Best surround sound system: from sweeping satellite speaker sounds to overhead Dolby Atmos delights

Get the best surround sound system set-up of your dreams with our pick of the best surround sound systems

best surround sound system: Sennheiser Ambeo Soundbar lifestyle
(Image credit: Sennheiser)

You’ve got the flashy new TV, and your eyes have never been happier. But you need the best surround sound system for your ears. As any good filmmaker will tell you, the image is only half the picture, and if you don’t have great sound to go with it, the magic of cinema is gone.

So if you’re looking to perfect your home cinema experience – especially at a time when the local multiplex isn’t a go-to option, you’re going to need a great sound system, too.

Surround sound gear has come a long way in recent years. The mess of cables and discrete speakers and stands that used to dot around our living rooms have given way to much tidier single-unit soundbars that sit underneath our TVs and beef up what the slim flat panels can’t produce themselves. And yep, there’s still lots to love about having speakers dotted around your room, but now they’re usually wireless in form, and often offer upwards-firing Dolby Atmos sound too for an audio track that lives and breathes all around you – including from above.

If you’re looking to make the surround sound upgrade, these are the speakers you should consider.

The best surround sound system 2021

best surround sound system: Sennheiser Ambeo Soundbar

Sennheiser Ambeo Soundbar

(Image credit: Sennheiser)

1. Sennheiser Ambeo Soundbar

The king of surround sound soundbars

Specifications
Inputs: HDMI x4, Optical, RCA line In
Audio format support: Dolby Atmos, DTS:X
Wi-fi: Yes
Bluetooth: Yes
Dimensions: H14 x W127 x D17cm
Weight: 18.5kg
Reasons to buy
+Sublime surround sound+Thunderous volume
Reasons to avoid
-Absolutely huge-Incredibly expensive

It doesn’t come cheaply – and you’re going to need a couple of weightlifters to help you carry it back from the shops – but if you want the very best surround sound soundbar money can buy, you’ve got to pick up the Sennheiser Ambeo Soundbar. If your back holds out, that is…

It’s an absolutely exquisite system, one that really brings the cinema experience to your home, and does it all from just one (albeit large) speaker cabinet. The Ambeo 3D soundbar packs in a full 13 separate drivers – comprising six woofers and three tweeters on the front side, plus another couple of tweeters facing out to the left and right on each end of the speaker, and finally two upward-firing drivers found on the top of the soundbar. It’s these top-pointing ones that are the secret weapon – while the other speakers make it feel as though the sound is coming all around you, the top ones use Dolby Atmos technology to bounce audio off your ceiling, making it feel as if it is coming from above you, too. A roll of thunder, a storm or a helicopter overhead – Dolby Atmos brings it to your living room with vivid detail.

Gigantic sound from a gigantic cabinet

Is your AV cabinet sturdy? If not, you might want to start reinforcing it if you’re hoping to get the Ambeo in your home. Along with its wallet-whopping price tag, it comes with an equally gigantic footprint, too. Weighing in at a hefty 18.5kg (around 40 pounds) and measuring 127cm wide, 14cm tall and 17cm deep (49 x 5.3 x 6.6 inches, W x H x D), this is the sort of soundbar that dominates the space it is placed in, so be ready to make room for it. It’s worth considering too that, unless your TV is wall mounted above the surface you expect to place the soundbar on, it is big enough that it could well obscure your view of the lower half of your TV. Check how high your TV’s feet lift it off your cabinet, and keep that tape measure handy.

Connectivity

If you can make it fit though, the Ambeo’s wide range of connection options make it worth the hassle. It comes complete with three HDMI ports (including support for eARC – the future-proof audio standard that will support high-bandwidth, high resolution audio streaming as it increasingly becomes available), Ethernet and optical connectivity. Pair that with its 500W amp, and this room-shaking soundbar has the power to blow your mind (and your windows out).

best surround sound system: Sonos Arc

Sonos Arc

(Image credit: Sonos)

