Budget / Basic / Broke: The Best TV Sound System Upgrades at Every Price Point

Budget / Basic / Broke: The Best TV Sound System Upgrades at Every Price Point
Our inaugural guide to one must-have item at three price points

The perfect night out is now the perfect night in.

With so much excellent premium television these days, relationships spark and end over your favorite shows (it’s called Netflix Cheating – don’t be that guy). And with tons of new movies on Prime and other streaming services, more and more folks are staying in rather than drop $14+ each for a movie.

Fix a great dinner and cocktails and settle in for 90+ minutes of awesome cinematic action… without ever leaving the house.

It’s also a great era for buying that awesome home-theater TV. A few years ago, a 55-inch 4k TV would have cost you thousands. No longer. According to one statistic, the price index for TVs decreased 94 percent from December 1997 to August 2015.

But there’s one drawback. As we spend more time watching movie-quality content on cheaper, better TVs, one aspect of the experience gets left behind: sound quality.

As TVs get slimmer there’s less room for in-board speakers. As a result, sound quality isn’t keeping up with picture quality, and some remarkable-looking TVs deliver tinny, mushy sound.

Google “home theater sound system” you quickly realize it’s possible to spend as much as a quality used car on devices that only do one thing: make sounds louder.

The fact is, most of us don’t have the money or the space in our apartments for a traditional surround-sound speaker system.

The good news is, speaker technology has evolved since your dad’s living room array of amplifier, disc changer, radio, and tape deck feeding locker-size speakers.

In the inaugural installment of Budget/Basic/Broke we’re breaking down your options at three price points for the best possible sound system with a small-to-modest footprint that you can tuck away neatly into your existing living space.

Budget: PC Speakers…Really.

The basic truth of sound systems is this: most people over-buy. If your couch is 5 feet from your TV, a $700+ sound system will be under-utilized and may actually sound worse since it's not intended for such a small area. Remember, you’re not trying to shatter Waterford crystal with your powerful man-woofers, so you don’t need it to go to 11.

Most budget-range TVs will get a noticeable boost from any kind of dedicated sound system, and the most cost-effective place to start shopping is computer speakers.

Our Budget Buy: Logitech Z623 Home Speaker System, $99

z625 best affordable tv sound upgrade

+ Pros

Quality, distortion-free audio big enough for a normal guy’s living room

Small footprint

3 speaker system (w/ subwoofer)

4.5 stars on Amazon

RCA and 3.5mm auxiliary inputs

Stupidly easy install

Upgrade to the Z625 for THX-certified sound and digital optical inputs, $155

– Cons

Plenty of bass but mid-range & high tones may wash out

No remote/input select

Possibility of hiss when turned on but inactive

Basic: Soundbar

Easy to set up and offering surprisingly quality audio for the cost, soundbar speakers are kind of the reason we’re doing this guide.

Soundbars have exploded in quality because they’re a space-efficient, all-in-one route to better sound for an enhanced movie-and-TV experience. On the inside they’re pretty straightforward: a series of small speakers, usually composed of midrange speakers and tweeters (a speaker covering high frequencies). Many offer the option to add on a subwoofer for additional low-range coverage.

When considering a soundbar, key features include:

  • Multiple inputs: Most soundbars come with a digital optical input & analog inputs. HDMI is nice but not required unless you use a Blu-Ray player a lot (and who does??)
  • Bluetooth: So you can stream music from your phone
  • Subwoofer: A subwoofer is critical for bringing in the low-end tones soundbars’ inherently small speakers can’t deliver
  • Tone Controls: The ability to adjust bass & treble; many offer preset “modes” to tailor sound to your living space

Our Basic Buy: Samsung HW-K360 w/ Wireless Subwoofer, $198

samsung soundbar

+ Pros

Vast improvement in sound quality over your TV speakers

Tons of inputs for an entry-level model: Bluetooth, 3.5mm auxiliary, digital optical S/PDIF, Micro USB

Low profile fits under most TVs

Wireless woofer included

Highly reviewed on Amazon, Consumer Reports & other reviewers

– Cons

Not true surround-sound

At 35 in, it will make TVs less than 42” seem small

Better audio quality can be had at a slightly higher price point

Broke: All-in-One Surround Sound System

If you have the space and the cash, a true 5.1 surround sound system still reigns king in terms of an immersive sound experience.

Composed of an amplifier controlling 5 speakers plus a low-frequency subwoofer (the .1 in 5.1), surround sound has been the standard for the home-audio experience for decades (a precursor to the 5.1 system was used on The Who’s 1975 film Tommy).

In recent years surround sound systems have gotten cheaper, smaller, and smarter – nowadays they’re configured out of the box for wireless audio streaming, Bluetooth, and pre-programmed support for just about any audio file format under the sun. When shopping, don’t accept fewer features.

Perhaps the most important consideration, however, is room size. Experts we reviewed suggest a room 15×20 feet or larger for a 5.1 surround sound system to make sense, otherwise you’re overpaying for audio power you’ll never be able to use.

While you can’t expect pro-level audio quality (think rich person true home theater) from an entry-level All-in-One system, it will blow the socks off your TV’s speakers and provide a noticeably more theater-like experience than a soundbar.

Our Broke Buy: Yamaha YHT-3920UBL 5.1-Channel Home Theater in a Box System with Bluetooth, $430

best affordable home theater

+ Pros

True surround sound experience at an entry-level price

Wireless & connectivity features out of the box

Tons of inputs: 4 HDMI, digital optical, 3.5mm auxiliary, Bluetooth,

4K Ultra HD pass-through with HDCP 2.2 support

HDMI CEC: Can control other connected devices like turning on/off TV

Solid, discreet build quality

Space-efficient for its category

– Cons

Installation requires running audio cable across the room for rear speakers (so 20th century)

Sound quality isn’t audiophile-level

Do you have a favorite home audio setup? Let us know in the comments below!

Stillman Brown

Stillman Brown is a writer and TV producer who has created prime time content for National Geographic, Discovery, Travel Channel and many others. His interests span science & the natural world, personal growth, and food. He lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma.