If you are looking to buy the best home theater speakers for your surround sound system, then you have many things to consider. It is not just about the budget you have at your disposal - although, I guess that’s fairly important!
There are different types of speakers. Different speaker layouts. Different speaker specifications.
And, that's before you consider all the different brands of home theater speakers that you must choose from.
It can become a very confusing business.
In this article, I will take it step-by-step and highlight the important things you need to consider.
First, I will look at the different types of home theater speakers that are available.
Then I have a buying guide which explains some of the things you might want to think about before buying any type of speaker.
Finally, I will suggest some of the top speakers in each category that you might want to look at.
The first important issue you need to understand is, what options do you have when looking for speakers for your home theater? Until you are clear on the different types of speakers, then it can be overwhelming.
You can buy home theater speakers individually, or as part of a package. Some people like to buy specific speakers for their system, and then add to this as time goes by.
For example, they might buy a 5.1 surround package, and then add more speakers to make a 7.1 or 9.1 system. If you don't know what a 5.1 or 7.1 speaker system is, check out my guide to speaker location and layouts.
Or, they might start with cheaper speakers, and then upgrade the most important ones when they can afford to.
There is no right or wrong way, it is down to you to decide which way suits you best.
If you want to understand more about the role of each speaker in your system, take a look at 'What Does Each Speaker Do in a Surround Sound System?'.
A home theater speaker system includes all the surround sound speakers that you need for a complete surround sound set up.
In a 5.1 speaker system, you will get a front left and right speaker, a center speaker, two surround speakers and a subwoofer. A 7.1 system will have two extra surround speakers for installing at the rear of the room.
So, whilst not a specific type of speaker, this is one of the easiest options you have. You will get all the speakers that you need in one go.
There are no worries about matching the sound of the center and front left/right speakers. They will all have a similar specification.
When it comes to setting any EQ and crossovers in your AV receiver, all the speakers should balance nicely. Heck, they will even look great together as they will be part of the same family.
So, there is a lot to be said for buying a surround sound speaker package. But, why might you not want to go down this path?
Well, you might want the option to build your system yourself. You might want a subwoofer from that manufacturer. And a satellite speaker from another.
For some, it's a lot of fun. For others, a package of speakers is the better choice.
Complete speaker systems for surround sound come in a range of prices.
There are budget and mid-range packages with small satellite speakers and a more modest subwoofer - like the Onkyo SKS-HT690 5.1-Ch Home Theater Speaker System, pictured above.
Or, there are top-end bundles where each speaker is a high-class component in a surround sound system.
Your choice will be down to your budget and how critical you are with sound quality. For many people, something like the Onkyo system will be fine.
A soundbar provides the easiest way to improve on the sound that you get from your TV.
The sound from your TV speakers can often be flat and uninspiring. It seems a shame to get a fantastic high-definition image on your flat screen TV - and then make do with your TVs built-in speakers.
That won't do at all!
Yet, many people don't have space in their living room to install a true surround speaker system. Or, they don't want to mess around with cables running around the room and speakers all over the place.
Therefore, a soundbar sits along the front of your TV. Usually underneath, but you can install it above the TV if that is easier.
It provides a much better audio experience - without the worry of setting up a separate amplifier and speakers.
Many soundbars are active systems. This means they have built-in amplification to play the audio directly from your TV. No need for a separate amplifier.
However, you can also buy a passive soundbar, which will need an amplifier. A passive soundbar will often include the front left, center and front right speakers all in one unit.
Some soundbars will use multiple speakers and DSP processing to simulate surround sound. They might have 'surround' and Dolby Atmos upfiring speakers - but all located within the soundbar.
These soundbars can provide an effective sense of space - with the added advantage of an easier installation. But, the virtual surround sound they provide won't be as good as with dedicated speakers around the room.
A few soundbars will also come in a package with a wireless subwoofer and dedicated surround speakers (also wireless, in most cases).
