Let's face it: even the best TVs have a built-in speaker system that flat out doesn't cut it. When you’re building a home hi-fi system or a home theater system, one of the most important choices you have to make is the size and type of speakers you’ll need for your space. Whether you're just looking to upgrade your living room TV or building a dedicated home theater setup, there is a great deal of aftermarket equipment that can help you figure out a sound solution that works for your room.
Are you going to get bookshelf speakers or floorstanding speakers? If so, what are the differences? And how are they similar? The goal of this guide is to help you familiarize yourself with audio equipment like soundbars, receivers, and speakers to help you get the best sound possible and give you a few starter recommendations too.
Soundbars comprise an array of speakers combined into a single body. They're a great hybrid of convenience and performance and they offer a few benefits over traditional home theater setups. They're easy to set up, are relatively affordable, and still allow you to get rich, room-encompassing sound. Soundbars are probably the closest to a "set it and forget it" type of solution for an audio setup. Of course, not all soundbars are created equal, so we've rounded up some models to help you get started in your journey for the perfect soundbar and not break the proverbial bank while doing so.
One of our favorite choices is the MagniFi Mini AX, from Polk. The first thing you'll notice about the MagniFi Mini AX is its unusual shape and small size. Don't let that deceive you―although it's different from the more traditional elongated designs that make up the rest of this list, the Mini AX packs a powerfully substantial sound and is a huge upgrade from just about any TV's built-in speaker system. It’s genuinely impressive how full and natural the surround sound effect is that emanates from the Mini AX. The audio is crisp and the included subwoofer is capable of delivering substantial bass. We're also big fans of the fabric-covered design of this soundbar―it’s sleek, compact, and discreet enough not to be distracting placed on a TV console.
If you're looking for a soundbar with more room-enveloping sound, consider something like the M-Series Elevate, from VIZIO. It's a versatile soundbar with Dolby Atmos support and a more immersive sound than the MagniFi Mini AX, thanks to a series of motorized upward-facing speakers that can direct sound from the ceiling. With the Elevate, TV show audio is clear, and the dedicated subwoofer lends plenty of bass to the setup, too. It comes with two satellite speakers and the main body has vents that slide out from each side to enhance the sound even further. Another solid option is the HW-S60B 5-Channel Soundbar from Samsung, which has Dolby Atmos support and a dedicated center channel for clearer dialog to enhance your binge-watching experience. This soundbar can use an HDMI ARC connection for a simple, single cable setup or can connect via optical cable or wirelessly using Bluetooth or AirPlay 2. Thankfully, you don't have to spend thousands to get a soundbar that performs well. There are plenty of options available at a decent price point and, if you're looking for even more performance, that's where the next category begins.
An AV receiver is very much the heart of a surround-sound setup. If you're trying to get as close as possible to recreating the high-fidelity audio experience of being in a movie theater, an AV receiver is an absolute must-have piece of equipment. For starters, your receiver is responsible for powering your speakers, and handles the job of input switching from devices like your TV or gaming consoles. Other than source switching, your receiver is also responsible for audio (and sometimes video) processing, speaker amplification, and volume control, too. You'll basically plug all of your devices into the receiver and it'll do the rest. The best models offer features like Dolby Atmos or STS:X support and can even double as a music hub with Wi-Fi music streaming support via AirPlay or Chromecast, for example.
You've probably heard a basic home theater setup also referred to as 5.1 surround sound. The "5" is referring to the number of amplified channels or speakers the audio is coming from, whereas the .1 represents the subwoofer. Higher-end receivers can have more of both of the aforementioned elements, but most low to mid-range models are typically going to be 5.1 systems, which is probably more than enough for most situations. Your receiver's ability to room-correct is going to have a significant impact on your listening experience, too. The idea is that the receiver is compensating for your room layout and speaker placements.
With detailed specs and hardware, shopping for an AV receiver can be a bit intimidating. The price can also vary from as low as a few hundred to thousands of dollars, so we've rounded up a few choices that are a great place to get started in your search. There are several models that can do both well, including the excellent TX-NR6100 Receiver, from Onkyo, or the AVR-X1800H, from Denon, which are great midrange choices for those building their first setup. The AVR-X1800H has seven amplifier channels and can power a Dolby Atmos or DTS:X setup. It's important to consider how many sources you plan on connecting to your receiver because both of these receivers are equipped with 6 HDMI inputs. Both receivers include several streaming options like Bluetooth, AirPlay, Spotify Connect, and more. For those looking for an even more capable receiver, take a look at the step-up model from Onkyo, the TX-RZ50, which is more powerful and features more inputs. Now that you have gotten a quick overview of AV receivers, the next logical stepping stone to building your setup is your choice of speakers.
Also known as tower speakers, these, alongside their smaller bookshelf counterparts, are probably the most iconic element of a home theater setup. Unlike bookshelf speakers, floorstanding speakers can deliver on a greater scale and their sound is way more room-filling than their smaller siblings. Generally speaking, bigger speakers are capable of delivering higher volumes, better dynamics and more bass, thanks to their increased size that can house more powerful drivers. Most floorstanding speakers are passive as opposed to active. In a passive speaker system, there's no amplification inside so you need a separate amplifier to get the best sound. In an active speaker on the other hand, each driver has its own amplifier.
It's important to identify your overall budget when choosing speakers because ideally, you want your components to match somewhat in terms of performance. You're just leaving money on the table if you have a pair of high-end speakers that the rest of your kit can't properly power. For a suggestion for floorstanding speakers that deliver high-end sound quality without breaking your budget, consider the Prime Tower Speaker, from SVS, which offers tremendous value relative to its price point. It has a 30 Hz to 25 kHz frequency range for enhanced highs, bass, and mids from its 1" tweeter, 4.5" midrange, and dual 6.5" woofers. Its "3.5-way crossover design" allows each woofer to be tuned differently to enhance performance. You can also get matching satellite bookshelf speakers if you want to go with SVS for the entire speaker setup. The tower speaker is recommended for 20 to 250W amplifiers.
There are considerably higher-end speakers available, like the Reference Premiere RP-8060FA II Speakers, from Klipsch, equipped with a front-firing pair of 8" Cerametallic woofers, a 1" tweeter, and the ability to produce up to 150W RMS of power. Each speaker is also fully Dolby Atmos capable with integrated drivers, which work to envelop viewers in an immersive surround sound experience.
Whether you're looking to improve your TV's sound or building an elaborate home theater setup, there are plenty of affordable options available, and you don't need to sacrifice style for performance either, with modern setups looking cleaner than ever. Soundbars are getting better and better, but building your own setup allows you to mix and match based on your needs. Regardless of whichever option you choose, you'll never miss a line from your favorite show listening through underwhelming TV speakers ever again.
Which of these will you be adding to your at-home setup? Let us know in the Comments section, below.