How Do I Choose A Sound System For My Home?

If you’re considering entertainment options for your home, one of the big considerations to make is what kind of audio setup you’re going to have. Whether you’re obsessed with getting all the surround sound out of “The Raiders of the Lost Ark,” jamming to “I Love Rock ’n’ Roll” or relaxing with the sound of ocean waves, everyone deserves great audio.

While we can all agree that audio is an important part of the entertainment experience, how do you go about finding a system that works for you? Before answering that question, it’s important to determine your audio preferences. This article will take you through what you need to know to create a tailored audio experience.

What Kind Of Listener Are You?

The first thing you need to understand is how far you’re willing to go in pursuit of decent audio. And that depends a lot on your personality when it comes to entertainment.

Let’s break down the categories a bit and from there we can use this as the basis for the rest of the post.

Better, But Not Complicated

If you want better sound than what comes out of your TV or the experience of audio on a smartphone, computer or tablet, there are some great options available. From sound bars to a decent pair of headphones or earphones, many devices let you experience higher fidelity from your audio without making your setup overly complex.

Midrange Audio Options

If you have a little bit of money to spend on your project, it’s worth looking at a surround sound setup and paying attention to the types of the speakers you’re getting. There are also ways to sync audio between various rooms without spending a fortune.

Options For The Audiophile

If you’re the type of person who swears that compressed MP3s were the death of music and you only listen to uncompressed or lossless compression master recordings, the audiophile options are for you. (If, on the other hand, you didn’t understand about 40% of the words in that last sentence, you can skip this section without feeling bad.)

What’s Your Budget?

Around the same time you decide what kind of audio listener you are, you also need to set your budget. This will give you a frame of reference for how big you can go with your ambitions.

Believe it or not, there are really good audio options for every level of budget and every level of complexity. You just need to know how much you’re willing to spend.

What’s Your Space?

The last question you really need to ask yourself is what your space looks like. This’ll tell you what kind of system you can get as much as your budget. It doesn’t make sense to put in a system designed for five or seven different speakers if you have an extremely small room if you won’t be able to distinguish between the channels because you won’t be able to get the speakers far enough apart.

On the other hand, if you have a bigger room and the budget, more speakers can be better. If you don’t have the budget to go all out immediately, you can always look for a 2.1 or 5.1 system and upgrade with more speakers later.

Just A Little Vocabulary

Before we go much further here, it’s important to know some key words. Without it, this article is going to be a bit of a confusing mess.

Mono audio is one speaker. You don’t deal with this a ton because modern TVs and speakers have either real or virtualized stereo at the very least so that there’s a left and right channel. However, older songs were often recorded with a single channel. A man I know wrote a book on the Beatles comparing versions of songs before and after the mono versions were mixed into stereo. If you’re a music buff, this kind of stuff can make a big difference.

You’ll notice I mentioned real or virtualized stereo. True stereo is when you have at least as many speakers as the number of channels supported by your sound setup. Virtualized systems rely on some software magic to trick your ears into thinking there are more speakers there than there actually are. This is accomplished to varying degrees of success, but if you get a decent system, it’ll usually do a pretty good job. No software will sound as good as the real deal if it’s set up correctly, but you can get close.

Now let’s understand the numbers often associated with stereo setups. The most basic stereo set up is two-channel, left and right. Action or music coming from the center channel is faked by having the sound equally played by both speakers.

The next step up is a three-channel system where you have a left and right channel along with a center channel. You’ll also see speaker systems listed as 2.1, 3.1 or 5.1 for example. The .1 indicates that the system has a subwoofer for handling the low frequencies. This can also be the thing that gives you the really thumping bass that plays a big role in many kinds of music. The backbeat can be a big deal.

