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 will suggest some of the top speakers in each category which you might want to look at. Finally, I will list a buying guide for home theater speakers which you should find useful when deciding what to buy.
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?'.
While not a specific type of speaker, this is one of the easiest options you have. If you buy a home theater speaker system, then you get all the speakers 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. So, 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 packages with small satellite speakers and a more modest subwoofer. Or, there are top-end bundles where each speaker is a high-class component in a surround sound system.
Please note, I am not talking here about an all-in-one home theater system i.e. a system that includes the speakers and an amplifier. If you are interested in one of these, I have an article here on choosing the best home theater systems. In this article, I am talking about buying a package with all the surround sound speakers you need. You will still need a separate AV receiver.
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. The virtual surround sound they provide doesn't match the experience of a true surround setup. But, they can provide an effective sense of space with the added advantage of an easier installation.
A few soundbars will also come in a package with a subwoofer. This can provide a good value system that will produce a fuller sound than those with just a soundbar.
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. This will include dialogue, music and effects in a movie. It should work well with the left and right speakers and offer accurate sound placement and frequency response. It 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.
The soundbar is more of a jack-of-all-trades. Designed to play the full soundtrack all in one device. It will usually have a slim design with smaller speakers and will connect directly to your TV via optical or stereo analog connections. It probably won’t connect to your AV receiver unless it is a passive soundbar. Bottom line, it is built for a different job than a center speaker.
If you want a center speaker, it will always be better to buy a speaker dedicated to that job.
Bookshelf speakers are larger than satellite speakers - and you may be more familiar with this type of speaker with your hi-fi system.
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 on their own - but small enough to fit into the average living room.
One advantage of bookshelf speakers is they are better suited to listening to music on their own. They can handle a wide frequency range, and so they are more versatile as part of an entertainment system. You can get an excellent sound from the best bookshelf speakers.
The most common use for bookshelf speakers 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 satellite speakers. So, in some living rooms, they may prove difficult to position.
When used with a subwoofer, it can also be easy to get a balanced sound with bookshelf speakers. They reproduce lower frequencies well, so it is easier to get a nice smooth transition between the bookshelf and subwoofer.
If you also use your system for playing music, then a front left/right pair of bookshelf speakers will work well for movies and music.
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. Check the guide for your speakers though. 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 speakers or floor speakers.
If you want the best sound possible for listening to music, then floorstanding speakers are often the way to go.
The frequency range that we can hear is 20Hz to 20kHz. This type of speaker will handle most of that – sometimes right down to around 30Hz. Much more than a bookshelf speaker. The physical size of these speakers will mean they can 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. Floorstanding speakers are tall as each tower may hold several small speakers. Each of these speakers will play specific frequencies with a precise crossover between them.
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 so well, you may not need a subwoofer as part of your system. Many 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 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.
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.
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 the one unit. These dual speakers fire in different directions at the same time to create a less directional sound.
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 speakers. Dolby recommends that you use either in-ceiling speakers or Dolby Atmos-enabled elevation speakers.
Dolby Atmos 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.
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.
Note: many users say they prefer the sound of standard direct-firing speakers mounted high in the room - rather than Atmos-enabled elevation speakers. So, you may be able to use some existing speakers that you already own and use these as your height speakers. Or, if you need to buy some new ones, just remember you don't need to buy dedicated Atmos modules. They are an option that may be the best choice for you - or not.
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.
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 would work best as the surrounds, with standard speakers creating the soundstage at the front. This type of speaker is also a good option for Dolby Atmos height speakers.
The downside of ceiling speakers is they can be more difficult and expensive to install than ordinary speakers. 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 the previous type but are fitted vertically into a wall rather than a ceiling.
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:
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.
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 top-rated model 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 2018?
Speaker packages for surround sound come in several price brackets. The KEF T205 5.1 speaker package is definitely from the top end of the scale. However, if you want exceptional sound and a stunning modern look, then you won’t go far wrong with this set of home theater speakers. Just to be clear, this is a set of surround sound speakers without an amplifier. You will need to connect them to a suitable AV receiver.
So, you have your sleek, thin, wall-mounted LED TV. You now want some great quality speakers to bring your movies to life. The problem is, many people don’t like filling up the room with chunky speakers. They can take up too much space and spoil the look of your room.
Well, your problems are solved. Step forward the KEF T205 5.1 speaker system. Each surround speaker is only 1.4-inches deep. Yes, you read that right, 1.4-inches. About the same as your lovely flat screen TV.
The low-profile design of these speakers is a sight to behold. You can mount these bad boys around the room and nobody will complain.
The T301c is the speaker for the center. This has a 1-inch tweeter with two 4.5-inch midrange drivers. For the front left and right speakers, this system uses the T301 speakers. These have a similar specification to the center, except they are designed to be placed vertically.
The rears are the slightly smaller T101 speakers. They have a 1-inch tweeter and a single 4.5-inch midrange driver.
The T301 and T101 speakers are supplied with small desk stands. Alternatively, all the speakers can be either wall-mounted or placed on larger stands.
The final piece in the jigsaw is the T2 subwoofer. With its slimline design, it should be easy to conceal in your room. It has a built-in 250-watt Class-D amplifier and a frequency response of 30Hz - 250Hz.
Now, all this is fine, but does it sound any good? Of course! KEF has been at the forefront of speaker design for many years, and you won’t be disappointed with the sound quality from this system. Just make sure you pair it with a good quality AV receiver.
The Sonos PLAYBAR is part of the excellent Sonos wireless speaker range. Therefore, you will be sure of getting the Sonos quality of sound you know, and it will integrate with other Sonos products you may add to your system. The PLAYBAR is a high-end product for those who want to get some of the best audio possible from a sound bar.
Although many people are aware of the Sonos brand, some may not be quite as familiar with all the speaker products they produce. As home theater enthusiast, one of the most interesting products for me is the PLAYBAR.
As a high-end soundbar, it has 9 class-D digital amplifiers which power 3 tweeters and 6 mid-range woofers. The tweeters will create the crisp high frequencies, and the woofers will deliver the rest of the audio for music, sound effects and dialogue.
The PLAYBAR supports stereo and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. It is designed to playback the center, front left and front right channels of a 5.1 surround sound mix. The unit will use DSP to re-create the surround and ‘.1’ channels, so you won’t miss a thing.
The recommended way to connect the PLAYBAR is via an optical output from your TV. To get 5.1 audio, your TV must pass Dolby Digital 5.1 from the source out of the optical connection. Some don’t do this, so check the manual of your TV if you are unsure.
Alternatively, you could connect the optical output of your Blu-ray player directly into the PLAYBAR. You would then make a separate HDMI connection to the TV for the picture. This will work, but it does make the setup a little more complicated.
The PLAYBAR also has a useful autoplay setting. You can choose if the TV audio will automatically play on the PLAYBAR, or you can manually send the audio when you choose to.
The Klipsch RP-250C center channel speaker is part of the Reference Premiere range. This range has higher quality specifications than the standard Reference series speakers and so is in a higher price bracket. As with all speakers, there is a balance to be found between the build quality and your budget. I think the RP-250C finds a good balance between the two and is worth checking out if you want a high-quality speaker for the center channel.
The Reference Premiere series take the build quality to another level. Klipsch has used technology from their top-range speakers and built a center speaker which offers excellent value for money.
There is a 1-inch titanium tweeter built using their Linear Travel Suspension (LTS) technology. This minimizes distortion to give a detailed high-end performance. The dual 5.25-inch Cerametallic™ woofers offer a lightweight but rigid design.
Compared to the lower-end Klipsch center channel speakers, this unit is not as tall and so may fit more easily under your screen. However, it does have more depth, so do make sure you have the room for it. Ideally, a good speaker for the center does need to have some bulk so it can deliver the clarity and weight of the soundtrack. At 18.4lbs, this is indeed a solid piece of technology.
The impressive specifications don’t end there. A rated frequency response of 60Hz - 25kHz means it will handle the low-end well before the really low frequencies pass to the subwoofer. Plus, with a sensitivity of 96dB into 8 ohms, you can expect your AV receiver to easily deliver plenty of volume if required.
If you are looking for a quality center speaker that doesn’t cost the earth, then this Klipsch model is certainly worth adding to your list.
There were so many great bookshelf speakers I could have included here. Models that produce an excellent sound at a range of prices. However, since I am supposed to be picking one of the ‘top’ bookshelf speakers for home theater, I had to go for a high-end model. And, there is no doubt, that the KEF LS50 Mini Monitor is one of the best around. Originally released in 2012, these bookshelf speakers are still going strong.
The KEF LS50 bookshelf speakers are some of the finest on the market. The bonus is, not only do they sound absolutely fantastic, they look cool too!
Inspired by professional studio monitor technology, the LS50 delivers pristine audio. They are available in black or white. On first look, the most interesting feature that you may notice is that there is only one obvious speaker. Where is the tweeter?
