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Sound bar vs. 3.1 home theater

Why I traded in my old sound bar for a component system

If you’re browsing our web site, chances are you appreciate great audio. But that doesn’t mean you have the desire (or the living room real estate) for a big home theater system.

A sound bar can be a good option in those situations — that’s why I bought my Yamaha digital sound projector from Crutchfield in 2011. It was a huge improvement over my TV’s speakers, and its sixteen built-in beam drivers made movies come alive. It kept me happy for a really long time.

Working at Crutchfield this past year, I’ve had regular opportunities to hear some really fantastic speakers. Unsurprisingly, this has basically ruined me. As much as I loved my sound bar, I realized that its slim cabinet couldn’t do justice to my music collection. It wasn’t giving me chills like the speakers I’d been hearing in those regular demos and trainings at work.

I wanted a system that would give me those chills with music, but could still produce big sound on movie nights. And I wanted all that without dedicating my whole living room to speakers. That was a tall order. Fortunately, I’m surrounded by experts who were happy to help.

A 3.1 system that suits my space and style

3.1 diagram

My left, right, and center channel speakers are powered by a receiver. The subwoofer is also connected, but it has a built-in amplifier of its own.

For music, I only really needed a great pair of speakers and a receiver to power them. But I knew I also wanted the depth that a subwoofer adds to music (and the boom it adds to action flicks). And I wanted a center channel speaker for TV and movies so I wouldn’t miss a word of dialogue.

ML speaker

My LX16s are getting a boost from a pair of IsoAcoustics monitor stands.

My show-stopping left and right channel speakers

I don’t have the floor space for tower speakers, but I have plenty of room on either side of my TV for a pair of bookshelf speakers. That narrowed my search, but still left almost too many good options. So I spoke to co-workers from all over the building and got some recommendations for great-sounding speakers, from budget-friendly all the way to break the bank.

But when I heard the MartinLogan Motion LX16s during a demo, I fell a little bit in love. It doesn’t hurt that they are very well-reviewed and have a lot of fans here at HQ. Admittedly, I was also charmed by their stunning cherry finish. They look and sound so good on the IsoAcoustics speaker stands I borrowed from work that I’ll probably pick up stands of my own when I finally have to return these.

ML Motion 8 center channel

The Motion 8 center channel is just the right height to sit below my wall-mounted TV.

A center channel that's sleek and voice-matched

Our huge selection of center channel speakers was a bit overwhelming. It helped to limit my search to MartinLogan speakers so that my front soundstage is voice-matched. I briefly considered splurging on the Motion 30 because of the great reviews and the matching cherry finish. But it was just a little too big and boxy for me (and also more than I wanted to spend).

A co-worker suggested I check out the Motion 8, a popular partner to the LX16s. It doesn’t have their glossy red finish, but I appreciate that it’s sleek and unobtrusive. Plus my wall-mounted TV clears the top of it on the rare occasions that I pull it away from the wall and angle it one way or another.

Klipsch R-112SW sub

The all-important .1!

Seriously boosted bass

I needed a sub to round out the low end in both music and movies. Usually when I’m shopping for something, I search by top-rated products, and this was no exception. The Klipsch R-112SW was at the top of the heap based on reviews by our customers. All those raves were good enough for me. Well, that and I’m a sucker for that gorgeous spun-copper woofer.

I shared my choice with a fellow writer and it turned out he had the same sub. He said “that sub will change your life.” Spoiler alert: he wasn’t wrong.

Marantz NR1608 receiver

This slimline receiver tucked right into my cabinet with room to spare for ventilation.

A space-saving receiver

The receiver that’s running this whole show has to fit inside my grandfather’s old media cabinet because I love it. This is part nostalgia, part “it really ties the room together.” Happily, there are some excellent “slimline” models that are made for tight spaces. The Marantz NR1608 is a perfect fit.

Another big reason I chose it over the other available models was that I wanted seven channels. While I’m only doing 3.1 channels now, I liked the idea of allowing myself room for future expansion. Later on I can add rear surrounds and a second wired zone for music, without buying a new receiver.

As I was shopping, Marantz released an updated version of this receiver that adds a phono input. My TEAC turntable has a built-in preamp, so that wasn’t vital for me. I opted to save some money by going with the slightly older model.

