Review : The Best Surround-Sound Speakers for Most People

Ultimately, with film soundtracks, we preferred the sound of the ELAC system to that of our previous top pick, the Aperion Audio Intimus 5B Harmony SD system, even without taking into account the fact that the ELAC system sells for less (significantly less now that the Aperion system has recently risen several hundred dollars in price). That’s due in large part to the ELAC’s slightly smoother, more neutral reproduction of midrange frequencies, which helps make dialogue in particular sound ever-so-slightly truer to life.

If you’re looking for an affordable, high-performance 5.1-channel home theater speaker system, we recommend an ELAC Debut system comprised of the company’s C5 center speaker, two F5 floor-standing speakers, a pair of B5 bookshelf speakers, and the S10EQ subwoofer. We came to this conclusion after nearly 25 hours of research and more than 60 hours of calibration, testing, and listening panels that evaluated 13 complete surround-sound systems over the course of more than a year and a half.

The ELAC system is pretty much everything you could hope for in a high-performance home theater speaker system. It delivers big, bold, enveloping sound with a wonderful balance between hefty bass, smooth midrange, and a nearly tangible sense of space. It’s also a wonderfully dynamic speaker system, capable of handling both quieter scenes and outbursts of action with minimal distortion, even at louder listening levels.

ELAC’s app-controlled S10EQ subwoofer also offers something included in no other sub we’ve seen in its price range: the ability to tune the low-bass output to compensate for the acoustical peculiarities of your room quickly, easily, and with better results than the room-correction software built into most AV receivers.

If you’re willing to spend a good bit more for even better audio performance, all of our testers unanimously preferred the KEF Q Series for its extra sparkle, enhanced detail, and significantly deeper bass compared with the ELAC Debut system. But, together, the KEF system in its cheapest configuration, which includes four of the Q100 bookshelf speakers, the Q200c center speaker, and Q400b subwoofer, runs about $2,120 as we go to print—currently a good $650 more than the ELAC system. If you’re chasing after sonic perfection, our testers agree that the KEF system is worth the extra coin, but for most shoppers we think the ELAC system is still the smarter pick.

If you’re looking for a full-size surround-sound speaker system with the highest performance-to-price ratio, the Pioneer SP-PK52FS system is still a no-brainer as our budget pick. The SP-PK52FS package (which closely resembles the ELAC Debut because speaker guru Andrew Jones designed both), consists of two SP-FS52 floor-standing speakers up front, the hefty SP-C22 center speaker, and a pair of SP-BS22-LR bookshelf speakers for surrounds—along with the SW-8MK2 subwoofer—and like both of our other top picks, it’s more than capable of cranking out more than its fair share of immersive, room-filling sound.

Its subwoofer doesn’t blend with the main speakers as well as the ELAC system’s does, and the system as a whole doesn’t sound quite as detailed. But with midrange sounds—guitars, vocals, violins, and the like—we found the rest of the speakers to be almost as neutral and natural-sounding as the ELACs, and more so than much-more-expensive competitors. Overall, the system delivers much of the sonic impact of its competitors for less than a third of the price. The only significant caveats are its design and build quality; it may not sound like a ~$549 speaker system, but it does look and feel like one.

If, on the other hand, you want a complete home theater system but need something a lot more compact, the Paradigm Cinema 100 CT is still our overall favorite compact system in terms of performance. It may not pack quite as much punch as the larger systems (none of the compact speaker systems we auditioned did), but it’s still a delightfully dynamic system with great dialogue clarity and a much bigger sound that you’d expect from such small speakers.

Table of contents

  • Why you should trust me
  • Who this is for
  • How we picked
  • How we tested
  • Our pick
  • Who else likes it
  • Flaws but not dealbreakers
  • Other ELAC configurations
  • A big upgrade
  • A great low-price option
  • A compact alternative
  • The importance of placement
  • The competition

Why you should trust me

I’ve had the good fortune of reviewing high-end audio gear, as well as affordable consumer-level speakers, receivers, and other home theater components, for more than a decade now. I served as East Coast contributing editor for Home Entertainment magazine and editor in chief of HomeTechTell and In the past I’ve contributed to Electronic House, Big Picture Big Sound, Digital TV & Sound, and Home Theater magazine. I currently write for Home Theater Review and Residential Systems.

Who this is for

At some point, every TV watcher and movie lover realizes television speakers are terrible. They’re almost always tiny, and oftentimes they don’t even aim their tinny sound out into the room (instead, they face down or backward into the wall).

So what to do? You have a number of options, actually. Even the most affordable soundbar offers a substantial audio upgrade, improving dialogue clarity and giving more weight to music and sound effects. The best soundbars deliver a level of performance approaching that of dedicated home theater systems.

Notice, though, that I said “approaching.” If you really want to re-create the true cinema experience at home, and you have the space for it, your best option is a 5.1 surround-sound speaker system paired with a good AV receiver. This includes separate speakers for on-screen action, music, and sound effects to the left and right of the screen; dedicated speakers at the rear of the room for surround sound effects; and a subwoofer to deliver deep bass. You could opt for a so-called “home theater in a box,” which includes the AV receiver and speakers all in one package, but you probably shouldn’t. You could also buy a larger speaker system with additional rear speakers and, these days, even overhead speakers (or top-mounted speaker modules that bounce sound off the ceiling). But for most people, 5.1 channels is plenty.

For this guide we decided to limit ourselves to surround-sound speaker systems that ranged in price from $500 up to roughly $2,500, which seems to cover the gamut that most people are looking to spend for a really good surround-sound speaker system. You could spend less, but less-expensive systems, almost without exception, comprise much smaller speakers, which makes it more difficult to achieve a satisfying blend between the main speakers (responsible for delivering most of the midrange and high-frequency sounds) and the subwoofer (which generates deep bass). With a few exceptions, most budget speaker systems also struggle to fill anything larger than a small room with sound, and their build quality is often lacking.

My years of reviewing speakers have taught me that going above $2,500 quickly gets you to a point of diminishing returns, where spending twice as much doesn’t result in twice the performance capabilities.

At the other end of the spectrum, $2,500 may seem an arbitrary cap because it’s easy to spend much more on a full-size speaker package. But my years of reviewing speakers have taught me that going above this price quickly gets you to a point of diminishing returns, where spending twice as much doesn’t result in twice the performance capabilities.

So the goal was to find the speaker package within that price range that would work best for just about everyone. Which isn’t to say that you’re wrong if you prefer a different system. If you already have a favorite set of speakers in this budget that weren’t covered, I assure you it isn’t a personal slight. The goal here is to reach people who don’t already have a personal favorite, because there are so many wonderful speaker systems to select from in this price range.

For now, we’re also limiting our consideration to 5.1-channel speaker systems, which may seem strange. After all, the surround-sound home theater market is currently going through one of its awkward growth spurts thanks to the arrival of the home versions of Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, which add overhead speakers to the traditional surround-sound speaker layout of three in the front and two in the back (or on the sides). This creates a truly three-dimensional element to the home movie-watching experience. That said, these technologies are still not nearly as ubiquitous as traditional surround sound. So for now, we’re sticking with 5.1 because you can add height speakers to a system down the road if you decide to upgrade to an Atmos-capable AV receiver.

And what do we mean by 5.1? The “5” stands for two main speakers positioned to the left and right of the TV, a center speaker between them, and two speakers in the rear of the room for surround-sound effects. The “.1” is the subwoofer, which creates all the low-frequency bass sounds.

It’s becoming increasingly common these days for home theater enthusiasts to add a second (or even third or fourth) subwoofer to their surround-sound setups. There are many reasons why this is a good idea, but considering that most of the systems we tested come as complete packages, we kept the playing field even with a single sub. Check out the A big upgrade section for more on why you’d want more subs, and some options.

How we picked

In updating our original guide, I essentially started from scratch, compiling a spreadsheet of every 5.1 speaker system I could find in our target price range (and a few just a bit above). Then I scoured the Web for professional reviews to see what experts like Steve Guttenberg of CNET, Gene DellaSala of Audioholics, Mark Fleischmann of Sound & Vision, and our own Brent Butterworth had to say. I also factored in personal reviews from retail sites like Amazon and spent more hours than I care to count digging through forum posts at Audioholics and AVSForum to get a feel for what enthusiasts liked and didn’t like.

After weighing the pros and cons of more than 50 complete speaker packages, I whittled the list down to those systems that had the best mix of positive professional reviews and user reviews, eliminating any that stood a high chance of being controversial. By that, I mean that some types of speakers are beloved by some and disliked by others. A number of enthusiasts, for example, love the increased efficiency and dynamic sound of speakers with horn-loaded tweeters. Others—myself included—feel that most horn-loaded speakers in this price range sound a bit weird and can be overly fussy in terms of placement.

Because the goal was to find the speaker system(s) that would appeal to the widest possible audience, such love-it-or-hate-it packages were taken out of the mix. Using these methods I narrowed the list down to the 10 best-reviewed and/or most-discussed systems. Because no reviewer (or perhaps anyone) had heard all of these systems back-to-back, I got them in for direct testing and comparison.

Our original recommendation, the NHT Absolute 5.1T system, was an obvious pick, considering it was our standard of reference. (Incidentally, it has since been discontinued.) To that I added the Aperion Audio Intimus 5B Harmony SD system, primarily due to intriguing professional reviews of its bookshelf speakers. The Pioneer SP-PK52FS 5.1 Channel Speaker Package was a no-brainer, not only due to its glowing professional reviews, but also because of overwhelming demand from readers of the Wirecutter. Rounding out the pack of larger floor-standing or bookshelf systems in our first round of testing, I brought in the Axiom Audio Epic Midi – 125 system mostly as a wildcard, due to the company’s enthusiastic following on user forums, as well as one glowing professional review.

More recently, we added ELAC’s Debut series system to the mix, due to incredible critical success. We also added a surround-sound system built from KEF’s Q Series speakers, primarily due to how well they performed in our review of bookshelf speakers.

