You’re here because you want better sound, but what do you need? Our no nonsense buying guide will get you started with the basics; what your options are and how to choose. If you need further advice, or helping narrowing down the best system for you, feel free to contact us.
This guide covers speakers and amplifiers only. We’re not going into detail on TVs, projectors and screens, wiring, room treatments or source devices on this page - see our buying guides index for more articles.
In this guide and elsewhere your see reference to 2.0, 5.1, 5.2.2 etc. The first digit is the number of main speakers - so 2 for stereo, 5 for traditional surround sound. The second digit, usually 1 or 2 is the number of subwoofers in a system and the third and optional final digit is for the number of height channels in 3D surround formats. For home use you’ll see systems range from 2.0 up to 7.2.6 and beyond.
Bought a new TV and suddenly struggling to hear dialogue? Worried you are going deaf? As TVs get thinner and thinner the space available for decent speakers decreases. The picture is great, but the sound is an afterthought.
If you don’t care about surround sound and it’s purely for TV viewing, consider any soundbar, soundbase, or active speakers. Almost any option will sound better than the TV, especially for dialogue. The easiest way to get connected is with an optical cable, though more premium options offer HDMI switching too.
Consult your TV manual - most support an optical output but you may have a setting or two to tweak.
Consider a more premium soundbar or soundbase or active speakers - want more bass? Add a subwoofer to create a 2.1 system. Look for a bluetooth input or network streaming options e.g. Yamaha MusicCast or Denon Heos if you want to stream from, or control with, an Apple or Android device. Both of these form part of wider multiroom systems to which you can add more rooms later.
Tip: Both the Musiccast and Heos apps can be downloaded from your app store and set to demo mode, so you can experiment before purchase.
The full cinema effect minus getting your seat kicked by the 12 year old behind you and the inevitable phone going off? Things are a bit more complex, but keep going and we’ll help you figure it out.
Have a look at the Yamaha YSP or Digital Sound Projector series. These are soundbars with a large array of small drivers which operate with subtly varied timing to reflect the sound around your room. The can decode and make use of surround system information, including formats like Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, depending on the model, all from a single bar under your TV or on the wall, plus optionally a subwoofer, depending on model. Note these won’t work as well in corners, or where the required reflections are absorbed (e.g. by large curtains.).
There are other surround sound soundbars with options such as wireless rears too.
Then you need to think about a few essential components, and how to connect them up. We’ll assume you have a TV and some sources (e.g. Blu-ray player, console, Sky box) and tell you how to add in an AV receiver and speakers.
“AV” for audiovisual, “receiver” because these are technically amplifiers with built-in radio tuners. But they do so much more; switching between all your inputs (and possibly multiple outputs), decoding surround sound, upmixing or downmixing as required then amplifying the signal and powering your speakers, while passing through video to your TV. Depending on model they also provide network streaming and control and multi-zone options. There are complex machines to look at, but in reality you’ll use only a fraction of the sockets on the rear panel - many are there for legacy or specialist purposes.
For most simple setups, you’ll connect each of your speakers to the black and red terminals (one pair per speaker), your sources to the HDMI inputs and your display to the HDMI output. A subwoofer requires a single RCA cable.
At a minimum: A standard power cable. One length of speaker cable per speaker, which carries both the power and signal, one subwoofer cable per subwoofer (which are typically also powered from the mains), one HDMI cable per source and one more HDMI from the receiver to the display.
Optionally a network cable, though you can probably get away with Wi-Fi in most cases. An optical cable may be required for some older sources, including TVs with tuners built in that don’t support HDMIs Audio Return Channel.
For most people, this is a matter of practicality and space. The standard minimum recommended setup is 5.1. Five speakers, plus one subwoofer. There is nothing to stop you doing say 2.1 or 3.0, but then you may as well go down the soundbar or active speaker route.
5.1 is the most common audio format for surround sound being broadcast or on standard blu-ray and DVD. You’ll find (check the back cover) some discs in 6.1, 7.1, but not many. Each speaker has a dedicated channel with these formats and they are precisely controlled when mixed. Using a 7.1 system with a 5.1 soundtrack is possible, you’re receiver will do it’s best to fill in the gaps. For smaller rooms stick with 5.1 and go for 7.1 in larger spaces.
If you want support for the latest formats and are looking at a brand new home cinema setup today, we’d recommend starting at 5.1.2....
Two recent sound formats have made the move to ‘object’ based surround sound. Rather than limiting sound to specific channels, your receiver is given three dimensional position for each sound object and uses the available speakers to position (and move) it on the fly. This allows for an impressive 3D effect with more flexible use of speakers.
At the time of writing, Dolby Atmos is the most widespread format available on discs and is also available on some streaming services. Take your original 5.1 or 7.1 setup and add two or more height channels, either as upfiring Atmos modules, downfiring wall speakers, or installed ceiling speakers.
DTS:X is the equivalent from DTS. It differs in doing away with the prescribed speaker layouts and for that reason is seen on some 2.1 soundbars, or you can use it today with an existing 5.1 setup. In theory you have a lot more flexibility in your layout, but given the competition you’re best to stick with an Atmos layout, which will work perfectly well for DTS:X too. You’ll find most AV receivers that support one, support both.
Auro 3D is the wildcard format. It’s from the smaller Auro Technologies and is still channel, rather than object based, but in theory provides the most immersive experience using up to three layers of speakers. Unfortunately it currently has less support both in terms of equipment and available media. You’ll find many receivers that support all three formats.
For most, one subwoofer is plenty, but depending on the space additional speakers might be advantageous. Issues like room modes (resonsonaces) are beyond the scope of this guide, but it’s worth knowing going in that adding more subs later is an option. Room acoustics have a huge role to play in getting the most from your system and shouldn’t be ignored either.