First impressions

When I first set up the system, I only had the bookshelf speakers connected to the receiver. They looked beautiful, which was important to me, as they are prominently displayed in my living room. Music sounded noticeably better, but it was lacking on the low end. And TV shows just did not sound as good as they did on my old Yamaha sound bar. My regrets evaporated when I added a center channel and a subwoofer.

Cinema sound

The movie Dunkirk begins in stark silence. I could hear the subtle crackle of paper in a soldier’s hand when he reached up to grab a falling leaflet. The squeak of a water faucet and the clunk of his helmet on the ground were almost startling in the silence. I was transported.

The system handled the big stuff, too. I had to lower the volume a bit because the crack of gunfire startled my dogs. And while the rumble I got during the bombings wasn’t as intense as when I saw this in the theater, it was a pretty big improvement over the sub that came with my sound bar.

The magic of music

After I set up the system, I asked friends, family, and co-workers to send me their favorite speaker-testing songs. I got a whole range of artists to try out, including some I’d never heard before and ended up loving. A particular standout was “Draw Your Swords” by Angus and Julia Stone which has a lovely, dynamic blend of softness and intensity.

I created a Spotify playlist with their suggestions, and I was pleased that the Marantz receiver had lots of connectivity options for streaming it. I chose to use my Sonos Connect, hooked up to the receiver via optical cable.

The LX16 bookshelf speakers sounded pretty great with most genres I tried, though I think MartinLogan’s Folded Motion™ tweeter especially shines on female vocalists (“Diamonds and Rust“ by Joan Baez gave me particular chills).

But when I added my Klipsch sub to the system, music definitely sounded more complete. If you want to hear a real difference, try “Radioactive” by Imagine Dragons with and without a sub. There’s no comparison.

My stereo music test wouldn’t have been complete without taking my new TEAC TN-400S turntable for a spin. Timing worked out well as my dogs recently discovered the joys of vinyl — chewing on, rather than listening to — so I had a stack of records to check for damage anyway. I was pleased to discover most of the actual LPs were undamaged, and they sounded great on the new system.

TEAC TN-400S turntable

This beautiful turntable is breathing new life into my old record collection (plus the gorgeous cherry finish really complements my new speakers).

The takeaway

I started this journey looking to improve the sound of music in my living room while maintaining the good movie sound I got from my sound bar. I didn’t realize until after I tested my new 3.1 system that it would improve my movie nights, too.

The drivers on my old Yamaha sound projector were designed to create room-filling surround effects by bouncing sound off walls. It did this with ease in the smaller, more closed-off living room of my old house. But I think it struggled in the wider, open floor plan of my new house. And while the passive sub that came with my sound bar tucked nicely onto a shelf, it lacked the “oomph” of a bigger, powered sub. That simple upgrade massively improved both music and movie sound.

My new 3.1 system doesn’t give me surround sound, but I am enjoying the fuller front soundstage I get with these quality speakers. Plus, my receiver leaves plenty of room for expansion (up to 7.2 channels).

I’m really pleased with my movie-night audio quality after adding the center channel and sub to my stereo system, but my favorite part of this whole process has been listening to and discussing music with my favorite people, both near and far. It’s been a joy.

Emily and dog

Find the right gear for you

A sound bar can be an excellent option for greatly improved sound with a small footprint, but it’s not the only one. You can have a 3.1 system without sacrificing a lot of floor space, especially if you opt for a nice pair of bookshelf speakers. If you’re still on the fence about what type of system would work best in your space, our advisors can help. Call, email, or chat with us today.

Last updated 8/3/2018
  • Eric Reed from South Setauket

    Posted on 9/2/2018

    I like this set up. What I really need is to find places that sell a media piece of furniture like you have.

    Emily S. from Crutchfield on 9/12/2018
    Thanks Eric! I hope you find a piece of furniture you love!
  • Henry from Atwater

    Posted on 8/24/2018

    Hello Emily With the NR-1608, when configuring it for 3.1 sound in Setup Menu/Speakers/Manual Setup/Speaker Config., will the receiver down-mix the surround (rear) channels of 5.1 audio to the front speakers? Thanks HM

    Emily S. from Crutchfield on 8/27/2018

    Hello Henry! I believe it does, but I can't actually find confirmation anywhere. I will say that the firmware update I got when I hooked up the NR1608 did give me the option to select DTS Virtual:X. That makes for some very immersive audio, depending on what I'm watching!