The rest of the systems in our roundup consist of smaller satellite speakers and subwoofers, a category most often referred to as “compact home theater.” The GoldenEar Technology SuperCinema 3 System was my first pick here, not only due to extremely positive professional reviews, but also due to the fact that it served as the reference speaker system for my own bedroom home theater for years. I added the Cambridge Audio Minx S325 v2 system to the mix because Mark Fleishman of Sound & Vision proclaimed it “one of the best I’ve heard. Let me be more specific: As far as the Min 21 satellite is concerned, I’ve never heard a better one.”

The Bowers & Wilkins MT-50 system was also a must-listen due to high praise from Brent Butterworth for its satellite speakers (he reviewed a slightly different package with a more powerful subwoofer). The RBH Sound CTx Series 5.1 System was still relatively new when we launched this guide, and as far as I know, the only professional review thus far was written by yours truly, but I added them to the roundup based on my initial listening impressions and the popularity of previous speakers in the series. I selected the Paradigm Cinema 100 CT system for its five-star Amazon rating, excellent professional reviews, and popularity in enthusiast forums. And finally, I brought in KEF’s E305 system because, quite frankly, as I scoured the Web researching compact home theater systems, I stumbled along an inordinate number of shoppers asking the same question: “Should I buy ______ or the KEF E305 system?”

How we tested

For setup, calibration, and testing, I relied on Anthem’s MRX 710 AV receiver. Why that receiver in particular? Two reasons, actually. First, its Anthem Room Correction software allowed me to store the distance, level, bass management, and room-correction information for each system in a file on my hard drive. This meant I could quickly upload those parameters during our blind listening panels, reducing the downtime between face-offs.

Secondly, the Anthem Room Correction software gives me more control over how I set up and EQ the speakers. For example, it enables very fine control over the crossover between the subwoofer and main speakers, which allowed every speaker system in our roundup to perform at its best.

Using EQ in speaker reviews is a somewhat controversial topic. If you’d like to dig deeper into why, you can read my article “Automated Room Correction Explained” on Home Theater Review’s website. In a nutshell: Pretty much any room is going to negatively impact the performance of your subwoofer and the low frequencies coming from your main speakers. The right amount of equalization can help ameliorate that. Applying EQ to the midrange and treble frequencies can drastically change the sound of a speaker, though, which would defeat the point of this guide. So I applied equalization only to bass frequencies below 300 hertz in an attempt to minimize any booming or unevenness in the bass caused by my room, but in a way that wouldn’t change the distinctive voice of each speaker system.

After I measured and calibrated all the speakers, I borrowed a second Anthem MRX 710, placed the receivers side by side, and connected the HDMI outputs from my Oppo BDP-93 Blu-ray player to both. I wired the speakers with Wirecutter’s top pick for the best speaker cable, Monoprice’s 2747 12-gauge wire, then invited my lifelong friend Dave Calhoun over for numerous blind listening panels. Dave is a guitarist with more than 20 years of recording experience, and he was instrumental in sparking my interest in high-end audio back in the 1990s. He and I also tend to have quite different taste in speakers, which I thought might lead to welcome argument and discussion. The goal, after all, wasn’t to find the speaker system that I liked best, but the one that would work best for the widest possible audience.

My wife, Bethany, who works in video production, audio editing, and communications, kindly volunteered to operate the two receivers, switching between them at regular intervals so that neither Dave nor I knew which of two speaker systems we were listening to at any given time. We selected two speaker systems at random, uploaded their configuration files to the MRX 710s, checked their levels and matched them with my handheld sound meter, and the winner of each round went on to face another competitor. We also swapped the positions of speakers during testing to make sure that placement wasn’t giving one system an unfair advantage over the other.

For listening material, we relied primarily on four clips from the 2014 DTS Demo Disc Blu-ray. For movies, we focused on a clip from Oblivion, because its mix is so dense that dialogue tends to be muddy through anything less than an impeccably designed speaker system; and a clip from Pacific Rim, because Dave and I are little boys. (Also because the clip features some ferociously deep and hard-hitting bass, which makes it an excellent test for subwoofers—which tend to be one of the weak spots in surround-sound systems in this price range.) In additional testing, we’ve added the Star Wars: The Force Awakens Blu-ray, as well as selections from the new 2015 DTS Demo Disc Blu-ray to the mix.

For music, we mostly listened to the surround mixes of Silversun Pickups’s “Dots and Dashes (Enough Already)” due to its strong emphasis on guitars, vocals, and other midrange sounds, as well as Dave Stewart’s “Every Single Night,” which boasts tons of bass, plenty of high-end sparkle, and a very busy sound mix that has a habit of getting particularly crowded when played through lesser speaker systems.

During the course of our testing, we all noticed three common trends. The first is that larger speaker systems almost always won against compact speaker systems, even with their volumes matched. They were, with only a few exceptions, always more dynamic (meaning that they could play more quietly without sounding dull and lifeless and more loudly without sounding strained and distorted). And in most cases the larger systems sounded more cohesive, with less of an audible disconnect between the subwoofer and the main speakers.

The second thing we discovered (or perhaps I should say confirmed) is that, even though we weren’t aware of which system we picked as our winner until after each face-off (at which point I traced the speaker wires), our favorites almost always ended up being the systems with the better center channel speakers and better subwoofers. It’s a common trope that the center speaker is responsible for delivering more than 60 to 80 percent of a film’s soundtrack. I can’t pretend to have measured the sound output of each speaker individually to confirm that, but I can tell you that several otherwise fine systems got knocked out of the competition purely due to poor center speaker design. Axiom’s Epic Midi – 125 home theater system, for example, dropped out of the competition fairly early due to the thin sound and uneven performance of its VP100 v4 center speaker when compared with other systems in our roundup.

We also couldn’t help but notice that most of the highly regarded speaker systems in our target price range (between roughly $500 and $2,000) sound remarkably similar in many respects. And there’s a very good reason for that. Research performed in the late 1970s and 1980s at Canada’s National Research Council found that several key, measurable factors determine whether or not a speaker sounds good to most listeners. One of these is relatively flat frequency response, which means that low-frequency sounds, mid-frequency sounds, and high-frequency sounds are delivered with pretty much equal loudness, as are all of the tones in between.

Another important factor is reasonably wide, even dispersion, which means that the quality of sound should be similar whether you’re sitting directly in front of a speaker (on axis) or off to the left or right (off axis) and that the transition between on-axis and off-axis performance should be smooth. Many center speakers, in particular, struggle with this.

The research also demonstrated that speakers with lower levels of distortion consistently ranked better than speakers with higher levels of distortion in blind listening tests, which speaks for itself. Of course, designing a good speaker involves a lot more than these considerations, but it’s a safe bet that most speaker manufacturers aiming to appeal to the broadest audience are going to aim for these three targets.

Another important aspect affecting overall system performance is the crossover between the subwoofer and main speakers. In your typical surround-sound system, the subwoofer is responsible for delivering deep bass frequencies (e.g., kick drums, bass guitars, the engine rumble of J-type 327 Nubian royal starships), whereas the main speakers deliver the midrange sounds (e.g., human voices, guitars, horns) and high-frequency sounds (e.g., glass shattering, steam escaping from a teakettle).

But there isn’t simply one frequency at which the subwoofer drops out and the main speakers drop in. The subwoofer gradually drops off in volume at higher frequencies, while the main speakers gradually increase their volume to compensate.

So in any system that includes a subwoofer, there is a small range of sounds reproduced by both the sub and the main speakers. Simply put, the frequency at which both sub and main speakers generate the same amount of sound is the crossover frequency, which can be higher or lower depending on how much bass the main speakers are capable of generating. Ideally, this point shouldn’t make itself known. The speakers and sub should work seamlessly together, as they do in the ELAC system.

All three of our top picks were capable of handling a crossover point of 80 hertz, which is roughly the same tone generated by the fattest string (the low E) on a six-string guitar, and THX’s recommended crossover frequency. The Pioneer SP-PK52FS system did sound better with a slightly higher crossover point of 100 hertz, though, which is down around the lowest tones of a typical male voice.

Our pick

After an additional round of testing, our new top pick is an ELAC Debut series 5.1 speaker system comprising the company’s C5 center speaker, two F5 floor-standing speakers, a pair of B5 bookshelf speakers, and the S10EQ subwoofer.

surround-sound-speakers-elac-debut f5-c5-speakers-630

Thanks to its full-size center channel and beefy tower speakers, the ELAC Debut Series system sounds great even in larger rooms.

This system is nearly identical to the basic ELAC Debut Series 5.1 system offered as a bundle by the manufacturer, with one significant difference: that bundle relies on the company’s standard S10 subwoofer, which we recommend skipping in favor of the S10EQ. There are a couple of reasons for that. First and foremost, the S10EQ delivers deeper, more powerful bass than the S10. Perhaps more important, it’s a technologically innovative sub that makes it easier than ever to optimize bass performance in pretty much any room.

Taken as a whole, the ELAC Debut delivers the goods in all of the important ways a home theater speaker system should. Its sound, especially in the critical midrange frequencies, is well-balanced, smooth, and neutral, so even in very densely mixed songs, like Frank Zappa’s “Zombie Woof,” no particular instrument or element of the music is overemphasized (or underemphasized). As a result, it’s simply easier to forget that they’re there; the listener’s attention is focused less on the speakers themselves, and more on the music and movie sound effects emanating from them. This also has a noticeable effect on dialogue clarity. At a wide range of listening levels, we found voices to be clearly discernible in even the densest sound mixes, with only the slightest hint of coloration.

When properly positioned, the speakers also do an excellent job of projecting the sound into the room and working together to create a cohesive soundfield. In other words, in a movie like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the X-Wing fighters that attack Starkiller Base near the end of the film don’t sound as if they’re panning from speaker to speaker as they make their approach; they sound as if they’re whizzing back and forth across the front of the room. The same is true when the spaceships move from the surround channels to the front speakers; rather than leaping from speaker to speaker it sounds like they’re traveling through the air itself. And though it’s true that our upgrade pick, the KEF Q Series system, performs a bit better in this respect, it does so for a lot more money.

