Home cinema systems: How to buy the best home cinema system
Buying the best home cinema system can bring a whole new world of audio excellence to watching TV and films. Which? tests home cinema packages so you can avoid difficult to set-up systems or poor audio quality, and instead immerse yourself in great home cinema sound.
The best home cinema systems bring the surround-sound of the cinema into your home. When you watch a film in the cinema, speakers placed around the walls project the sound from every angle to make you feel as if you’re in the thick of the action.
A home cinema system recreates this experience by positioning several speakers around your living room. It then decodes the surround-sound information stored on DVDs, Blu-ray discs and transmitting by some TV programmes to deliver an immersive sound that makes watching films and TV far more enjoyable.
Picking the right home cinema system can be a challenge. Get it wrong, and you could be left with disjointed, laggy audio but choosing the right system will dramatically improve the sound quality of your TV viewing.
What makes a good home cinema system?
- Great sound quality – The best home cinema systems deliver top quality audio, clear dialogue and realistic surround-sound affects. Home cinema systems deliver great surround sound quality that makes you feel fully immersed in a film.
- Easy to set up – Wiring up several speakers and positioning them around your living room can be difficult and this deters many people from installing home cinema. If the amount of cabling is an issue, look for a system with optional wireless speakers. Clear instruction manuals and auto set-up modes takes the hard work out of setting speaker levels and delay times to suit your living room.
- Easy to use – Once set up, your home cinema system needs to be a breeze to operate. Look for a home cinema system with easy to control features.
What type of system should I buy?
- All-in-one systems – Also called ‘home theatre in a box’, this is the easiest way to get a home cinema system. It contains everything you need to get started; the amplifier, speakers, cables and instructions on how to hook it all up. A DVD or Blu-ray player may also be included. Packages are available as 2.1, 3.1, 5.1 and 7.1 systems, which refers to the number of speakers included in the setup. Simple 2.1 home cinema systems cost around £100, but for around £50 more you can get a reasonable 5.1 system that provides true surround sound.
- Separates – You can buy the components of a home cinema system separately – amplifier, speakers, and a DVD or Blu-ray player. This bespoke route may appeal to the committed audiophile or home cinema enthusiast wanting to perfect their set-up. It also easier to upgrade different components over time. Buying separates is, however, more expensive. A basic home cinema amplifier will cost you £200. Throw in cables, speakers and a DVD player, and you’re looking at a minimum of £400 for a separates system. Of course, if your budget allows, it’s easy to spend thousands of pounds on a system.
- Sound bars – Sound bars cram several speakers into a long bar-shaped box that’s mounted below or alongside your TV. The sound to each speaker is then electronically processed in order to recreate a virtual surround-sound effect despite the lack of rear speakers. However, Which? tests on sound bars have revealed that they’re never as good as full-blown surround-sound systems. Prices start from round £100 for basic dual-speaker sound bars, though those from the mainstream audio-visual manufacturers such as Sony and Panasonic are typically priced from £200 upwards.
What else should I consider when buying a home cinema system?
How many speakers do I need?
- 2.1 and 3.1 systems – A basic home cinema set-up is the 2.1 system, which sees two speakers placed to the left and right of your TV set, and a subwoofer placed elsewhere in the room. A 3.1 system adds an extra front speaker that helps boost the sound of dialogue. You won't get true surround sound with either of these systems, but you should experience a significant improvement compared to built-in TV speakers.
- 5.1 systems – this delivers full surround sound with three front speakers, two rear speakers, a subwoofer and usually a DVD and/or Blu-ray player.
- 7.1 systems – this adds two more rear speakers to the 5.1 layout. However, with few 7.1 Blu-ray disc available to take advantage of these extra speakers and the challenge of fitting so many speakers into your room, this system is only for the true home cinema enthusiast who has the space and budget to suit.
Could I go wireless?
Ditch all the speaker cable snaking round your living room by opting for a system with wireless rear speakers. These use a radio transmitter so the rear speakers can receive sound from the amplifier, although they still need to be connected to the mains for power.
How else can I get better sound when watching movies?
Blu-ray players not only let you watch movies in stunning high definition through a HD TV, they can also deliver high-quality digital surround sound when connected to a home-cinema system.
If you don't already have a Blu-ray player, consider buying one of our Best Buy Blu-ray players or a home cinema system that includes a player.
You can also hook up your games console to a home-cinema system for the ultimate gaming experience. Consoles such as the Microsoft Xbox 360 and Sony PlayStation 3 support Dolby digital surround sound, and many games have full surround-sound tracks to accompany the on-screen action.