Home audio is arguably 50 percent of the home theater experience, yet many people settle for their TV's lousy built-in speakers. While some truly don't care about good-quality sound, I'd bet many are put off by how daunting home audio can be for newcomers.
The truth is that home audio is a pretty simple affair these days. In fact, the vast majority of buyers should choose between two options: a sound bar or an AV receiver paired with speakers. This guide will help you choose which path to take, as well as offer some general tips for putting together a home audio system.
And if you want to skip all the research, my overall home audio pick is the Haier SBEV40-SLIM sound bar ($260 street price), which delivers surprisingly solid sound quality in an ultrathin design.
Three paths for home audio buyers
1. Sound bars: Simple, small, cheap
For most people, a sound bar is the best home audio option. Sound bars are cheap, don't take up a lot of space, and provide a significant improvement over the built-in speakers of your TV.
So how do you pick a sound bar from the dozens of models on the market? You might be surprised that comparing those bulleted feature lists won't do you much good, since most sound bars need little more than a single digital audio input with your TV handling the switching duties. I'd say the two most important elements of a sound bar are sound quality and design.
Unfortunately, you can't learn much about a sound bar's sound quality by listening to it in a loud, busy store that looks nothing like your living room. You're best off relying on the expert reviews at CNET (and elsewhere, if you must) supplemented by user reviews. And even if you're fairly confident in your pick after doing some research, it's wise to buy from a retailer with a solid return policy, since every room sounds different and you might pick a sound bar that's a bad fit for your living room.
It's easier to judge styling on your own. I'm partial to the pedestal design pioneered by Zvox (and subsequently copied by Bose and others), which results in the cleanest look and gets around some of the most common sound bar placement issues. However, there are plenty of great sound bars that use the more traditional "pipe" design, and they usually have the advantage of including a separate, wireless subwoofer to deliver more low-end. Ultimately, it's a matter of personal preference.
The one feature worth considering is built-in Bluetooth, which is offered on a handful of models, and lets you stream music directly from the majority of smartphones and tablets on the market. However, I don't consider built-in Bluetooth as a deal-breaker feature, as you can always add Bluetooth functionality with a $30 adapter.
Where most sound bars fail is the ability to handle music. The best sound bars are passable, but if you're planning on lots of dedicated music listening in your living room, a sound bar probably isn't going to cut it.
2. AV receiver and speakers: Great sound that will last a decade
If you're looking for something that sounds better than a sound bar, you'll want to put together your own system with an AV receiver and surround-sound speakers.
Choosing an AV receiver doesn't have to be a difficult affair, even though they're complex devices. It's a crude rule, but you'll do surprisingly well simply by picking the cheapest AV receiver that has enough HDMI inputs for your system. This year, that's likely going to be the Onkyo TX-NR414, which is currently selling for $270. The truth is there's little difference among all the models, despite what the marketing materials might say.
Speakers, like sound bars, come down to sound quality and design, and it's generally a trade-off between those two factors. Small, stylish speakers like the Boston Acousics SoundWare XS 5.1 look great and won't intrude on your living room, but they're not a top pick for sound quality. On the other hand, Pioneer's SP-PK52FS speakers are big, burly, and don't look great, but they offer outstanding sound quality for the money. The Energy Take Classic 5.1 does the best job of balancing both factors, and I'm not alone in my praise, with the system consistently receiving rave reviews from expert reviewers and buyers.
Home audio can get a reputation for being excessively expensive -- it's not uncommon for a pair of speakers to cost $2,000 or more -- but I've deliberately picked products that prove you can get great performance on a modest budget. The Onkyo TX-NR414 ($270) and Energy Take Classic 5.1 ($400) speakers cost $670 total, which isn't cheap, but it's about half the price of what you'd pay for a solid 50-inch TV. And unlike smartphones and home video gear, home audio is a long-term investment; I wouldn't be surprised if that combination lasts you a decade.
3. Alternative: Don't be afraid to go stereo
The standard home audio setup used to involve two tower speakers and a receiver, but for some reason that's less frequently considered an option these days. That's too bad, as a solid two-channel system, plus a subwoofer, can be surprisingly effective with movies and music, even without the immersive elements of surround sound. (Video games benefit more from true surround sound, in my opinion.)
The benefits are a simpler system that often sounds better than a more elaborate one. You don't have to worry about running wires to the back of your living room or positioning a center channel speaker, but you'll still get much better sound on music and movies than with a sound bar. And because you're only buying two speakers instead of five, you'll have two killer front speakers, rather than five average ones. Pioneer's SP-FS52 tower speakers ($125 street price, per speaker) are an inexpensive place to start.
What about home-theater-in-a-box (HTIB) systems?
HTIBs used to be the go-to budget option for home audio, but I'm reluctant to recommend an HTIB these days. You get all the downsides of multiple speakers and tangles of wires, yet you often don't get dramatically better sound than a good sound bar. And unlike AV receivers and speakers, an HTIB typically isn't upgradable, so you're stuck with the AV receiver, speakers, and built-in Blu-ray player your HTIB features.
While there are some scenarios in which an HTIB is the best option, in most cases you're better off saving up for a full-size system or settling for a good-enough sound bar.
General rule: Spend most of your budget on speakers
Most people have a limited budget to spend on their home audio system, so the question becomes: where am I going to get the biggest bang for my buck? The answer, unequivocally, is speakers.
While you may be tempted to purchase a beefed-up $2,000 receiver with fancy-sounding internal components, I'm skeptical they're worth the money. There's not much evidence that the differences between amplifiers are audible in double-blind tests, so at worst you're paying extra for the placebo effect, and at best you're paying for something that's very difficult to notice, even by experts in ideal situations. A budget AV receiver with great speakers will deliver a much bigger bang for your buck -- and you can always upgrade the receiver later if you can't shake the nagging feeling that it's holding back your system.
Whatever you do, don't spend extra on cables. There's no difference between a $5 HDMI cable and a $500 HDMI cable. And the same can nearly be said for speaker cables, as long as you make sure you're using an appropriate gauge for the length of your cable run (guidelines here). Head to Monoprice or Amazon, get a cheap cable, and never think twice about it.
Is 7.1 worth it?
Not in my opinion. It's a classic case of diminishing returns: 5.1 sounds a good deal more immersive than stereo, but the difference between 5.1 and 7.1 isn't nearly as great. Not to mention the fact that there just isn't that much content with true, discrete 7.1 channel soundtracks.
Do I need an AV receiver with built-in AirPlay?
The simple answer is probably not, but I've covered this issue with its own in-depth story if you're interested in the details. The short answer is that buying a separate Apple TV, which includes many more features and will continue to get updates, is a better choice for most people.
Does virtual surround really work?
Many sound bars claim they can create a surround-sound experience without the need for rear speakers, but in the vast majority of cases that's not true. That's not to say the virtual surround modes are worthless -- they often do a decent job of widening the soundstage -- but they'll rarely make you feel like the sound is coming from the sides or behind you. The exception is Yamaha's pricey line of YSP Digital Sound Projectors, which can actually do a convincing job of virtual surround sound from a sound bar.
Will a sound bar block the remote sensor on my TV?
This can be an issue, which is one of the reasons I like sound bars with a pedestal design, like Zvox, Bose, and SpeakerCraft offer. It all depends on where your TV's remote sensor is, the dimensions of the sound bar itself, and how you position it. Yamaha's YAS-101 also has a clever solution, in which it passes on IR signals using a blaster in the back, so it still reaches your TV.