The ELAC C5 relies on tried-and-true center channel speaker design to deliver voices with excellent clarity.

The ELAC C5 relies on tried-and-true center channel speaker design to deliver voices with excellent clarity.

None of this should come as any great surprise, considering that the entire ELAC Debut lineup was engineered by renowned speaker designer Andrew Jones, who has given us everything from speakers selling for a staggering $78,000 per pair all the way down to low-price, high-performance offerings like our budget pick, as well as the top pick in our budget surround-sound speaker review.

In addition to its smooth midrange and wonderfully dynamic output, the ELAC system also benefits from rich and powerful bass that’s nicely controlled. By that I mean that it doesn’t suffer from the booming or bloated sound that you might expect to hear from less-expensive subs. The subwoofer also works to extend the bass capabilities of the rest of the speakers seamlessly, such that your ears can’t really tell that all of the deeper bass is coming from a separate box sitting on the floor.

Unlike most subwoofers, the S10EQ doesn’t have physical knobs for volume control, crossover settings, and other adjustable functions. All of those parameters are set in the S10EQ subwoofer’s companion app for iOS and Android, which connects to the sub via Bluetooth. The app’s Auto EQ feature allows you to measure the sound of the subwoofer from a foot away (or less), then take a second measurement from your main listening position. The app then compares the two measurements and creates an EQ filter to compensate for the detrimental impact of your room’s acoustics on the subwoofer’s real-world performance.

In lieu of physical controls, the ELAC S10EQ subwoofer relies on a mobile app for any and all adjustments. It also includes built-in room correction for the sub.

In lieu of physical controls, the ELAC S10EQ subwoofer relies on a mobile app for any and all adjustments. It also includes built-in room correction for the sub.

It’s true that most surround-sound receivers feature room-correction software that does the same job (and can also apply filters to the rest of your speakers as well), but some of them don’t do a very good job with bass frequencies—or ignore the subwoofer altogether—and most of them can have a deadening effect on the sound of the rest of your speakers. So it’s nice to have that option built into the sub itself. In fact, the S10EQ’s built-in Auto EQ function may be the only room correction that most people ever need.

Who else likes it

Though the ELAC Debut speakers haven’t been reviewed as a complete system in many outlets just yet, the coverage that has been published is glowing.

In his review of the system recommended here, Daniel Kumin of Sound & Vision called it “a flag-waving success.” He adds that, “Any speaker shoppers as careful of their dimes as their dollars—and not insistent upon rounded corners, real-wood veneers, or high-tech innovations—must audition the ELAC Debut speakers. Their performance is impressive even without reference to price, while their value rating is off the charts.”

In his review for CNET, Steve Guttenberg called the system the “new standard for hi-fi value,” and though he does note that other, much more expensive systems outperform ELAC’s in some respects, he concludes that “Andrew Jones defied our expectations about what is possible at this price point.”

Flaws but not dealbreakers

If there’s one significant knock against the ELAC Debut system, it’s that its subwoofer, for all its technological innovations, lacks a bit in the way of very deep bass output. This doesn’t keep the sub from delivering a healthy kick, mind you. Explosions and slamming doors and gunfire and exploding bombs all hit with appreciable oomph. But in The Force Awakens, for example, when Poe Dameron is first captured by Kylo Ren, you don’t hear the ultra-deep, resonant rumble of the blaster-bolt hovering in midair that you can hear with more powerful subs. It’s simply inaudible here.

Our only other real complaint about the speakers is that their tweeters have to be positioned pretty much exactly at ear height for optimal performance. In my testing room, the surround-sound speakers normally sit about 18 inches above ear level, and though we didn’t pick up on any issues in our panel testing, in further in-depth testing after the fact I’ve noticed that having the surround speakers elevated even this little bit results in some not-insignificant darkening of the sound—high-frequency sounds are reduced, detail is lost, and it sounds a bit like you’re hearing the speakers through a few layers of fabric. This isn’t much of a problem with film and TV show soundtracks, but it did become more of an issue when I was playing video games such as Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. Throughout the game, there are times when non-player characters join you on your adventures, and their sidekicking dialogue always comes from the positionally appropriate speakers. If they move behind you (or you walk in front of them) while they’re speaking, their voices move from front to back. In such cases, there’s a tonal shift in the sound of the voices. Not so much that they sound like different people, but more like they developed a slight head cold on their trip from the front of the room to the back.

Simply moving the surround speakers down to ear level went a long way toward correcting this.

The one thing I couldn’t correct for with speaker placement is the fact that the sound of the ELAC Debut C5 center speaker also gets a good bit softer if you’re seated too far off-center. Seated two people side by side, about 7.5 feet from the center channel, we didn’t notice this. In fact, I moved my head from side to side quite a bit from my seating position to check for any major inconsistencies in the sound. (With many center speakers, any significant head movement makes it sound like you’re listening through a picket fence). That definitely isn’t an issue. But I did notice that if I moved closer to the edge of the room (not where I would normally sit, but certainly within the bounds of normal seating positions in some living rooms), the center speaker became less consistent, softer, and less detailed, which did make dialogue a little harder to understand in shows like Netflix’s Daredevil.

