Should I get full surround sound or a soundbar for a TV sound system ?
Q. I am buying a sound system for my 55-inch TV. My wife and I are avid movie watchers and I am interested in either a soundbar or a full surround 5.1-channel speaker system with a receiver. It must have Bluetooth for music. What is your advice if I want to spend around $500?
-Nitin A., Milwaukee, WI
A. My top recommendation for a single-piece TV soundbar is the $499 ZVOX SB400 (zvoxaudio.com) with integrated subwoofer. It includes everything you need for setup, is beautifully finished and sounds absolutely great. I’ve praised it in the column recently, and readers who have purchased it tell me they are extremely satisfied.
The full surround system posed an interesting challenge. What is the best 5.1-channel surround sound system I could build for around $500? How would it compare to the best $500 single-piece solution?
Dayton Audio (daytonaudio.com) has expanded their critically acclaimed budget line of speakers and you can now build an entire 5.1 channel Dayton system with small towers up front. While it is not high-end, it will sound much better than you would expect for the price. For the front left and right speakers we will use the T652 towers for $120/pair, the B652 bookshelves will serve as surround speakers for $40/pair and the C452 center speaker is $30. The $120 Dayton SUB-1000 powered subwoofer finishes the speaker system for $310. (You can also use a $99 Polk subwoofer.) If funds are tight you can go without the center or subwoofer and save $150. The towers will produce passable bass on their own, and you can use the phantom center channel mode instead of a center channel. A Pioneer VSX-530 receiver (pioneerelectronics.com) with Bluetooth for $199 puts this system between $359 and $509, depending on whether you use a center channel or subwoofer. Add another $10 for 100 feet of 16-gauge speaker wire and $20 total for a subwoofer cable and 2 HDMI cables and your system is complete.
Though the ZVOX and the Dayton-Pioneer system each cost around $500, the listening and ownership experiences are quite different. If set up properly with good speaker placement, the Dayton Audio-Pioneer system will make you feel like you are in a theater with a palpable sense of space, action whizzing around the room and solid, forceful bass from the powered 10-inch subwoofer. While the ZVOX will not provide the same level of sonic immersion as 5 separate speakers placed around the room, its tonal qualities are noticeably better due to the premium quality parts and construction. Not only is the sound rich and clean, the ZVOX soundbar will also do a better job with vocal reproduction and dialogue whether you use the AccuVoice feature or not.
The Dayton system is thoroughly entry level, while the ZVOX is a class-leading product. The Dayton-Pioneer system requires connecting several components to the receiver, then the receiver to the TV, then running wires to the speakers placed around the room. Then you must fine-tune the speakers in the receiver’s setup menus and use a separate remote to control it. The ZVOX has one connection to the TV and a small, simple remote you may not even use once the soundbar is set up, which takes a few minutes at most.
Only you can decide what is best for you. Do you favor premium quality products, with the highest sound quality at the price and absolute simplicity in setup and operation? Get the ZVOX. Are you trying to closely recreate a dramatic movie theater experience at home, and are you willing to give up some sound quality with entry-level components? Check out the Dayton-Pioneer system.