Pioneer SP-PK52FS 5.1 Surround Speaker Package
Pioneer has established a new standard for affordable home theater with their new 5.1 system. Matching, and in many cased beating, the overall sound quality of numerous setups in the $1,000-$3000 range, Pioneer's latest system stands head and shoulders above the rest of its similarly priced peers, introducing a new level of soundstage performance, detail, and timbral accuracy to the sub-$1,000 segment. That doesn't make it the best choice for everyone, though. Some will doubtless prefer Klipsch's more typical, exciting take on movie theater-esque sound, but it can't be denied that the PK-52 plays on an entirely different level in terms of accuracy, refinement, tonal realism, and just plain overall quality. While its bass is not as strong, nor its treble as bright, as the Klipsch setup, Andrew Jones has utilized every last inch of this system to produce realistic sound, rather than "enhanced" sound. Bass never overshadows the midrange or sounds out of place, and its highs are prominent but never harsh. Rooms over 4,000 cubic feet might want a bit more bass power, but this system is still an incredible value even if you plan on spending another $200-$300 on a better subwoofer. Overall the PK-52 showcases undeniably fabulous sound quality for the money, and is an easy system to recommend for anyone who isn't a real bass head.
Many more popular companies have released compact satellite systems in recent years, and while more popular brand names like Bose and Boston Acoustics command a premium price, the Take Classic has become incredibly affordable and sounds better than many more expensive systems of similar form factor. It’s not widely known, but Energy is actually Klipsch’s off-brand label, and when you hear the Take Classic’s sound, you’ll see why it’s one of the best-kept secrets in affordable home audio, and why Energy has been manufacturing the same system, with few or no modifications, for the better part of a decade. The Takes have a punchy, full sound, partly thanks to the rear bass ports on each satellite, which make for an incredibly rich sound given the speakers’ tiny size. They integrate seamlessly with the subwoofer, and a crossover between 100-150hz is recommended. This is noticeably lower than what might be optimal for other small systems, and its thanks to those rear bass ports that the itty bitty satellites can handle upper bass so well as to allow the woofer to handle only the lowest of lows. This keeps the deep bass performance tight and punchy, never sounding bloated or overwhelming the beautiful midrange put out by the satellites. Vocal clarity is also occasionally a problem for such compact systems, and while the Takes do not feature a dedicated center channel, dialogue still comes through loud and clear, and without forcing the midrange on the listener. There’s really very little to dislike about the Take Classics, and while they won’t do full justice in a room bigger than about 3,500 ft3, they make for a perfect system in a master bedroom or medium sized den, and considering the whole system will cost you under $500, it’s an absolute steal.
The HD500 is a very respectable choice for an entry level speaker system, especially for those who are familiar with Klipsch’s house sound. For those who aren’t, know this: it is bassy! The HD500 puts out lows in good quantity, and will definitely wake the neighbors if you live in an apartment building. Its midrange can be a bit recessed, which is why a center channel has been included, but nonetheless dialogue does suffer slightly, even when compared to the cheaper offerings from Energy and Onkyo. Treble sparkles and shines, which, in combination with the enhanced bass, makes for a very lively and exciting sound, but it can be a bit too bright on occasion, highlighting sibilance in some recordings and occasionally making instruments sound a bit artificial. That said, it’s a very decent system overall, and although better quality can be had for just a bit more in Pioneer’s new 5.1, the HD500 caters to bass lovers, who will likely prefer it to anything else on this list. Anyone who is after that movie-theater-like bass-heavy sound should be content with the HD500, as long as you aren’t expecting an incredible bargain in overall naturalness and absolute sound quality; those looking for more fidelity with strong bass performance should consider buying the Pioneer PK-52 and shelling out for a more powerful subwoofer, like the JBL ES250P or, if there's room in your budget, the Bic America F12. But for an entry level setup well shy of $1,000, the HD500 does an admirable job of delivering Klipsch’s famous house sound, albeit with a less aggressive midrange, for a very affordable price.