Other ELAC configurations

Our main pick should be a great fit for most people’s listening preferences, but if you have a bit of wiggle room in your budget and want to spend more, or if money is tight and you want to spend a little less, or even if you just don’t have the space for tower speakers at the front of the room, you actually have quite a few options for customization with the ELAC system. If you prefer smaller front speakers, you can replace the F5 tower speakers with a pair of the line’s B6 bookshelf speakers. That would bring the total system’s cost down to under $1,200 (at the time of this writing), but it may mean that you’ll need to spend the difference on a pair of speaker stands. Or, if your room is small enough, you could step down to the smaller B5 bookshelf speakers up front.

If your budget has a little extra room up top, but you don’t want to move up to our upgrade system, our recommendation would be to add a second ELAC S10EQ subwoofer (or even upgrade to a pair of the larger S12EQ subs) for enhanced bass performance and more even coverage throughout the room. You might also choose to forego the ELAC subwoofer altogether and upgrade to an even more powerful offering, like the Hsu Research VTF-15H MK2 Brent recommends as a potential upgrade in his subwoofer buying guide.

A big upgrade

The KEF Q Series speaker system was the subject of some serious disagreements during the course of our testing. We all agreed that it’s a higher-performance speaker system in virtually every respect. We all concurred that if we were spending our own money we would almost certainly pony up extra for these speakers: four of the KEF Q100 bookshelf speakers, a Q200c center speaker, and a Q400b subwoofer. The jury was hung, though, over whether or not we would recommend them to friends and family members over the ELACs.

KEF’s Uni-Q concentric driver design results in enhanced clarity and wonderful dispersion.

KEF’s Uni-Q concentric driver design results in enhanced clarity and wonderful dispersion.

If we had to pick one word to describe the sonic benefits of the KEF Q Series speakers over the competition, it would be “clarity.” Much of this has to do with their distinctive driver design. Unlike traditional speakers that place the tweeter (the small driver responsible for high-frequency sounds) above, beside, or between their midrange/low-frequency woofers, the Q Series speakers rely on KEF’s Uni-Q driver array, which positions the tweeter at the acoustical center of the larger woofers.

The result of this placement means much of what you hear from these speakers originates from one location in space, but perhaps more important, all of the high- and mid-frequency sounds arrive at your ears at the same time. That may seem like a minor detail, but it definitely makes an audible difference. When listening to music, the instruments maintain more of their own individual identities. In dense action-movie sequences, like the clip from Robocop found on the 2015 DTS Demo Disc Blu-ray, the shattering glass and whizzing bullets sound more like distinct elements of the sound mix rather than an outright cacophony.

Dialogue intelligibility is also improved over that of the already-excellent ELAC system. What’s more, the KEF speakers are much more forgiving in terms of placement than any other speakers we’ve tested. For one thing, they feature a front-firing bass port instead of a rear-firing one, so it’s okay if you have to place them a little closer to the walls behind the speakers. Their Uni-Q drivers also contribute to wonderfully wide and even dispersion. Simply put, as you move around the room (and even stand up or sit on the floor), the KEF Q Series speakers don’t sound noticeably different at all. That could be a serious benefit if you have a number of guests over for movie night, or just have a larger-than-average family. With the KEF Q Series system, there really isn’t a bad-sounding seat in the room.

Lastly, the system’s Q400b subwoofer is an absolute beast. Despite being a little smaller than the ELAC S10EQ sub, with the same size driver and a roughly comparable power rating, the KEF delivers much deeper bass without sacrificing anything in the way of impact or overall sound output. It also blends with its satellite speakers just as well as the ELAC does.

If you’re the kind of person who’s ever walked out of a movie theater to complain to the manager about a poorly calibrated sound system, the KEF Q Series is well worth owning, despite the relatively high cost. For everyone else, though, we still think the ELAC system is a better value.

A great low-price option

The fact that the Pioneer SP-PK52FS system still belongs in the same conversation with two other speaker systems that cost roughly three times as much (or more) says a lot about it.

The SP-PK52FS boasts strikingly realistic midrange and a powerful-sounding (if not exactly deep-reaching) subwoofer. Ultimately, though, the things that kept the SP-PK52FS out of the running as our top pick were that its center speaker sounds a bit inconsistent from seat to seat, its subwoofer didn’t blend quite as seamlessly with the main speakers (regardless of crossover setting), and its subwoofer struggles to deliver much in the way of deep bass at all. The system as a whole also lacks the detail and clarity of our two top picks.

A bigger concern to us, though, was the SP-PK52FS’s build quality and overall design. There’s no denying that Pioneer managed to deliver such a stunning-sounding system for such a low price by cutting corners in the materials department. One of the SP-FS52 floor-standing tower speakers, for example, came out of the box with a significantly dented corner. It wasn’t chipped or scuffed or notched; it was dented and crumpled, like the corner of a mishandled cardboard box. Likewise, a pretty sizable internal component of the system’s SW-8MK2 subwoofer came loose as I was rearranging the speakers during testing. Whatever it was remained electrically connected, because the sub still works. But given that there’s a loud thumping knock every time I move the sub now, I suspect that it will become completely dislodged soon enough. (Note that if you receive damaged product, or the product breaks within the warranty period, any reputable website or retailer will return it for an exchange or refund, although it will take extra effort on your part.)

