Tech Talk: Picking the best home cinema system

An AV receiver and speakers will give you the full surround sound experience in your lounge
An AV receiver and speakers will give you the full surround sound experience in your lounge
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IT’S the law of inverse proportions that as television displays get bigger and better, the sound gets weaker and tinnier. And it’s easy to see why – modern TV sets leave no room for decent loudspeakers. The makers don’t see this as a problem: on the contrary, it’s an opportunity for them to sell you a separate set.

This can take the form of a full-blown AV receiver wired to five speakers and a subwoofer, or an all-in-one soundbar that connects direct to the TV. You don’t need either, but there is no doubt that movies will benefit from the cinema-style surround sound experience.

A soundbar is the sensible alternative for those who prefer a plug-and-play solution.

The type of system you choose will depend on just how much of an audiophile you are and the amount of time you’re prepared to spend hacking into walls or to conceal the spaghetti of cables which accompany a full installation.

Here’s how the choices shake down...

An AV receiver and speakers represents the “traditional” home cinema system. These days they are more the preserve of hi-fi specialists, but there are still plenty of models to choose from. Prices start at around £250 for a full “home theatre in a box”, including a pair of rear surround speakers. However, installation is not for the faint-hearted. Typically, you will need to connect each box to the receiver with an HDMI cable, and then run an output cable back to the TV. You will also need to run wires to speakers around and to the back of the room.

Day-to-day operation requires switching sources on the receiver, just as you would on the TV – so be prepared to bring others in your family up to speed.

A soundbar is the sensible alternative for those who prefer a plug-and-play solution. You don’t get the full surround sound experience but you’ll certainly notice an improvement. Supermarket models start at less than £50 but you’ll need to spend at least twice that for a rich, deep sound. And if you want a deeper bass, invest in a model with a separate subwoofer.

Soundbars replace your TV’s speaker simply by connecting to its audio output – so make sure that the type of inputs on the bar you’re buying match the sockets on your TV; in descending order of quality, these are optical, coaxial or analogue. This sort of one-cable arrangement means the soundbar is always tuned to the same source as the TV, making for simpler operation and reducing the risk of your partner remonstrating about all the money you’ve spent. If that happens anyway, at least you have the consolation of knowing that your new speakers will drown out the complaints.