16 Questions to Ask Before Buying a Surround Sound System

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Do you need help choosing the ideal surround sound system for your home theater? Yes, the wide range of options available can be daunting.

But don’t worry. This detailed guide will steer you through the decision-making process, from considering the ease of installation to matching your room’s décor.

Prepare to turn your movie nights into captivating, cinema-like experiences in the comfort of your home. Read on to simplify your selection process.

1. Do You Understand the Terminology?

a man confused by surround sound technology

Before investing in a home theater surround sound system, it’s crucial to understand the terminology and different types of systems available. 

The most common terms you should understand are :

  • 5.1: three front speakers (left, center and right), two surround speakers and a subwoofer (the sub is the .1).
  • 7.1: two additional speakers at the rear.
  • Subwoofer: a separate speaker specifically designed to reproduce low-pitched audio frequencies. It enhances the depth and intensity of movie sound effects and low bass in music.
  • Dolby Atmos and DTS:X: these formats use object-based audio and height channels for a three-dimensional experience. Common layouts are 5.1.2 and 7.1.4.
  • True Surround: uses dedicated speakers for each audio channel for the best immersive experience
  • Virtual Surround: simulates the immersive experience with fewer speakers or even a single soundbar. Cheaper and uses less space, but the 3D audio experience could be better.

Understanding these concepts will help you choose the right system for your entertainment needs.

2. What Type of Surround Sound System Is Best for You?

a soundbar speaker system in a modern room

When picking a surround sound system for your home theater, you’ll have to choose between:

  • Home Theater in a Box (HTIB): convenient and affordable, offering an all-in-one package, but they may lack power and quality.
  • Soundbars: compact and straightforward, offering improved audio over TV speakers, ideal for smaller rooms or simpler setups. However, they may not provide the same audio separation as other systems.
  • Separate Components: usually an AV receiver and a speaker package. Offer the highest audio quality and flexibility potential, letting you tailor your system. But they come with a higher price and may require a complex setup.

Base your decision on your budget, room size, audio quality and convenience preferences.

3. How Many Channels Do You Need?

7.1 surround sound speaker layout

Before buying a sound system, the channel configuration is a crucial choice. 

The main options include:

  • 5.1 Channels: with five speakers and one subwoofer, they offer a straightforward audio experience enhancement.
  • 7.1 Channels: this adds two extra speakers to the 5.1 setup for a more immersive sound.
  • 5.2 or 7.2 Channels: similar to 5.1 and 7.1 but with an additional subwoofer for enhanced bass.
  • 5.1.2, 5.1.4, 7.1.2, and 7.1.4: these setups incorporate Dolby Atmos technology with height or overhead speakers for a three-dimensional sound experience.

Your choice should consider available space, budget, and the balance between desired audio experience and practicality.

4. Do You Need Surround Sound?

stereo home theater system with tower speakers

While installing surround sound will take your listening experience to the next level, you don’t have to install it for a home theater.

You can get great sound by installing a simple stereo or 3.0 (stereo with a center channel) system. Or add a subwoofer for 2.1 or 3.1.

Although you won’t experience the full immersive effect of a surround or Dolby Atmos setup, external speakers will significantly enhance your movie-watching experience compared to relying solely on your TV’s built-in speakers.

Surround sound is great, and I urge you to try it. But it takes up more space and will usually cost more, so maybe it’s not the right choice for you.

5. Do You Need a Subwoofer?

a subwoofer in a home theater room

A subwoofer, designed to reproduce low-frequency sounds or bass, can significantly enhance your surround sound experience. 

It takes the bass load off other speakers, providing a clearer, more balanced sound. Subwoofers can be particularly beneficial if you often watch action movies or listen to bass-heavy music, as they allow low-frequency sounds to resonate throughout the room. 

A subwoofer can enhance audio quality, widen the soundstage, and improve stereo imaging even for lighter music or dialogue-focused films. 

However, consider your room’s size and budget. You can get cheap compact models or large, expensive beasts. It depends on what suits your needs.

You don’t have to use a subwoofer if you want to save money or if space is tight. Although, I recommend getting one if you can.

