It's fair to say we're big fans of movies and home theatre here at What Hi-Fi?. Who doesn't love immersing themselves in a movie for a couple of hours, whether it's dialogue-heavy or bursting at the seams with special effects.
The path to choosing the right surround sound system, though, can be a tricky one. The notion of filling your lounge or home cinema room with four or more speakers may seem daunting at first, but with more comprehensive all-in-one solutions such as wireless multi-speaker setups and soundbars, it's never been easier to upgrade your sound system for TV and movies.
Once you've got your new surround sound system set up, be sure to check out our best film scenes to test surround sound page for some suggestions to test drive your new rig.
The quick list
Best speaker package
Best speaker package
Bowers & Wilkins makes an incredibly strong case for ditching floorstanding speakers with this stunning speaker package.
The HT-A7000 is a powerful, musical and immersive single soundbar that succeeds where a lot of multi-speaker systems fail.
Best affordable speaker package
Best affordable speaker package
The Wharfedale 12.1 HCP is a mature yet affordable surround sound system.
Best wireless speaker system
Best wireless speaker system
Sony’s A9 speaker system redefines accessible home cinema sound with an innovative, immersive and flexible solution.
Best cheap soundbar
Best cheap soundbar
The well-priced Beam Gen 2 delivers with a mature and polished sound and effective virtual Dolby Atmos performance.
The best speaker package
It is an indisputable fact that the best way to achieve the most convincing surround-sound experience is by placing individual speakers all around your room. Usually that would consist of a ready-made home cinema pack (HCP) put together by the manufacturer, but there’s nothing to stop you creating your own as long as you include all the necessary components.
B&W doesn’t sell this particular setup as a bundle but multiple retailers do. It consists of a pair of 606 S3 speakers for the left and right channels, a couple of 607 S3 speakers for the surrounds, an HTM6 S3 for the centre channel, and a ASW610 subwoofer, but don’t forget you’ll also need stands for the front and surround speakers.
Why this exact combination? Because all of the components are compact and well crafted, and collectively they deliver a spectacular performance. The sound is brilliantly dynamic and energetic, but also detailed and insightful, with excellent warmth and richness to the vocals. It can’t match the sonic scale of physically larger packages, but it’s still full-bodied and engaging.
It shouldn’t really come as a surprise that combining these five-star speakers would be so successful, but it’s still impressive just how well this DIY surround-sound package works.
The best soundbar
Sony has excellent form with soundbars, and the flagship HT-A7000 is no different. A 7.1.2 slab of sound, this Dolby Atmos soundbar packs two up-firing speakers, two beam tweeters, five front-facing drivers and a built-in dual subwoofer into a single chassis. Using a combination of driver placement and psychoacoustic techniques, the Sony HT-A700 delivers a broad and high soundstage, whether you’re watching immersive content or not, while retaining musicality, presence and detail.
In terms of height and precision, the performance is similar to that of the Sonos Arc, but the width of the soundstage and its forward projection is more convincing. Of course, you're never going to get quite the same experience that you would by having actual speakers placed above you and to the sides, but the A7000 delivers an effective and immersive soundscape that significantly enriches the viewing experience. The integrated sub is also particularly impressive with a taut, controlled and powerful performance.
Sony insists that the HT-A7000 doesn’t require any additional speakers to deliver immersive soundscapes. However, if you have the money and space there’s a choice of two optional subwoofers, the 300W SA-SW5 priced at £699 / $700 / AU$899, and the 200W SA-SW3 costing £449 / $400 / AU$599. A pair of surround SA-RS3S speakers costs £449 / $350 / AU$649 and, slightly disappointingly at this price, they only have front-facing drivers.
However, the Sony HT-A7000 is an outstanding, future-proofed, all-in-one performer with excellent integration if you have a newer Sony Bravia TV.
Read the full review: Sony HT-A7000
The best affordable speaker package
With poise, effortlessness, cut-glass diction and charisma, the Wharfedale Diamond 12.1 HCP is essentially the Audrey Hepburn of home theatre speaker packages.
The package is made up of a quartet of the excellent, mid-sized Diamond 12.1 bookshelf speakers for fronts and surrounds with the 12.C in the middle and the SW10 powered subwoofer supplying the bass.
The SW-10 sub is in some ways the star of the show: taut and dextrous, it's exceptionally musical and blends seamlessly with the system's speakers, thanks in no small part to they themselves having an impressive low end. The result is a rich and lively sound.
The SW10 delivers rich bass, but it never overpowers the midrange or treble. And, as a whole, the system sounds mature, impactful, agile and detailed.
The Diamond 12.1 system is an excellent choice for both music and film, and its combination of cinematic scale, relatively small physical dimensions and affordable price make it ideal for people who might otherwise not have considered a 'proper' home cinema setup.
For an appropriate AVR, we'd suggest trying the Denon AVR-X2800H. If we had to use one word to describe the sound of this receiver, it would be ‘confident’. The AVR-X2700H doesn’t try too hard to impress, as a nervously underpowered budget amp might.
It’s an easy and effective listen. No matter how hectic the action becomes, this Denon never misses a beat. It passes the laser blasts from speaker to speaker in a wonderfully coherent manner and, no matter the scene, creates a genuine sense of place.
