Surround Tribes: Where Do You Fit In?
Towers All Around, No Sub: You are an uncompromising, sometimes difficult person, but also a generous host, and your home theater makes you popular in the neighborhood. As a questing audiophile who never settles for less than the very best, you don't care that your system is not a mainstream configuration. It just happens to be the most appropriate thing for the dedicated room you've built for it, with its acoustically ideal proportions, heavily damped multi-layer sheetrock walls, and flexing raised floor. Your speakers operate full-range and reach down to the lowest octaves with confidence and ease and therefore have no need of a subwoofer. They are powered by a boutique pre-pro and a whole rack of stereo or mono-block amps. Your video display is a top-of-the-line 4K projection system.
Towers, Center, Bipole/Dipole Surrounds, One Sub: You live well and spend your money wisely. You want a high-performing system with only a few concessions to pragmatism. And you're a little old-fashioned, so your front left and right speakers must be full-range towers like the stereo speakers of your youth. You're happy to cut back to just those two speakers when playing music. They have enough bass to do justice to bass and drums. For movies and multichannel music, you also invoke a horizontal center, which fits well into your a/v furniture solution; two bipole/dipole speakers for the surround channels, because as an audiophile weaned on two-channel, you're bothered when surround effects call attention to themselves; plus a sub operating at a low crossover for extra special-effects impact and the occasional 1812 Overture binge. You are careful to make sure the drivers are identical or similar in each speaker for optimum timbre matching. To power your system, you might be using either a pre-pro and multichannel amp from a low-end-of-the-high-end brand, or a top-of-the-line receiver from an audiophile brand. Your video display is most likely a vintage Pioneer Kuro plasma.
Chunky Monitors All Around, Two Subs: You are a middle-of-the-road person who lives within reasonable limits. You want high performance, but need it to fit into a medium-sized room that has multiple purposes. Towers are just too big and bulky for the room, and perhaps a tad old-fashioned in this subwoofer-assisted era of surround sound. Your stand-mount monitor-size speakers have considerable bass response, but they roll off as they approach the bottom octaves, so you supplement them with two subs (for more even room coverage). You may not be rich, but you like your side-to-side and front-to-back panning to be continuous, and you have a rare passion for multichannel music formats, so your five speakers must be identical. Your receiver sold for $1000-1500. It has more than enough power to run the speakers; you may not live in luxury but you like having a little dynamic headroom. Your video display is a 60-inch LCD with local-dimming LED backlighting, and you picked a model near the top of the line, with loads of smart TV features, which you enjoy, and 3D capability, which you never use.
Satellite/Subwoofer Set: You are an aspiring surround buff. You might be living in a studio apartment or sharing a small house with a growing and rather tumultuous family. The thought of living with large speakers makes you queasy and makes your usually sweet-natured spouse rebel. You want something you can mount on the wall or (if your audiophile friend pours enough beer into you and the kids have passed the destructive stage) on skinny stands. A sat/sub set, for you, is the best you can do under the circumstances, and the most suitable choice for your small to medium sized room. It makes the difference between having surround or not having it. But you know what good sound should be like; after all, you spent $400 for a good pair of headphones, and you're shopping for a headphone amp to make them sound even better. So you pore over the Top Picks on this website in search of the ideal sat/sub set and a $400-600 receiver to run them. You bought the largest LCD set you could afford, and while it isn't the classiest brand or the top of the line, it's still your electronic hearth.
Soundbar: You are a hardheaded, practical, no-nonsense kind of person. And to you, a feature-laden surround receiver is the very definition of nonsense. Who has the time? Who has the patience? Whether you are outfitting the livingroom or the bedroom, you want something that mounts below the TV and is as simple and unobtrusive as possible. Your surround-tribe membership may be only nominal; your bar has a faux-surround mode but you may not even be aware of its existence. Still, you do like the way the sound spreads out just a little on either side of, and in front of, the bar. And you like being able to hear the newscaster's words of doom. Your TV is not the biggest or most full-featured screen on the block, but you shopped carefully for it, seeking the best combination of value, energy efficiency, performance, and features, and it gives you a quiet satisfaction.
Speakers Built into Flat-Panel TV: You are not a member of any surround tribe. At least not yet. Frankly, you just don't care. About anything: sound quality, your well being, the state of the world, whatever. Your space is strewn with pizza boxes, Doritos bags, and empties rolling around the floor. Your roommates are cockroaches and mice. Jesse Pinkman once slept on your sofa; now he doesn't return your calls. You subsist on the speakers built into the flat-panel TV you bought at Walmart and can barely figure out what the talking heads are saying on it. It will last three years before it fizzles out. Then you will go back to Walmart and buy another one, but next time, having learned from bitter experience, maybe you will buy a soundbar to go with it. Will you ever be a member of any surround tribe? There may be hope for you yet. Then again, there may not be.
Audio Editor Mark Fleischmann is the author of Practical Home Theater: A Guide to Video and Audio Systems.