For example, like the Nakamichi Shockwafe Elite 7.2 SSE Soundbar System pictured above - which actually comes with two wireless subwoofers.
These soundbar systems can provide a good value set up that will produce a fuller sound than those with just a single soundbar.
I have listed a few of my favorite soundbar systems which have surround sound speakers in my home theater system guide.
And, if you think a soundbar is right for you, then maybe check out my full guide to the best soundbars for your TV and home theater. There I discuss all types of soundbars from simple stereo models to full surround sound models.
A center speaker will playback the center channel in a 5.1 surround sound mix. It will be a wide speaker that should be placed under or over the middle of your TV screen.
It may look a little like a soundbar to you. So, what is the difference between a center channel speaker and a soundbar?
The center speaker is designed to reproduce the important center channel information in a surround sound speaker system. This will mainly be dialogue - but it can also be required to reproduce music and effects in a movie.
It will be a mono, single-channel speaker - although it may have multiple midrange drivers and tweeters. It will be a passive speaker – meaning it will need to be connected to an amplifier to drive it.
Ideally, a center speaker should work well with the front left and right speakers and offer accurate sound placement and a similar frequency response.
A center speaker will often be bigger and heavier than a soundbar, include high-quality speaker drivers and will have standard speaker terminals for connecting to your AV receiver.
An example is the popular Polk Audio CS10 center speaker below.
By contrast, the soundbar is more of a jack-of-all-trades. Designed to play the full soundtrack all in one device. It is often a stereo device - or may even have a left, center, and right channel speaker in the same box (and in some cases, even more).
It will usually have a slim design with smaller speakers and will connect directly to your TV via HDMI or optical connections.
A soundbar is often an active device with its own amplification. It probably won’t connect to your AV receiver (unless it is a passive soundbar).
The bottom line, it is built for a different job than a center speaker.
Bookshelf speakers are the most common type of speaker that people use in their homes.
Each speaker will usually have two drivers. A woofer for the bass frequencies and a tweeter for the high frequencies.
Bookshelf speakers have this name as they are designed to fit easily into a room on a bookshelf, cabinet or small speaker stands.
They are big enough to give a good full sound - but small enough to fit into the average living room. You can get excellent sound from the best bookshelf speakers.
The most common use for bookshelf speakers in home theater is for the front left and right pair. You can also use them for your surrounds, but just be aware that they are larger than typical satellite speakers.
So, in some living rooms, they may prove difficult to position.
When used with a subwoofer for movies, it can be easy to get a balanced sound with bookshelf speakers. They reproduce lower frequencies well, so you can get a nice smooth transition between the bookshelf's low-end and the really low bass of a subwoofer.
If you also use your system for playing music, then a front left/right pair of bookshelf speakers will also work well for this.
Depending on the actual size of the speakers, and the space in your room, you can buy floor stands to put the speakers on.
Or, use wall brackets to keep them out of the way a bit more.
However, check the manual for your speakers. Some bookshelf speakers work best when placed near to a wall, and others further away.
Some use the proximity to a wall to increase the bass response.
Floorstanding speakers are generally seen as more specialized speakers. They are sometimes called tower or floor speakers.
If you want the best sound possible for listening to music, then floorstanding speakers are often the way to go - but they can also be great in a home theater environment.
The frequency range that we can hear is 20Hz to 20kHz (if we are lucky). This type of speaker will handle most of that – sometimes right down to around 30Hz.
The physical size of these speakers will mean they can be designed to reproduce very low bass frequencies - and have the clarity of the mid and high frequencies.
They stand on the floor - hence the name - which gives them a very solid base.
One of the main reasons that floorstanding speakers are tall is because each tower may hold several speaker drivers. Each of these speakers will play specific frequencies with a precise crossover between them.
You can see the Polk T50 floorstanding speaker below has four speaker drivers.
In a home theater system, floor standing speakers are mainly used for the front left and right speakers.
Maybe for the surrounds if you have enough space - and money!
However, most movie surround mixes don't tend to use much low-end at the rear, so the floorstanders may be underused. It will be great for surround sound music though if that’s your thing.
