When the dust settled, the Pioneer SP-PK22BS package was the clear winner for a number of reasons. First and foremost, unlike the competition, the SP-PK22BS system sounds fantastic at pretty much any volume. Whereas other systems struggle at higher loudness levels, the Pioneer system handles even the most raucous action-movie sequences with such effortlessness that it almost seems like cheating. And clarity of dialogue, even in the midst of crunching glass and twisting metal, is exceptional for a speaker system at this price.
If I were in the market for a 5.1-channel home theater speaker system and had a budget limit of around $500, there’s no question that the Pioneer SP-PK22BS Andrew Jones Designed 5.1 Channel Speaker Package would be my number-one pick. I reached this conclusion after nearly 20 hours of researching models and roughly 20 hours of calibrating systems, testing them, and conducting multiple listening sessions in which five top contenders faced off, two at a time, until only one system remained standing.
More so than any other system we tested, its component speakers blend beautifully to create an immersive bubble of audio. And the main speakers and subwoofer work wonderfully together to create a nearly seamless continuum of sound, from deep bellowing bass to sparkling high frequencies, with no significant gaps or spikes and dips in the relative sound levels along the way.
If the Pioneer speakers are a little too large for your taste, a bit more expensive than you’re willing to tolerate right now, or unavailable, our previous top pick, the Energy Take Classic 5.1 Home Theater System, is still a standout. The package was a bargain at its previous price of $350; at its current price, it’s an outright steal, especially given its well-balanced sound and first-rate dialogue clarity. This system may not excel at higher volumes like the Pioneer package, but its subwoofer does boast deeper bass. It also wins hands-down in the looks department if aesthetics play heavily into your purchasing decision.
Given that the Monoprice Premium 5.1-Ch. Home Theater System 10565 sounds (and even looks) like the Energy Take Classic 5.1 system in most respects, and sells for about $115 less, it’s a no-brainer as our low-priced alternative. In fact, during our blind listening panel, we were split in our preference for the sound of the Monoprice and Energy systems. The Monoprice system may not be quite as neutral and natural-sounding, but its subwoofer plays a little deeper and voices are a bit more pronounced. And although it may not win any awards for its looks, the system is compact enough that it won’t detract from most décor.
A number of readers have asked recently if Monoprice is phasing out the 10565 system (currently out of stock) in favor of the newer 13773 Premium Select system, which is currently in stock as we publish this update. My contacts at Monoprice have ensured me that this is not the case, and that the 10565 system will be in stock in the coming months. Our advice: If you’re looking to spend as little as possible but still want a great-sounding system, wait. We’ve added additional thoughts on the 13773 system in The competition section below.
Why you should trust me
Back in 1997, I spent $500 on a “home theater in a box” system for my tiny first apartment, and almost immediately I began saving up to replace the weak particleboard-cabinet-and-paper-cone speakers that came with it. And even though I never replaced more than a piece or two at a time—a couple of speakers here, a new subwoofer there, then a new receiver and eventually a surround-sound processor and amplifiers—that little HTIB evolved into a robust surround-sound system worth nearly $30,000.
I’ve also been fortunate enough to review speakers, receivers, and other home theater components across all budget ranges for more than a decade now. I served as East Coast contributing editor at Home Entertainment magazine and editor-in-chief of HomeTechTell, and I’ve contributed to publications ranging from Electronic House and Big Picture Big Sound to Digital TV & Sound and Home Theater magazine. I currently do most of my writing for Home Theater Review, Residential Systems, and HDLiving.com.
Who this guide is for
You’ve probably noticed that the sound coming from your TV’s speakers is seriously lacking, not only in bass output and spaciousness but also in dialogue clarity and overall impact. Thankfully, you have a number of alternatives to those ever-shrinking built-in TV speakers. You could, for example, add a good soundbar (or even a great soundbar) to your home entertainment system and instantly reap the benefits of improved intelligibility and more robust sound.
If you want to unlock all of the awesome potential mixed into today’s movie and TV soundtracks—and if you have the space for something substantial and the willingness to run speaker wires around your room—a 5.1-channel surround-sound speaker system may be a better choice for you.
A 5.1 speaker system consists of three speakers designed to be positioned at the front of your room—a dedicated center speaker for dialogue and on-screen action, which you should place above or below your TV, and stereo speakers for the left and right sides of the screen. Two more “surround” speakers should stand slightly behind you, to your left and right.
Last, there’s the subwoofer, which creates deep bass sounds (the “.1” in “5.1”). Unlike the other speakers in a 5.1-channel system, the subwoofer doesn’t have a defined location. The goal is to position it so that it doesn’t rattle your walls or sound overly loud in one seat and quiet in another. Finding the best spot for your sub may take a little trial and error, but it’s essential for getting the most enjoyment from your speaker system.
You could get all of those speakers, along with a surround-sound receiver, in a home theater in a box, or HTIB, system, but we generally don’t recommend such packages because their speakers are usually quite lacking.
Still, whether you’ve purchased an HTIB system and are looking to upgrade the speakers, or you’re just starting out with a budget AV receiver and need a speaker system to match, you can find several great 5.1 surround-sound speaker packages for less than $500. And that’s fortunate, because the number-one Google autocomplete result for “Best 5.1 speaker system under…” is “$500.” As such, we set that as our ceiling for this guide.
Speakers in this price range may not give you quite the same level of refinement and room-filling sound as our top picks for the best surround-sound speaker system, but if you have a smaller room or a smaller budget, they’ll get you close. And the beauty of a dedicated surround-sound system is that you can easily upgrade it, piece by piece, as your budget or room size allows.
How we picked
As mentioned above, most people searching Google for budget speakers are looking for something at the $500 level, so that’s what we targeted for this guide. But whittling down the list of every surround-sound speaker system available for under $500 proved to be a more daunting task than I imagined, if only because there are so many of them. And so many bad ones.
So I turned to the reviews of experts such as Steve Guttenberg of CNET, Mark Fleischmann of Sound & Vision, and Robert Silva of About.com to get a feel for what they liked and didn’t like in this category. I then dug through forum posts at Audioholics and AVS Forum, along with thousands of personal reviews on Amazon and other retail websites, to build my list of potential test systems.
From there I cut any systems with egregious flaws and I threw in a few of my own wildcards based on personal experience. I ended up with five speaker packages that I felt deserved to be brought in and put before a listening panel.
We brought in our previous top pick, the Energy Take Classic 5.1 Home Theater System, as our reference standard for obvious reasons. It remains one of the best-reviewed, most-popular compact speaker systems at any price, making it the system to beat. Our previous budget pick, the Monoprice Premium 5.1-Ch. Home Theater System 10565, made the cut as well, because its performance is exceptionally similar to that of the Energy system.
Definitive Technology’s ProCinema 400 5.1 Speaker System joined the roundup mainly based on the strengths of the highly lauded (but much more expensive) ProCinema 600 system, as well as enthusiastic user reviews.
Likewise, we brought in Polk Audio’s Blackstone TL1600 Compact High Performance 5.1 Audio System due to my experience with the company’s upgrade Blackstone TL350 package, as well as its excellent ratings on retail sites. Unfortunately, I could not find reliable professional reviews of the Polk or Definitive Technology systems, but I believed that if any compact speaker systems in this price range had a shot at besting the Energy system, it would be one of these.
Last, we brought in Pioneer’s SP-PK22BS Andrew Jones Designed 5.1 Channel Speaker Package, mainly due to how well its floor-standing counterpart, the SP-PK52FS Andrew Jones Designed 5.1 Channel Speaker Package, stacked up next to speaker systems costing three to four times as much in our best surround-sound speaker system tests.
How we tested
Test gear for this guide consisted of a pair of Anthem MRX 710 AV receivers, which, in fairness, is a bit higher caliber of receiver than you would normally use with speakers in this price range. As I did with my previous speaker guide, though, I relied on this model because of its Anthem Room Correction software, which allowed me to store all of the relevant setup information for each set of speakers on my laptop computer and then quickly upload it during our listening panels. Anthem Room Correction also enabled me to tweak the subwoofer settings more than most receivers allow, ensuring that each speaker system had every opportunity to shine its brightest. Because room correction has an effect on a speaker’s sound, I made sure to apply EQ only to frequencies below 300 Hz. This procedure allowed me to correct any booming or bloated bass resulting from the geometry of my room without changing the voice of the speakers I was evaluating.