Easily the cheapest 7.1 system of reasonable quality on the current market, Onkyo’s HT540 system can be found below $300 easily and is an incredible bargain at that price. The HT540 offers a very natural timber and spacious soundstage that is typically found in systems north of $500, and gives the Klisch HD500 a very good run for its money in terms of absolute sound quality and detail, despite being half the price; in fact, I think many people will prefer the HT540 to the more expensive system from Klipsch unless enhanced bass and treble response, Klipsch’s notorious house signature, is your particular flavor. The HT540 have a very dynamic sound for the price, positioning instruments well and giving a great sense of space and power, which makes movie watching movies especially immersive; this is something one can expect from most 7.1 systems, but they are rare at this price, and the fact that the HT540 is so cheap and still manages to produce balanced, natural sound is very impressive. Its woofer is capable of producing positively chest-thumping bass, and while it isn’t as deep, tight, or well-textured as more expensive units, and can sound slightly hollow at higher volumes, it is a very strong performer considering the price, and doesn’t suffer quite as much of the usual midbass bloat that can obscure dialogue in lower-end systems, as in the case of the HD500. Overall there is little not to like about the HT540: it sounds very natural and balanced, even compared to more expensive systems, and offers quite a bit considering it can easily be had for under $400, sometimes even under $300.
Since its creation in 2002, Monoprice has become a brand well-known across the internet shopping community for offering incredible bargains on very reasonable quality products, ranging from cheap but very usable and durable HDMI cables ($2-$5 vs. the $40-$60 you can easily spend at retail outlets) all the way up to security systems, projectors, and, you guessed it, home theater. The Monoprice 8247 is a well-built, decent sounding full 5.1 surround sound system than costs under $100, something that would have been thought impossible just a few years ago. They even include wall mounts, for crying out loud! And the sound, while not approaching in the same league as the other systems listed here, is really nothing to complain about. It’s noticeably superior to similarly priced, and even more expensive, 2.1 systems; there really aren’t any 5.1s in the price range to compare it to. The 8-inch woofer is not exceptionally powerful, and you shouldn’t expect it to fill rooms bigger than 3,000 cubic feet with any real oomph. Really it's not the best quality; if you've never heard a subwoofer before, I'm sure it will be a welcome improvement, but anyone familiar with better units will likely be disappointed.
That said, the 8247 delivers a relatively balanced sound that leans towards warmth, and manages to avoid the typical cheap speaker sound of over-emphasized highs and a sucked-out midrange; on the contrary it is rather natural. Its soundstage is not incredibly impressive for a 5.1, and is beaten pretty soundly by the Take Classic 5.1 and Onkyo 7.1 systems, but still much better than anything even close to its price range. Overall, if you’ve got the extra $100 to spend, and you care about quality, go with the Onkyo 7.1, but if you're really not picky about sound and just want a cheap set of speakers that don’t sound bad, the 8247 will deliver many times its price in value and is by far the easiest, cheapest way to get full 5.1 surround sound.
JBL Synthesis Everest Home Theater Speakers
Project Everest was initiated in an attempt to produce nothing short of the world’s finest home theater system, and many would say that JBL has succeeded. The most recent iteration of the Everest speakers, the DD67000, reach even deeper levels of ultimate bass performance, and continue to offer the exciting, effortless, and peerlessly coherent sound that Project Everest has become famous for in the world of high-end home theater.
The full $260,000 package includes eight SK2-3300 surround speakers, four S1S-EX subwoofers, and three DD67000 loudspeakers. Each of the DD67000 Project Everest speakers integrate two 1501AL-2 cast aluminum woofers, which deliver neutral bass down to 32 hz, an incredible feat considering that most standard subwoofers can’t even reproduce this frequency, to say nothing of the accuracy of even most high end woofers at this depth. The S1S-EX woofers respond flat down to 30hz, and the system together has been rumored to simulate frequencies as low as 5hz, easily capable of simulating earthquake-like physical reverberations at high volumes. There is a bit of overemphasis in the 100-200hz range, which helps give Project Everest its notoriously explosive, dynamic sound, but for those who don’t want quite so much bass, proper positioning can mitigate some of the extra LF; keep in mind that these speakers were designed for spaces between 30,000-100,000 ft3, and using them in a smaller space could easily damage your ears, on top of simply not sounding as they should.