6. What Is Your Budget?

a home theater speaker system with a price tag

Deciding on a budget is essential in building the perfect surround sound system. Your budget will determine the quality and number of components you can include in your setup and is the quickest way to narrow your choices. 

Establishing a realistic price range ensures you get the best surround sound system for your hard-earned money.

You can summarise your options in three broad categories:

  • Budget-friendly setups ($300-$1000): This budget can cover entry-level speakers and a basic receiver. Soundbar systems range from entry-level models, around $300, to more expensive brands with better sound and more features.
  • Mid-range setups ($1,000-$5,000): At this level, you can afford higher-quality speakers, Dolby Atmos support, and receivers with better performance and more features.
  • High-end setups ($5,000 and above): This budget range allows for premium components like high-quality receivers and up to 15 or more speakers for a comprehensive Dolby Atmos system.

Investing in a surround sound system is a long-term decision, so research the best options within your price range.

With various options available in the market, you need to balance your desired features and financial constraints.

7. Have You Considered Room Size and Acoustics?

large home theater room

Considering the room size and acoustics before buying your sound system is critical.

Larger rooms require more powerful amplifiers and bigger speakers, while compact setups may benefit smaller spaces. 

The volume and power output of the system should match the room size, although most systems made for the home will provide plenty of volume for all but the largest of rooms.

Additionally, consider the room’s acoustic properties, such as flooring and wall surfaces; hard materials can reflect sound, causing echo, while softer materials can absorb sound, making things appear quieter. 

You should modify rooms with many hard surfaces for better sound quality. 

Some advanced systems have built-in tools that optimize audio output based on room characteristics, which can make a big difference to the perceived sound quality without spending more money on room treatments. 

8. Where Will You Place the Speakers?

guidelines for the placement of the front left and right speakers

Speaker placement is crucial for an optimal home theater surround sound experience.

  • Front Left and Right Speakers: The front speakers should be evenly spaced on each side of the TV, at ear level, with a toe-in angle of 22-30 degrees for balanced audio. You can use speaker stands, wall mounts or furniture to place them.
  • Center Channel Speaker: The center speaker is responsible for dialogue and on-screen sounds and should be placed directly above or below the TV to match audio with visuals. Do you have space to install it in the best location?
  • Surround Speakers: The surround speakers should be positioned to the side or behind the listening area, facing the audience and creating an immersive soundstage. Consider where you can put them before you purchase.
  • In-ceiling Speakers: In-ceiling speakers are ideal for height effects and should be placed above the primary listening area, slightly in front or behind the viewer. But they take much more work to install than using standard speakers.
  • Tower Speakers: Tower speakers (aka floorstanding speakers) are helpful in larger rooms for a more dynamic sound output, potentially replacing front left and right speakers. But, they can be more difficult to position if space is tight.

You must ensure that you can place the speakers you buy in the correct locations in your room for the best performance.

Don’t worry if you can’t locate everything exactly right, but try to get as close as possible.

9. Does the System Offer the Features and Connectivity You Need?

rear connections on an AV receiver

It’s vital to consider the various connectivity options your system provides to ensure compatibility with existing and potential future devices:

  • HDMI: A standard home theater system connection supporting high-definition video and multi-channel audio. Ensure the system has enough HDMI inputs for your devices.
  • Optical: TOSLINK provides a digital audio connection for older devices or when HDMI inputs are limited.
  • Coaxial: Less common than optical connections but used in some devices for connecting audio devices to your system.
  • Bluetooth: Allows the connection of wireless devices for streaming music or other audio content, adding flexibility and ease of use.
  • Wi-Fi: Useful for accessing online streaming services, connecting to other devices in your network, and controlling your system via a smartphone or tablet app.
  • Ethernet: Offers a direct connection to your home network for improved performance and reliability compared to Wi-Fi.

Remember to check if the system supports features like Dolby Atmos or DTS-X for immersive audio experiences to ensure your system meets current and future needs.