2. Sonos Arc

A great multi-room option

Specifications
Connections: HDMI, optical, ethernet
ARC/eARC: eARC
Surround format support: Dolby Atmos, Dolby True HD, Dolby Digital+, Dolby Digital
Wi-fi: Yes
Bluetooth: No
AirPlay 2: Yes
Voice control: Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant
Dimensions: H8.7 x W114 x D12cm
Weight: 6.3kg
Reasons to buy
+Easy set up+Can be part of a larger multi-room sound system+Supports additional surround sound speakers as required
Reasons to avoid
-Very expensive once you expand the system-Multi-room features can be found cheaper elsewhere

Sonos essentially invented the idea of a connected, multi-room sound system – the type where you can choose to control music from speakers dotted all around your house from one central device. Everyone’s ripped it off now, from Google to Amazon (and often at cheaper prices too), but still nobody does it better than Sonos. And with its increasing interest in home cinema, with devices like the Sonos Arc, it’s comfortably finding itself worthy of a spot under your TV too.

A great Dolby Atmos soundbar, first and foremost

The Sonos Arc can do a lot, but let’s get the critical stuff out of the way first – is it a good soundbar? Absolutely. Its handling of overhead Dolby Atmos sounds is exemplary, delivering convincing positional audio, and with the weight and dynamism that its high-end audio heritage is suggestive of. Sonos' trademark ‘TruePlay’ technology makes set up a piece of cake too, using a microphone to pick up the audio qualities of the room you’re in, and then tailoring the sound to match the environment.

All the world’s music

But that’s just the start of the Sonos Arc’s abilities. If you pine for a true surround sound experience, you can buy additional wireless Sonos speakers at your leisure, and use them to create distinct audio spots around your viewing environment. This can get pricey – Sonos equipment comes at a premium – but it’s worth it for the true cinephile. 

Those speakers aren’t just limited to TV audio, either. Sonos speakers come in all shapes and sizes, and can be connected to each other over your home’s Wi-Fi network. From your phone, you can then choose to have different music playing in different zones of your house, or set them all to synchronise for the mother of all house parties. Sonos’ intuitive software makes it easy to tap into basically every audio service there is out there in the world too, from local and internet radio stations to practically every streaming service. It’s a pricey package to live the full Sonos lifestyle, but there’s nothing more satisfying if you can afford the investment.

best surround sound system: LG SN11RG

LG SN11RG

(Image credit: LG)

3. LG SN11RG

Powerful positional audio from a lengthy soundbar

Specifications
Inputs: HDMI x2 (HDMI output x1), Optical, USB, eARC
Audio format support: Dolby Atmos / DTS:X
Wi-fi: Yes
Bluetooth: Yes
Dimensions: H6.3 x W144 x D14.6cm
Weight: 8.2kg
Reasons to buy
+Easy wireless speaker set up+Excellent positional audio+Powerful sound
Reasons to avoid
-Very long-Cheaper, similar options

Though the Sennheiser Ambeo does a great job of making it feel as though sound is coming from all around you from one central spot, the LG SN11RG actually offers rear speakers as part of its package to truly envelope you in sound. Not only do you get audio coming from in front, to the side and above you then, but with the LG SN11RG you get two dedicated speakers to put behind you to blast you from that angle too, as well as adding additional overhead audio oomph.

Convincing cinema experience

As a result, it’s one of the most breath-taking sound set ups of any package on this list. With booming bass coming from its separate subwoofer, the extra discrete channels allow the LG system to really nail a sense of direction from its individual sound stations.

It’s got plenty of other surprises too. Upscaling of low-quality audio sources is masterfully handled, eARC support makes it future-proofed for the high-resolution audio sources to come, while 4K and Dolby Vision pass through make it a great match for any high-end TV that supports the rich HDR format. There’s even Google Assistant support built in for controlling smart home gadgetry – though we’d like to have Alexa in there, too.

A big one

As if its price wasn’t enough of a signal, this is one big soundbar. Measuring a little over 144cm, it’s going to dwarf any TV below a 65-inch size, meaning you might need to have a think about your options if your TV is smaller. Just two HDMI inputs feels a bit mean, too. It’s not as gargantuan as the Ambeo – the separate rear speakers spread some of the load in that regard, and help deliver superb surround sound. But it’s still got width to spare – and a price tag to match.

best surround sound system: Sony HT-ST5000

Sony HT-ST5000

(Image credit: Sony)

4. Sony HT-ST5000

Sony’s premium soundbar option

Specifications
Inputs: HDMI x3 (HDMI output x1), Optical, 3.5mm, USB
Audio format support: Dolby Atmos
Wi-fi: Yes
Bluetooth: Yes
Dimensions: H8 x W118 x D14cm
Weight: 8.2kg
Reasons to buy
+Immersive Dolby Atmos+NFC connectivity+Great music streaming and smart assistant support
Reasons to avoid
-Expensive-Only supports Google Assistant – not Alexa or Siri

If you spare no expense on your AV equipment, and have a penchant for Sony TVs, the perfect audio match for your television will be Sony’s HT-ST5000. Packed full of features, it’s an audio powerhouse, with a few surprises up its sleeve, too. 

Great Dolby Atmos

Sony’s HT-ST5000 is one of the best Dolby Atmos soundbar systems we’ve tried. It’s making use of an ambitious 7.2.1 speaker configuration which means that not only does it give the impression that sound is coming from seven distinct spots to the front, sides and behind your seated position, but from two overhead points too – that Dolby Atmos magic – with one separate subwoofer speaker for delivering rumbling bass.

It’s well equipped when it comes to ports, too. There are three 4K HDR-supporting HDMI inputs, and another HDMI output, as well as USB, Bluetooth and NFC connectivity. NFC (near field communications) is the same wireless technology you find in contactless bank cards, and means you can instantly transfer whatever music is playing on your phone to the speaker with just a tap. There’s also a dedicated ‘Music Service’ button for Spotify listeners, which can be pushed to instantly pull whatever you’re listening to from Spotify on another device to this main, powerful speaker system instead.

Super Smart

It doesn’t just sound good either – it’s also a super smart soundbar. With Chromecast built in, you can quickly find videos on your phone and have them beamed to your TV via the soundbar, too. Google Assistant support lets you talk to the device too, letting it take control of things like your home’s lighting, set reminders, or play music with just spoken commands. There’s even support for high-resolution music services like Tidal built in – though we have to admit you might need to take a bit of time to get used to the HT-ST5000’s slightly clunky remote control.

best surround sound system: Samsung HW-Q90R

Samsung HW-Q90R

(Image credit: Samsung)

5. Samsung HW-Q90R

True surround sound with separate rear speakers

Specifications
Inputs: HDMI x2 (HDMI output x1), Optical, 3,5mm, USB
Audio format support : Dolby Atmos, DTS:X
Wi-fi: Yes
Bluetooth: Yes
Dimensions: H8.3 x W122.6 x D13.6cm
Weight: 8.8kg
Reasons to buy
+Great overhead Atmos sounds+Support for rear channels+Easy set up with a Samsung TV
Reasons to avoid
-Expensive-Not enough HDMI ports

Virtualized surround sound from a single source can be very convincing, as the above soundbars have shown. But, if you’ve got the space, there’s still no beating dedicated rear channels. Here’s where Samsung’s HW-Q90R comes in, like the LG above, offering both the front channels of a soundbar, and the positioning detail and power of dedicated rear channels and subwoofers too. And, compared to the LG option, it’s a tad more compact.

Feature rich

It doesn’t come cheaply, but the HW-Q90R is one of the most feature-rich soundbars on this list. Not only are you getting a full-sounding 7.1.4 speaker channel configuration (meaning there’s a significant four separate height channels coming into your listening space), but it is also making use of Dolby Atmos and DTS:X encoding, two of the most detailed and engaging home cinema sound formats out there.

It’s powerful too – those twelve combined channels can produce an ear-splitting 512W of audio output, enough to unsettle any cranky neighbours at full blast. And it’s also packed full of connected-home smarts as well – you get Amazon Alexa integration for pairing the speakers up with any smart home gear you may have installed, as well as giving the system voice-activated controls. Topping off the package is Hi-Res audio file support too, meaning you know you’ll get the best possible playback from uncompressed music file services like Tidal.