The Everest produces positively soaring high frequencies, remaining totally free of distortion that would be audible to the human ear, even at the limit of our hearing, 20,000hz, the highest of high frequencies. This contributes to Project Everest’s absolutely stunning realism, revealing the most minute of details in the finest recordings of any kind and remaining absolutely transparent and grain-free no matter what volume they are pushed too.
Overall, Project Everest gives what is perhaps the closest home theater experience to really being there: they are known by audiophiles to have, more than any other high-end system, that certain “je ne se quoi” that just makes you feel like you are right there with the sound, whether it be clashing swords at Helm’s Deep in The Lord of the Rings, or right there in the front row at that live Van Halen performance. There is quite simply no peer for the Project Everest in terms of achieving the true-to-life realism that so many home audio enthusiasts crave, and for that reason, it receives my highest recommendation as the ultimate home theater speaker system.
Paradigm Signature Collection Home Theater Speakers
With the advent of their thunderous Sub2 subwoofers and Signature8 loudspeakers, Paradigm stands poised to challenge the likes of JBL and Klipsch for their respective crowns as masters of the explosive and involving listening experience with a sound that defies traditional conceptions of high-end systems. Paradigm’s top-of-the-line range 7.2 includes the C5 center channel, two Signature8 floorstanders, four ADP1 sattelites, and two Sub2 subwoofers. This system produces sound that is both well-balanced and extremely powerful, with the Signature8 avoiding the occasionally over-exciting highs produced by the Everest and Palladium speakers, and remaining smooth at all times, while the Sub2s deliver absolutely mind-boggling bass depth and power while remaining totally free of distortion or midbass bloom.
A single Sub2 can rattle walls, but two of them can be electronically tuned to remain lower in volume while putting out astonishing levels of the lowest frequencies, delivering a tactile response that makes the S1S-EX woofers sound like oversized chest-thumping gorillas in comparison. While the system as a whole can’t quite match the incredible realism and effortlessness of the Synthesis Everest, and true audiophiles will likely opt for the JBL’s true-to-life feel, the Paradigm Signature Collection offers a new signature for HiFi sound, and anyone more concerned with a system’s performance in creating incredibly tactile bass while maintaining an incredible tonal balance should look to Paradigm for a smoother alternative to the industry’s bigger names.
Bowers & Wilkins Nautilus/800 Series Diamond Home Theater Speakers
For about $70,000, you can have a 7.2 version of the exact speakers used in Abbey Road studios, the Bowers & Wilkins 800 Series Diamond; throw down an extra 20 grand and you get to swap the 800 series loudspeakers for B&W's world-renowned, handcrafted Nautilus speakers, a treat for the eyes and ears alike. These prices include the Nautilus HTM2 Diamond Center Channel, four 805 Diamond Satelites, two DB1 subwoofers, and two of either the 800 Series Diamond or Nautilus custom crafted loudspeakers.
Either way, you will be treated to some of the finest sound money can buy: B&W's breathtakingly detailed, exciting house sound will make you believe you've walked into a live studio recording session. The Nautilus speakers offer an ever-so-slightly brighter sound that is famous for being measured as pitch perfect, but the 800D is a bit more truly neutral to the ear, integrating its proprietary Diamond tweeter slightly better than the “snails,” and giving it the smallest edge in coherence; the Nautilus sounds a bit artificially transparent in comparison. The 800D also has slightly enhanced bass performance that is just as deep and tight as the Nautilus, but offering just smidge extra punch. The Nautilus speakers are notoriously difficult to drive and match properly with a source, and due to the extra bit of brightness, they can be harsh on less-than-perfect recordings.