Even taking those quality-control concerns into consideration, this Pioneer system is still a great bargain due to its speakers’ excellent performance (and not just in a “for the price” sort of way). But even ignoring the physical flaws, we still preferred the sound quality of the ELAC system overall.

A compact alternative

As I said above, in our testing it quickly became apparent that larger speakers (bookshelves, floor-standing towers) almost always trumped smaller speakers in terms of overall performance, even with their volumes matched. But the bulk of the systems we brought in for evaluation—and indeed the majority of popular speaker packages in the $500 to $2,000 range overall—fall into the category of “compact” home theater systems. So if you can’t or don’t want to live with larger speakers for reasons of space or aesthetic taste, there are a few compact systems that stand out.

In terms of overall sound quality, our favorite compact theater package was Paradigm’s Cinema 100 CT. It boasts wonderfully neutral frequency response, with the right balance of lows, mids, and high-frequency sounds; it’s wonderfully dynamic for such a small speaker system; and although the crossover point between the subwoofer and satellite speakers is pretty high (120 hertz), the transition between them is still quite smooth, though not as smooth as with the Aperion system. And the subwoofer itself packs quite a punch, despite the fact it doesn’t play as deeply as some others. The only low points for me were that the speaker cables have to be threaded through a hole in the speaker stands before the stands are connected, which can make setup quite cumbersome.

The importance of placement

When I said above that a dedicated surround-sound system is a great option if you have room for it, I didn’t just mean your room must be a certain size. After all, the speakers in our roundup range from an itty bitty six inches tall and three inches wide up to a relatively beefy 38 inches tall. In either case, the most important factor is whether or not you have the space to position these speakers for optimal surround sound performance.

If you imagine a line from your nose to the center of your display screen, the front left and right speakers need to be positioned on either side of the display, ideally between 22 and 30 degrees from the center. (Proper placement is given in degrees rather than units of distance because the distance is determined by how far you sit from your screen.)

Placement of the center speaker is determined by whether your display is a television or projection screen. If it’s a TV, you’ll need to position the center speaker directly beneath it on a credenza or directly above it on a stand—whichever option gets it closest to your ear height.

You should place the rear speakers somewhere between 90 degrees from the center of the screen (directly to the left and right of your ears) and 110 degrees (to the side and slightly behind you). If you need to place them a little higher than your ears, that’s normally okay; just try not to place them lower than ear height.

The sub’s position in the room isn’t quite as easy to pin down as that of the five main speakers. The best spot for the sub in your room may be slightly to the left or right of your front main speakers, it may be the corner of the room, or it may be along a side wall. But just because you have more flexibility in terms of where you can place the subwoofer, that doesn’t mean that its positioning isn’t important. Moving the sub as little as six inches can have a drastic impact on the amount and quality of bass that reaches your ears. (For more about how to best position a subwoofer, see our best budget subwoofer guide.)

The competition

Our previous top pick, the Aperion Audio Intimus 5B Harmony SD system, is still very much a crowd favorite, and we used it as a reference in the most recent update to this guide. The system delivers well-balanced sound without any egregious dips or boosts in the bass, midrange, or treble frequencies. The quality of its sound doesn’t change drastically as you move from seat to seat in the room. It plays beautifully both at whisper-quiet listening levels and with the volume knob cranked all the way up without sounding under- or overwhelming. And most important, the clarity of dialogue and vocals delivered by the system is astounding.

Under different circumstances, the Aperion Audio and ELAC systems would be pretty much tied in terms of performance. But in the year and a half since we first introduced the Aperion system as our top pick, the company has struggled to maintain stock. More often than not they’re backordered, which has caused frustration for our readers.

On top of that, Aperion recently announced that it was raising the system’s price from around $1,470 to nearly $1,950. We think the speakers are still a good deal at that price, given their performance, but they aren’t as good a deal as the ELAC system. Plus, we all agreed that if we were going to spend $1,950 on a 5.1-channel speaker system, there’s no doubt that we would just spend a little more to upgrade to the KEF Q Series.

That said, if you approached me today and said, “Hey, I love the look of the Aperions, I’ve auditioned them and love their sound. Should I buy them?” I wouldn’t try to talk you out of it. They’re still phenomenal. It’s also worth noting that all Aperion speaker systems, including the Intimus 5B Harmony SD, are sold direct to consumers, with a 30-day free trial and free shipping both ways, which makes testing the speakers out in your own home, with your own electronics, pretty much a risk-free proposition.

Our original top pick (and runner-up in our last update), the NHT Absolute 5.1T system, was unfortunately discontinued by the manufacturer, but has since been replaced by the Media Series, comprised of the Media Series Dolby Atmos Floor Standing Tower Speaker, Media Series Dolby Atmos Satellite Speaker, Media Series Center Channel Speaker, and CS-10 Subwoofer. Everything we loved about the Absolute 5.1T system is true of the new Media Series system. In testing, we loved its detail, its sparkle, and its wonderful sense of space, not to mention its exceptional deep bass from such a small subwoofer.

Only one thing held back the NHT Media Series, in the opinion of our panel: its price. At $3,000, it would have had to completely obliterate the KEF Q Series speakers in terms of audio quality, and it didn’t. It should be noted, though, that the Media Series speakers are, as their names imply, fully Atmos-ready. The satellite speakers and towers contain up-firing speaker modules that require a separate speaker connection (from the appropriate speaker outputs of an Atmos-capable surround-sound receiver) and bounce overhead sounds off the ceiling. When we update this guide in the near future with more Atmos speaker system picks, the NHT Media Series may well shine next to its more direct competition. And if you’re itching to upgrade to Atmos now and have $3,000 in your budget, there’s nothing about these speakers that would make us warn you away from them. But for now, we still think most people are better served by a more affordable 5.1 speaker system.

The best overall balance between attractive design and performance in a small system came from the Bowers & Wilkins MT-50, which looks and feels like it’s worth what its price tag suggests, and may make a good upgrade pick if aesthetics are a factor in your speaker-buying decision. Its M-1 satellite speakers feature integrated tabletop stands, which you can aim with a high degree of precision using the built-in tools hidden in the base of the speaker, or remove for wall-mounting using included brackets or to attach the speakers to beautiful optional floor stands. Though not quite as neutral-sounding as KEF’s E305 or the Paradigm Cinema 100 CT, the Bowers & Wilkins subwoofer delivers deeper bass than any other subwoofer in our roundup (even the NHT system’s). The flip side to that is that the sub can’t play very loudly, which makes it less than ideal for midsize and larger rooms. And even in my relatively small bedroom, it wasn’t nearly as forceful as the Aperion’s subwoofer.

If there were a category for “biggest sound in the tiniest package,” the Cambridge Audio Minx S325 v2 system would be the clear winner. Its little Minx Min 21 satellite speakers measure just six inches tall, 3.1 inches wide, and 3.3 inches deep, but deliver a staggeringly huge ocean of sound that’s downright holographic in many respects. I will say that the Minx S325 v2 system is the only package in our roundup whose sound changed measurably after a few hours of breaking in, which is probably a result of its unusual drivers. But once the drivers settled in, they were simply everything you could ask for in a speaker: dynamic, impactful, and neutral, with stunning dialogue clarity. The only thing that held the Minx S325 v2 package back as a whole was its subwoofer, which struggled a little at the upper end of its performance range and didn’t blend as well with the satellites.

The GoldenEar Technology SuperCinema 3 system is my own personal reference speaker system for my bedroom home theater. And once I’ve boxed up all of the other speakers and returned them to their manufacturers, it will once again take its place in that room. But again, the goal here wasn’t to find the right speaker system for me—it was to find the right speaker system in this budget range for most shoppers. And in head-to-head competition with our other picks, we found that the GoldenEar system didn’t boast quite as seamless a blend between subwoofer and satellites as other compact offerings, which may outweigh its other sonic benefits for some listeners.

In terms of overall aesthetics (with really nice performance to boot), we really loved the KEF E305 system. The E305 delivers the best dialogue clarity of all the compact theater systems we tested, and its subwoofer plays a little deeper than most. What I loved most about it, though, was its built-in swiveling stands, which allow you to wall mount the speakers easily, without the need for additional mounts and brackets. I also loved the fact that the speaker connections are hidden underneath the bottom of the stands, which makes for a clean look whether you wall mount them or set them on a flat surface. The system’s E-2 subwoofer also features a unique oblong dome-shaped design that sets it apart from the typical boxy subwoofer. In terms of performance, though, it couldn’t quite keep up with the dynamic impact and overall musicality of the Aperion system. And when compared with the other compact systems, it wasn’t quite as tonally neutral as the Paradigm system, nor did it offer as much installation flexibility as the Bowers & Wilkins system. But if you’re looking for a beautiful compact home theater system that’s easy to install and sounds superb, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it.

The RBH Sound CTx Series 5.1 System also boasted stunning dialogue clarity and excellent dynamics for its size; in fact, of all the compact home theater systems its dialogue clarity was second only to the KEF E305. What ultimately knocked the RBH system out of contention wasn’t sound quality, nor design, but rather the fact that it proved to be rough on AV receivers. My Anthem MRX 710 drove the speakers with no problems, but when I tested it with an Onkyo TX-NR636, the receiver overheated and even shut down at times when the audio from movies or music got particularly intense. I didn’t have that problem with any other speaker system in our roundup.

The Axiom Audio Epic Midi – 125 system was actually the first system cut from our face-off. Not that it’s a bad system at all. I can understand why Axiom has such a following and why the system is highly regarded overall. But in direct comparison with every other system in our roundup, the Axiom subwoofer underwhelmed us and, as mentioned above, its center speaker’s performance was uneven and a little thin, despite its size.

(Photos by Dennis Burger.)