With all of the speaker systems measured, calibrated, and broken in, I connected the HDMI outputs from my Oppo BDP-93 Blu-ray player to both receivers and wired up two sets of speakers at a time with Monoprice’s 2747 12-gauge wire.
I asked my wife to lend me her ears so that it wasn’t just mine listening to each system. She is neither a professional writer nor a musician, but she has lived with an obsessive audio junkie for the past 16 years, and she was instrumental in selecting much of the reference gear for our dedicated home theater.
I positioned the receivers out of sight, asked her to turn one on at random (not knowing which speaker system was connected to which), and then used a remote control to switch back and forth between them. For testing material, we relied primarily on movie and music clips from the 2015 DTS Demo Disc Blu-ray. For movies, we focused on clips from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which we chose for its dynamic action sound effects and the enveloping nature of its surround-sound mix; the 2014 remake of Robocop, which made for an excellent dialogue-clarity torture test; and a short film called Pinnipèdes, which we liked for its mix of subtle atmospheric sound effects and impactful, guttural bass.
Because we did our testing blind, it wasn’t usually obvious which speaker system we were listening to until we traced the speaker wires. That was not the case with the Pioneer SP-PK22BS Andrew Jones Designed 5.1 Channel Speaker Package. The size of its speakers gave the Pioneer system a clear and obvious advantage over every other system in our roundup, but considering the price of the system, that isn’t an unfair advantage. Fair or not, the increased size of the speaker cabinets allows the system to perform more effortlessly at movie-watching loudness levels and gives it more punch, more clarity, and more impact.
This result wasn’t a great shock, though, given that the SP-PK22BS system is identical in most respects to the Pioneer SP-PK52FS Andrew Jones Designed 5.1 Channel Speaker Package that performed so well against $1,500 and $2,000 systems in our guide to the best surround-sound speaker system. The only difference between the two Pioneer systems lies with the front left and right speakers, which in the SP-PK52FS consist of larger SP-FS52-LR Floorstanding Loudspeakers equipped with a trio of 5¼-inch bass and midrange drivers, in contrast to the smaller SP-BS22-LR Bookshelf Loudspeakers, with their single 4-inch woofer, in this system. Another pair of those same SP-BS22-LR Bookshelf Loudspeakers serve as the surround speakers in both systems. Both setups also feature the same excellent SP-C22 Center Channel Speaker and the same SW-8MK2 Powered Subwoofer.
And both systems, as their full names indicate, were designed by Andrew Jones, the legendary engineer whose designs for KEF, Infinity, and TAD have given him the sort of name recognition that only a handful of speaker designers enjoy.
Of course, name recognition alone doesn’t make for a good speaker. But since their release two years ago, the SP-PK22BS and SP-PK52FS packages—and all of their component speakers—have enjoyed rave reviews from virtually every major audio publication, and have become some of the most talked-about speakers of the decade.
And with good reason. The Pioneer SP-PK22BS system doesn’t merely trounce its similarly priced competition in terms of dynamic impact and effortless handling of higher volumes, it also works as a system in a way that none of the other speaker packages in our roundup can quite compete with. I mean that in two respects.
First, the SP-BS22-LR bookshelf speakers and SW-8MK2 subwoofer blend more seamlessly than any competitors. With most surround-sound systems (and in all of the speaker systems we tested for this guide), the sounds you hear aren’t generated by all of the speakers in equal measure. The subwoofer creates all of the bass sounds, from the deepest notes (ideally beginning at around 20 Hz (though most of the subs we tested this time reach only as low as 30 Hz to 35 Hz) to the upper bass region, at which point the other speakers take over and reproduce the rest of the audible sound spectrum. This arrangement is possible because our ears can’t really localize the deepest bass notes.
In other words, if you’re listening to a surround-sound recording of music, and the bass player is positioned mainly in the front left speaker, the instrument doesn’t sound as if it’s coming from two different places, even though the higher notes come from the front left speaker and the lower notes come from the subwoofer somewhere else in the room.
This setup works only to a point, though. The higher the crossover point between the subwoofer and the speakers (the point where the responsibility for handling the sounds transitions between one and the other) is, the more you start to hear distinct sounds coming from the subwoofer. Most of the systems in our roundup require a crossover point of 120 Hz or higher, at which point it becomes pretty easy to localize the sound coming from the subwoofer. The Pioneer SP-PK22BS, by contrast, can easily handle a much lower crossover point of 80 Hz, because its bookshelf speakers can produce much deeper bass on their own than the notably smaller speakers among the competition.
The TL;DR version of the preceding two paragraphs is this: When listening to the Pioneer SP-PK22BS system, we found ourselves far less capable of hearing which sounds were coming from the subwoofer and which ones were coming from the five main speakers. The system sounded like a more unified whole, with the subwoofer sounding more like an extension of the other speakers and less like a separate box in the corner of the room.
The other thing we noticed is that in contrast with the other speaker systems we tested, the SP-PK22BS package created a more seamless surround-sound effect. This result was particularly noticeable with the clips from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Robocop. When I closed my eyes, I was less aware of the position of each individual speaker, and I felt more immersed in the films’ environments. The rustle of trees and the shattering of glass sounded more like they were located in real 3D space, and less like they were confined to the location of the speakers.
At higher volumes, the Pioneer system also boasted the best dialogue clarity of any of the speakers we tested, which was abundantly clear in the scenes from Robocop. In the midst of all the high-impact action, the other systems delivered voices with noticeable effort (that is, with slight audible distortion), whereas the Pioneer package handled voices ably (even if it didn’t quite match the impeccable dialogue clarity of our current top pick for the best surround-sound speaker system, the ELAC Debut 5.1 system).
Who else likes our pick
Pretty much everyone likes the Pioneer speakers. In comparing these speakers with their predecessors, Mark Fleischmann of Sound & Vision says that the “Pioneer SP-BS22-LR monitor and SP-C22 center manage to improve upon some of the best affordable speakers of all time, with improvements from top to bottom … Once again, Andrew Jones has delivered a gift to the surround audiophile on a budget.”
The SP-BS22-LR also earned Stereophile’s coveted Products of 2013 Editors’ Choice Award, backed up by a review by Robert J. Reina, who says, “I’m scratching my head at how Pioneer can produce this level of quality at this price. Every audiophile—even well-heeled investment bankers—should listen to the Pioneer SP-BS22-LR, to hear what’s possible for the fiscally challenged music lover.”
Neil Gader of The Absolute Sound says, “The BS22 is simply one of the great buys out there, without reservation.”
Steve Guttenberg of CNET notes that the SP-C22 center speaker “delivers the sort of natural-sounding dialog you can’t get from more modestly sized center speakers.”
Flaws but not dealbreakers
Unsurprisingly, my concerns about the Pioneer SP-PK22BS Andrew Jones Designed 5.1 Channel Speaker Package mirror those I had about the company’s SP-PK52FS system, namely the build quality. I didn’t have any crumpled corners or loose bits rattling around inside the subwoofer, but I still found the speaker’s matte, faux-wood-grain finish to be cheap-looking and uninspiring, despite the nice design of the speakers overall.
Another concern is that, despite the fact that the SW-8MK2 Powered Subwoofer blends better with the main speakers in its system than do its counterparts in the rest of the systems in our roundup, it doesn’t play quite as deeply as others—notably the subs from the Energy Take Classic 5.1 and Monoprice 10565 systems.
A great compact alternative
If you want something more compact than the Pioneer system, or if your budget is closer to the $300 mark than the $500 mark, our previous top pick for a good budget surround-sound speaker system—the Energy Take Classic 5.1 Home Theater System—is still an excellent buy. Not only does it boast great dialogue clarity (though not as great as the Pioneer’s), its sound is also accurate and neutral, especially in the key midrange frequencies.