As these speakers are designed to reproduce low frequencies well, you may not even need a subwoofer as part of your system. Many people will set up the room with a 5.0 system i.e. no '.1' subwoofer speaker.
Another alternative is to have a subwoofer, but only switch it on when you watch movies.
The floorstanders will be great for music, but to reproduce really low movie sound effects you might want a subwoofer.
Talking of which...
The big daddy of the speaker world is the subwoofer. Designed to produce all the really low-end bass rumble, subs come in a range of shapes and sizes.
Most subwoofers are active, that is, they have their own built-in amplifier.
All you need to do is connect a cable from the LFE or pre-out channel on your AV receiver.
Passive subwoofers will need a separate amplifier to power them. Or, you may be able to connect speaker cable from your AV receiver and manually set the crossover on the subwoofer.
Unless you have experience in these matters, I would suggest you go with a powered subwoofer as it will make your life much easier.
The cone of a sub can range from around 6-inches up to 15-inches. Sometimes more.
To generalize, the bigger the cone then the better the sub will produce the really low -end frequencies. Although, you shouldn't automatically assume a smaller driver will have less bass.
The actual design of the subwoofer will make a big difference.
The smaller subs will be fine for filling out the bottom end in your room. But, if you really want to shake the room with effects, then you will need a larger model.
You may see a choice between a ported and sealed subwoofer.
A sealed sub is known as an acoustic suspension subwoofer. These will tend to be more compact and provide a more dynamic and controlled lower-end.
A ported subwoofer, known as a bass reflex subwoofer, will have an open port to radiate the low frequencies.
Generally, these will be larger and have an increased bass response. They will provide more 'oomph' (for the want of a more technical term).
Another design difference you might find is a down-firing subwoofer vs a front-firing (or side-firing) model. Although you will find varying opinions on this, the practical difference between the two is fairly small.
A down-firing subwoofer may sound different depending on the type of floor surface. And, it may have a more controlled sound if you need to place it near to walls or corners.
However, the position in the room will make more difference than the direction the driver is firing. You may find my guide to surround sound speaker placement useful.
For those with small children or pets, there might be another factor to consider.
A down-firing subwoofer, with it's hidden cone, might have less chance of damage by inquisitive fingers and claws!
Satellite speakers are small speakers used in surround systems. They are common to find as part of a 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound speaker package.
However, you may also buy them separately to add to your existing setup.
You may see them called surround sound or surround speakers.
Due to their small size, they are ideal for the rear speakers as they don't get in the way. They can fit discretely into your room without the need for removing bits of furniture to fit them all in!
While they are often used as the rear speakers in a 5.1 or 7.1 system, they can also work as the front speakers too - left, center and right.
Like most speaker types, satellite speakers do come in a range of shapes, sizes and prices.
You can get compact ones for hiding around the room. Larger ones for better frequency response. Cheap ones for those on a budget. And high-end audiophile models.
You just need to find the right balance for you, your room and your system.
I have some of these dinky Cambridge Audio Minx Min 22 satellite speakers. I actually use them for Dolby Atmos height speakers – but they will work fine as surrounds.
They would even work as front speakers if you want something discrete - although you would probably want a subwoofer with them. They're pretty good for little 'uns.
Cambridge Audio also makes the Minx Min 12 - which is even smaller!
The main disadvantage of a small speaker is the range of frequencies it can reproduce. While it can sound great for mid and high frequencies, it will struggle to reproduce the lower end.
However, if your satellites are in a speaker system with a subwoofer, then this can work well. The subwoofer is used to handle the lower frequencies where the satellites will struggle.
You might be amazed to hear the full sound that you can get with a modern satellite/subwoofer combination.
Bipole and dipole speakers are commonly used as surround speakers. They have a special design with two speakers enclosed in one unit.
These dual speakers fire in different directions at the same time to create a less directional sound. This is ideal for surround speakers which are not meant to be the focus of your attention - just to fill out the sound field.
