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Sound bar vs. 3.1 home theater

Why I traded in my old sound bar for a receiver and speakers

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.

The LX16 speakers are no longer available, but the Motion B10 is an excellent alternative.

ML Motion 8 center channel

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

A sleek, voice-matched center channel speaker

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.

The Motion 8 is now discontinued, so consider the updated Motion 8i if you want a compact MartinLogan center channel speaker.

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.

The R-120SW and the SPL-120 are two current alternatives to my older 12" Klipsch subwoofer.

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.

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).

Since publication of this article, TEAC discontinued this turntable. You can view our available turntable options here.

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, read our small home theater ideas article. And then give our advisors a call at 1-800-555-7088.

  • Brian B. from Cincinnati

    Posted on 11/10/2023

    Great article, thanks for sharing. I recently "upgraded" from a 2.1 system (powered bookshelf speakers and a sub) to a 3.1 system with an AV receiver. My old setup, much like yours, wasn't bad...but the new one is so much better! And i'm going to bet that my budget was even lower than yours...but hey, an upgrade is an upgrade. Anyway, thanks again for sharing.

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    Emily S. from Crutchfield

    on 11/16/2023

    That's great, Brian! Thanks for sharing!
  • Robin Mitchell-Boyask

    Posted on 3/11/2023

    I'm so glad I read this article several months ago. It got me thinking actively about how to get a system that's worthy of the music I listen to, plus great for movies, in a room where the system has to be in a corner. I noticed in the review of the Cambridge MINX MIN22 speakers that they aren't fussy about placement, and I asked a Crutchfield consultant whether they might work in my situation. With that affirmed, I acquired 3 of the 22s, the matching subwoofer and one of the new Sony AV receivers and I'm just stunned at how good my HI-RES audio streams sound. How can Mahler and Prokofiev sound that big coming from things so small?

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    Emily S. from Crutchfield

    on 4/19/2023

    I'm so glad an Advisor was able to help you, Robin. Thanks for the kind words!
  • Dennis Hudson from South Burlington VT

    Posted on 1/31/2023

    Hi great article! I'm about to make the same move. I had a surround sound set up as 3.1 then wanted to minimize with a soundbar but now I'm going back. And for another reason not mentioned! If you love watching sports but find a lot of announcers annoying, but still want in game sound, you can put a switch on the center speakers wire and turn it off! As long as it's coming in true digital like optical, that will kill the announcer but keep the game sounds, crowd, players etc. it's like being at the game! Some broadcasters have better sound than others but mostly awesome!

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    Emily S. from Crutchfield

    on 4/19/2023

    Interesting tip, Dennis!
  • James Sanscrainte from Vail, AZ

    Posted on 8/31/2022

    Great article! I love my 3.1 system in our living room. It doesn't take much space and it's spectacular for movies and music. We have a 5.1 setup in another room, but I still love the sound on the 3.1. It makes running wires a piece of cake and it didn't break the bank. After reading your article, I think it's time for a 3.1 in our master bedroom!

    Commenter image

    Emily S. from Crutchfield

    on 11/18/2022

    Thanks for the note, James!
  • Luke Randall from Gravesend

    Posted on 6/25/2022

    Ah this is just the article I've been looking for! Thanks so much. Little bit late I know.... I've currently got a 2010 onkyo tx-sr508 receiver setup that I used as 5.1 surround in the old house. Now I've moved it's just 3.1 but with the old satellite speakers. I want to upgrade.. for a couple of reasons mainly room and that my TV is stuck on a wall mounted swivel stand in the corner of my room a soundbar seems the best option... But do I go for a passive soundbar and use my current setup or opt for a new soundbar (possibly no sub) but that has the mod cons like Dolby Atmos? I was hoping to spend around £500 but could probably stretch that if needed. Thanks so much!

    Commenter image

    Emily S. from Crutchfield

    on 7/1/2022

    Hi Luke! In that situation, I'd probably go with a powered sound bar with some premium features. I was pretty impressed with the Sonos Arc when I tried it at home. It made me seriously consider a return to the sound bar. I like that you can add wireless surrounds easily. The only major downside to me is that you only have one sub option, and it's somewhat pricey. I hope that helps! Thanks for the note and good luck!

  • Jake from Oceanside

    Posted on 4/22/2022

    Good job,nice system

    Commenter image

    Emily S. from Crutchfield

    on 5/5/2022

    Thanks Jake!
  • Joey from Cambridge, UK

    Posted on 1/1/2022

    Are there any AV receivers with virtual surround? Would love a real 3.1ch setup with virtual DTS:X/Dolby Atmos. It would be way more efficient than a similarly priced soundbar.

    Commenter image

    Emily S. from Crutchfield

    on 1/5/2022

    Hi Joey! My Marantz receiver (featured in this article) simulates a multi-dimensional soundstage using DTS Virtual:X. It sounds great. That model is now discontinued, but here's a list of current receivers that offer that feature as well as Dolby Atmos Height Virtualization. Hope that helps!

  • james cerano from waterford

    Posted on 11/28/2020

    Does anyone make a 3.1 only channel stereo receiver? or do I have to use a 5.1, 5.2, 7.1...etc. I currently have a dated Sony surround receiver that is so damn confusing to set up...(and I am an EE!), that I can't figure out how to configure it to produce clean, non prologic audio that will send signals to only left, right center and powered sub while maintaining full control over Bass Treble Mid equalization.

    Commenter image

    Emily S. from Crutchfield

    on 12/2/2020

    Hi James! I don't think I've seen a home theater receiver with fewer than 5.1 channels. And I must admit that my receiver was chosen largely for its height (or lack thereof). But give us a call when you're ready to swap out that Sony, I'm sure one of our Advisors can hook you up with one that fits your needs. Thanks for the note!
  • TDKinDallas from Richardson

    Posted on 11/15/2020

    Love the article. I started with 3.1 and a year later, finally decided to go with in-ceiling for the surrounds. The way my living room is, I couldn't put in-wall and regular speakers would have to have been put in strange places. I was also afraid that the height and direction of in-ceiling speakers would be strange or off putting, but instead it is incredible. With my next receiver, I am thinking about adding Atmos functionality to add the height speakers to the front stage. Have a great day!

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    Emily S. from Crutchfield

    on 12/2/2020

    That's awesome TDKinDallas! Thanks for the note, and I hope you have a lovely day!
  • Felix from Hamburg

    Posted on 11/8/2020

    Hi Emily, Thanks for the cool article. This reassures my idea of installing a 3.1 setup at my parent's place who are complaining about unintelligible dialogue from their budget Samsung soundbar. What's your experience with controlling such a setup? I see in the photos you are using a Logitech Harmony remote? I was wondering how good the CEC control between TV and AVR would work, but I can't seem to find any meaningful case studies. Have you experimented with CEC control before using the Harmony? Best regards from Hamburg, Germany Felix

    Commenter image

    Emily S. from Crutchfield

    on 11/12/2020

    Hello from afar Felix! I honestly did get a bit frustrated having to use several different remotes (TV, receiver, cable) to turn everything on and get it on the right input. I think CEC worked for some things, but the Logitech Harmony just makes it so much easier (so much so that when my foster dog chewed it up, I only lasted a couple weeks before I bough another one!). I would say see how CEC works for your install, with the Logitech option as a backup plan! Thanks so much for the note, and good luck with the setup at your parent's place!
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