Not enough ports

Where Samsung’s kit starts to look a bit stingy though is with HDMI inputs. Featuring just two, that’s quite disappointing, given the expensive price tag. In their defence though, they again are fully featured ports – each offers support for 4K resolutions at 60fps, meet the 4:4:4, Rec.2020 colour accuracy standards, and can handle all sorts of High Dynamic Range formats (HDR10, HLG, HDR10+, and Dolby Vision) for your TV. There’s even support for that most rare of tech also-rans – 3D movie support, if you’ve got the library of films to go with it.

best surround sound system: JBL Bar 9.1

JBL Bar 9.1

(Image credit: JBL)

6. JBL Bar 9.1

A versatile transforming soundbar

Specifications
Inputs: HDMI x1 (HDMI output x1), Optical, eARC, USB (only for firmware updates)
Audio format support: Dolby Atmos, DTS:X
Wi-fi: Yes
Bluetooth: Yes
Dimensions: H6 x W88.4 x D12cm
Reasons to buy
+Great space saving design+Clever transforming feature+Solid battery life on satellite speakers
Reasons to avoid
-Lacks inputs-Directional audio placement isn’t always clear

The JBL Bar 9.1 is perhaps the most interesting option of all on the list, and the most creative. What at first looks like a standard soundbar hides a secret – its ends snap off, revealing themselves to be battery-powered, fully featured wireless rear speakers!

Soundbars in disguise

It’s an ingenious trick from the JBL Bar 9.1, with its central unit not only acting as your centre, left, right and two overhead sound channels, but also a charging dock too. With the speaker ends attached you get two additional front facing and overhead Atmos channels. But when they snap off, you can position them behind you and they’ll intelligently know to change their output to match the rear and rear-height ambient sound of a given scene. Note there’s a separate subwoofer included that completes the package.

With support for Chromecast (with limited Google Home control), Apple AirPlay 2 and the most useful HDR formats (HDR10 and Dolby Vision), as well as an auto-calibration feature, it’s an incredibly smart system.

The catch

There had to be one, right? Though the JBL Bar 9.1 is a really smart design, and is worthy of a place in your living room for that reason alone, it does have some slight faults. Its front channels can feel a bit narrow, and don’t always give a convincing sense of audio information flowing in from the left and right. Likewise, the audio from the rear channels can sometimes sound a bit lacking in definition, while it’s one of the stingiest bars on the list when it comes to its single HDMI input. 

And yet it’s hard not to find yourself enamoured by its clever design. It’s fun, a talking point, and a damn-sight better sounding than anything that’s going to come out of your lowly TV speakers, even if it’s not quite up there with what the top bars on this list would offer. It still comes recommended.

How to choose the best surround sound system

There are several things to consider when picking the best surround sound system for your needs. Chief among those is placement – do you have much room beneath your TV? And how about behind your sofa – is there room to set up the rear sound channels, and plug sockets to power them from? 

If so, great – any of the picks above will suit your needs. If not, you might want to focus in on the single-bar solutions up top, which virtualise the surround sound elements by bouncing audio off of the walls in your viewing room. Mileage will vary depending on the uniformity of the space (a nice square room works best usually), but all the systems above have smart ways of tricking your ears into thinking sound is coming from all around you.

Perhaps worth equal consideration is the wider feature set. If you’re planning on playing lots of music through the soundbar, a built-in voice assistant, like Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa might be useful, letting you speak to the speaker in order to command it to play your favorite tunes at a whim.

Also, think about the TV you’re pairing it with – not just in terms of whether it’ll obscure the screen, but also what connection you’ll need. True audiophiles will be looking out for HDMI connections that have an eARC feature – that lets your cables deliver uncompressed multi-channel audio, giving you pristine sound from all directions.

What is the best surround sound system?

Speaker systems come in all shapes and sizes, for all different types of room. If you’re feeling particularly flush with cash, and have the room to indulge your cinematic delights to the nth degree, you could consider a custom cinema installation, with wall mounted speakers and overhead Dolby Atmos channels too, hooked up to a beefy receiver to connect all your devices. But the mess of cables, space required and sheer expense makes that an unrealistic option for all but the uber-rich.

Instead, you can get great, cinema-like results with a great soundbar and wireless speaker combo like the sets listed above. It’s big and intimidating on a TV cabinet, but the Sennheiser Ambeo is one to get if you can house it – it’s almost unbelievable how, from just one soundbar, it’s capable of enveloping you in the sounds of your favorite films and shows. It’s our top pick as a result.