Only a couple of things prevent the Energy Take Classic 5.1 from keeping up with the Pioneer SP-PK22BS in direct head-to-head competition. First, in comparison it sounds a bit strained if you crank the volume knob too far to the right, even in a relatively small (13-by-15-foot) room. Second, the Energy system’s subwoofer and main speakers don’t blend quite as seamlessly as the Pioneer’s do. That said, these differences were nearly negligible at lower listening levels in our tests, so if you have a smaller room, or if you tend to avoid films and TV shows packed with high-octane action, the Take Classic 5.1 certainly won’t disappoint.
An even more affordable option
Unsurprisingly, the Monoprice Premium 5.1-Ch. Home Theater System 10565 remains our top pick if you want great sound for as little money as possible. It takes no more than a glance at the Monoprice and Energy systems to notice that they share a lot of DNA. In fact, the 10565 is a replacement for a system that was pretty much an exact clone of the Energy Take Classic 5.1 set.
Though the Energy and Monoprice systems differ sonically (and I leaned toward the Energy system for its more neutral sound), the Monoprice offers more forward dialogue delivery and extended bass, which my wife preferred during our testing. The Monoprice’s simpler speaker grilles and matte finish telegraph its lower price, but over two weeks of testing it also proved to be less of a dust magnet than the glossy Energy system.
You do give up some things given the significantly lower price of the Monoprice system. Although Energy backs its system’s five main speakers with a five-year warranty and covers the subwoofer for one year, Monoprice offers only a one-year warranty for all of its system’s components.
We recommend the Monoprice system for bargain hunters who don’t plan to mount their speakers. The Energy speakers feature integrated keyhole speaker-mount brackets and nice binding posts for the speaker connections, whereas the Monoprice speakers require the separate purchase of speaker mounts (if you choose to go that route) and have cheap-feeling spring-loaded speaker connections. Otherwise, once you consider the $30 you’ll need to spend on speaker mounts and the minimum of $40 you’ll spend on shipping from Monoprice, the 10565’s $115 price advantage diminishes somewhat.
If you want to spend more
If you have a bit more than $500 to spend on a surround-sound speaker system and a little more room to spare, one likely upgrade path leads to Pioneer’s own SP-PK52FS Andrew Jones Designed 5.1 Channel Speaker Package. This upgrade gets you a pair of tower speakers at the front left and right instead of smaller bookshelf speakers, and it may be the best choice for listeners who want to enjoy a good bit of stereo music without having to purchase a whole other speaker setup.
If movies are your primary concern, though, check out our best surround-sound speaker system guide.
If you aren’t quite ready to make the jump to something as expensive as our $1,500 top pick in that guide, note that one piece of advice I give in that guide is to upgrade to more (or better) subwoofers. I recommend the same thing for this budget system, too. Currently, you can add a second Pioneer SW-8MK2 Powered Subwoofer to the SP-PK22BS package for an extra $150.
Or you could purchase four of the SP-BS22-LR Bookshelf Loudspeakers and an SP-C22 Center Channel Speaker without the sub and spend the rest of your speaker budget on a subwoofer (or two) of your choice.
Needless to say, there are many more sub-$500 5.1-channel surround-sound speaker systems than those we tested for this guide. We considered quite a few of them for testing but dropped them from the list for various reasons.
The Boston Acoustics SoundWare XS 5.1 Home Theater System is a popular package with rave reviews on Amazon and elsewhere, but when Steve Guttenberg of CNET pitted the system against the Energy Take Classic system (and an older version of Pioneer’s Andrew Jones-designed bookshelf speaker system), it simply couldn’t compete, which made it an easy cut.
Dayton Audio’s HTS-1200B Home Theater Speaker System is also a popular budget pick, but the system doesn’t come with a subwoofer (which you’ll need for deep bass), and although user reviews suggest that the sound quality is better than expected with movies, the speakers reportedly deliver mediocre performance with music.
Definitive Technology’s ProCinema 400 5.1 Speaker System held its own against the Energy and Monoprice systems, but its performance didn’t justify its much higher price, despite the fact that the missus and I both loved the speakers’ design, and the fact that they were much more amenable to wall mounting than any other system in our roundup.