This unique design feature is called the Uni-Q® driver array. The clever guys and gals at KEF have designed a speaker where the tweeter is placed inside the main woofer. The result is a speaker without a sweet-spot. In conventional speakers, you can lose the true stereo image unless you are sat in the right place. With the LS50, you will hear the full stereo image even if you are not sitting directly in the middle of both speakers.
You can probably see how this is perfect for home theater. Everybody watching across the soundstage will get the full stereo effect. Add in the surround speakers, and you will really feel right in the middle of the action.
Of course, if you use your speaker system for music too, then you have the best of both worlds.
Another benefit for a home theater setup, is the speakers are quite compact. At just 11.9-inches high and 7.9-inches wide, they will be relatively easy to fit into your space. Even if you don’t have much room to play with.
As well as the front left and right speakers, you could use these for the center channel and surrounds too. Or you can mix and match with dedicated center and surround speakers. If you want to match the technology, KEF does make a range home theater speakers. For example, there is the KEF R200c center channel speaker which also has the Uni-Q® driver design.
Part of the Klipsch Reference Premiere series, the RP-280F is a top class floorstanding speaker. If you want speakers which will work well for movies and music, then floorstanding speakers are worth considering. It will reproduce more frequencies than a bookshelf speaker and, in some cases, you might not even need a subwoofer.
The rated frequency response of these speakers gives you a clue as to how these will work for music and movies. With 32Hz-25kHz, you will get a full sound from the low bass right up to sparkling highs. These speakers will work great for stereo music. For movies, you might even like the sound without a subwoofer. However, if you want that really low rumble, then a subwoofer will probably be required. You can just switch on the sub when you watch a movie.
The 1-inch titanium tweeters improve on the aluminum tweeters from the lower-priced models. The distinctive spun copper Cerametallic woofers are present in the shape of dual 8-inch drivers.
The size of these speakers will mean they won’t be right for everyone. They stand 43-inches high, 10.5-inches wide and 18.3-inches deep. Obviously, they need to stand on the floor either side of your screen, so make sure that you have space.
One advantage of buying Klipsch speakers is that it easy to add more of their home theater range later. While you don’t have to buy all your surround speakers from the same brand, many people prefer to do so as it is easier to match the timbre around your room. Certainly, a matching center speaker would make sense if you had these as your front left and rights.
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:
SVS produce quality home theater speakers of all types. This powered subwoofer wins a place in this list with a combination of quality design and value for money. It is a sealed unit with a compact 13-inch cabinet. The 12-inch front-firing driver provides 300 watts RMS, or 700 watts peak power.
At 8.5-inches high, these compact satellite speakers are perfect for use as surround speakers. In fact, they can be used anywhere in your surround sound system. Although, maybe not as a subwoofer! With a 4.5-inch midrange speaker and 1-inch tweeter, they offer a neutral sound which will blend well with speakers from other brands.
The Polk Audio FXiA6 speaker has a switch to allow for use as a bipole or dipole design. This gives you the flexibility to experiment with the sound you prefer. It comes with a 6.5-inch midrange driver and two 1-inch dome tweeters. Add a second pair if you want them for a 7.1 surround sound system.
The ELAC A4 from the Debut Series is a Dolby Atmos module which you can place on your floorstanding or bookshelf speakers. This will provide the 3D sound when connected to your Dolby Atmos-enabled AV receiver. A 4-inch woofer and 0.5-inch polymer dome tweeter are enclosed in a compact enclosure. A value-for-money solution for getting into object-based 3D sound.
These Polk Audio RC80i speakers are a popular solution for anyone who needs to install in-ceiling speakers. With an 8-inch polymer driver with a 1-inch soft dome tweeter, these speakers will work well as surrounds or Dolby Atmos height speakers. They have a 15-degree swivel mount which allows for accurate positioning.
These in-wall speakers will work well with the ceiling speakers highlighted above. Ideal for the rears in a surround sound system, they can be used at the front if you prefer. They have an 8-inch driver, a 1-inch soft dome tweeter and a 15-degree swivel mount to angle the direction. These speakers are also built using moisture-resistant materials. Perfect for saunas, bathrooms and covered outdoor areas.
If you want a completely wireless home theater speaker system, then this offering from Enclave Audio is a good choice. Many speaker systems only have wireless surrounds or subwoofers. Or, you need to use wireless kits to make standard passive speakers wireless. However, you don't need any of that with the CineHome HD. All the speakers are wireless, and you don't even need an AV receiver. Just connect your devices directly to the center speaker.
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:
So, you thought that finding the best surround sound system speakers in 2018 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.