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The best surround-sound speakers for most people

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.

Our pick

Thanks to its full-size center channel and beefy tower speakers, the ELAC Debut Series system sounds great even in larger rooms. Photo: Dennis Burger

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.

In lieu of physical controls, the ELAC S10EQ subwoofer relies on a mobile app (iOS and Android) for any and all adjustments. It also includes built-in room correction for the sub. Photo: Dennis Burger

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

KEF’s Uni-Q concentric driver design results in enhanced clarity and wonderful dispersion. Photo: Dennis Burger

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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About Ms. A. C. Kennedy

Ms. A. C. Kennedy
My name is Ms A C Kennedy and I am a Health practitioner and Consultant by day and a serial blogger by night. I luv family, life and learning new things. I especially luv learning how to improve my business. I also luv helping and sharing my information with others. Don't forget to ask me anything!

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What we’re watching: ‘Raw’ and ‘Feast of Fiction’

Welcome back to Video IRL, where several of our editors talk about what they've been watching in their spare time. This month we're kicking things off with some seasonally-appropriate horror fare, that you can catch right away on Netflix or Amazon Prime. Then it's time for a Gundam throwback before Kris Naudus points out a couple of YouTube food channels perfect for binge eating or binge watching.

Them / Raw


Timothy J. Seppala

Timothy J. Seppala
Associate Editor

To get into the Halloween spirit, I've been watching at least one horror movie a day since the end of September -- the lower the budget, the better. Problem is, so many of the American low-budget or indie horror offerings on Amazon and Netflix are crappy Paranormal Activity clones, cheap-thrill gore-fests or uninspired found-footage "documentaries." Whether it's by design or coincidence, I've found that French horror movies have held my attention the most lately. Specifically, 2016's Raw, as well as Them, from ten years prior. They're more psychological thrillers than straight-up horror, but that didn't stop me from being more on edge while watching them one afternoon than I was during A Haunting in Saginaw, Michigan, late at night. Both start with a car crash, but they couldn't finish any more differently.

Raw, recently added to Netflix, tells the tale of a vegetarian girl in her first week at a prestigious veterinary school. During a hazing ritual, she's forced to eat a raw rabbit kidney. She immediately gets sick, throws up and wakes herself up that night scratching a full-body rash to near bleeding. This bout with food poisoning is just the beginning, though, and soon protagonist Justine finds out she has a taste for forbidden fruit. As the remaining 70-ish minutes unfolded, I lost track of how many times I clasped my hands over my mouth, agape in shock, to stifle my shouts of "OHMYGODWHATTHEFUCKISEVENHAPPENING?!"

But French director Julia Ducournau balances every body-horror scene either with something pedestrian twisted into being unsettling (like a horse on a treadmill) or with something that makes you ask how far Justine can go before someone confronts her about her new diet. And those questions keep coming right until the credits roll. I can't say I enjoyed watching Raw, but it was a hell of a ride.

The same goes for Them, currently streaming on Amazon Prime. Its focus is narrow, centering on a young couple living in a cavernous farmhouse, terrorized over the course of a night by unseen horrors. The camera never quite gives away who (or what) the perpetrators are, and revealing the twist would be a sin. As with Raw, its atmosphere and overall creepiness won me over straightaway. The scariest part? Realizing that I've probably driven past a shot like the final scene countless times and not thought twice about it. If you're willing to read subtitles, both of these should make you shiver and scream more than The Conjuring 2 on HBO Go could ever hope to.

Mobile Suit Gundam The 08th MS Team


David Lumb

David Lumb
Contributing Editor

I'd heard that a lot of anime had left Hulu, but I scanned their selection anyway looking for classic shows I'd missed, like the original Mobile Suit Gundam. They don't have that -- but they did have a series I didn't finish the first time it aired on Toonami, the 1996 classic Gundam side story The 08th MS Team. Unlike the franchise's other show released the year before, the massively successful Gundam Wing, 08th ditches the brand's typical pretty-boys-in-unbeatable-robots for a grounded and sobering story about the people who get caught up in wars -- desperate soldiers, civilians and guerrillas alike. It's dirty, honest, utterly humane and gorgeously animated.

It's also a little preachy and melodramatic, and it shows its age with odd sexist moments. While it's still the Thin Red Line of the Gundam universe, I remember it far more fondly from when my 14-year-old self grazed the series on its first American airing. There's something sad in seeing an old favorite for the flawed media it always was. Much like Waypoint's Rob Zacny, I've grown up and seen a lot since I first caught the show as a starry-eyed teen. I still think The 08th MS Team is a wonderful little 12-episode miniseries with a big heart, but I won't revere it so highly -- and will think a little harder about who I recommend it to.

Feast of Fiction / Binging with Babish


Kris Naudus

Kris Naudus
Senior Editor, Database

Back in March, I came home from a trip only to discover that my oven didn't work. The cooking gas in my building had been shut off due to a leak. My building management seemed to be on it, so I made do with a combination of microwavables, toaster oven and Seamless. Unfortunately, weeks and months went by, calls to the city were made and permits were issued, but, even as I write this in October, gas still has not been restored to my building. My landlords eventually threw their collective hands in the air and began installing electric ranges in every apartment, so a few weeks ago I was finally able to cook for myself again.

I am so jazzed to be able to make food. Hot food! Scrambled eggs! Steak! Cookies! I started reading food blogs and cookbooks, and shopping to refill my pantry. I'm halfway through Kenji Alt-Lopez's The Food Lab, a huge 900-page hardcover that talks about the science of how food cooks. On the lighter side, I've also been reading food-themed comics like Delicious in Dungeon and Food Wars. And the latter title (which is also an anime) ended up sucking me into a YouTube hole of food videos that I've been obsessed with ever since.

You see, the very first chapter of Food Wars features the "Gotcha" Pork Roast, a bacon-wrapped potato loaf that hero Soma Yukihira makes to save his family restaurant. It looks pretty tasty, so I searched for recipes and pics online and stumbled onto Jimmy Wong and Ashley Adams' Feast of Fiction, a series that demonstrates how to make various foods seen in cartoons, video games and comics. If you ever wanted to taste Steven Universe's beloved Cookie Cat ice cream sandwiches or Kirby's super-spicy curry, there's an episode for you. One thing I really enjoy is how they also incorporate crafts into it, showing how to make paper wrappers for your Reptar chocolate bars or genuine-looking Ecto Cooler Hi-C boxes.

I've been marathoning through the episodes, which the YouTube algorithms have definitely picked up on at this point, throwing food show after food show into my suggestions. One that caught my eye was Binging with Babish. Where Feast of Fiction mostly sticks to the realm of kids' cartoons, anime and video games, Binging with Babish is a little more mainstream, covering foods from popular media like Mad Men, Seinfeld and House of Cards. Still, there's a bit of overlap -- both Babish and Feast have done their own takes on the Ultimeatum from Regular Show and Krabby Patties from SpongeBob SquarePants. But the recipes are different, and I watch the shows for the personalities. Feast of Fiction is pretty silly (and there's a cute dog), while Binging with Babish is a little more subdued. Not that Babish can't be ridiculous as well -- the Moist Maker is one of the most ridiculously complicated sandwiches I have ever seen, basically asking you to cook an entire Thanksgiving dinner.

Sadly, I still haven't done a lot of actual cooking since getting my stove back. I'm having too much fun watching other people do it instead, with the added bonus that I don't have to clean up the mess.

"IRL" is a recurring column in which the Engadget staff run down what they're buying, using, playing and streaming.

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