Soundbar vs. component system, and a great $500 surround sound system with receiver and speakers (Week 11, 2020)

Sound Advice
By Don Lindich

Week 11, 2020

Q. I currently have a 5.1-channel receiver and a surround speaker setup for my large screen TV. It is plenty adequate for the 15×15-foot room it is in. I do think it is time to upgrade the receiver and would like to know what my options are for a receiver or even a whole new home theater system for under $1,000.00. (As far under $1,000 as I can get while still getting quality.) I will tell you about my system and then perhaps you can make some recommendations.

The current receiver is a Yamaha RX-V463, obviously many years old. The speakers are a cobbled together system from two brands. A Bose Acoustimass 5 with the matching bass module is used for the front left and right. A Radio Shack Realistic Minimus 7 is the front center speaker. For the left and right surrounds I am using the tweeters from my even older Acoustimass 3 system.

Do you think replacing the receiver is my best option? I’ve thought that the sound bars you have recommended in the past might be an improvement, but realize that real 5.1 with separate speakers around the room is probably better than a synthesized version from one speaker. If you are going to recommend speakers as well as a receiver, they need to be small, somewhat like the speakers I have now.

-J.B., Pittsburgh, PA

A. With all the industry focus on soundbars over the past few years it is easy to forget about component sound systems with a surround speaker ensemble and an audio/video receiver. At price points under $500 or so you will get better sound quality from a soundbar. However if you are the $500 and up price range, dollar for dollar a component system will provide the best possible sound quality and the best surround effects as well. There is really no substitute for having separate speakers placed around the room for creating a theater-like experience.

With your hodgepodge of mismatched speakers and old receiver, you should start over with new everything, especially since we can do this for well under $1,000. The speakers are the most important part of any sound system so we will start there. The Polk Audio TL1600 includes front, center, and surround speakers as well as a subwoofer to make up a 5.1-channel speaker system. It lists for $459 but can be found for $329 in stores or $279 on Amazon. (You may want to ask your local store to price match for you and buy locally.)

Pioneer makes my favorite low cost home theater receivers, and the $229 Pioneer VSX-534 is a great value. What sets the Pioneer receivers apart is the MCACC Auto Room Tuning. With MCACC you set up the speakers, plug the included microphone into the receiver and place the microphone in the center of the listening area. MCACC then produces a series of test tones through the speakers, measures them with the microphone and automatically sets the speaker balance while optimizing the sound for your room acoustics. While many affordable receivers have an automatic setup system, Pioneer’s is by far the best.

As you can see, component system with full-fledged surround doesn’t have to cost a fortune. This is a nice system for around $500, but if you want to get closer to the $1,000 mark you should stay with the VSX-534 receiver and upgrade the speakers. The Definitive Technology ProCinema 400 ($349) and ProCinema 600 ($799) are meaningful upgrades and available on clearance right now.