likely to become outmoded than other home-theater gear. You can start with a pair of speakers and add others--such as a center-channel speaker, rear surrounds, or a subwoofer--as your need dictates and your budget allows.

What's available

Among the hundreds of speaker brands available, the major names are B&W, Bose, Boston Acoustics, Infinity, JBL, Klipsch, and Polk Audio. There are also lower-priced models from some well-regarded "audiophile" brands, such as Definitive Technology, Monitor, Paradigm, and PSB. Speakers are sold through mass merchandisers, audio/video stores, and "boutique" retailers. You can also buy speakers online, but shipping costs can be high if the speakers are heavy.

Speakers are sold as pairs for traditional stereo setups, and singly or in sets of three to eight for equipping a home theater. In order to keep a system balanced, buy the front left and right speakers in pairs rather than individually. The center-channel speaker should be acoustically matched to the front speakers. Rear speakers should also sound similar to front speakers.

Each type of speaker serves a different purpose. The front speakers are used for stereo music playback; in a home-theater setup, they provide front left and right sounds. A center-channel speaker delivers dialog and is usually placed atop or beneath the TV in a home theater. Rear speakers, sometimes called surround speakers, deliver rear ambient effects such as crowd noise or special effects. A bass unit--colloquially known as a subwoofer--reproduces the lowest tones, such as bass instruments and action-movie explosions.

Bookshelf speakers

These are among the smaller speakers, but the largest of them can be 20 or so inches tall, too big for some shelves, despite their name. A pair can serve as the sole speakers in a stereo system or as the front or rear duo in a home theater. Small speakers like these have become better at handling bass without buzzing or distortion and are likely to satisfy many listeners. Any bass-handling limitations would be less of a concern in a multi-speaker system that uses a subwoofer to reproduce deep bass.

Floor-standing speakers

Typically about 3 to 4 feet tall, these large speakers can also serve as the sole speakers in a stereo system or as the front pair in a home-theater system. Their big cabinets have the potential to do more justice to deep bass than smaller speakers--and some may contain built-in powered subwoofers--but they take up more space and might not be the best choice for aesthetic reasons.

Center-channel speaker

In a multichannel setup, the center-channel speaker is typically placed above or beneath the TV, as its job is to anchor sound to the onscreen action. Because it primarily handles dialog, its frequency range doesn't have to be as full as that of the front pair, but its sound should be similar, so that all three blend well. Many center-channel speakers are wider than they are tall.

Rear-surround speakers

Rear speakers in a multichannel setup carry ambient sounds, such as crowd noise, and directional effects, such as a car racing by or a plane flying past. Multichannel formats such as Dolby Digital, Digital Theater System (DTS), and the high-resolution lossless Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master soundtracks found on many Blu-ray movies make fuller use of these speakers than earlier formats, so many models now have a wider frequency response. Rear speakers tend to be small and light (often 5 to 10 inches high and 3 to 6 pounds), so they can be wall-mounted or placed on a shelf.

Three-piece sets

Meant as a standalone system or for use with other speakers, these so-called 2.1-channel sets combine two bookshelf or small satellite speakers for midrange and higher tones with a subwoofer for bass. Some may include a center-channel speaker rather than a subwoofer.

Six-to-eight-piece sets

An easy route to a full surround-sound system, these matched sets typically have small bookshelf or satellite speakers for front and rear pairs (though some sets have floor-standing speakers for the front), a center-channel speaker, and a subwoofer. Six- or eight-piece sets take the guesswork out of matching speakers. They differ from a home-theater system in that you have to add a receiver.

Price: $300 to more than $1,000.

Subwoofers

More correctly called bass units, they reproduce all the bass or low frequencies. In a stereo or multichannel setup, the bass unit might sit apart from the other speakers, in a location that delivers the most consistent bass or that's more convenient--even hidden out of sight. But you can't just stick a subwoofer anywhere. If you put one in a corner, for example, the unit might overemphasize some notes and make your system sound boomy. Most subwoofers are "active" or "powered," meaning that they have built-in amplification. Some are now wireless, so you don't have to run a cable to a receiver.

Soundbar speakers

Soundbars contain the left and right front speakers, and sometimes a center speaker, in one enclosure. Many are self-powered--meaning they have built-in amplification--and connect directly to a TV, cable/satellite box, or DVD player, so a receiver/amplifier isn't needed. Some come with a separate subwoofer, often wireless, and a few incorporate either a Blu-ray or standard DVD player. A few models include rear surround speakers that can connect to a wireless subwoofer or amplifier.

How to choose

Consider size. Speakers come in all shapes and sizes, so see how they'll fit in your room. Floorstanding speakers might overwhelm smaller spaces. Bookshelf speakers are often a better fit, though some are quite large. Make sure the model you choose will fit the shelf or niche you've earmarked for it. Most can also be placed on stands.

And don't worry that you're giving up quality for compactness. Many small speakers do a fine job, especially in the relatively modest environs of typical rooms. For maximum space saving, consider one of the new flat speaker systems designed to complement flat-panel TVs. They can be wall-mounted or placed on a stand. In-wall models have gotten better, and can virtually disappear in a room.

Focus on sound, not price

While more expensive speakers can sound better, not all do. We've found that many lower-priced speakers can deliver a very full, satisfying sound. Also, ads often tout two-way or three-way designs and the size of the cone inside a speaker, but you can't judge sound quality by those attributes.

Listen for the differences

Even speakers with similar scores can sound very different. One model might emphasize treble, while another de-emphasizes it. There's no substitute for hearing speakers, so bring a few CDs or a portable music player, such as an iPod, with familiar pieces of music to the store. Speakers will sound different at home because of your room size, shape, and furnishings, so see if the retailer will allow a home trial. If you're torn between two choices, buy the less expensive one. Stores might be more open to a return if you want to trade up to a more expensive set. And if you're ordering from an Internet retailer, check its return policies so that you can exchange the speakers if you're unhappy with the sound once they're set up in your home.

Check impedance

If you like to play music loudly, make sure that your receiver is rated to handle the impedance (generally from 4 to 8 ohms) of the front speaker pair. If the receiver has a higher impedance rating than the speakers, its amplifiers will have to work hard to drive the speakers when they are played at high volume, and the receiver will tend to overheat and shut down. Power range refers to the power-handling capability of a speaker, expressed in RMS (average power) and peak power (maximum surge power). Speakers placed near a picture-tube TV set should have magnetic shielding to avoid interfering with the picture (This is not an issue with LCD and plasma sets, or with rear projection DLP TVs.)

   

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