Once you get beyond three channels, you start getting into surround sound systems. If you have a 5.1 system, that means there are left, right and center channels along with a subwoofer. There are also left and right speakers behind the viewing area so that content that supports it can make it seem like the sound is coming from behind you. In a 7.1 system, all the speakers previously mentioned exist and a left and right speaker are added next to the viewing area. This is in addition to the sound already firing from the front left and front right that existed in your three-speaker system. Finally, there are nine-channel systems. Although these aren’t widely in use or supported yet, the idea is that there are left and right speakers placed higher up on the wall to give the sound a vertical dimension. Think of airplanes in war movies.

In order to take advantage of these multi-speaker setups for things like surround sound, you may need an audio-video receiver that knows how to read surround sound content from something like a Blu-ray and direct it to the speakers in your setup to match the intention of the director. Modern systems with newer conductivity options may not need a separate receiver for control, but you may need one to use any older speakers in your setup.

As an alternative to surround sound systems, one big upgrade you can make that wouldn’t be as expensive is to get a sound bar. This is one big speaker bar placed underneath your TV. You generally want to get one that’s as close as possible to the size of your TV. The concept here is pretty simple. Good speakers need space to move and create the vibrations that make the sound we hear. As TVs continue to get thinner, the speakers get smaller. They do some fancy magic with software to make it sound like the sound you’re getting is coming from a bigger speaker, but this isn’t necessarily high-quality sound. Getting a sound bar can make a big difference in your home theater experience.

Just as crucial as your speaker setup and the surround sound support of the receiver is the type of digital audio converter being used. Every piece of digital music you play is converted from digital bits into the analog signals heard by our ears. Your smartphone has one, and so does your audio receiver, but the two aren’t created equal. Quality is king in this space. It may not matter how good your headphones are if the audio conversion doesn’t get the most out of the music you’re listening to.

The Equipment

We’ve now spent a fair amount of time on theory, but you didn’t come here to read. You came here to learn about better audio setups so you can have your face melted off while listening to AC/DC. With that, let’s get to some product options to make that happen.

Headphones/Earphones

Let’s start with looking at more quality headphone and earphone solutions because everyone is listening to music on their phones nowadays, and having a good pair can certainly help.

There are a couple of things you want to look at when it comes to headphones. One is the reviews themselves because everyone listens to different types of content and headphones excel at different things.

Another thing I really recommend is to take a look at the potential for noise cancellation on your chosen set. There are two types of noise cancellation: The first is passive cancellation in which the earphone or headphone design lends itself to blocking out outside noises. If you’re looking at earphones, pads for different ear shapes make a huge difference. If you can get the earphones in your ears properly, it creates a better seal blocking outside noise. Because they fit in your ears better, you don’t have to turn up the volume as loud, which is better for your ears and saves battery on Bluetooth. In terms of headphones, the bigger and deeper the cans (that’s lingo for the individual headphone speakers), the better the sound quality in general. Padding around the speakers themselves not only helps with comfort, but also blocks some of the sound out.

There’s also active noise cancellation where the earphones/headphones have microphones in them. Based on the outside sound measured from these microphones, the speakers will pump in some white noise in order to cancel out the outside noise, to varying degrees of success.

The cheapest things to get that will give you some improvement are wired earbuds without active noise cancellation. However, it should be noted that the biggest downside to wired solutions is that you often need an adapter to connect them to your phone. Because I don’t think people carry these things around anymore, it may be best to go with a wireless option. Jabra earphones are generally well-liked and they come with two sets of ear pads for small or large ears, but you can get different sizes in an accessory pack. They also do headphones that go on the ear which are well reviewed.

If you want active noise cancellation, it’s going to cost you a little bit more money. Whether it’s right for you will depend on your lifestyle, but they can be helpful even if it’s just in a talkative office environment.

Sound Bars

As mentioned above, sound bars are a good way to upgrade your home theater without going too crazy because it just fills the space better than the speakers that come embedded in most TVs now.

Companies from Bose to Vizio to Sony make these, so you have a variety of options. The best way to evaluate speakers might be just to go to the showroom and see what these things sound like. It won’t perfectly match the experience in your TV room, but it’ll be better than nothing and you won’t be buying something without hearing it.

