The 5 best home theater systems of 2021 for immersive surround sound

Table of Contents: Masthead Sticky

  • A home theater system can create an immersive movie-watching experience with surround sound.
  • Compact systems offer convenience, while larger speakers with AV receivers perform the best.
  • Polk’s T Series is our top pick thanks to its impressive performance and affordable price.

Speakers built into your TV are fine for casual viewing, but if you’re looking for an immersive audio experience, you’re going to want to upgrade to an actual home theater system. Home theater systems include multiple speakers and support for surround sound, enabling you to hear movie soundtracks the way they’re meant to be heard: with effects moving throughout your room.

Most home theater systems also include subwoofers for dedicated bass, bringing more impact and rumble to explosions in action movies. An AV receiver is often required as well. The AV receiver is used to power and process your speakers, and many receivers also serve as a connection hub to hook up multiple HDMI devices to your TV.

Though buyers who want high-end systems will typically have to piece together all of these components and purchase them separately, some companies and retailers bundle everything you need in one handy package. If you want an even simpler solution, a multi-speaker soundbar system might be a good fit. Though performance isn’t on par with a genuine speaker setup, soundbar systems don’t require separate AV receivers. For those who want a no-fuss, plug-and-play home theater, a soundbar package is the way to go.

With all of these different options to consider, figuring exactly what type of home theater system works best for your needs can be complicated. Thankfully, we’re here to help simplify the process. I’ve been reviewing home theater gear for nine years, and through hands-on testing and research, I’ve selected the best home theater systems you can buy for a variety of budgets and room sizes.

Note: Some of our picks include AV receivers or built-in amplification, but if an amp isn’t included, we’ve provided a link to a recommended model.

Here are the best home theater systems you can buy:

The best home theater system overall

Polk Audio T series speaker system
Polk T Series 5.1 system

The Polk T Series 5.1 speaker system is a full-fledged home theater package with a surprisingly affordable price tag. 

Pros: impressive performance for the price, floorstanding speakers, 10-inch subwoofer

Cons: Requires a receiver, doesn’t include Dolby Atmos speakers 

Polk’s T Series has long been considered one of the best home theater packages for the money. The system was designed to compete with one of my all-time favorite speaker packages, the Pioneer SP-PK52FS, and it offers similar performance. 

Though I think Pioneer’s speakers have a slight edge, they’re no longer available. And while our previous pick in this category, the Onkyo HT-S7800, offers the added convenience of built-in Atmos support and an included receiver, that system is also completely sold out. 

When it comes to readily available home theater speakers, the Polk T Series is nearly unmatched at this price point. Unlike a lot of other budget-friendly options, the T Series doesn’t just rely on bookshelf speakers. Instead, you actually get floorstanding speakers for the front left and right channels, along with a 10-inch subwoofer that should provide ample bass. 

Reviews for the T Series have been positive. Sound and Vision gives the system an 8/10 and praises the audio quality, saying “the T50 towers deliver the kind of performance that forces you to keep reminding yourself of just how affordable they are.” 

On the downside, these speakers do require a separate AV receiver for amplification and processing, which will add to your cost. To power all of the included speakers you’ll need a 5.1-channel receiver, and the Yamaha RX-V385 is an affordable option that should get the job done well. 

Yamaha RX-V385BL 5.1-channel receiver

Product Card (button)

Polk T Series 5.1 speaker system

The best budget home theater system

Vizio SB36512 F6 Soundbar System
Vizio 5.1 soundbar system

The Vizio Sb3651n-H6 Soundbar System delivers a surround sound experience in an affordable and convenient package.

Pros: Budget-friendly price, separate rear satellites, doesn’t require an AV receiver, Bluetooth streaming

Cons: Small subwoofer, doesn’t support Atmos, performance isn’t as immersive as bigger systems

Soundbars are convenient, but full surround sound setups are more immersive. So, what if you could combine the best of both worlds in a simple, budget-friendly package? That’s where the Vizio Sb3651n-H6 Soundbar System comes in. 