10. What About the Sound Quality of the System?

an audiophile listening to speakers in his room

For some people, sound quality is one of the most critical factors. If so, pay attention to these key aspects:

  • Dialog: Ensure the system offers excellent clarity for reproducing dialogue, particularly from the central speaker. Cheaper soundbars won’t have a center speaker, just stereo, which may make the dialog harder to hear.
  • Power: A powerful amplifier can drive your speakers to their full potential and enhance the overall audio performance. But it’s not just about volume levels; it’s about providing control and dynamics.
  • Dynamic range: A system with a wide dynamic range can accurately reproduce soft and loud sounds, providing an immersive experience. Ideal for movies and music.
  • Distortion: Pay attention to any potential distortion at different volume levels and with various types of audio content. If you want it loud, consider an amplifier with a more powerful output and match it with speakers that can handle it.
  • Frequency response:  a balanced system will deliver a clear midrange for the dialog, crisp high frequencies for detail and a solid low end for effects. Beware of cheap systems that simply offer plenty of bass. Too much low-end will get tiring to listen to after a while, lack clarity in the midrange for dialog – and annoy the neighbors!
  • Timbre: The speakers’ tonal quality or sound signature should be consistent across the surround sound setup for seamless channel blending. However, the most important speakers for this are the front three – left, right and center. If you are buying separates, I recommend getting the same brand and range for these. You don’t need to worry so much about the subwoofer, surround and Dolby Atmos speakers, although try and buy speakers of a similar quality if you can.

Remember, sound quality is subjective, so it’s important to listen to various systems to find the one that best suits your needs and preferences.

However, you don’t need to lose sleep over this. In my opinion, there is too much discussion on ‘sound quality.’ Most people don’t need to sweat the finer details.

All reputable amplifier and speaker brands will produce a decent sound that will be more than good enough for the average home user. Their systems aren’t necessarily ‘better’ than each other. There will be minor tone and frequency response differences that most people won’t notice.

And if you don’t address the frequency response problems in your room, no matter how good your sound system is, it won’t perform to its full potential.

If you consider yourself an audiophile, spend some time picking the right system for your tastes. But for most people, spend as much as your budget allows on a reputable brand but pay more attention to the features you need.

Overall, you get what you pay for (although not always).

11. Is the System Easy to Install, or Will You Need Help?

a man installing an in-wall speaker

It’s easy to overlook the installation and use of your new system.  Consider the following factors to assess the ease of installation and operation:

  • DIY or Professional Installation: Determine whether you can install the system yourself or if it requires professional help. Most systems are designed for DIY installation and will be relatively easy if you enjoy putting together modern technology. If not, there are professionals you can hire, so you don’t need to worry about it. Professional assistance is especially handy if you want to hide speaker wire in the walls, install in-wall or in-ceiling speakers or set up professional control systems like Crestron, Control4 and Savant Systems.
  • User Manual and Support: Look for a system that provides a comprehensive user manual and customer support. These will help you understand the system, troubleshoot issues, and get answers to any questions you may have.
  • Ease of Use: The system should be user-friendly, with an intuitive interface that makes it easy to navigate settings and make adjustments.
  • Compatibility: Ensure that the system is compatible with your existing equipment, such as your TV, gaming console, or Blu-ray player, to make the installation process smoother and avoid additional hardware or adapters.

These considerations will help you choose an easy-to-install and operate surround sound system, enhancing your home theater audio experience.

12. Have You Checked Customer Reviews for the System?

a woman wearing high-end headphones reading online reviews

It’s a good idea to check customer reviews for real-life product performance insights. 

These reviews can offer valuable information about setup ease, audio quality, and overall satisfaction. 

Keep in mind:

  • Check reviews from different electronics stores to gauge if the product matches its advertised claims.
  • Focus on more than the top ratings. Both positive and negative reviews provide a balanced perspective and reveal potential issues.
  • Besides store reviews, consult buying guides and expert opinions to understand the product’s features and specifications better. If only there was a home theater blog you could check out… 😉

Remember, no system is perfect and may not suit everyone’s tastes. 

You should balance customer reviews and expert advice to ensure you select a surround sound system that meets your expectations.

13. Should You Choose a Wireless or Wired System?

a wireless home theater speaker system

Modern home theater systems rely more and more on wireless speakers and components. It can be hard to choose between the two.