Read the full review: Wharfedale Diamond 12.1 HCP
The best wireless speaker system
Sony’s HT-A9 Wireless Home Theatre System encourages users to position its speakers arbitrarily, promising an even, uniform and immersive soundfield regardless of the symmetry of your set-up.
How does it achieve this wizardry? The HT-A9 supports Sony's 360 Spatial Sound Mapping which calibrates your room's height size and combines it with speaker distance and relative location. The aim is to create an Atmos-like dome of sound from 12 ‘phantom’ speakers notionally placed around that audio bubble.
Talk of phantom channels and sound bubbles often elicits a raised eyebrow from the likes of us, there's no denying the effectiveness of the HT-A9's delivery. It makes for a refined precision and texture that is more immersive than any soundbar package we’ve tried. No matter how haphazard our speaker positions, the sound design never feels off-kilter or detracts from the action on-screen and that makes the HT-A9 an excellent choice for people not prepared to sacrifice their furniture arrangement at the altar of surround sound.
If you want more punch you can add a choice of two optional subwoofers, the 300W SA-SW5 priced at £699 / $700 / AU$899, and the 200W SA-SW3 costing £449 / $400 / AU$599.
It might not have the same fidelity and transparency we would expect from a traditional speaker package but it's an excellent compromise between performance and practicality. This is a system that we expect to appeal to many.
Read the full review: Sony HT-A9
The best cheap soundbar
Delivering Dolby Atmos from a small chassis is no mean feat yet the Sonos Beam Gen 2 achieves a convincing, immersive performance without so much as a vertical speaker in sight. Instead, when watching Atmos content, two of the soundbar's five front-facing arrays are dedicated to reproducing overhead and surround sounds. The soundbar then deploys its significant processing power to give the impression of height using psychoacoustic HRTF (head-related transfer function) technology.
While genuine overhead sounds are perhaps a stretch too far for this petite performer, its virtual delivery of the Atmos format outstrips any similarly priced soundbar and even a few that are more expensive. All told, the Beam Gen 2 delivers a spacious, enveloping soundscape that is full of detail and features three-dimensional effects with tangible motion.
Want an even more impressive soundstage? You can add two One SL rear speakers (£358 / $358 / AU$538) and a Sub (£699 / $699 / AU$999) for a more traditional surround set-up.
Not that many soundbars at this price point come with networking capabilities, but this being a Sonos product, the Beam Gen 2’s ability to integrate into a wireless multiroom system is fundamental to its design. This means you can stream to the Beam Gen 2 from a handheld device using Apple AirPlay 2, and Spotify Connect is built-in too. It also supports Amazon Music Ultra HD audio, which gives you access to lossless 24-bit/48kHz tracks as well as Dolby Atmos Music.
Despite the lack of upward drivers, if space and budget are limited there isn't a better Dolby Atmos soundbar that we'd recommend.
Read the full review: Sonos Beam Gen 2
The best compact speaker package
If you’re in the market for something more substantial than a soundbar but don’t have space to scatter speakers the size of wheelie bins around the place, Wharfedale’s DX-3 home cinema pack is right up your street.
The successor to the What Hi-Fi Award-winning DX-2, this pint-sized package is perfect for smaller rooms, with the two-way closed box design of the surround speakers meaning they can be placed close to a wall, while the centre channel will sit comfortably under the TV. The 70W subwoofer is relatively petite, too.
The diminutive dimensions of each component might suggest you’re going to get a small-scale sound from the DX-3, but it’s pleasingly cinematic, with punchy dynamics and plenty of detail. It doesn’t sound quite as rich or warm as its predecessor, but with the right amplifier that can probably be rectified.
It might not look or feel quite as premium as the DX-2 package did, and the RRP is £50 more expensive, but this is still a very affordable and hugely practical way to graduate from a soundbar setup.
Read the full review: Wharfedale DX-3
How to choose the best surround sound system for you
The first big question is whether to go for a speaker package or a soundbar. It really depends on how much space you have for a system, what your budget is, and what other devices you want to plug into it.
A speaker package will give you true surround sound, as the speakers will be placed all around you in a 360-degree arrangement. But a full surround sound system will cost more than a soundbar and requires more boxes in your room, including an AV receiver.
For most homes, a soundbar is the best option. It's a simpler, more elegant solution, as it combines speakers and amplification into a more discreet package. A lot of soundbars come with Dolby Atmos, which does a very good job of replicating surround sound and can be upgraded with the addition of extra speakers into a true multi-channel system. Or there are soundbar packages that already come with wireless surrounds and a sub, which are smaller and easier to position than full-size speakers, but will still need to be placed near a power outlet.
Many soundbars have similar benefits to an AVR and can enhance your system with streaming options such as Airplay 2 and Chromecast, as well as supplementing your physical inputs with extra HDMI passthrough ports.
Similar to these soundbar packages, wireless-powered speaker systems do away with a central soundbar and instead offer a miniature version of a full-size 5.1 system without the need to run speaker cables around your room.
Whichever surround sound system you're considering, do your research and make sure it will fit your space and accommodate your games console, 4K Blu-ray player, set-top box, and whatever else you're planning on hooking up. And that you can afford it, of course. Happy listening!
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