The Most Important Things to Consider When Buying a Home Theater Audio System

The Most Important Things to Consider When Buying a Home Theater Audio System

A home theater sound system can take your movie watching experience from just okay, to out this world. While the picture quality of TVs has improved drastically over the years, as the designs slim down the sound quality seriously suffers. You don’t need to be an audiophile to notice the difference between a movie soundtrack in a theater and when it plays in your home.

You also don’t need to shell out thousands of dollars to get amazing sound quality in your home (although you certainly can). There are plenty of quality budget-friendly speaker options available. Or—if you’re really keen to get that cinema-style, top-of-the-line sound—you can start small and build your speaker system up as the funds become available.

Whether you want to go all in with a full surround sound system with all the bells and whistles, or if you just want to give your TV’s built-in speakers a little boost, here are some important things to look for.

Learn the Lingo

The first thing you’ll want to do is familiarize yourself with the various parts of an audio system.

AV Receiver – This acts as the control center of your home theater. All video and audio components will plug into the receiver. The receiver decodes the sound signals from a soundtrack and sends them to the correct speakers. When buying a receiver, you’ll need to make sure it has enough inputs for all your AV equipment. If you’re planning on building out your speaker system in the future, plan ahead and by a receiver with more inputs than you currently need.

Subwoofer – The subwoofer produces the low bass sounds on a movies soundtrack. If you’ve ever felt a movie explosion in your bones or felt the vibrations of a song’s beat, that was all thanks to the subwoofer. Generally speaking, the larger the driver is (the circular portion of the speaker) the deeper the bass.

Front Left and Right Speakers – These are the two main speakers in any sound system. If you’re going to go the route of gradually building up a system, you’ll want to purchase the front speakers and a subwoofer first. Most of a movie’s sound effects are played through these speakers, as well as any off-screen dialogue. When listening to music, these are the speakers that do most of the work. In short, you do not want to skimp on the front speakers.

Center Channel – The center channel is responsible for producing dialogue and, to a lesser extent, sound effects. It helps prevent gaps in the sound field. If, for example, you’re watching a movie where a bus drives through the scene, the center channel ensures there isn’t a break in the sound as the bus moves across your screen.

Surrounds – The surround speakers are what really immerse you in a movie. They produce the ambient sounds of a movie’s soundtrack, like the leaves rustling, birds chirping, or distant traffic sounds. You’ll want to make sure you’re buying dipole/bipole surround speakers. This means they emit sounds in multiple directions so it doesn’t sound like the ambient noises are coming from a single spot.

There are also two relatively new additions to the home theater set up: front-height speakers and front-width speakers.

Front-Height Speakers – These go above and between the left and right front speakers to give more height to the sound field and to make the surround sound that much more lifelike.

Front-Width Speakers – These are placed to the left and right of the main speakers and slightly forward (creating a curved set up) and are meant to bridge the gap between the front speakers and the surround speakers.

Examine Your Space

The size, power, and number of speakers you buy are going to largely be determined by the size and shape of your room. Even if you want to go all out with a 9.1 system plus front-height and front-width speakers, if you’re working with a small space, that’s just not going to be reasonable. Conversely, if you’re working with a very large space, you’re going to need to start saving because it’s going to take more (and more powerful) speakers to get a rich, immersive sound.

Just buying the best speakers isn’t going to automatically give you movie theater quality sound. You’ll also need to make sure they’re positioned properly in your room. Check out this comprehensive guide on surround sound speaker placement. You might find that because of the shape of your room or the placement of your furniture, you only have the space to set up a 5.1 speaker system for optimal sound, but that’s okay. Fewer speakers of higher quality and in a better position will give you way better sound than a lot of low quality, poorly placed speakers.

You’ll also want to consider the design aesthetic of your room. If you TV is in a main room where you frequently host guests, you’ll probably want to opt for better looking speakers (which are generally more expensive). If you’re TV is tucked away in a corner of the house that no one but your family sees, good looking speakers are less of a concern.

When you’re planning out where your speakers will go, keep in mind that it’s best to keep them out of cabinets and bookshelves unless they’re specifically designed to be placed there. The sound will reverberate inside the cabinet, warping the sound.

This is especially true of the subwoofer. Subwoofers are dipole and usually wireless, they can be placed just about anywhere, unlike the other home theater components. Because you have so much flexibility with placement, you should be able to find an open place for the subwoofer that will allow you to enjoy the full effects of the bass.

Before You Buy

Whether you’re buying online or in-store, read plenty of reviews. Obviously, when shopping online, you won’t get a chance to hear the speakers before you buy, so getting first-hand knowledge from people who actually used the speakers will help you make a decision.

However, even if you’re shopping in-store and are able to listen to the speakers, you’ll still want to read reviews. Audio showrooms generally feature room treatments and precise setups that are designed to make the speakers sound amazing. You most likely won’t be able to duplicate that in your own home, so reading about other people’s experiences can help you get an idea of how they will sound.

Other Things to Consider

  • Sound bars

If you’re just looking to give the audio of your favorite TV show a little boost, a full audio system might be overkill. You might just need a sound bar and maybe a subwoofer. A sound bar is also a great budget option and perfect for people with a small TV room.

A sound bar is a long, thin bar that houses multiple speakers. It can be placed above or below a TV and many mimic the effects of surround sound. Some come with a subwoofer and some even come with surround speakers as well.

If you plan to use your speaker system to mostly listen to music, you’re better off buying a 2.1 speaker system (front left and right speakers and a subwoofer). A sound bar is a great way to enhance the soundtrack of TV shows and movies, but it’s not going to give music the same boost.

  • Home theater in a box (HTIB)

HTIB systems are another great budget option, especially if you want to go full surround sound. They come with a 5.1 speaker system, AV receiver, and all the connecting wires (some also include a Blu-ray player). They’re also extremely convenient because they’re easy to install since all the speakers were made to work together, and you only need to make one purchase.

These systems aren’t usually upgradable, however. So, if you’re planning on building out your system in the future, it’s better to build your own system piece by piece.

About the Author

Appliance & Furniture RentAll has been providing consumers with home furnishings, televisions, home electronics, and major home appliances since 1983. Our 20 rental-purchase stores serve customers in North and South Dakota, Wyoming, Iowa, and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, with corporate offices in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.


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