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Finding The Best Inexpensive Surround Sound Systems

written by: •edited by: Lamar Stonecypher•updated: 9/8/2009

Surround sound increases the home theater experience and makes it more akin to being at the movies than ever before. The best part is that there are new ways to get surround sound without having to set up lots of speakers and trail all those wires.

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    What's the Problem With Surround Sound?

    To have surround sound you need five speakers - a pair at the front - the left and right mains - plus a center channel also at the front and between the two. Then there are the "surround speakers" which are spaced out at about the same distance as the people who are seated - one speaker to each side of those viewing. A surround effect uses these speakers to envelop the listener from the "sides" so that a bullet whizzing by, for example, doesn't just stay localized at the front where the main threesome of speakers are.

    But to have these surround speakers in position means finding a way to mount them as well as running wires to them from the home theater setup. That can be worse than inconvenient; there might not be the room for doing it. Plus you're paying a lot for all those speakers, which makes getting a surround system not very affordable. Or it used to be....because now there are new technologies for all the advantages of surround sound without any of the hassles. And without the huge costs associated with a full-blown five speaker surround sound system.

    Of course that doesn't mean they're being given away (wouldn't that be nice), but the days of $3000+ systems are long gone. Or $2000 or $1000 for that matter.

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    No Surround Speakers Please

    A technology called "virtual surround sound" has been around for some time, and continues to be improved. What it does is "fool" the ear into thinking that there are sounds coming from the sides of the room, although there are only two speakers in front. A number of configurations allow for fine-tuning the "surround" effect as well.

    By having only two speakers, not only are these systems quite affordable, but they're well positioned for placement in areas that otherwise couldn't be used; a small bedroom for example, because not having the space for lots of speakers is no longer an issue.

    Onkyo CS-V720 

    An example of a two speaker, virtual surround system is the Onkyo CS-V720 DVD Mini System. Just two speakers and an amplifier between them to play CDs and listen to FM radio and, of course, DVDs, too. Add in the virtual surround mode and you're all set.

    Other companies making two speaker systems abound so looking for your favorite brand is easy.

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    One Speaker Does the Trick

    A Soundbar turns the whole idea of multiple speakers on its head because it seems to be a single speaker. But looks can be deceiving because the single soundbar actually has a number of speakers inside of it. This enables the stereo effect of a pair of main left and right speakers and the center channel, all together in one horizontal unit. Plus virtual surround is added into the mix as well to provide the "surround sound" effect.

    Surround BAR 360 

    An example of this is the Polk SurroundBAR 360. No messy wires, no subwoofer and no special setup. Just put it under the TV, plug it in and use the built-in DVD/CD player to output the picture to the HDTV while it takes care of all the audio needs. The Polk uses a proprietary audio technology to simulate surround from a stereo signal.

    And like other companies, Polk makes a passive model- that is to say without built-in amplification or a DVD player- for use with existing audio and DVD system; the SurroundBar in a 42 or 50-inch size.

    YSP-3050 

    Another type of Soundbar is Yamaha's Digital Sound Projectors - these use a number of speakers inside the soundbar to distribute the sound by bouncing it off the walls. It creates the surround sound effect by actually having sound traveling around the room (digitally read and controlled from the listener's position via a setup using a microphone). Although a bit costlier than the other type of soundbar, this all-in-one system can be easily moved from one location to the other. As an example, the YSP-3050 compact model includes a switcher for audio/video devices along with varied audio technologies to affect the surround sound effect (and removing the video connections gives you the YSP-900 for even less).

    There are plenty of other companies making soundbars, so expect (as in the case of the 2 speaker systems) to look around for the brand and style and functionality of the system that suits you best.

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    Decisions, Decisions

    The time for getting surround sound is now, but the correct choice as to which type of surround system will work best is totally up to you. What's not up to you is the pain of a high cost or having to give up room in order to enjoy it.

    Related links

    The Best Compact Surround Sound Systems

    The Importance of Sound in the Home Theater Experience