Overall, the 800D are a better deal, sound slightly more natural, and are less picky about source and amplification, so they will be the safer choice for most buyers...but those Nautili sure are pretty. In the end, whichever speakers you choose, the 800 series is an incredible deal compared to some other summit-fi system; I don’t honestly think anyone could ask for much more in terms of sound, especially considering the DB1’s fantastically accurate bass response and state-of-the-art room correction tech, and those looking for a musical yet accurate home theater system truly couldn’t do much better. The sound is incredibly rich and spacious, offering one of the most three-dimensional sounds available without over-emphasizing dynamic elements o the sound the way some bassier systems tend to.
Accordingly, it’s not the explosive, ultra-dynamic sound that many people will doubtless want from a home theater; that’s what the JBL Synthesis Everest or, for those not quite so heinously deep of wallet, Paradigm Signature Collection are for. But for those wanting a neutral, accurate, and yet peerlessly musical system of the highest order, the 800 Series Diamond is nigh on impossible to beat.
Revel Ultima 2 Home Theater Speakers
The Ultima 2 range is known throughout the audiophile community to produce one of the most natural, effortless sounds in the industry. While not as bassy and dynamic as the JBL Synthesis Everest, nor offering the pristine highs and bell-like clarity of the B&W 800D Series, Revel’s top-of-the-line 7.2 produces smooth, clean sound that is equally impressive with both music and movies. The 7.2 system includes a Voice2 center channel, four Gem2 sattelites, two Salon2 floorstanding speakers, and two Rhythm2 subwoofers. The Salon2 loudspeakers produce extremely rich audio with very impressive bass performance for floorstanding speakers, reaching below 20hz and having noteworthy punch on their own. In concert with the Gem2s, they produce an extremely spacious soundstage with a relaxed sound that is intimate but never overly powerful, shouty, or forward, offering a slightly laid back presentation.
The whole system together yields a smooth, powerful sound that is better suited for a combination of movies and music than the other systems in this review, and while it will never match the sheer power of Project Everest, it is quite simply a very different flavor, and a much more refined and versatile one at that. It is the kind of system that simply disappears into your theater; while Project Everest will draw attention to itself with its enormous speakers and explosive bass performance, and the B&W 800 series will repeatedly excite your ears and leave you in wonderment of the beauty of high-end audio, the Ultima 2 7.2 system will simply become a piece of your home theater that can be taken for granted, a quality that is, paradoxically, easily understated but impossible to overrate. Quite simply, it does absolutely everything a high end home theater system should do, without questioning or highlighting itself. If you really can’t pick which sound signature you think you’d like best, the Ultima 2 is the ultimate safe bet, and a purchase I doubt any audio enthusiast would ever regret.
Klipsch Palladium P-39F Home Theater Speakers
Klipsch has made their name with their theater-like house sound, and the Palladium exemplifies this signature in a compact 5.1 system that is perfect for those seeking theater-like audio in a slightly smaller space. Running a cool $31,500 for the whole system, the Palladium brings a lively, exciting sound, in many ways analogous to a scaled-down version of the JBL Synthesis Everest system, to spaces (or budgets) that cant accomodate JBL’s extravagance. For the cash price of a new car, you get two of Klipsch’s P-39F loudspeakers, a P27-C center channel, two P27-S surrounds, and the P312-W subwoofer.
The P-39s deliver very natural, well-balanced sound that is a bit forward in nature, in accordance with Klipsch’s house sound, but strays away from the over-emphasis on the upper midrange that some of Klipsch’s lower model horn-loaded speakers are prone to, instead delivering a more smooth and powerful sound. Incorporating the full system yields a forward but very spacious sound for a 5.1 system, and its masterful balance enables it to remain very natural and well-controlled at the limits of reproduction, while still offering that exciting, explosive edge of emphasized bass and treble that Klipsch has become famous for. If you’ve heard Klipsch’s lower-end offerings, and want to experience the best they have to offer, or are lusting over Project Everest but don’t have a bottomless savings account to dip into, the Palladium series will bring you very close to the peak of HiFi, and looks even better than the JBLs to boot.
