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8 best surround sound systems to amp up your movie nights

From full set-ups to clever soundbar systems, create some cinematic drama with our top picks

David RS Taylor
Monday 16 August 2021 13:05
<p>We tested for clarity of sound, tunefulness, volume levels, and aesthetics</p>

We tested for clarity of sound, tunefulness, volume levels, and aesthetics

Sound technology has now reached a point where a home-based cinema surround sound experience isn’t just possible, but pretty attainable, with many brands offering the experience both as complete sound systems, or as parts of a system to build upon.

Surround sound systems can cost you thousands upon thousands of pounds, with each element – from speakers, to amps, to room acoustics – an intricate and ultimately subjective matter. The set-ups on this list range from budget to a little pricier, but none cost the earth, especially when it comes to their audio value. Remember, too, that how you source your audio is perhaps the most important decision – there’s only so much a state-of-the-art system can get out of a nasty mp3 file.

If a full, traditional set-up doesn’t sound like the right option for you, there are plenty of brands that have developed soundbars that do a stellar job of creating a surround sound experience. These soundbars take up a fraction of the space and produce a great sound, but, by their nature, don’t have the same level of audio intricacy you can enjoy from a proper surround sound set-up.

One quick word of advice. If you haven’t bought a TV in the last decade, you might not have HDMI ARC. The ARC stands for Audio Return Channel, and basically means that along with the initial transference of data from a device (such as a games console) to your TV, you can now go the other way, from your TV to a receiver or soundbar. Without this, you might not be able to hook up some sound systems to your television, and you’ll be left with a silent mess. If this is you, get yourself a new TV – the difference between your old box and one a decade younger will astound you.

From full-on, bespoke surround sound systems, to state-of-the-art, slimline soundbars, the options for a cinematic experience in your front room are ample. After watching our favourite films so many times that we don’t quite like them as much anymore, we’ve picked the best for every need.

How we tested

Our testing process began with shutting the windows and apologising to our neighbours, as we set up each system and tested via a wide variety of musical genres, from rap to classical, and vocal performance from podcasts, television and some of our favourite films. We tested for clarity of sound, tunefulness, volume levels, and aesthetics, along with ease of installation and use.

Read more:

These are the best surround sound systems for 2021:

  • Best value full set up – Q Acoustics 3010i cinema pack: £895, Qacoustics.co.uk
  • Best classic system – Dali oberon 5.1 : £1,799, Premiumsound.co.uk
  • Best Bluetooth performance – Denon home 550: £499, Richersounds.com
  • Best thin full system – Kef T305 home theatre speaker system: £1,700, Kef.com
  • Best entry-level systems – Fyne F300 series: £1,030, Fyneaudio.com
  • Best smart capabilities – Bose smart soundbar 700: £779, Johnlewis.com
  • Best for Chromecast – Definitive Technology studio slim 3.1: £899, Homeavdirect.co.uk
  • Best soundbar audio – Bang & Olufsen beosound stage: £1,349, Bang-olufsen.com

Q Acoustics 3010i cinema pack

Best: Value full set-up

  • Connectivity: Wired
  • Pieces: 6
  • Rating: 8.5/10

The 3010i cinema pack from Q Acoustics has everything you need to produce a faithful, detailed cinema sound in your front room. For the small real estate this system actually takes up, the sound is phenomenal: Q Acoustics is a proper hi-fi company, and you can hear this immediately with any soundtrack or album: everything is in complete balance. Due to the speakers’ size, the set-up could be interpreted as a little light were it not for the Q 3060 subwoofer bringing the lower registers together, so be mindful of this if you decide to purchase constituent parts instead of the full package. The cinema pack fills any mid-sized room, and most above, with a sophisticated soundscape, no matter the task.

Dali oberon 5.1

Best: Classic system

  • Connectivity: Single wire, RCA
  • Pieces: 6
  • Rating: 8.5/10

Dali make great-looking, classic speakers, and the oberon range is the pick of the bunch. There’s really nothing negative that can be said about the Oberon range, especially at the price: the sound produced by the full system is something special, bringing out the very best of the track you’re listening to or the film you’re watching. This is as close on this list as you’ll get to the actual cinema experience in your own home. The speakers look the part – it’s a slightly bigger set than the Q Acoustics cinema pack (£895, qacoustics.co.uk), but it works for the Oberon range, with old-school finishes and rounded lines.

Denon home 550

Best: Bluetooth performance

  • Connectivity: 1x HDMI in, 1x HDMI out with eARC, 1x Digital Optical, USB, 1x 3.5mm aux input
  • Pieces: 1+
  • Rating: 8/10

The Home 550 soundbar has one of the most straightforward set-ups on the market – it’s pretty much plug in and play. It’s on the smaller side, so won’t produce the same noise as, say, the Beosound stage (£1,349, bang-olufsen.com), but its pound-for-pound performance is impressive, especially when it comes to the clarity of Bluetooth connection.