  • Andrew from Erie

    Posted on 8/24/2018

    Is there anybody out there who has heard a properly setup two channel system (plus subwoofer)? The setup requires some fiddling to produce razor sharp imaging with left and right channels at two exact points of an equilateral triangle and the listening position at the third point. The speakers are towed-in so that the inner sides of the cabinets are just barely visible. When the measurements are exact you hear a sound stage projected in mid air between the speakers. Depending on the recording engineer, vocals come out of the center and various instruments clearly left and right. This is the original reason for stereo------ it's exactly like sitting front row center seat in a performance. Headphone sound without the headphones. Try an 8 foot triangle or whatever fits in your room.

    Emily S. from Crutchfield on 8/27/2018
    Hello Andrew! I actually did quite a bit of fussing with my system after the photo shoot. My speakers are definitely now toed in toward the listening position. Sadly, I can't make quite make it an equilateral triangle (if I move my L-shaped couch forward, it will block my sub). However, I do have a comfy chair that can be put just in the right spot if I want to do some serious listening! Thanks for the note!
  • Chris Green from Lexington, VA

    Posted on 8/23/2018

    The cabinet looks Teak which scan is probably short for Scandinavian furniture. Richmond has a store like that called LaDiff. It would be great if Crutchfield offered more choices in LP Album storage & Sound Centers. You have a great looking dog! Cheers!

    Emily S. from Crutchfield on 8/27/2018

    Thanks Chris! I'll pass your comment along. With vinyl having such a resurgence, that's probably a great idea.


    The pup featured here is Veronica, but in the interest of full disclosure — I actually have three great-looking dogs living with me right now (though one is a foster).


    Thanks for the note!

  • Mykal

    Posted on 8/23/2018

    Hi, thanks for sharing your system upgrade. That Yamaha soundbar you had delivers 3D surround sound for sure! But, it cannot compete with what you have now. You've got precision Hi-Fi stereo to be sure. Good job! When are the surround speakers arriving? LoL? ~ peace

    Emily S. from Crutchfield on 8/27/2018
    Ha! Thanks Mykal! I'm enjoying the 3.1 for now, but I definitely got a receiver with extra channels for a reason!! I'm sure eventually I'll upgrade again. Thanks for the note!
  • Darrell from Roanoke, VA

    Posted on 8/23/2018

    Hey Emily, Love your upgrades! I use the ML XM 35's as front left and right because they are capable of being bi-amped and fit nicely in the built-ins in my living room. My B&W 684's had to go to the basement man cave because the wife hated them in her living room! Think about getting the 35's and use your 16's as surrounds! Running the fronts bi-amped will change your life AGAIN! ??

    Emily S. from Crutchfield on 8/27/2018

    Hello Darrell!


    Oh man, I'd love to get a pair of the 35XTs! They were a bit of a budget-buster when I was buying all the other components, too. But I am definitely considering eventually transitioning my LX16s to rears and upgrading the front L/R speakers again. I'm glad to hear they are worth it! We bi-amped a pair of speakers when I was in training and, they totally rocked my face! Thanks for writing!

  • Randy L. from Mill Creek

    Posted on 8/23/2018

    In changing from your old Yamaha soundbar to the Martin Logan bookshelf and center channel speakers you seriously upgraded the fidelity, but is the improvement a function of the quality upgrade or the form factor changing from a soundbar to separate speakers? I ask because I'm considering the Martin Logan Motion SLM X3 passive soundbar to replace to really old ADS bookshelf speakers and a Boston Acoustics center channel. My reason for considering this change is that I'm moving into a house with a smaller media room and I'd like to save some space and clean things up visually.

    Emily S. from Crutchfield on 8/27/2018

    Hi Randy! I'm sure it was a little bit of both. The quality of my MartinLogans is hard to deny. But I won't discount the fact that they are individual speakers that can be easily physically adjusted (within the confines of my cabinet) to achieve the best possible sound. I raised them with speaker stands and angled them in just a bit.


