No home theater setup is complete without the proper audio equipment.
Even if you go out and spend $5,000 on a television and another $500 on a fancy Blu-ray player, the picture is only half the battle. That's why the Globe tested four high-end sound systems.
We tested three full-on 5.1 (five speakers and an external subwoofer) systems and one single-cabinet soundbar, meant to offer a surround sound experience with only one device. For the three 5.1 systems, we paired recommended sets from three different manufacturers: Paradigm, Anthony Gallo Acoustics, and Orb Audio.
We blasted the Paradigm Studio Esprit reference speakers (two front and one center speaker) paired with Paradigm's ADP-590 surround speakers and their Seismic 10 subwoofer. Total price: $6,652. We rocked out to an Anthony Gallo set - Gallo Reference A/V speakers for left, right, and center paired with Gallo's mini A'Diva Ti speakers in the back and the Gallo TR-3 subwoofer at a total cost of $5,604.50. We head-bobbed to movies and tunes on Orb Audio's People's Choice system at $1,098.
Finally, we threw away the speaker wire and headaches with the ZVOX Z-Base 550 Single-Cabinet Surround Sound System - which is just one long box of audio that sits under your HDTV. It's $500.
For professional advice, we went back to Connecticut's Smarthome & Theater Systems, the same guys who helped shed some light on our television situation a few weeks back.
Robert Stanton, co-owner of Smarthome and its "head geek," said all three of our systems were good for the midlevel audio market. The most important thing about an audio setup, Stanton said, is that all the speakers are the same brand.
"That's very important," he said. "When sound travels across the surround field, you want whatever is whipping by you to sound the same through every speaker."
We were both most impressed by the Paradigm set. It was incredibly balanced and well put together.
Subwoofers and amplifiers are also important. The Anthony Gallo TR-3 subwoofer was the best on the list, offering superb bass definition. It's also a subwoofer you can use in any small or midsize room.
"The subwoofer should be chosen more for the room," Stanton said. "Typically if you have a smaller room, you don't need a large sub simply because a subwoofer's job is to move a lot of air." Smaller rooms have less air to deal with.
The ZVOX was the biggest surprise. The ZVOX only has support for two channels of audio through those red and white plugs. You need a digital interface to support surround sound like Dolby Digital. The lack of a digital input created skepticism. The product calls itself surround sound, but it's not technically correct. However, after setting it up and turning it on, we were surprised by the quality and sheer power of the audio. It's not a replacement for a full-on surround sound system, but if you don't want to run wires everywhere, it's a great choice.
If you think we just went out and picked the most expensive speakers we could find, think again. Stanton said his company regularly installs home theater setups that run clients into the six figures, with individual speakers regularly costing thousands each.
PARADIGM STUDIO ESPRIT SYSTEM
Pros: It's the best-sounding system on the list. The front, center, and rear speakers combine to create a realistic surround sound experience, and the subwoofer not only shakes a room but adds deep definition to the package.
Cons: Price is a worry. If you don't want to drill a half dozen holes in your wall, the stands for the front speaker cost $500 more.
The final word: The Esprit sounds amazing and gets the job done, no matter what you're using it for.
ANTHONY GALLO SPEAKERS
Pros: The Gallos are well crafted, durable, sound utterly amazing, and look awesome.
Cons: There's no pure rear speaker that's designed for the front and center Reference A/V speakers. The A'Diva Ti speaker we paired them with does the job, but not by design.
The final word: This is a very close second.
ORB AUDIO PEOPLE'S CHOICE SYSTEM
Pros: The Orbs are aesthetically pleasing and sound very good. The included Orb Super 8 Subwoofer works great for smaller rooms.
Cons: The system lacks the power and range to complete with a full-on reference speaker system like the Paradigm.
The final word: Value is key here. These are more affordable and do sound great.
ZVOX Z-BASE 550
Pros: The Zvox delivers rich, full sound without the need for a home theater receiver or wires all around the room.
Cons: It doesn't deliver an actual 5.1 surround experience.
The final word:You can put your flat panel television on top of it, and - poof - you're done. No fuss. No muss.