The term home theater carries a lot of weight. The underlying idea is awe-inspiring because it leverages more than a century of advancements in electronics to recreate the magic of a cinema hall in your living room. You can add a humongous TV to your entertainment room, but you won’t get the complete home theater experience until you throw in a high-quality multi-channel sound system into the mix.
Setting up a home theater seems like a simple affair until you actually set out to buy a surround-sound speaker system. Then comes the confusion surrounding fundamental questions such as how many channels are required for a decent multi-channel speaker setup? This is further compounded by wildcards such as soundbars that turn the very concept of a home theater speaker setup on its head.
However, things are much easier when you focus on the three important factors: budget, room size, and use cases. Considering these criteria, we can take a look at the first part of the puzzle – that is, should you opt for a soundbar or a traditional multi-channel surround-sound speaker setup.
Soundbars or Multi-Channel Speakers?
Sound is an invisible element of a home theater setup that nevertheless makes or breaks the experience. To achieve that, your home theater speaker setup should not only be able to decode and process Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks, but it must have enough power to reproduce the volume as well as impact of these painstakingly crafted sound effects. This can be a tricky proposition for soundbars.
Soundbars rely on a single speaker enclosure containing an array of drivers to recreate the same sort of sound panning by bouncing sounds off the walls and other surfaces within your room. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work nearly as well as it is advertised. The problem with depending on reflected sound is that every room is unique. Some are square, some rectangular, and there are also L-shaped ones with a big hole in the wall. Some rooms have high ceilings, whereas others are short with sloping roofs. To make matters worse, if your room is carpeted and furnished with thick curtains and upholstery, it isn’t going to allow much sound reflection to anyway.
Soundbars aren’t perfect by a long shot, but they still have their place in a home theater ecosystem. They make sense for those who want to absolutely avoid the potential mess and complexity of wiring a multi-channel speaker setup. What you give up in terms of positional accuracy is made up in the overall room aesthetics, which are considerably clean with a soundbar. The Sony HT-ST5000 does a commendable job of emulating a 7.1 channel surround sound setup and packs in a powerful subwoofer that almost makes you forget that the sound is being delivered by a soundbar.
However, the Sony soundbar is quite pricey at nearly $1500, and those who seek a minimalist look might still take umbrage to the rather large subwoofer. The Sonos Beam is an excellent choice for those who want to sacrifice some of the aforementioned impact in their movies for a more streamlined home theater experience. This single unit soundbar costs a fourth of its Sony counterpart, but it is still surprisingly good at sounding big and producing enough bass to keep with a small- to medium-sized room.
If you are on a strict budget, try opting for a cheaper desktop-grade multi-channel setup. This way, you’re more likely to achieve better sound reproduction and more accurate multi-channel panning than a soundbar. If you are concerned about aesthetics and loose wiring, you can spend more (a lot more to be honest) on concealed speaker setups consisting of speakers and subwoofers masquerading as paintings and inconspicuous furniture.
Choosing the Right HTiB System
If you are too good for smaller desktop-grade home theater speaker solutions but still not ready to spend a substantial amount of money, you might want to look into Home Theater in a Box (HTiB) systems. HTiB systems are pre-packaged home theater setups that contain a subwoofer, five or more speakers, an A/V receiver that handles amplification and multichannel decoding, cables and interconnects, and optionally a Blu-ray or DVD player. The subwoofer and center channel are especially important to deliver impact and clear dialogue in high dynamic range recordings found in Blu-ray movies, so make sure you choose one with decent options for both.
Choosing an HTiB system depends on the most important factor in your setup – the room itself. A small space needs lower sound pressure levels and therefore a speaker setup with relatively smaller enclosures and lower wattage amplification. Larger rooms are better served by floor speakers. Nothing beats large speaker enclosures at efficiency, sonic accuracy, and the capability to reproduce tight bass in spades. Just make sure the speakers have plenty of separation between each other and from the walls as well. The rear surround channels can be smaller to save money and space since they aren’t expected to do all the heavy lifting, unlike the front speakers.
Smaller rooms are better off with HTiB employing bookshelf speakers, which strike a good balance between sound quality and physical footprint. These can be placed on dedicated stands or TV furniture, whereas some front-ported designs can even be wall-mounted. More space-constrained setups can look into satellite home theater systems that employ speakers with even smaller enclosures while relying on the subwoofer to reproduce the lower frequencies. These speakers aren’t ideal for listening to music.
Finally, traditional multi-channel home theater systems with wireless surround speakers as well as subwoofers tend to be quite fiddly, unreliable, and expensive. That’s primarily why we haven’t even considered them as a viable option at all. The wireless multi-channel technology hasn’t matured to the point of achieving the trifecta of quality, price, and reliability. You’re better of sticking to traditional wired speakers.
Conclusion: Covering All Bases
Whether you opt for a 5.1 or 7.1 surround system depends on your budget and how accurate you want your movies to pan the surround sound effects across your listening space. Your budget will also decide whether you opt for expensive HTiB systems capable of decoding and processing object-based surround sound formats such as Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, which have additional ceiling-mounted-height speakers to add one more axis of sound steering. The sky is the limit when it comes to the upper reaches of the pricing for HTiB systems.
Thankfully, almost all HTiB speaker systems come with AV receivers that support both DTS and Dolby standard surround sound audio codecs as well as the lossless HD versions found in Blu-ray formats. Apart from dedicated Blu-ray players, most modern TVs are smart enough to support streaming video services, but it is also possible to hook up your home theater with media servers or even dedicated small form factor HTPC computers that serve everything from Blu-ray movies and music to streaming audio and video.
To sum it up, traditional HTiB systems are ideal for most home theater setups. The only major consideration here is that you have to match the rated wattage of the HTiB proportionally with the size of the room. Just remember that it is better to have extra than to be left with too little for your entertainment room. Those with smaller rooms and lower budget, or folks who are otherwise particular about maintaining a clean and wire-free home theater room should consider soundbars. Just remember that what you gain in room aesthetics, you lose in sound quality and positional accuracy.