Sure, home theater sound is synonymous with five, six, or seven speakers and a subwoofer. And sure, multichannel audio can sound great, and more and more of today's films rely on a room-filling surround experience to convey their full impact. But a lot of folks cringe at the very idea of dealing with a mess of wires and speakers filling their living rooms. Enter HT2.0, a concept I've been writing about for nearly ten years; stereo home theater really can sound amazing on films that don't rely on special effects. If you mostly watch dramas, comedies, older films or documentaries, HT2.0 may be all you need.
Setting up a HT2.0 system is a lot easier than a multichannel one, and of course, you won't have to deal with as many wires and speakers. That said, I wouldn't recommend cutting your speaker budget just because you're buying fewer speakers--buy two higher quality ones--and if you don't want to deal with a subwoofer, the speakers shouldn't be too small. Depending on your room size, a midsize bookshelf speaker, like Paradigm's excellent Titan Monitor v.5 ($499/pair) or Usher Audio's smaller S-520 ($400/pair) will provide adequate bass response. If you room is large, say over 400 square feet, you might want to add a sub, and go for a HT2.1 channel system.
You can use a stereo receiver, like Denon's DRA-397($399) or a 5.1/6.1/7.1 channel A/V receiver for your stereo home theater. I covered some of this ground in a , "Attention home theater shoppers: Think twice before buying a center channel speaker!," and judging by the reader comments, I should have provided a more detailed roadmap for HT2.0 bliss.
Every A/V receiver has some sort of speaker setup menu. To implement HT2.0 "turn off" the center, surrounds and sub; I've provided the following examples to illustrate the procedure. The sound from the turned off channels--center, surround, and sub--will be rerouted to the left and right speakers. Nothing is lost, you'll hear everything in the Dolby Digital or DTS mix in stereo, and some of the surround effects are still apparent when listening in stereo. Those sounds are sometimes projected into the room and create a virtual surround experience.
HT2.0 isn't a universal solution, so sure, if you love surround sound don't bother. HT2.0 is an alternative approach, ideal for small bedroom, den or office systems. My own HT2.0 system uses high-end speakers and electronics and sounds better than most multichannel home theaters I've heard. More speakers are just more speakers, but better speakers sound better. It's really as simple as that.