In a bipole speaker, the audio is in-phase, meaning both speakers push and pull at the same time. A dipole speaker is different as the audio is out of phase by 180-degrees.
So, when one of the speakers is pushing, the other is pulling. This creates a phase-cancellation effect which results in a very diffuse sound.
A relatively new speaker type is an elevation speaker. With the advent of Dolby Atmos object-based audio, you will need to install height and/or elevation speakers.
Dolby recommends that you use either in-ceiling speakers, Dolby Atmos-enabled elevation speakers or soundbars.
Dolby Atmos elevation speakers are engineered to direct sound upwards so that the sound reflects off the ceiling. They come in two types:
The main advantage of this type of speaker is that they will often be easier to install in your room.
For example, Atmos-enabled modules can simply be placed on your existing speakers. No extra wall brackets ruining your decor.
Depending on your layout requirements, you can place these on the front left and right speakers - plus the surrounds too if you wish.
The downsides are that they may not work effectively in all rooms. They do require a flat and reflective ceiling to work their magic.
And, the ceiling needs to be relatively close.
Some newer soundbars are also being released with built-in upward-firing elevation speakers.
Some Atmos modules are designed so that you can install them in different ways.
For example, the Sony SSCSE Dolby Atmos-enabled speaker (pictured below) can be placed on your speakers and used to bounce the sound off your ceiling.
Or, they can be wall-mounted high up and used to direct the Atmos effects down into your listening area.
I prefer having this type of speaker mounted high and pointing down. But, try both and see which works best in your room.
In-ceiling speakers might be the perfect solution if you want to keep your speakers out of the way.
You can get speakers that lie flat along the surface of the ceiling. Or, you can even get motorized speakers which move down out of the ceiling at the touch of a button. Now that is cool!
If you wish, you can use in-ceiling speakers for most of the speakers in a 5.1 system. Fronts, surrounds, even the center. You would then only need to worry about hiding the subwoofer.
However, in my opinion, they work best as the surrounds, with standard direct-firing speakers creating the soundstage at the front.
This type of speaker is also a good option for Dolby Atmos height speakers. In fact, I would say they are the best option. They are one of the recommendations by Dolby.
You can get budget and high-end in-ceiling speakers. If you are using them just for Dolby Atmos, I wouldn't break the bank. High-end audiophile ceiling speakers would probably be more than you need for this purpose.
However, if used more as main speakers, then you might want to consider paying more.
One ideal feature to look out for in an in-ceiling speaker is a tweeter that moves. With this, you can point the tweeter towards the listening position to improve the sound.
This is useful because the high-frequencies that tweeters reproduce are more directional than lower frequencies.
The Micca M-8C 8-inch in-ceiling speaker (pictured below) has a pivoting tweeter and is a popular good-value choice on Amazon.
However, not all of us are able to install this type of speaker.
The big downside of ceiling speakers is they can be more difficult and expensive to install than ordinary speakers. For a start, you would need to cut holes in the ceiling for the speakers.
And, you would need to run the cabling from the amplifier.
Unless you are pretty nifty with a toolbox it may be wise to pay a specialist installer to do this work for you. Which would also be an added expense.
However, the results can be fantastic, and you really would have a system that resembles a cinema or theater.
In-wall speakers are like ceiling speakers - but are fitted vertically into a wall instead.
The decision on using either wall or ceiling speakers would mainly come down to the room you have. It would depend on the shape of the room and the seating positions.
One option would be to use wall speakers for the surrounds and in-ceiling for your Dolby Atmos height speakers.
Other than that, in-wall speakers have similar advantages
and disadvantages to those in your ceiling. They provide a good way to hide your
speakers in a room, so they don't get in the way.
And, they can look very elegant and professional.
But, they can be more difficult and expensive to install, and the sound quality may not be quite up to the best bookshelf or floorstanding speakers.
A popular development in recent years is the introduction of wireless speakers.
As consumers, we have become used to wireless devices and would like that convenience in our home theater too.