Vizio makes some really good consumer electronics. It’s not the highest-end stuff, but for most people it’s going to get the job done and you don’t have to spend your entire budget. Depending on what you get, some options also come with a subwoofer and there are even entry points into the surround sound game.

Speakers

When you think of speakers for your home theater, one of the things that probably makes the most sense to get are bookshelf speakers. The advantage of these is that they can be relatively inexpensive and they’re small enough to work in a variety of rooms.

Wirecutter recommends a few options ranging from $100 – $600 depending on your budget.

Speakers are perhaps the most important part of any home audio system, so don’t take the choice lightly and make sure you read reviews. This will give you an idea of the type of speakers most people would look for.

AV Receivers

If you are driving input from a lot of devices in your speakers, you may find that you need an AV receiver to control it all and keep it straight. In this case, the considerations are a little different because you’ll need to think about both audio and video. Surround sound is important, but this also drives all your video media, so in order to future proof, you’ll want something that supports HDR 10 and possibly Dolby Vision if you can get it along with having inputs for all of your devices.

This is definitely an area where you can spend a lot or a little, but the Wirecutter recommendations range from $400 – $600.

Multiroom Setups

There are ways to make sure that as you go from room to room, speakers are connected and sync together so that you’re immersed in the thing you’re listening to no matter where you’re located within your home.

If you want to run speaker wire throughout your house, that’s an option. However, many people will want to do this wirelessly to avoid the headache.

The gold standard in this area for years has been Sonos. They’ve started to branch out a bit as the competition has gotten stiffer, but a traditional Sonos speakeruses mesh networking to keep your audio exactly in the same spot no matter where you are in the house. The way this works is that the first speaker connects to your Wi-Fi network. From that point on, you can add other Sonos speakers and they each connect to the first speaker, which is the keeper of the connection. This single connection point means that you don’t have as much potential for latency resulting from each speaker having a different distance from your Wi-Fi router. The disadvantage is that Sonos systems can become very expensive very quickly.

If you have speakers that support Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant, you can set up multiroom audio by simply setting up the speakers in a group within the control apps. HomePod from Apple also supports stereo pairing, although HomePod payers can get kind of expensive when you start buying them in pairs. It’s worth noting that the Apple, Google and Amazon standards will let you play the music through the TV if you want, so you’re not tied to speakers if you just want to do a quick setup. Amazon also offers an input device that brings Alexa functionality to Bluetooth or 3.5 mm jack stereo speakers. This enables things like the Alexa skills and, more importantly for this discussion, multiroom music control with your other Alexa devices that are grouped together.

With the exception of the Sonos system, all of the devices mentioned here connect individually to Wi-Fi access points, which means there’s the potential for some delay depending on how far your devices are from the access point. However, it will really depend on the conditions in your house as to whether this is  likely to be a big problem.

Next-Level Home Audio

So far, we’ve talked about solutions in a couple of different price ranges for getting the best possible audio experience, but we haven’t really discussed what you might do differently if you were really into music and wanted the best set up possible.

If you really want the best possible acoustics, you can pay to have a professional technician do a consult and help you set things up. Depending on what you’re trying to do, this can get pretty expensive, but if it’s your passion, this might be the way to go.

Another thing you can do is completely wire up all of your systems, which would completely eliminate latency, and you can wire up your whole house if you wanted to go that route.

If you have the correct digital audio converter and lossless compression recordings, it may be worth buying high-end speakers to get the most out of your music and entertainment experience.

Finally, the last thing to look at if you really want to create a wall of sound and be totally immersed is to get some soundproofing foam that you can put up to keep the sound in the room. This will help with the acoustics.

Now that you know how to set up a rocking home audio system, go blow yourself away with the title theme from “Star Wars.” Or whatever you happen to be into. Just enjoy it!