New to home audio and video, and unsure what to get? Picking out the right gear can be a challenge, whether you’re setting up a new home or planning a few upgrades—or even starting over from scratch—in your existing space. This guide will help you sort your bass from your Bluetooth, your tweeters from your receivers, and your DLP from your LCD. From small to big, and from little budget to über-budget, this guide to guides will point you in the right direction.
Wireless speakers give you freedom from cables for a price. Whether that price is in sound quality or actual sticker price depends on the speaker. All these speakers will run on their own power and have built-in amplifiers. All you need to start playing music is your device.
At the small and portable end of the audio spectrum, you have portable Bluetooth speakers. They trade size and portability for sound quality. You can fill a small room with sound, but don’t expect a lot of volume or a very “big” sound. That said, clever engineering can actually make them sound quite good if you’re not directly comparing them to larger speakers. If all you do is stream Spotify or Rdio at your desk, these can even make for a decent desktop speaker. We’ve tested nearly 80 portable Bluetooth speakers over the past two years, and we’re confident that one of our picks will fit your needs.
For a home speaker, sound quality is more important than portability and battery life, but a good pick for best home Bluetooth speaker should still have an adequate battery and be small enough to be classified as portable. That way you can move it around from room to room without losing sound. However, Bluetooth is a compressed streaming protocol, which means other things equal, a Bluetooth speaker will sound slightly worse than a Sonos or AirPlay speaker when playing high-quality audio. For this reason, we only recommend getting one if you can’t use AirPlay and don’t want to invest in Sonos.
If you want better sound quality but still something small, check out an AirPlay-enabled speaker. AirPlay uses your existing home Wi-Fi network to beam lossless music and video from Apple devices. It’s higher quality than Bluetooth but can slow down your network if you’re doing a lot of other stuff at the same time. Another drawback is that you can’t play different songs on different speakers from the same device; it’s not ideal for a whole-house setup.
If you want the ultimate in-home wireless audio, check out Sonos’s Wireless Zone players. It’s whole-house audio done simply. It has the lossless streaming of AirPlay with none of the drawbacks. Instead of using your home Wi-Fi network, you plug a thing called “the Bridge” into your router, which creates an independent network of its own. Then you can play different songs in different rooms at the same time using only one device as a remote control. That’s because the speakers themselves are connected to the internet and are doing the actual streaming (whereas with Bluetooth or AirPlay, the speakers get the media directly from your device).
Sonos speakers start at $200 per speaker for the Play:1 and have multi-driver speakers, a wireless subwoofer, and even a soundbar. The consensus is that they all sound great.
A soundbar is a long, bar-shaped speaker that contains multiple drivers and an amplifier. Soundbars are designed to be an upgrade for your TV’s speakers and an all-in-one alternative for a typical receiver and speaker setup. They’re a lot more convenient to set up than a full surround system; it’s basically just plug and play. But dollar for dollar, you’ll get better sound from a true surround setup.
For about $300 or less, you can get a budget soundbar that produces quality sound and comes with a wireless subwoofer. It won’t blow you away with clarity and depth, but it will sound much better than your TV’s built-in speakers. It’s like going from the free earbuds that came with your phone to a $100+ pair.
If you’re willing to pay for better results, spending more than $1,000 will get you a great soundbar. It won’t sound better than a $1,000 surround system, but it will sound very good, save space, and offer a simpler setup than a full system. The clarity and depth missing from budget options will be present with products in this price range. These soundbars usually do not come with a separate subwoofer, but the bass response is often good enough that you won’t miss it.
Speakers of this type require a receiver to provide the power necessary to move their drivers. Typically, these will have better sound quality than any all-in-one wireless solution, but can be a hassle to set up—especially if you want to hide all the wires.
Before you can use any of these speakers, you’ll need a good receiver to power them. A receiver takes all of your various sources (your media streamer, Blu-ray player, cable box, and the like) and supplies the power your speakers need to create sound. All of the models from our last round of testing are compatible with UltraHD 4K displays and sources. Wireless audio streaming is much easier on newer receivers as well, as most new receivers offer AirPlay, Bluetooth, Pandora, and Spotify Connect support, along with the ability to connect directly to Internet radio stations and local DLNA servers.
Bookshelf speakers are for anyone who wants better sound than what’s possible with a budget soundbar or a wireless all-in-one speaker without a full 5.1 surround-sound setup (which has six speakers). You’ll get a fuller, bigger sound than with all-in-one speakers but no surround sound (since there are only two speakers). The great thing about these is that you can always buy the rest of the pieces later to make a full 5.1 surround system.
For about $500, you can get a good sound system. The center channel will make dialogue clearer while rear speakers provide sound from the back to add depth and reality to your movie/TV watching experience. Most surround systems in this price range are kind of crummy sounding, but our picks are exceptions to that rule.
The next step up is our pick for great surround system. A richer, more lifelike sound is possible with the larger speakers of a truly great surround system. You’ll get punchier midrange sounds, fuller vocals, and potentially lower bass notes too. You’ll need the space, though, as these speakers can get pretty big. As of this writing, our pick has four bookshelf speakers, a center channel, and a subwoofer.
If you want to move the party outside, consider some dedicated outdoor speakers. These specially-designed speakers are built to handle all types of weather, sun, cold and heat, so you can get music outside whenever you want.
Check out our best small TV guide if you’re in the market for something in the 32-inch range. They don’t offer the picture quality of our larger TV picks, but they’re ideal for small rooms, kitchens, bedrooms, and so on.
If you’re looking for a great TV, check out our pick for the best $500 TV. In this price range, it’s possible to get a good—but not great—43-inch or 50-inch TV. You’re gonna have to make a sacrifice somewhere in picture quality, whether it be motion resolution, contrast, or color accuracy. If $500 is your price point, read through our guide to see which option currently available is right for you.
If you want even better picture quality, see our pick for the best TV. It costs a lot more than the best $500 TV but looks even better. How much better depends how discerning a viewer you are. The $500 model looks good, but this TV looks great. For most people we recommend the $500 TV, but if you want something that looks even better and has more features, the best TV is excellent.
Want to go really big? A projector offers the best price-size bargain. Our pick for the best $500 projector can create a bright, 100-inch-plus image. This projector is for anyone who finds “regular” TVs too small but doesn’t want to spend too much money to get a massive image. It will also work if you just want to project the occasional movie, TV show, or game, perhaps on a wall.
If you don’t mind spending a little more, the step up in picture quality to the best projector is substantial. It usually costs about $2,000, but it offers a more realistic image, one with more “depth” and richness. In this range (and mentioned as alternatives in the article) are projectors with even better picture quality (but aren’t as bright, so can’t go as big), and others that are brighter, but a lot louder with worse contrast ratio. Our pick is the best all around in the range.
We don’t have tiered options for you on most of these extras, but what’s a new audio system without some suggestions for audio sources?
And don’t spend a lot of money on cables. Expensive HDMI cables offer no picture or sound quality benefit. Here are the best HDMI cables, and they shouldn’t cost you an arm and a leg. Also, you’ll need some good cheap speaker cable for any speakers you buy (to connect to the receiver). Check out the best speaker cable.
Or, if you don’t want to run a lot of HDMI cables, check out a wireless option like a great wireless HD video transmitter.
Lastly, tired of juggling all your remotes? Get a universal remote control. After a little bit of programming, you’ll have one remote to rule them all.