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Home Audio Buying Guide

Phil Sills

Fed up with the terrible warbling noise your flat-screen TV makes? You've come to the right place.

Upgrading your TV sound can be as easy as plugging in a sound bar, but first you'll need to buy the right one. In this guide we'll look at the different types of home audio systems available, from sound bars to stereo speakers to full-blown, amped-up, surround-sound speaker packages. Here's what you should be looking for to best suit your needs.

Sound bars are a great place to start

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Polk's MagniFi Mini is a compact $300 sound bar that also includes a separate subwoofer

Sarah Tew/CNET

The sound bar is the most popular way to improve sound quality beyond your TV's build-in speakers. It's not only convenient -- it usually involves plugging in just a single cable -- but also affordable: decent sound can be had from $200.

They fit into three broad types:

  • Single sound bar (with or without a separate sub)
  • Sound bar with wireless subwoofer and separate surround speakers
  • Pedestal sound bar or sound base

In general, sound bars are better for wall-mounted TVs and sound bases are better suited for housing smaller TVs while sitting on an AV unit. Of these two, sound bars are overwhelmingly the most popular option as sound bases can have issues with TVs that have legs at each end rather than in the middle.

You can read more about sound bars in our article "Sound bar buying guide: What you need to know"

Step up to a surround-sound system

If you're looking for something that sounds better than a sound bar, the best option is to put together your own system with an AV receiver and surround-sound speakers.

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The Sony STR-DN1070 is a talented all-arounder offering excellent home-theater and music performance

Sarah Tew/CNET

AV receivers can be complex, intimidating devices, but choosing one doesn't have to be. In recent times, the standout option is the $500 Sony STR-DN1070. It has standard AV receiver features such as 7.1 channels and six HDMI inputs, but it's also packed with wireless connectivity, including built-in Wi-Fi, Chromecast, Bluetooth and AirPlay. If you don't need all the extra features and are looking for a more affordable option, the Yamaha RX-V381 is also worth considering.

While you may be tempted to purchase a beefed-up $2,000 receiver with fancy-sounding internal components, they're not always worth the money. Unless you're buying difficult-to-drive speakers like the Elac Uni-Fi series, an AV receiver in the $500 neighborhood should be enough for most systems.

Read more about CNET's picks for the best receivers here.

Spend most of your budget on speakers

The SP-PK52FS 5.1 speaker system will give you great sound for $500.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Most people have a limited budget to spend on their home audio system, so the question is: How am I going to get the biggest bang for my buck? The answer, unequivocally, is speakers.

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 Acoustics 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.

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 Sony STR-DN1070 receiver and Pioneer's SP-PK52FS speakers cost $1,000 total, which isn't cheap, but we wouldn't be surprised if the combination lasts you a decade.

Whatever you do, don't spend extra money on cables. There's no difference between a $5 HDMI cable and a $500 HDMI cable. And the same can 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 as much cheap speaker cable as you need, and never think twice about it. A set of banana plugs is also worth picking up to make connections easier.

Read about CNET's picks for the best budget home theater speakers here.

Don't be afraid to go stereo

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The standard home audio setup used to involve two tower speakers and a receiver, but that's fallen out of fashion with the advent of surround sound. That's too bad, since a solid two-channel system, plus a subwoofer, can be surprisingly effective with movies and music, even without the immersive elements of rear speakers (video games benefit more from true surround sound, in our opinion.)

The main benefit is a simpler system that can sound better than a more elaborate one for the same price. 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. Elac's Debut B6 ($280) is an inexpensive place to start.

Another benefit to going stereo is you can opt for a compact integrated amplifier, rather than a full-size AV receiver. Again, if you use your TV as a switcher, an excellent amp like the NAD D 3020 can easily act as the hub of your living room despite its small size.

Read CNET's roundup of the best stereo and home theater speakers.

What about home-theater-in-a-box systems?

Home-theater-in-a-box (HTIB) systems used to be the go-to budget option for home audio, but we're reluctant to recommend an HTIB these days. You get all the downsides of multiple speakers and tangles of wires, but you don't often get dramatically better sound than with 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.

FAQ

Is 7.1 or Atmos worth it?
Not in our 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.

Dolby Atmos is in a similar boat, for while it's more obvious than 7.1 -- with the added effect of height speakers -- there is also still very little material that supports it. The best Atmos soundtracks don't do gimmicky stuff like simulate helicopters flying around you and instead only add ambiance effects in the height realm. Can you do without that? More than likely, yes.

Read more about Dolby Atmos here.

Do I need an AV receiver with built-in Bluetooth and/or Wi-Fi?
Many people use Bluetooth for streaming music from their phones, and even the most basic speakers and receivers now include it. It's not strictly necessary, but it is very handy to have.

Wi-Fi sounds better than Bluetooth, but it can also be more complex as there isn't one set standard; rather, many. While systems like DTS Play-Fi, Apple AirPlay and Chromecast have tried to unify different brands to work together in a whole-house way, there isn't a single victor yet. But if we were the betting type we'd pick Google Chromecast due to its inexpensive cost of entry ($35 dongles) and its ability to work from within your favorite apps. That said, if you use Spotify a lot, buying a system with Spotify Connect will seem like manna from the gods. Click "play" in Spotify, choose your speaker, and it turns it on and plays for you.

Read about the best Wi-Fi systems and speakers here.

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 we like sound bars with a pedestal design, like Zvox, Bose, and Sonos offer. It all depends on where your TV's remote sensor is, the dimensions of the sound bar itself, and how you position it. Some sound bars, such as Yamaha's YAS-203, also feature an IR repeater, which passes on your remote signals using a blaster in the back, so they still reach your TV.

Editors' note: This buying guide was originally published in 2013 and has been updated periodically since that time, to reflect changes in technology and the marketplace.