What the best home theater speaker system has

  • Good sound quality for all types of audio. Since the whole point of buying a home theater speaker system is to get the most out of your audio, it's important that sound quality for movies and music is clear and distortion-free.
  • Crisp dialogue. Among surround-sound systems, the center-channel speaker typically handles much of the dialogue in movies; the best speakers offer clean, uncluttered vocal performance even during the most crowded of scenes.
  • Accurate imaging. The best surround systems place voices and special effects in movies in their proper places. For musical performances, proper imaging is needed to place instruments accurately across the soundstage.
  • Connectivity options. It's useful to know what kind of connection options are offered; the most robust speakers include high-quality binding posts that accept banana plugs, spades and bare speaker wire. Spring-loaded terminals are less desirable but are often found on less-expensive surround-sound systems.
  • Substantial bass. Audiophiles agree that low-frequency performance is the backbone to a great listening experience. In movies, high-octane special effects lose their visceral impact if bass response is lacking.
  • Compact design. Unless you don't care about aesthetics, speakers that feature sleek and visually appealing enclosures are easier to fit in rooms; smaller systems are easier to keep out of sight.
  • Room-filling sound. Compact speaker systems won't do in the largest listening rooms, but they should be capable of filling a smaller room with music and movie audio. Be aware, however, that even physically large speakers can be taxed in large spaces if they are not rated to handle higher input power or are inefficient.
  • Flexible mounting options. Some systems offer a variety of extra stands or wall-mounting options.
  • Comprehensive warranty. It's important to know the manufacturer's policy regarding parts and labor and driver and speaker defects, and the coverage period for speakers and powered components (subwoofer). Also, be aware that some makers won't honor their warranty if you buy your home theater speakers from an unauthorized dealer.

Know before you go

How many audio channels do you want or need? Surround-sound speaker systems usually come in 5.1 or 7.1-channel configurations. Although 7.1-channel systems are getting harder to find, most speaker makers sell additional matching speakers to expand a 5.1-channel system if desired.

The advantage of extra rear channels in 7.1 systems is that they can do a better job of creating a convincing surround-sound field. Some receivers offer the option of replacing the extra rear channels with front-channel height speakers; the goal is the same: to create a more realistic surround-sound field.

One caveat is that the extra speakers take up more room. There's also limited availability of 7.1-channel entertainment -- most Blu-ray discs are 5.1-channel only -- although many receivers can simulate additional channels from a 5.1-channel mix.

Do you plan to listen to music? Many low- and mid-priced speaker systems do a good job with movie audio but can be challenged by music. This is because music requires speakers to be able to reproduce anything from delicate string instruments to driving percussion to deep bass with crystal clarity, without adding coloration or distortion. The best surround speakers offer precise imaging, which gives the impression that specific instruments are "placed" in areas across the soundstage.

What is the size of your listening area? Larger speakers can overwhelm a room, while small satellites can help minimize visual impact. Compact and small-size speakers, however, typically aren't powerful enough to fill larger rooms with sound. Determining room size is a critical step when finding the right speaker system.

Can you try before you buy? While the difference between poor and great speakers is readily apparent, subtle differences among speakers are highly subjective. If possible, listen to speakers before you buy. If that's not possible, buy from a vendor with a generous return policy -- at least 30 days.

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