MartinLogan Motion 5.1-7.1 Surround Speaker System
MartinLogan is best known for their electrostatic speakers, and for good reason: they produce some of the finest ultra high-end floorstanding speakers in the industry. The Motion series is not quite so close to sonic perfection as their much more expensive electrostatic offerings, but they are an entirely different product and are equally impressive for their intended purpose. Whether you opt for the more compact, budget-friendly bookshelf system or the full-on tower-based option, the Motion series of speakers delivers quality sound at a reasonable price with a very compact footprint; even the towers are considerably slimmer than most of the competition, and can work well in a smaller space like a bedroom or den. Both bookshelf and tower options feature impressively tight and impactful bass response for front speakers in their price range, but lower bass is, admittedly, better handled by their Dynamo subwoofers, which produce rich, full, and yet extremely tight bass, and each of which is a solid value for the asking price. Obviously the 1000W rules the coop, but the 700W handles bass very well and is a great deal at around $600.
The Motionâ€™s overall sound is characterized by a rich tonality and smooth, sweet treble response, the kind of sound that is love-at-first-listen for those who love to use their system for both movies and music. Bass response from their dynamo subs might not be quite as thunderous as some prefer for larger rooms, in which case I definitely recommend the towers and a second sub for a fuller sound, but MLâ€™s woofers tend to err on the side of favoring quality over quantity, so if you want real wall-rattling bass, you may want to look at Klipschâ€™s Reference series instead. But if you prefer a slightly more mature bass presentation, and want a smooth, clear sound, the Motion series will not disappoint, and you can always add an extra subwoofer if youâ€™re looking to achieve room lock vibrations without opting for the more brash sound of the Klipsch Reference line. All in all, the Motion series is my top recommendation for a full-on home theater system within a reasonable budget, and comes very close to a full-on ultra high-end sound system for a fraction of the cost.
Between powerful subwoofers and the horn-loaded midrange speakers, Klipschâ€™s house sound is known for being bold and brassy, with forward mids and powerful bass response. The RF-82-II exemplifies this perhaps better than any Klipsch system, delivering a punchy, aggressive sound that delivers exactly the kind of presentation that will immediately impress anyone who is new to high end audio. Some people will prefer the more laid-back sound of MartinLoganâ€™s systems, and those with smaller spaces (say, below 5,000 ft3) to fill may even prefer the compact offerings from B&W, KEF, or Paradigm. But for recreating that real movie theater experience at home, there is no substitute for Klipsch.
The horn-loaded mids produce strikingly clear, forward vocals that make any and all movie or TV dialogue up-front and extremely easy to hear, a notorious shortcoming of lower-end home theater systems. The RF-82-II floorstanders are the star of the show, combining with the RC-62-II to push vocals forward and create an incredibly punchy, immersive experience. The SW-115 subwoofer is the real show stealer here, though: it is one of my picks for Best Subwoofer on its own merits, and it is one of the most important elements in making the RF-82-II the monster of a sound system that it is. Digging deep into the 20hz range, and even below when fed enough power, the SW-115 is capable of rattling walls and windows in a medium sized room, and throwing in an extra one will fill even large dedicated home theaters with chest-thumping bass, producing positively seismic SPLs. The Klipsch Reference Series has always been one for lovers of the splashy, forward and exciting Klipsch house sound, and the top-of-the-line RF-82-II is no exception; anyone looking for that true movie theater sound at home, look no further, because that is exactly what Klipschâ€™s Reference line was designed to do.
The Cinema 100CT is easily the best-integrated, most coherent compact home theater system at the $1,000 price point, and is even capable of besting some full-sized systems when it comes to naturalness of sound and sheer realism. While the satellitesâ€™ bass performance will never match the well-measured punch of high quality full-sized floorstanding speakers, the 100CTâ€™s mini-speakers do offer a bit more punch than the smaller systems in this review, outdoing the HT-50 by quite a bit and offering a tighter, fuller response than KEFâ€™s K2 system. In fact, the 100CT sounds convincingly close to a full-sized system at the same price, besting Klipschâ€™s lower-end Reference line in soundstage, bass depth, and overall realism; they wonâ€™t satisfy a bassheadâ€™s craving for enhanced midbass frequencies in quite the same fashion as Klipschâ€™s floorstanders, but in terms of overall realism, the lower-end Reference speakers canâ€™t match the 100CTâ€™s overall naturalness of sound.
