Four ways to get great TV sound

Options for every room, lifestyle, and budget


Barry Montgomery

Former Crutchfield staff writer Barry Montgomery studied English and psychology at Indiana University and received a master's degree in English literature from the University of Virginia.

If you've recently bought a high-definition TV, you're enjoying an amazing picture — but odds are that its speakers can't do full justice to that gorgeous image. In this article, we outline four different routes you can take to greatly improve your TV's sound, ranging from very simple, space-efficient options to full-blown home theater systems.

1. "Sound bar" solutions

These sleek "sound bar"-style speakers perfectly complement a flat-panel TV, and require minimal space and wiring. Most models even offer built-in amplification, which means the only other gear you'll need is a DVD or Blu-ray Disc™ player and a subwoofer for deep bass roar and rumble. (Some of these models even include a subwoofer.) [Shop for a soundbar.]

sound bar Single-speaker sound bars can deliver room-filling sound without taking up much space.

This type of system works well when:

  • You have very limited room for speakers or other equipment. The sound bar solution requires fewer pieces of gear than any of the other options discussed below, and you may be able to wall-mount the main speaker right below your TV.
  • Very simple setup is key. You only need a couple of cables to hook up these systems. You won't have to run wires from one side of your room to the other, either.

See our article on choosing a sound bar for more information.

2. Stereo speaker systems

Stereo speaker system Stereo speaker systems offer much better sound from your TV, and work well in rooms where surround speakers aren't an option.

Adding a stereo speaker setup to your TV is a great way to get dynamic, engaging sound in small rooms and tight spaces. They require relatively little wiring and offer easy speaker placement options. Plus, you can choose the setup that suits you best: get a stereo receiver with all the connections you need for your components; choose a pair of bookshelf speakers to save space or upgrade to floor-standing speakers for rich sound with your music sources; or add on a powered subwoofer for thrilling bass with your home movies.

A stereo speaker system might be your best option if:

  • You have a small room. These systems are ideal for a smaller living room, or spaces like a den, bedroom, or office. Their compact size makes them a good fit visually, and they can produce enough sound to fill such rooms.
  • You want very simple setup, without running speaker wires across your room. With only two speakers and a receiver, they require relatively little wiring.

3. Pre-matched surround sound systems

A pre-matched surround sound system can deliver genuine, multi-speaker surround sound without a lot of bulk. They include just five compact, room-friendly speakers, a control center (usually with a built-in DVD or Blu-ray Disc® player), and a subwoofer you can tuck in a corner. Some models also offer radio tuners, built-in iPod® docks, and wireless connectivity for rear speakers. [Shop for a pre-matched surround sound system.]

Pre-matched surround sound systemSurround sound systems typically offer the simplest and least expensive way to get true multi-speaker surround sound. (Not shown here: two rear speakers and a subwoofer.)

These systems make sense if:

  • You don't have a lot of space for components and speakers. With small speakers and compact control centers, these systems make a great choice for small- to medium-sized living rooms.
  • You want some of the latest technologies. Some pre-matched systems include some pretty cool capabilities, like streaming movies from Netflix, built-in iPod® docks, or add-on multi-room speaker systems.
  • You want true home theater sound with simplified setup. These compact systems require hookup that's slightly more involved than the two audio options discussed above. But if you're okay with running wires from one side of your room to the other, they provide the simplest — and often least expensive — way to achieve true surround sound. Many come with color-coded connection wires, and you can usually have them up and running in less than an hour. Some models also offer wireless rear speakers — the control center transfers audio signals wirelessly to the two back speakers, so you won't have to run speaker cable from the front to the back of your room.

For more information, see our article on choosing and setting up a pre-packaged home theater system.

4. Component surround sound systems

A system built from separate components gives you the best possible home theater sound, but also generally requires the most space. These systems typically involve between five and seven small to large speakers, depending on the individual system. You'll also need a subwoofer, a home theater receiver, and a disc player (like a DVD or Blu-ray player). And keep in mind that you'll need to run wires across your room to hook up your surround speakers.

Component system Component surround sound systems give you top-notch audio performance, and usually offer greater flexibility, too. (This system requires rear speakers, not pictured here.)

A component surround sound system is a smart way to go when:

  • You have a large room. Nothing fills a big room with sound like a set of full-sized speakers driven by a dedicated receiver.
  • You do a lot of music listening. Music presents any audio system with just as great a challenge as movie sound. Larger speakers and a good receiver let you experience your favorite recordings with especially powerful and nuanced sound.
  • You want maximum flexibility. A lot of options open up when you go the component route. Many home theater receivers allow multi-room music or PC networking possibilities. You can also make creative substitutions, like using in-wall speakers (this requires involved installation but saves lots of space). Down the road, you'll also enjoy more potential for system expansion.

For more information, see our article on the components you need for home theater.