How do I choose a surround sound system? Advice to find your perfect match

It’s all about room size, practicality and budget

sony 360 reality audio in a living room
(Image credit: Sony)

Surround sound systems are confusing. Unlike with the rest of your home theater setup, where you can just look up the best TVs and purchase the top model your budget allows, surround sound systems require you to think about the space they’ll occupy, your own technical know-how and other practical concerns.

So how do you choose the right setup for you? Here are some things to consider before you start shopping around the best surround sound systems.  

Alan Martin

Alan is a freelancer writer who has contributed to many of the world's best tech sites. With his knowledge of surround sound systems, he's been answering some of the most frequently asked questions about these set-ups in easy-to-digest terms. 

1. Fit the audio to the room

First, you need to consider the room you’re shopping for. If it’s a very small space, then a high-end surround sound system will simply be overkill, and you might be better off considering the best soundbar for your room instead. Some offer a limited version of surround sound with optional rear speakers, but make sure you check before you buy as it’s far from universal.

Why does room size matter? Because you need a decent amount of space between your surround speakers, otherwise the audio gets muddied and a 7.1 setup can end up sounding worse than 5.1 hardware. As a rule of thumb, rooms that are over 350 square feet or larger can look to 7.1 setups or higher, while anything smaller should stick to 5.1.

Large, dedicated home theaters can also look to the room-filling audio of floor-standing speakers, but smaller spaces are better off looking at stand mounted, in-wall or bookshelf speaker setups.

2. Practical concerns

There are practical concerns to this as well. Are you setting up your surround sound system in a room where small children or pets could be on the rampage? If so, you probably want speakers out of reach, rather than on the floor. 

Equally, if you’re not comfortable with wires, you may want to take the hit in sound quality that comes with wireless surround sound speakers just for a slightly easier life. 

Speaking of having an easier life, if you’re not super comfortable with the hardware, you’re probably best off looking at single ‘in-a-box’ solutions, where everything you need to kickstart your surround sound setup arrives in one simple-to-install package. 

There are disadvantages to this — it won’t necessarily be easily expandable if you want to add more channels, and it may not provide the best possible sound for your space — but it’s certainly more convenient, cheaper and won’t have any compatibility issues.

3. How much have you got to spend?

The final thing to consider is how much money you have to spend. Even an entry-level surround sound system will set you back a few hundred bucks, and real audiophiles with money to burn could easily spend thousands of dollars on each speaker tailored through their custom setup. That adds up if you’ve got your heart set on an 11.2 system.

There are a couple of things to remember here. The first is that you get what you pay for, and the cheap options will never blow you away in the same way that a pricier package can. If you budget it tight, you have to weigh up whether surround sound is worth it. You may be better off buying a really good soundbar than a so-so 5.1 surround sound system, especially if you’re working with a smaller space.

The second thing is that if you’re building your own custom surround sound system, you can always expand it as you go. If you get yourself a 9.1 channel amp, for example, you could just get five good quality speakers to connect to it to begin with, and then add additional ones later to spread out the cost of the upgrade.

4. Do your research

Bearing all these three points in mind, the final step is to do your research. Read professional reviews and testimonials by buyers to make sure that you get the right product for your space. 

By all means go and see them in person, but remember that the acoustics of a showroom will inevitably be very different to your living room.

Alan Martin

Freelance contributor Alan has been writing about tech for over a decade, covering phones, drones and everything in between. Previously Deputy Editor of tech site Alphr, his words are found all over the web and in the occasional magazine too. He often writes for T3 and Tom's Guide. When not weighing up the pros and cons of the latest smartwatch, you'll probably find him tackling his ever-growing games backlog. Or, more likely, playing Spelunky for the millionth time.