Home theater sound systems
Create a complete environment
Audio accounts for 50 percent of the cinema experience. That's why your sound system and room acoustics are every bit as important as your TV.
Good two-channel stereo can create a holographic space — but with all the sound in front of you. Conventional 5.1- and 7.1-channel surround sound can involve you more deeply in the onscreen action. Dolby Atmos® is a revolutionary new technology that creates an immersive soundscape with audio that can be placed anywhere in the room and even move around you.
Note that some advanced soundbars are enabled with Dolby Atmos and offer an alternative to the traditional setups.
Traditional surround sound setups
Dolby Atmos setups
Choose your speakers
There's no substitute for listening to the speakers you're thinking about before you buy. But where do you start?
While there are thousands of speakers out there, most stores only carry a few and side-by-side comparisons often aren't that useful. For one thing, the showroom will sound much different than your listening area at home. So make your room size your starting point.
Bigger = better?
Generally, smaller speakers won't play loudly enough in a big room and large floor-standing models are wasted in a small room.
There is no correlation between speaker size and quality and little between size and price. Many small speakers are of extremely high quality — and are usually priced accordingly. Having a small room doesn't mean you have to sacrifice quality.
Judge for yourself
Here are a few tips:
- Figure out your budget before you shop.
- Read some reviews to narrow your choices.
- Take your own demo material to the store.
- Choose music or movies you know well. Familiarity with the music is key to making judgments about a speaker. If a store doesn't let you play your own music, shop somewhere else. And remember, no one hears in exactly the same way. Trust your own ears.
Take a look at the Dolby Home Theater speaker guide for complete information on speaker placement for any configuration. You'll learn the advantages of each configuration and the role of each speaker.
A/V receivers: The heart of the component system
If you choose a component system, the A/V receiver (also known as the AVR) is your control center and power source. It combines:
- A preamplifier with audio and video controls, processors, inputs, and outputs
- A power amplifier to drive the speakers
- A radio tuner for FM and sometimes AM and satellite bands
Everything in your home theater system connects to the A/V receiver. Be sure you get one with several HDMI® inputs and enough other inputs for all your sources. See the "Connections" tab under Choosing the right TV.
If you play LPs or plan to, make sure the receiver has a phono input. If not, you'll need a separate phono preamplifier (which start at about $150) that plugs into any auxiliary input.
How much power?
The simple answer is "as much as you can afford." Look for a minimum of around 50 to 80 watts per channel.
You can't have too much power, but you can have too little. Underpowered amplifiers can damage speakers, particularly high-frequency drivers, if the volume is turned too high. Check the power ratings for your speakers and don't go under that. It's a good idea to get more power than you think you'll need.
See "Power ratings" in the "Buying tips" tab of this page for more details.
Nearly all A/V receivers now include room calibration to help you fine-tune your speaker placement. It uses a microphone, which is usually included, and self-generated test tones. The more expensive the receiver is, the more sophisticated the calibration circuitry is likely to be.
Many additional features can improve your experience and setup flexibility. Here are a few to look for:
- HDMI connections
- Advanced audio processing, such as Dolby Audio™ and Dolby Atmos.
- Video upscaling to improve the quality of lower-resolution videos
- USB connectors for the PC
- Docks for popular MP3 players
- Wi-Fi capability
- Ethernet connectors for direct internet
- Built-in volume leveling, such as Dolby Volume.
First step: check out the manuals
Although owner's manuals for AVRs can seem more complicated than the products themselves, going through some before you buy can help you make a better choice and save you a lot of time later. Many manufacturers make their manuals available online.
Separate components — specifically, power amplifiers and preamplifiers — are alternative to AVRs. Advantages include:
- Flexibility — more easily expandable, especially for adding channels
- Power capability — a consideration in large rooms
- Potential for better overall performance
The disadvantages of using separate components include:
- Space requirements
- Setup complexity
These prematched systems offer a number of advantages:
- Simpler choices
- Slightly easier setup
- Often a great option for small rooms
- Quality and size often directly related to the price
- Sometimes difficult to upgrade
- One-size-fits-all system aren't ideal for all rooms
Soundbars are an increasingly popular alternative to separate loudspeakers, thanks to their room-friendly designs. Many models offer "virtual surround," simulating the sound of a multispeaker setup and making soundbars a solid home theater choice.
Advantages and considerations:
- Efficient use of space, easy to hook up
- Huge improvement on built-in TV speakers
- Often self-powered and can take the place of an AVR
- Surround effects limited to a very small "sweet spot" in the room
- Many leading manufacturers are now designing soundbars, so you can expect some significant advances in the near future.
Speakers from one manufacturer
Choose all your speakers from the same manufacturer so they have similar "sound signatures" which will create the most convincing surround effects.
Most of the major manufacturers now offer prematched home theater sets, saving you the trouble of finding the separate speakers yourself.
Multichannel playback from your stereo recordings
Most receivers include Dolby Pro Logic® II (or IIx or IIz) that can generate surround sound from any stereo source:
- Vinyl LPs
The effect will vary, but live recordings, in particular, will deliver dramatic spaciousness. If your receiver offers Music and Movie modes, use those modes for listening and viewing.
MP3s: don't expect too much
Strangely enough, MP3 music recordings that sound great through earbuds on your commute probably won't sound as good on your home theater, especially at higher volumes. MP3 files are highly compressed, losing both high- and low-frequency information. On a high-quality system, you'll quickly hear the difference compared to, say, a CD or DVD.
Receivers and amplifiers are rated in watts per channel. A typical specification (or spec) for an AVR is 100 W × 5, meaning that each of the five channels can deliver 100 watts.
Ideally, all channels would be capable of delivering those 100 watts simultaneously, but this is usually the case only for top-of-the-line models or separate power amplifiers.
In everyday use, it doesn't matter that much — it's very rare for any movie soundtrack or music to reach peak levels in all five channels at the same time.
Although most speakers will play pretty loudly with only a few watts of input, you need the extra power to handle peaks, such as the sound of a gunshot.
Every 3 decibel (dB) increase in sound level (the minimum increase you can hear) requires doubling the power. A change in sound from 85 to 105 dB could easily mean going from 1 to 100 watts, even for an instant.