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Best surround sound systems: our guide to truly cinematic sound

Surround sound speaker system
(Image credit: Bowers & Wilkins)

After the best surround sound speaker systems for your home theater setup? We have all the options you’ll need in this one handy guide, with some top tips for what really elevates a speaker system above a TV’s tinny built-in drivers.

Stereo speakers and soundbars are both great ways to improve your TV’s sound, but they both involve compromise: because they’re smaller, and less spread out, the sound is less well dispersed around the room. Some models offer virtual surround sound, and while excellent, it’s not quite the same as the real thing – and even the best TVs can use some help in the audio department now and then.

A 5.1 system, though, is the real deal. It involves five speakers placed around the room, giving you truly immersive, 360-degree sound. Add in a subwoofer (the ‘1’ in a 5.1 system) for some added bass, and it’s just about the closest you can get to recreating cinema sound in the comfort of your own home.

While surround sound packages can seem intimidating – both in expense and installation – there’s really nothing to it. Bar a cable or two, they should give you everything you need to unleash your TV’s true sonic potential without too much hassle: just plug them in and settle in for a movie night.

We haven't reviewed all of the models below just yet, so this list functions as a series of recommendations based on listed specs, audio capabilities and brand reputation. On this basis, though, here are our picks of the best surround sound systems around right now, wherever you are. 

Be warned: some of these models aren’t available as a full surround sound system in the US, though we’ve added in some deals for smaller systems where that’s the case.

Best speaker systems: what to look for

The first thing to ask yourself is: what style of speakers can you fit in your home?

Floorstanders are taller units that take up more room, while bookshelf speakers are small enough to fit on a shelf. Standmounts are somewhere in the middle. Some speaker packages offer a combination of these, and some let you mix and match, so you can tailor the package to your room.

You should check the dimensions to make sure it fits your space. You should also check it will accommodate whatever source you’re using, be it a set-top box, games console, 4K Blu-ray player and anything else you’re planning on using.

This Q Acoustics model is easily one of the best surround sound systems

(Image credit: Q Acoustics)

1. Q Acoustics 3050i 5.1 Cinema Pack

Take your films to new sonic heights

Reasons to buy

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Variable buying options
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Reduced resonance

Reasons to avoid

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Empty List

Take Q Acoustics’ 3050i floorstanders, put them together with the firm’s 3010i standmounts, 3090i centre speaker and 3060S subwoofer, and what do you get? This stellar 5.1 system, which is capable of taking your films to new sonic heights.

How? It’s all about doing everything possible to reduce distortion, and the way you do that is by minimising vibrations. Cabinet rigidity is boosted thanks to point-to-point cabinet bracing, making certain parts stiffer and hence quieter. There’s an extra thick baffle to support the tweeter and mid/bass driver and the soft dome tweeter has been decoupled from the baffle to isolate it from the woofers’ vibrations.

But that’s not all. Q Acoustics has also trickled down its Helmholtz Pressure Equalizer technology from its high-end Concept 500 speakers. Inside the cabinet is a tube filled with damping material which absorbs unwanted energy, reducing resonance even more. (In short, they’re not going to wobble.)

It all makes for a gloriously exuberant listening experience, one that – like a good film – you’ll want to return to again and again.

Also available is the 3010i 5.1 Cinema Pack – this is the same package, but with two pairs of smaller 3010i standmounts, instead of two floorstanders. If space is tight, it might be the better bet.

(Image credit: Wharfedale)

2. Wharfedale DX-2

Small can still be mighty

Reasons to buy

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Very compact size
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Wall mount option

Reasons to avoid

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Less impressive to look at

We know that very few of us have palatial surroundings into which to install a surround sound system. If your lounge is of a more modest size, but you want to step up from a soundbar, the Wharfedale DX-2 should be high on your list.

For not only is this surround sound system tiny, it’s also very modestly priced.

Just how tiny? Each speaker is just 19cm tall, which is closer to a Bluetooth speaker than something you would expect to chuck out cinema-quality sound. Put them under your TV, on a shelf or bookcase, the windowsill… the choice is yours.

You can also wall mount them, should you want to minimise clutter even more.

Thanks to a soft-touch finish, you can place these speakers on any surface without worrying about them leaving scratches. They also look a lot more expensive than they are, with their curved corners and smart design touches. But these little flourishes are functional as well as stylish – chrome rings surround the fixed speaker grilles to protect the drivers without covering the front completely. And because there are no grille holes, each speaker looks even sleeker.

And the sound? Much, much bigger than the small dimensions would suggest, adding epic scale to operatic renditions. These speakers are proof that small can still be mighty.