    That said, if you want to save space, there are some really excellent sound bar options these days. That SLM X3 you're looking at is four feet wide and a MartinLogan, so I doubt it would be a disappointment. I actually briefly considered the SLM as a possible L/C/R option, but I opted for speakers with a deeper cabinet since I had the room.


    I definitely got a lot of help when I was trying to find the right gear, so I'd strongly suggest a call or chat with one of our advisors. I bet they can help you find just what you need!

  • Herbert N Howe Jr from Fort Mill

    Posted on 8/23/2018

    Hi Emily, quick question. Does your Marantz have a 3.1 mode? Is that something I need to look for on a surround sound receiver if I use this setup?

    Emily S. from Crutchfield on 8/27/2018

    Hi Herbert! It doesn't have a specific 3.1 mode, but the Marantz's initial setup menu walked me through adding each speaker before doing the Audyssey room calibration. It was my understanding that the receiver would then use the best possible sound format for the speakers I've got.


    That said, I did a bit a bit of digging after you asked, and I found that I have quite a lot of sound mode options! The bottom of my Marantz remote has buttons for Movie, Music, Game, and Pure modes. Each of those offers a sub-menu, depending on the content. I've been enjoying switching between modes to find the best one for whatever I'm watching.


    I'm not sure whether that helps you in your quest or not! I encourage you to call or chat with one of our advisors to make sure you are getting exactly what you need. Thanks for getting in touch!

  • Steve Barton from Cheyenne, WY

    Posted on 8/19/2018

    Looks like an awesome system. We have been rebuilding ours from an old Sansui system I had in college ??. We saw the article in the magazine we recently received and my wife started tapping the page and said "We need that!" She was pointing to the cabinet. Can you give us info on the cabinet that all your "goodies" are later out in? Thanks, Steve & Michelle

    Emily S. from Crutchfield on 8/21/2018
    Hi Steve and Michelle! I inherited that lovely cabinet from my grandfather. My dad and I both think that it came from a DC-area store called Scan that's no longer in business. Sorry I don't have better news! I do hope you can find something you like just as much.
  • Grant Johnson from Wisconsin Dell, Wi.

    Posted on 8/18/2018

    Hi Emily, Nice system you have and nice break down of components. I really dig vinyl too. It's just so nostalgic. I just recently picked up a Music Hall turntable. If you want to try a great recording for it give Steely Dan Aja a listen. A really high quality recording. Great depth and soundstage. Kick back and enjoy.

    Emily S. from Crutchfield on 8/20/2018

    Thanks Grant! I'm so glad you enjoyed it. There is nothing quite like vinyl, right? My favorite records are usually gifts. Whenever my dad visits, he almost always has some fun, new (though actually old) LPs for me — stuff I'd never find streaming anywhere.

    And when my dogs decided to chew on my records recently, my stepdad sent me a replacement Dwight Yoakam album with "store on a high shelf" written inside the card. Ha!


    Thanks again (and happy listening)!

  • Veronikka

    Posted on 8/17/2018

    With a headline of "Sound Bar vs. 3.1 Home Theatre System", I was hoping for an actual pros vs cons for each type of system. It's great that the 3.1 system works better for you. I need better than the TV speakers, but I'm not concerned with listening to music through the same system. After all, it's just a bed-room TV. Thus, I'm guessing that the 3.1 may not be the better choice for me. Currently, I've temporarily settled on using a pair of USB-powered speakers plugged into the headphone port of the TV. They're considerably better than the TV's speakers, but they still lack a certain punch that a better method may be necessary. Would it be possible to get an article that the meat of it actually is a head-to-head comparison of the 2 types of systems, rather than a "I ditched this system for this other type"? I'm sure there might be others in the same boat as me, and that they could really use the info.

    Emily S. from Crutchfield on 8/20/2018

    Thanks for the feedback, Veronikka. Admittedly, the article was somewhat specific to my situation, but I was hoping it would be helpful for people in the same boat. If you want two-channel audio to sound great without losing drama on movie nights, then 3.1 is a great way to go. It sounds like that's not the case for you. Like I said, though, it really does depend on a number of factors. That's why having a chat with one of our advisors can really help.


    But if you'd rather research on your own (I get it!), we do have some great articles specific to sound bars. Check out Jeff's list of the best sound bars for 2018 or Deia's buying guide for help on that front.