The Sb3651n-H6 is one of the most budget-friendly home theater soundbar options available, delivering a full 5.1-channel experience. This means there are left, center, and right channels in the soundbar itself, along with two separate rear speakers for true surround sound. A 5-inch wireless subwoofer is also included for dedicated bass.

Best of all, the soundbar handles amplification and processing itself so there’s no need to buy a costly receiver unit. The soundbar even includes an extra HDMI input so you can connect another device, like a game console or media player, in addition to your TV. Bluetooth is featured as well for wireless music streaming.

When watching movies and TV, the Sb3651n-H6 offers impressive performance for its price, creating an enveloping soundfield. The subwoofer is also decent for its size, but I’ve found that Vizio models tend to have some balance issues. It’s also important to keep in mind that the soundbar’s overall audio separation, depth, and  clarity can’t equal the quality found on bigger and more expensive systems. 

This is an entry-level audio solution designed for buyers on a budget with smaller rooms. In that context, it delivers great value, but it’s not suited for audiophiles.

The best mid-range home theater system

Focal system
Focal Sib Evo Dolby Atmos system

The Focal Sib Evo 5.1.2 Dolby Atmos system features a compact design and good performance — but you’ll need to buy a separate receiver.

Pros: Compact size, 5.1.2 system with Dolby Atmos speakers, immersive performance

Cons: Requires a separate AV receiver, dialogue sounds a little soft

Looking for a compact, mid-range speaker package with support for Dolby Atmos? The Focal Sib Evo speaker system is for you. The package includes five speakers plus a subwoofer, and the front left and right speakers even include upward firing drivers to create overhead sound.

It’s important to note that you’ll need to buy a separate AV receiver to use this system, and the receiver will need to support Dolby Atmos if you want to take advantage of everything the speakers have to offer. We recommend the Pioneer VSX-834 7.2-channel receiver as a great model with all the features you’ll need.

The speakers deliver truly fantastic sound, offering an enveloping 5.1.2 experience. The two upward firing drivers on the left and right speakers do a great job of bouncing Dolby Atmos effects off of the ceiling, making it really sound like audio is coming from above. The effect can be a little hit or miss, but the added drivers always help to expand the soundstage. 

On the downside, the compact size of the speakers can limit their performance just a tad. Dialogue, in particular, can sound a little soft from the center speaker. The subwoofer is a nice match for medium-sized rooms, but buyers looking for a home theater system to set up in a large space might crave a bit more oomph. 

Pioneer VSX-834 7.2-Channel AV Receiver

VSX-834 7.2-Channel AV Receiver (button)

Focal Sib Evo 5.1.2 Dolby Atmos system

The best high-end home theater system

Klipsch Reference Premiere 7.1.2 speaker system
Klipsch Reference Premiere Dolby Atmos system

If you can afford it, Klipsch’s Reference Premiere 7.1.2 speaker system is a home theater dream come true.

Pros: Incredible 7.1.2 Dolby Atmos audio performance for a true theater-like experience

Cons: Very expensive, large speakers require more space, needs a receiver for power and processing

All of the other home theater packages included in this guide are great performers in their own right, but Klipsch’s Reference Premiere 7.1.2 Dolby Atmos speaker system is on another level. Designed for true enthusiasts, this is the speaker package to buy if you want a full movie theater experience in your living room.

Though there are several different Reference Premiere speakers you can mix and match together, this particular 7.1.2 bundle includes a pair of RP-8060FA speakers with integrated upfiring drivers for Dolby Atmos height effects. In total, the system offers nine speaker channels — two more than our mid-range pick. You’ll need a 9-channel receiver to enable the full 7.1.2 experience, and we recommend the Denon AVR-X3700H for its reliability and packed set of features. 

Klipsch is well known for its proprietary Tractrix horn-loaded technology, and that audio tech is put to good use here. Performance is simply stunning, with range, clarity, imaging, and bass that outclass all of our less expensive recommendations. 