Dolby Atmos, DTS:X and Alexa have all been added to the package, giving this more compact soundbar much more under its trunk. For even more oomph, the home 550 can be paired with almost any other Denon wireless speaker (and many from Marantz, thanks to the brands’ software partnership) to build up your own fully blown system.

Kef T305 home theatre speaker system

Best: Thin full system

  • Connectivity: Wired
  • Pieces: 6+
  • Rating: 8/10

This is the slimmest 5.1 home speaker system around. Kef’s T305 set-up is a perfect accompaniment for a wall-mounted, ultra-thin TV, taking up barely any outwards space while producing Kef’s signature sound. It’s tricky to balance aesthetics and audio performance, but KEF gets as close as you can in the lifestyle-leaning market – the speakers are a barely-believable 35mm thick, while still providing a punchy, fast-paced sound that remains engaging long into listening. Although this one is out of stock at the moment, you can sign up to be notified when it becomes available again.

Fyne F300 series

Best: Entry-level system

  • Connectivity: Wired
  • Pieces: 5+
  • Rating: 8/10

Fyne is still a young buck when it comes to the speaker market, but the brand has produced some products worthy of the attention of any audiophile. The F300 series is a great step into the world of proper sound, with a set-up coming in at just over £1,000. The rear-ported nature of the speakers adds some extra body to the sound, creating a true, balanced surround-sound effect. The floorstanding F302 speakers are a particular highlight, producing a dynamic sound even at a lower volume.

Bose smart soundbar 700

Best: Smart capabilities

  • Connectivity: Bluetooth 4.2, 1 x HDMI eARC, 1 x Optical
  • Pieces: 1+
  • Rating: 8/10

If you’re looking at Bose, you already know what you’re getting. The Bose 700 range has more smarts than you ever thought you needed, giving you the seamless choice between Alexa and Google Assistant. The sound is clean and typically Bose – the brand’s PhaseGuide technology helps create a wider soundscape to enjoy, and with the additional Bose bass module 700, a rumbling lower register is a doddle. The soundbar 700 has its issues: there’s only one HDMI eARC slot (make sure your TV supports this enhanced ARC), there’s no Dolby Atmos or DTS:X support. And, it’s pricey – £799.95 is a chunk for a soundbar, and creating a true surround sound experience with the attractive surround speakers 700 (£499.95, bose.co.uk) will set you back more. However, those of you au fait with the Bose ecosystem will love it, and in that case, the 700 range is a solid option.

Definitive Technology studio slim 3.1

Best: For Chromecast

  • Connectivity: Bluetooth, WiFi, Chromecast built-in, 1 x HDMI ARC
  • Pieces: 2
  • Rating: 7.5/10

While there might be only one HDMI able to connect to your TV via ARC technology, it’s really all that’s needed, as the studio slim’s soundbar and subwoofer set-up’s wireless capabilities work flawlessly, with Spotify Connect and Chromecast available for your non-TV needs. What’s more, you can connect it to other Chromecast-capable speakers to expand your home network, giving you an even wider range of sound. The soundbar itself is super slim (hence the name), and would fit neatly in front of any television we can think of while employing “virtual surround sound technology” that immerses you in the audio.

Bang & Olufsen Beosound stage

Best: Soundbar audio

  • Connectivity: Bluetooth 4.2, WiFi, Airplay 2, Chromecast Built-In, 1x HDMI in, 1x HDMI out, 1x line-in 3.5mm jack
  • Pieces: 1

The Danes have done it again. Bang & Olufsen’s first soundbar, the Beosound stage, is a beauty. It’s not dainty, by any stretch, but is an item of tech that deserves to be treated as a piece of furniture, alongside its signature B&O performance. While the lower end of the register could do with a little more oomph, there’s still plenty of rumble for you to enjoy any of Christopher Nolan’s films.

It’s expensive – you can get complete systems for less – but if you’re looking for a surround sound experience and a speaker that wouldn’t look out of place in a gallery, it’s tough to beat the Beosound stage.

The verdict: Surround sound systems

For a full, ready-made system that produces quality audio and doesn’t cost the earth, the Q Acoustics 3010i cinema pack is our best buy as a great introduction to surround sound at an unbeatable price. For a soundbar that provides a surround sound feel and strong audio performance, with the opportunity to develop a larger set-up, the Denon home 550 is a wise choice.

Voucher codes

For the latest discounts on audio and other tech offers, try the links below:

Play music from your laptop, phone, turntable and more with our best wireless multi-room speaker systems

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