By Dennis Burger
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If you’re looking for an affordable, high-performance 5.1-channel home-theater speaker system, we recommend an ELAC Debut system comprised of the company’s C5 center speaker, two F5 floor-standing speakers, a pair of B5 bookshelf speakers, and the S10EQ subwoofer. We came to this conclusion after nearly 25 hours of research and more than 60 hours of calibration, testing, and listening panels that evaluated 13 complete surround-sound systems over the course of more than a year and a half.
How we picked and tested
For this guide we limited ourselves to surround-sound speaker systems that ranged in price from $500 up to roughly $2,500, which seems to cover the gamut that most people are looking to spend for a really good setup. You could spend less, but less-expensive systems, almost without exception, comprise much smaller speakers, which makes it more difficult to achieve a satisfying blend between the main speakers (responsible for delivering most of the midrange and high-frequency sounds) and the subwoofer (which generates deep bass).
For now, we’re also limiting our consideration to 5.1-channel speaker systems. The “5” stands for two main speakers positioned to the left and right of the TV, a center speaker between them, and two speakers in the rear of the room for surround-sound effects. The “.1” is the subwoofer. After weighing the pros and cons of more than 50 speaker packages, we whittled the list down to 10 of the best-reviewed and/or most-discussed systems to bring in for testing and comparison.
The best surround-sound speakers for most people is the ELAC Debut Series 5.1 Speaker System comprising the company’s C5 center speaker, two F5 floor-standing speakers, a pair of B5 bookshelf speakers, and the S10EQ subwoofer. This system is nearly identical to the basic ELAC Debut Series 5.1 system offered as a bundle by the manufacturer, with one significant difference: That bundle relies on the company’s standard S10 subwoofer, which we recommend skipping in favor of the S10EQ.
Taken as a whole, the ELAC Debut delivers the goods in all of the important ways a home-theater speaker system should. Its sound, especially in the critical midrange frequencies, is well-balanced, smooth, and neutral. When properly positioned, the speakers also do an excellent job of projecting the sound into the room and working together to create a cohesive soundfield.
If there’s one significant knock against the ELAC Debut system, it’s that its subwoofer, for all its technological innovations, lacks a bit in the way of very deep bass output. This doesn’t keep the sub from delivering a healthy kick, mind you. But in The Force Awakens, for example, when Poe Dameron is first captured by Kylo Ren, you don’t hear the ultra-deep, resonant rumble of the blaster-bolt hovering in midair that you can hear with more powerful subs. It’s simply inaudible here. Otherwise, the ELAC Debut’s sound is excellent for the price, and it’s definitely the system we recommend for most people.
A big upgrade
For significantly better sound (for significantly more money), look to the KEF Q Series speaker system. During our testing, we all agreed that it’s a higher-performance speaker system in virtually every respect, and we’d pay the extra money if we were buying speakers for ourselves: four of the KEF Q100 bookshelf speakers, a Q200c center speaker, and a Q400b subwoofer. When listening to music, the instruments maintain more of their own individual identities. In dense action-movie sequences, the shattering glass and whizzing bullets sound more like distinct elements of the sound mix rather than an outright cacophony.
If you’re the kind of person who’s ever walked out of a movie theater to complain to the manager about a poorly calibrated sound system, the KEF Q Series is well worth owning, despite the relatively high cost. For everyone else, though, we still think the ELAC system is a better value.
A great low-price option
The fact that the Pioneer SP-PK52FS system still belongs in the same conversation with two other speaker systems that cost roughly three times as much (or more) says a lot about it.
The SP-PK52FS boasts strikingly realistic midrange and a powerful-sounding subwoofer. Unfortunately, its center speaker sounds a bit inconsistent from seat to seat, its subwoofer didn’t blend quite as seamlessly with the main speakers (regardless of crossover setting), and its subwoofer struggles to deliver much in the way of deep bass. The system as a whole also lacks the detail and clarity of our two top picks, and was shoddily made. One of the floor-standing tower speakers, for example, came out of the box with a significantly dented corner. It wasn’t chipped or scuffed; it was dented and crumpled, like the corner of a mishandled cardboard box.
Even taking those quality-control concerns into consideration, this Pioneer system is still a great bargain due to its speakers’ excellent performance (and not just in a “for the price” sort of way). But even ignoring the physical flaws, we still preferred the sound quality of the ELAC system overall.
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