Fluance’s AV Series 5.1 Surround Sound Home Theater Speaker System with DB150 Powered Subwoofer, another popular pick, garnered an enthusiastic review by Steve Guttenberg. But even in the midst of his enthusiasm, Guttenberg says that “the bass got soggy, and we detected strain on this sort of dynamic music [Yo La Tengo”s May I Sing with Me CD] when we pushed up the volume.”
Focal’s Sib & Cub3 Home Cinema pack very nearly made the cut if only for its gorgeous design and the reputation of its manufacturer, but TechRadar’s review reveals that the sound from the speakers stays “very close to the box,” with a soundstage that is “more wallhugging than room-filling.”
We carefully considered Jamo’s S 35 HCS Home Cinema System and A 102 HCS 6 Home Cinema System due to the renown of the brand, but professional reviews of the former discuss a needlessly cumbersome setup process and extreme fussiness in terms of placement, whereas What Hi-Fi?’s review of the latter makes it pretty clear that the system can’t perform up to the level of Boston Acoustics’ SoundWare XS, which we had already cut because it couldn’t compete with our previous top pick.
JBL’s Cinema 510 and Cinema 610 also seemed like popular options, but we cut the former from the running for its reported lack of high-frequency detail and eliminated the latter for its underpowered subwoofer.
The Klipsch Quintet 5.0 Home Theater Speaker System made for another potentially fine pick, but unfortunately the system doesn’t include a subwoofer and its satellite speakers don’t generate enough bass on their own. By the time you add a decent sub, the system’s total price ends up being outside our budget range.
Leviton’s AEH50 Surround-Sound Home Cinema Speaker System appears to be another stunning bargain, but further research indicates that the subwoofer and main speakers don’t blend together well, and dialogue clarity is questionable.
The new Monoprice 13773 Premium Select 5.1 system seems an impressive deal at its regular price of around $140, and a ridiculous one at its frequent sale price of $100. And because it has five identical speakers (rather than a horizontal center speaker, which is more common), it doesn’t suffer from the dispersion problems that plague many speaker systems at this price. But egregious boosting of frequencies between 2 kHz and 10 kHz means the system sounds incredibly bright and thin, even somewhat piercing at times; this is somewhat forgivable with movie and TV soundtracks, but it makes music all but unlistenable. To make matters worse, the subwoofer delivers punchy, indistinct bass. We would recommend spending a little extra money and getting the Monoprice 10565 (or Energy Take Classic 5.1 system) instead.
The Onkyo SKS-HT690 5.1-Channel Home Theater Speaker System is another popular sub-$500 pick, but user reviews on Amazon indicate that the center speaker sounds weak and that the quality of sound changes drastically as you move from seat to seat.
Polk Audio’s Blackstone TL1600 Compact High Performance 5.1 Audio System also bowled us over with its good looks, but it underwhelmed us with its somewhat lacking bass and treble alike. The speakers also struggled more than any other system in our roundup to reach satisfying volume levels, making them suitable only for the smallest of rooms.
Lastly, there were a couple of potential contenders in Yamaha’s NS-SP1800BL 5.1-Channel Home Theater Speaker System and NS-P40BL 5.1 Speaker Package, but by all indications the former suffers from a small, limited sound with no appreciable soundstage, and even the most glowing reviews we could find for the latter describe the system as “decent.”
Wrapping it up
The fact that you can buy a speaker system with the capabilities of the Pioneer SP-PK22BS Andrew Jones Designed 5.1 Channel Speaker Package for under $500 is simply astonishing. Ten years ago, the level of performance this system offers would have easily cost you $1,000 or more. That said, not everyone has the space for such hefty bookshelf speakers. If you need something smaller, our previous top pick, Energy’s Take Classic 5.1 Home Theater System, is still an amazing buy. And if you want to spend as little as possible and don’t mind your speakers looking a bit plain, the Monoprice Premium 5.1-Ch. Home Theater System 10565 is also an excellent bargain.