Of course, not everyone is going to have a room large enough to accommodate a setup like this, and only the most serious home theater enthusiasts will want to spend several thousand dollars on speakers. For those willing to make the investment, however, the Reference Premiere series is hard to beat. Expert reviews rave about the performance. High-Def Digest gave the speakers a 4.5/5, and called them “a sonic joy from top to bottom.”

Denon AVR-X3700H

Product Card (button)

Klipsch’s Reference Premiere 7.1.2 speaker system

The best wireless home theater system

Enclave CineHome II 5.1 speaker system
Enclave CineHome II 5.1 speaker system

The Enclave Audio CineHome II offers solid sound quality, but its main advantage is its wireless support.

Pros: Almost completely wireless, includes wireless receiver

Cons: No Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD MA support, each speaker needs a power outlet

There really isn’t a completely wireless home theater on the market yet, but the Enclave Audio CineHome II is about as close as it gets, allowing you to set up a surround sound system without any speaker wires.

To be clear, each speaker still needs to be plugged into a power outlet or strip, and you do still need to run an HDMI cable to your TV. What the CineHome II does save you from, however, is the hassle of having to run speaker wires to an AV receiver. Instead, the speakers all use WiSA (Wireless Speaker and Audio Association) technology to wirelessly connect to the included transmitter. The transmitter then acts as a hub, complete with an HDMI eARC port and an optical port to connect to your playback devices.

Together, the five speakers and 8-inch subwoofer offer solid audio performance, but sound quality won’t match comparably priced wired home theater systems. It should also be noted that the CineHome II system doesn’t support Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD MA audio formats. This means you can’t get full lossless audio from Blu-ray discs, but you’ll still get surround sound using standard Dolby and DTS processing. 

The CineHome II replaces our previous pick in this category, the older CineHome HD. The updated model features a more modern design, along with some new connectivity features, like eARC and support for adding even more speakers via modular upgrades that the company plans to offer.

How to choose a receiver

Klipsch Reference Premiere Center Channel Speakers Atmos

If you’re buying a home theater speaker package that requires a separate receiver, there are a few key factors you should look for when choosing a model. First, you’ll need to confirm how many speakers you plan to use in your setup. In general, the more speakers you have, the more enveloping your listening experience will be. More speakers, however, require more terminals on your receiver, so you’ll need to make sure your AV receiver includes the necessary connections and processing support.

To figure this out, you’ll need to take a look at the “channel” specification on your receiver. The number of channels a receiver supports correlates to the number of speakers you’ll be able to set up. Channel designations are listed as a string of up to three numbers separated by decimal points. The first number refers to standard ear-level speakers (left, right, center, surrounds). The second number indicates how many subwoofers are supported for dedicated bass. The final number describes how many height speakers you can connect for Dolby Atmos overhead audio.

For example, if you have a standard 5.1 surround sound speaker layout you’ll need a receiver with at least 5.1-channels. If you have a 5.1.4 Dolby Atmos speaker arrangement, you’ll need a receiver with at least 9.1-channels. Dolby Atmos setups will also require a receiver with Dolby Atmos processing support. 

Other key features to look for in a receiver include support for lossless audio formats like Dolby TrueHD and DTS HD-MA. This feature is pretty standard on most receivers sold today. Many receivers also feature HDMI inputs for passing video from a streaming box, Blu-ray player, or game console to your TV. For the most comprehensive 4K HDR passthrough capabilities, you’ll want to find a receiver with support for at least the HDMI 2.0 standard. 

Finally, many receivers also include Wi-Fi and Bluetooth wireless capabilities for easy music streaming from mobile devices. Some receivers even include voice control capabilities via separate Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant devices. Chromecast built-in, Spotify Connect, AirPlay 2, and DTS Play-Fi protocols are all supported on select models as well, so you’ll want to make sure that your receiver supports whatever format works best for your ecosystem.   

Read the original article on Business Insider