(Image credit: Dali)

3. Dali Oberon 5 5.1

An incredible center speaker

Reasons to buy

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Wide sound dispersion
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Versatile buying options

Reasons to avoid

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Traditional appearance

This Dali system comes with a choice of either two standmounters or two compact, on-wall speakers. Whichever you go for, you’ll get the same range of finishes, which might be a bit ‘traditional hi-fi’ for some, but will undoubtedly suit others down to the ground.

You might not think it to look at them, but the floorstanders are actually shorter than most, making this a good bet if space is limited but you don’t want to sacrifice cinema-style sound. But it’s the center speaker that’s the real star here.

Called the Dali Oberon Vokal, it has the same internals as the floorstanders – one 29mm soft dome tweeter and two 13cm mid/bass drivers, producing a sensitivity of 88dB/W/m and nominal impedance of 6 ohms – with the tweeter in the middle above the front-facing bass port. That makes for wider sound dispersion, so you get the same quality sound from more positions in the room. In other words, there is no bad seat when it comes to movie night – as long as you’re facing the screen.

(Image credit: Elac)

4. Elac Debut 2.0 5.1

An instant upgrade to any home cinema

Reasons to buy

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Up to 35kHz frequency response
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Very slick appearance

Reasons to avoid

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Dolby Atmos requires add-on expense

There’s a reason black is such a popular colour when it comes to clothing – it goes with anything. That’s equally true of this speaker system, which comes in a black ash vinyl. Stick in a countrified cottage or an ultra modern interior, and chances are, it’ll add to rather than detract from its surroundings.

And not just in terms of looks. The cabinets feature MDF bracing, making them more rigid and reducing resonance, while the silk dome tweeters have a wide-roll surround that brings the frequency response up to 35kHz, making for more accurate sounds higher up the frequency range. And the woofer cones are made of a woven aramid-fibre, which allows enough clarity without sacrificing damping and introducing distortion.

Want to upgrade the system? You can pay extra for Elac’s Debut 2.0 A4.2 Dolby Atmos modules. These attach to the front and surround speakers to add an extra overhead effect, transforming a 5.1 system into a 5.2.1 setup. Watch anything encoded in Dolby Atmos audio, and you’ll hear things in an extra dimension (height), which is pretty awesome. Action films will never be the same again…

But even without this add-on, the Elac produces stunning results. This is an instant upgrade to any home cinema.

(Image credit: Monitor)

5. Monitor Audio Silver 200 AV12

Wonderfully cohesive sound in this 5.1 speaker system

Reasons to buy

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Consistent sound
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Flexible positioning

Reasons to avoid

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Expensive

If you're stepping up in price, consider the Monitor Audio Silver 200 AV12. It features the Silver 200 floorstanders, which are scene stealers if ever we saw them. But they’re given a run for their money by the Silver C150 centre speaker, Silver FX surround speakers and Silver W-12 subwoofer. It’s quite a cast.

Unlike some hi-fi firms, Monitor Audio has recognised that not everyone is spoiled when it comes to positioning. We’d love to be able to set our speakers out exactly as the manufacturers decree, but be it because of reasons of space or practicality, often that’s just not possible. But these are designed to sound consistent however they’re positioned, which opens up your options considerably.

As for the cabinets, they’ve been designed with help from the National Physical Laboratory’s precision laser scanner, which was used to identify resonances in order to decide on the positioning of internal bracings. 

The result? A more rigid structure, which means fewer vibrations and less distortion. They produce a wonderfully cohesive sound that will make your movies sing. Fire up Hamilton and enjoy.

the sony ht-a9 home theater system

(Image credit: Sony)
The best soundbar alternative with Dolby Atmos

Reasons to buy

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Immersive audio sounds great
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Supports all kinds of audio technologies

Reasons to avoid

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Expensive compared to buying a soundbar
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Doesn’t come with a subwoofer

The Sony HT-A9 Home Theater System is a great option if you're looking for the convenience of wireless connectivity combined with the sonic power of Dolby Atmos.

The HT-A9 is a set of four speakers that communicate with each other wirelessly via a tiny box that's slightly larger than an Apple TV. This box attaches to an eARC port on your TV and also supports wireless standards such as Bluetooth, AirPlay and Google Cast to enjoy audio not just from your TV but also your phone, tablet and other devices.

The wireless communication between the speakers and the base unit works flawlessly, creating twelve additional "phantom" speakers for a full 360-degree sound setup. What's lacking is an included subwoofer and sometimes, the omission of a dedicated center speaker is missed.

Read more: Sony HT-A9 review