Its presentation is notably more expansive than most smaller systems of its kind, creating an incredibly immersive movie watching experience that is hard to come by at the $1,000 price point, even with a 5.1 containing full-sized floorstanding speakers. While its high range is not quite as crisp and accentuated as the HT-50, it will sound more natural to those who arenâ€™t used to enhanced high frequency response, and the sheer size of its soundstage, not to mention its outstandingly powerful yet tight bass performance, make for a generally more convincing three-dimensional sound experience. As a result, while some might prefer the HT-50 for music, especially classical recordings with an emphasis on strings that benefit from accentuated treble response, the 100CT is the superior system for movies and an all-around more realistic home theater experience, and is an easy choice for most buyers over the more expensive Bowers & Wilkins system.
Bowers & Wilkins MT-50 5.1 Surround Speakers
The MT-50 has received many accolades and compliments for offering an incredibly realistic and coherent sound at a fraction of the size (not to mention cost) of B&Wâ€™s full-sized setups, and may actually be preferred to a full-size setup for smaller spaces. The MT-50 carries B&Wâ€™s characteristic house sound, with crisp, accentuated treble that sounds clean and precise with movie dialogue, and absolutely fantastic with music, especially classical pieces with a strong emphasis on strings and woodwinds, like Vivaldi or Stravinsky. Its soundstage is impressively expansive considering the size of the speakers, and it is capable of creating a very immersive movie experience. The included ASW608 subwoofer was actually one of my picks for Best Midrange Subwoofer, and it earns its place in the MT-50 system by providing punchy and accurate bass, albeit not the deepest of the lot listed here.
In fact, the MT-50 is both the brightest and bass-lightest out of all systems in this review, something that should certainly be taken into account if your preferences for bass lean heavily one way or the other; most people looking to buy their first sound system will probably be interested in a bit more bass than the MT-50 has to offer. However, for those choosy audiophiles who have been spoiled by B&Wâ€™s higher end systems, or picky listeners who simply prefer to extract the maximum amount of detail from their system while ensuring that emphasized bass tones donâ€™t get in the way, there are few, if any, compact alternatives to the MT-50. With its accentuated high frequencies and tight, detailed, and well-textured bass response, the MT-50 is a must have for those who prefer detail to power, especially if music will be a big part of the systemâ€™s use.
KEF KHT3005SE-K2 5.1 Speaker System
KEF has always been a brand name that budget-conscious audiophiles can look to for wallet-friendly alternatives to the big names like Klipsch, MartinLogan, and Bowers & Wilkins. The K2 is the latest iteration of KEFâ€™s 3000-series speaker lineup, which includes the Kube 2 subwoofer, delivering deeper, cleaner bass than the HTB2SE included in the former iteration of the KHT3005SE package. Whereas the HTB2SEâ€™s slightly bloated response did not fit well with the overall clean and smooth sound of the 3000-series, the K2 system integrates rather nicely, and the Kube 2â€™s cleaner response makes the K2 system much more competitive with the Paradigm 100CT and B&W MT-50.
KEFâ€™s house sound is a smooth, airy presentation backed up by strong bass; stronger, in this case, than the ASW608 from B&Wâ€™s MT-50 setup, meaning that the KEF system might be a better choice for those who arenâ€™t excited by B&Wâ€™s soaring treble response which, while extremely clean and detailed, can sound artificial or grating to those with sensitive ears, or perhaps just unnatural to anyone more accustomed to the consumer-oriented sound of lower-end systems that donâ€™t provide such extended high frequency response. The K2 system is a much more â€œfunâ€� approach, whereas B&Wâ€™s aim is to appeal to audiophiles; I think the K2â€™s sound signature will actually be preferred by the great majority of those looking for a high-end but â€œnormalâ€� sounding speaker system, and with a going rate around $500 less than B&Wâ€™s offering, itâ€™s a very safe choice for those not looking to go all-in on B&Wâ€™s acquired flavor.