Sound equipment gets incrementally better the more you spend — and you can spend a lot. To make good choices for your home theater, learn about the components, set a sound budget and evaluate for quality — then simply buy the best you can afford.

Let’s take a look at home theater-in-a-box versus component surround sound, then take a deeper dive into some of your options.

Home Theater-In-A-Box

Get front, rear and center speakers with a subwoofer, a receiver and a DVD player in one package.

Best for those who want great surround sound within a budget. Simply check the quality of key components to determine whether the in-a-box solution fits your needs. 

Component Surround Sound

With more research, you can build your own surround sound system by evaluating and purchasing each component separately.

Best for those who want to create a really high-end home theater in which each piece of the system is top-notch. There are even professional home theater consultants who can help.

Evaluating Quality — The Receiver

The Audio/Video receiver (also called the A/V receiver, or just the receiver) takes signals from various content sources and interprets and amplifies those signals to your HDTV and speakers. Quality and price varies greatly on receivers. In choosing yours, consider these criteria:

  • Output Wattage: Wattage is the measure of how much power the receiver uses to generate sound. The more wattage, the richer and better the sound.
  • Formats: A receiver can process or decode many audio and video standards. The more standards it can receive and decode the better.
  • Inputs/Outputs: A receiver takes in signals from your content sources and outputs them to your speakers and television via standard connections. Certain devices require specific connection types, and not all connections will carry all HDTV signals equally well or at all. Check that your receiver has the right connectors for your content sources. Bottom line? Make sure the receiver has at least one high-definition multimedia interface (HDMI) input and output.

The Speakers

Again, higher the price, higher the quality of your speaker components — so have your budget in mind when you shop. Then keep these criteria in mind:

  • Output Rating: Calculate the cubic footage of your theater room and choose speakers that are powerful enough for the size of your space. Make sure to pick speakers that are rated to handle the power of your receiver’s amplifier.
  • Form Factor: Floor-standing speakers are often the best performers. They also tend to be the largest and the most expensive. Bookshelf or in-wall speakers perform well and can be more compact, which is great if you have limited space. They may lack some bass range, but you can easily compensate with a good subwoofer.

Other Surround Sound Options

If you can’t afford a surround sound system with all the speakers, don’t give up. There are two other ways to step up the quality of sound in your home theater. 

Go to the Bar

Consider a sound bar. This newly developed technology gives you sound that is surprisingly like surround sound, even though it all stems from one location. The sound is projected and bounced back to the listener as if it had originated from various points around the room. Though separate speakers can give higher quality surround sound, a sound bar might be a preferable solution if you don’t want to mess with speaker wire. Consider your home theater room carefully to determine whether it has the proper acoustics for success with sound projection technologies.

Fake it

If your budget is tight, you can fake surround sound with just two speakers. Enhanced audio processors built into some A/V receivers or even your two-speaker HDTV, can read a multichannel input and decide how to best split the sound to a two-speaker output. It’s not surround sound, but it’s noticeably better than unenhanced stereo. Check your manual to determine whether your equipment is capable of this enhanced, or virtual, surround sound output. But before you go this route, be sure to check prices on home-theater-in-a-box. You might be able to afford more surround sound than you think.

Bottom Line

The good news is that if you’ve always relied on the relatively inferior speakers built into your TV, you are in for a big treat. Putting any money at all into your sound system is going to give you amazing results.