The most common application for wireless speakers in a home theater setup is for the surrounds and the subwoofer.
You can place the sub anywhere in a room, so it is great to have the freedom of a wireless subwoofer.
As for the surrounds, they have always been the most difficult to run a length of speaker cable to. Simply because they are furthest away from the AV receiver.
You have a few options for wireless speakers in your home theater system:
Just be aware, many of the wireless systems supported by AV receivers don’t allow these wireless speakers to be part of your standard surround sound setup. Only for multi-room audio around the house.
However, Yamaha MusicCast is the first system to allow wireless surround speakers in a 5.1 setup.
Audiophiles have long questioned if a wireless connection can offer the same sound quality and reliability of a trusty old cable connection.
And, while there have been big improvements in wireless technology, that debate still continues.
However, if you're not an audiophile, you will probably find the convenience of wireless speakers the main issue.
Even though we use the term 'wireless', you can't get away from the pesky things completely. Any wireless speaker, or wireless speaker adapter, will need power.
So, each 'wireless' speaker will need to have a power socket nearby. So, there will be a wire from the power to the speaker.
In my opinion, the simple answer is, no. You can have whatever speaker layout you wish in your home theater.
Although some people will tell you otherwise, there isn't a precise definition of what a 'home theater' is. I just think of it as anything that improves the experience of watching a movie or TV show in your room.
Any of these is better than just using your TV speakers.
I do think a full surround sound system gives the best experience for movies. But, if you don't have enough space - or money - for this, then go with whatever is right for you.
You can always upgrade again later when the time is right.
Now you have a better understanding of the different types of home theater speaker, you should have a good idea of what you are looking for.
However, there is more to it than deciding which speaker type you need.
Let us look at the other important issues you will want to consider when buying a home theater speaker. Hold on to your hats, we're going to get technical!
You might want to think about:
Every speaker will have a sensitivity rating. You may see this referred to as efficiency. It is one of the most important speaker specifications. It tells us how good a speaker is at converting the power it receives into sound.
An inefficient speaker will turn more of the power it receives into heat. In other words, it will need more power to reach the same volume as a more efficient speaker.
The sensitivity of speakers can range from around 80 dB to 100 dB. Below 84 dB is quite poor, and above 92 dB is very good.
To compare the sensitivity of two different speakers, you would also need to know the impedance they were tested with. You can't compare them if measured with a different impedance.
You can find more information here: 'Understanding Speaker Sensitivity and Efficiency'.
A speaker will be given a rating for the power it can handle. This is the power that it receives from the amplifier or AV receiver.
You should check the rated output of your amplifier, and make sure you are in the right ballpark. You don't need to be exact, and you have plenty of wiggle room, but you want to be sure that your speaker and amplifier are compatible.
Most speakers and amplifiers for home use should be fine together.
Also, when you read the numbers given for the amplifier and speaker, make sure that you compare like-with-like values.
Ratings are often listed using average/RMS values and peak values. These are different.
You may also see a suggested power range which is easier to understand.
You can find more information here: 'Understanding Speaker Power Rating Specifications'.
A speaker has an impedance value. Usually in the range of 4 to 8 ohms for home theater or hi-fi speakers.
This refers to its resistance - or how hard it is to send an electrical signal through it.
The listed impedance is a nominal, or average value - the actual impedance will vary with the frequency of the audio signal.
Your amplifier is designed to work with a certain impedance range. Check your amplifier specs, and make sure it supports the impedance of your speakers.
You can find more information here: 'Speaker Impedance Matching - Ohms, Speakers and Impedance Explained'.
The range of human hearing is about 20Hz - 20kHz. Although, our high-end hearing will usually reduce with age, and the bottom end is more 'felt' than heard.
A speaker is designed to reproduce certain frequencies, and the frequency response tells us this range.
A subwoofer may only reproduce frequencies between 20Hz and 200Hz. A bookshelf speaker, which should sound good on its own, will be more in the range of 60Hz to 20kHz.