    If you aren't at all concerned with listening to music, a sound bar would probably be a perfect option for you. Many of them come with subs that can add a bit of that punch you're seeking. My sound bar was great for watching movies in the living room of my old house. It just struggled in the new place because of the wide open floor plan. Bedrooms don't usually have that issue.


    Thanks for reading!

  • Scott P. from Randolph, NJ

    Posted on 8/15/2018

    Emily, I enjoyed your article, it was an informative and engaging read. Like your vintage cabinet: no doubt your grandfather is, or would be, brimming with pride. Two questions, please. First, I notice your speaker sits well back close to the wall, it looks only like 2-3 inches. No concern about the rear port sitting that close affecting dynamics to your ears or knowledge? Second, have you compared with and without the speaker stands? Contined happy listening, and cheers! Scott P.

    Emily S. from Crutchfield on 8/16/2018

    Thanks so much, Scott! I'd like to think Grandad would approve — he did have excellent taste. (-:


    Now — on to those questions! I tried the speakers without stands first, but I do feel like the sound improved when I added them. They put the tweeter right about ear-level. I also find them more aesthetically appealing that way. I mean those cherry MartinLogans certainly deserve a pedestal!


    Originally, the speakers were about 4 inches from the wall (though they do look closer than that in the photos). Shortly after adding the speaker stands (a day or so after the photo shoot), I read Kramer's article on speaker placement which led me to angle them toward the center of the couch. This also added a few more inches of room behind them. Then I ran the Audyssey speaker calibration on my receiver again. I like to think all my tweaks and adjustments resulted in the very best possible sound.


    Thanks again for the note!

  • David Dial from Seneca, SC

    Posted on 8/14/2018

    Hey Emily - I hope this note finds you well!! I received my latest Crutchfield magazine yesterday and read the article regarding your "upgrade." Since I have the same "problem" regarding movie dialog I found your write-up very interesting. Here's the deal, unless you ask I won't bore you with my current equipment names or model numbers, etc....except for the center speaker (later in this note). But, when I play music regardless from a CD or my turntable (vinyl is better :)) I can hear every word. But, when watching a movie it is hard to hear the dialog. My center speaker is a JBL Northridge Series "N-Center." My question is: Will you ask around the shop and find out if the center speaker you are using, the MartinLogan Motion 8 will solve my issue? Thank you for your time and again...good article.

    Emily S. from Crutchfield on 8/15/2018

    Hi David!


    I am well, thank you! I am actually wondering what your main left and right speakers are. Are they significantly bigger and/or better than your center channel? Since your center channel speaker isn't doing anything when you are playing stereo music, but it's doing almost everything when you are watching TV and movies, that could make for a noticeable difference.


    Or perhaps your left and right speakers aren't JBLs? There is some debate about whether or not voice-matching your front soundstage is necessary. As I mentioned, I erred on the side of caution with that, just in case! That said, I did end up adjusting the center channel volume just a bit on my receiver. We do watch a fair number of action movies and I don't want to blast out my eardrums when there are explosions just so I can hear the dialog. So bumping up that center channel volume might be something to try (I had to dig around a bit in my receiver menu to find that option).


    If you do decide to upgrade your center channel, I'd recommend a call or chat with one of our advisors. They really do know their stuff, and I'm confident they can help you find just the right gear.


    Thanks for getting in touch!

  • David from Canton, Oh.

    Posted on 8/14/2018

    Beautiful system! A question about what's on the shelf under the center channel, to the left is a gaming system I think, but what's on the right? Also, why put the receiver on the bottom shelf? Also find your playlist interesting....listening to it now.

    Emily S. from Crutchfield on 8/15/2018

    Thanks David! You are correct — that's a PS4 on the left. The thing on the right is my cable box. The receiver went on the bottom because that allowed it the most room to breathe. That bottom shelf is actually slightly taller than the shelf that houses my PS4 and cable box. It's shorter than the one directly above it, but I needed my turntable on that one so I could slide it out!

    I'm glad you are enjoying the playlist (or at least finding it interesting!); it was mostly crowd-sourced from family and friends. I threw in a few of my favorites because I've heard them a million times so I know how they should sound (or how I'm used to them sounding, anyway!). Thanks for listening!


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