So, if you are unsure, consider the following key factors:

  • Space and Aesthetics: Wireless systems offer a clutter-free setup that blends easily with your decor, while wired systems require careful cable management and may need more space.
  • Installation and Setup: Wireless systems are generally easier to install, especially for multi-room setups. In contrast, wired systems have a more complex installation process but can offer excellent performance.
  • Choice: Wired systems are widely available and have been developed over many years, providing a broad range of options. In comparison, wireless systems are a more recent development with fewer choices if you want to go this route.  
  • Audio Quality: While high-quality wireless systems can provide great sound, wired systems usually offer superior audio quality with less risk of signal interference or latency issues.
  • Reliability: Wired connections will be reliable if you spend time correctly connecting your system. Wireless systems can also provide dependable performance but might be prone to interference and drop-outs if used over long distances.
  • Budget: Wired systems cover a wide price range, from budget-friendly to high-end options, whereas wireless systems, including “home theater in a box” solutions, are often more suitable for moderate to high-end budgets.

Base your choice between a wireless or wired system on your needs, preferences, and budget. Both options have pros and cons, so weigh these carefully to decide what works best for your home theater experience.

14. Is the System Expandable in the Future?

HDMI eARC connection on the back of an AV receiver

If you want to ensure the versatility and longevity of your new system, consider if you can expand it in the future.

Key considerations include:

  • Speaker Expansion: Choose a system that supports adding or upgrading speakers. This feature will enhance your sound experience, especially if you plan to move to a larger space or desire more immersive audio.
  • Amplifier Expansion: Can you keep the existing speakers and add a better amplifier with more power or new features? For example, you can easily upgrade the amplifier and speakers separately with an AV receiver and speaker package.
  • Compatibility with New Devices and Formats: Your system should be able to adapt to technological advances in audio and video formats. For example, systems compatible with eARC (Enhanced Audio Return Channel) will support higher-resolution and uncompressed audio formats.

Choosing a flexible and expandable system can save money and time in the long run, ensuring continuous, high-quality audio experiences.

15. What Is the Reputation of the Brand You’re Considering?

customer service in a hi-fi speaker company

It’s easy to forget the brand behind a system when you get caught up in picking the right features and functions.

The brand’s reputation is fundamental and usually correlates with product quality, customer service, and post-purchase support. 

Consider the following factors:

  • Quality: Check reviews, customer feedback, and industry recognitions to understand the brand’s product quality.
  • Reliability: Research the brand’s track record for product reliability. Look for patterns in customer reviews about common failures or defects.
  • Customer Service: Gauge the responsiveness and effectiveness of the brand’s customer service through reviews or direct contact before purchasing.
  • Warranty: Look for a reasonable warranty policy and understand its terms, exclusions, and limitations to ensure peace of mind after the purchase.
  • After-Sales Service: Ensure the brand provides post-purchase support, including installation help, software updates, or troubleshooting assistance.

Remember, a reputable brand often equates to a better overall experience with your system.

16. How Well Does the System Fit With Your Room’s Decor?

home theater tower speakers matching the room décor

There is more to buying the right system than checking price, features and sound quality.

It’s easy to overlook how the system will fit with your room’s decor.

While it’s optional for some homes, ensuring your sound system will visually complement the room will ensure everyone is happy with your purchase.

Think about these issues:

  • Match the system’s style with your room’s decor, whether it’s modern, minimalist, or traditional.
  • The size and layout of your room are key. The system should fit comfortably within the space and not overwhelm it. For smaller spaces, consider a more compact system or a soundbar.
  • Color is important. Most systems come in neutral colors that easily fit into various schemes, but some have bold accents or unique finishes. Ensure the system’s color complements your room’s palette.
  • Accessories like speaker stands, wall mounts, and cables should also fit your decor. You might need to purchase these separately, so consider their compatibility with your chosen system.

By carefully considering these factors, you can choose a surround sound system that enhances the audio and visual aspects of your home theater experience.

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About The Author

Paul started the Home Cinema Guide to help less-experienced users get the most out of today's audio-visual technology. He has been 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. You can find out more here.

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