The chart of a speaker can also help to give an idea of how it will sound in your room. Ideally, a speaker will have a flat frequency response.
This means it can reproduce all frequencies equally given a fixed level input signal. In reality, it will never be perfectly flat.
The chart above shows a typical frequency response chart for a speaker. It is from an excellent article about understanding frequency response by Alesis.
You should go and read that if you want to understand more. Plus, you can then go and bore your friends and family with your new-found knowledge. Win-win!
You would need to see the chart for a particular speaker to know how well it reproduces the full range. The sound of a speaker is determined by how well it reproduces all the audible frequencies.
A high-end speaker would be expected to reproduce these frequencies more accurately.
If you prefer watching videos, you may find this one interesting:
You will often see the size and type of the speaker driver/cone listed. It's handy to have a general understanding of the different types.
Many speakers are designed with multiple drivers that reproduce specific parts of the frequency range.
A crossover is used to filter the incoming audio signal and pass certain frequencies to each driver in the speaker cabinet.
In general, a small speaker will be used for reproducing high frequencies and is called a tweeter. They will usually have a dome-shaped diaphragm and will be around 1" in diameter.
A bigger driver with a cone diaphragm will be better at reproducing low frequencies. This type of speaker is called a woofer. They come in a wide range of sizes from around 10-inches and up.
A midrange driver fits somewhere between a tweeter and a woofer. It is like a woofer in design, but is smaller in size - say, 5 to 8-inches in diameter.
While some speakers might have a single full-range driver, it is more common for a speaker cabinet to have one tweeter and one mid-range driver or a woofer.
However, some may have multiple drivers.
It just depends on the design of the speaker and the range of frequencies they are designed to reproduce.
This is where it gets subjective. A good sounding speaker for one person, might not sound great to another.
You can use all the specifications above to get a rough idea of the quality of a speaker, but the only proper way is to hear them.
If you can't manage to hear speakers for yourself, then you will just have to rely on the specifications and/or the opinions of others.
All the speakers made by the leading brands will sound good. You can't really go too far wrong with any of them. However, whether it matches your idea of 'good' only you can say.
Also, bear in mind, that the sound of a set of speakers will vary depending on the amplifier used, and the room they are in.
You do get what you pay for. It should come as no surprise if the more expensive speakers will sound better. However, most of us have a limited budget, and only you know how important great sound is to you.
Buy the best, and you will have speakers that will last for years to come.
There are so many different options when looking for home theater speakers, that it is impossible to have a complete list on one page.
My aim here is to give a guide for surround sound speakers and to highlight the important issues to look out for.
However, I will now go through the different types of home theater speakers discussed above and select a favorite of mine for each category.
In other articles, I will review more home theater speakers for each type. So, which are some of the best surround sound speakers in 2020?
I will now summarise the rest of my top choices for each home theater speaker type.
We have yet to cover subwoofers, satellite speakers, bipole/dipole speakers, Dolby Atmos speakers, ceiling speakers, wall speakers and wireless speakers.
Read on for more:
So, you thought that finding the best surround sound system speakers in 2020 was going to be an easy business? If you've reached the end of that lot, and read every word, then I congratulate you.
If not, go back and try again! :-)
It's not so tough really. The main thing you need to decide is what type of speaker you need for your room. Now you understand the different speakers available, that should be clearer.
Next, find some speakers within your budget and take a look at the specs to understand a little more about them. If you get the chance to demo the speakers for yourself, all the better.
If not, there are plenty of reviews and suggestions out there that will help.
Hey, there are even a few suggestions here!
Have fun and enjoy listening to great sound.
Paul started the Home Cinema Guide to help less-experienced users get the most out of today's audio-visual technology. He has worked as a sound, lighting and audio-visual engineer for around 20 years. At home, he has spent more time than is probably healthy installing, configuring, testing, de-rigging, fixing, tweaking, re-installing again (and sometimes using) various pieces of hi-fi and home cinema equipment.