(Our range of sound options from the very best to the best value)
Best overall: Sony HT-ST7 sound bar ($1,400)
For the vast majority of home theatre setups the sound bar – a single piece of equipment that acts as receiver and can simulate surround sound – has become the best choice for the living room. Music aficionados will insist on separate components and speakers, but the rest of us, who spend our time on the couch watching the television and not trying to decipher the distinct tremolo of a tenor, a sound bar gives us much better sound than our measly TV speakers, but without the hassle of placing a bunch of boxes and trying to figure out how to hide the wires.
When it comes to sound bars, Sony’s HT-ST7 is the among the best of the bunch. It provides a full 7.1 home theatre experience in the form of a streamlined main unit and subwoofer. The main unit, constructed of black, brushed metal, has the kind of weight you expect – and want – from an exceptional speaker. It’s a lovely design, too, simple with angles at the ends.
It includes 3 HDMi and 3 digital audio inputs and will connect to any mobile device using Bluetooth or NFC. The HT-ST7 also has an IR repeater so you can place it in front of your television’s infrared port without worry, and also allows you to use the sound bar with other remotes. The single-line LED is enough to convey the information you need to see without ever enticing your eye away from the screen.
The remote is simple, too, and small. There are seven buttons on the main part of the remote that give you easy control over power, input, volume, and sound mode. You can slide the bottom of the remote to reveal more buttons that can be used to fiddle around with sound settings.
You can use those settings to fine tune the sound to your preference. There are four basic presets: standard, movie, music, and football. You can control the voice level and subwoofer volume independently, and can also adjust for any audio sync issues.
The sound performance of the HT-ST7 is superb, and its ability to simulate a surround experience without actually having discreet speakers surrounding you is excellent. With Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD MA decoding, the HT-ST7 can also decode audio signals, so it makes for a great receiver for your entertainment consoles, cable boxes, and Blu-ray players.
The most exciting feature of the HT-ST7, though, is that it includes a subwoofer – most other manufacturers sell them separately – that connects to the main unit wirelessly. The two components communicate using a pair of transceivers that will work to a distance of about 30 feet. The signal is strong so you won’t have to worry about the sound from the subwoofer suddenly cutting out. And because you don’t have to worry about running a wire from the sub to the sound bar, you can find the perfect, out-of-the-way place to put it.
The HT-ST7 lets you cut down on the clutter and improve your living room entertainment simply, and stylishly.
Best receiver: Pioneer Elite SC79 ($3,000)
True audiophiles know that computers weren’t built to play music, so even though they have adopted digital media and use programs such as iTunes to manage their music files, they use specialized software to output the sound to their amplifiers using USB cables. Smart music lovers will look to the SC79 to anchor their system.
With a hybrid digital-analog amplifier, this Pioneer receiver is a premiere audio device but it’s also a workhorse, being able to accommodate almost any audio-visual need you may have. It connects to your wireless network to provide streaming music from Internet radio stations and enables you to use your mobile device as a remote control. And in addition to being the best at playing music, the SC79 is also able to handle video: it’s an HDMI switcher that can pass-through 4K ultra high-definition signals. Consider it your audio-visual multi-tool.
Enthusiast: Sonos Play:1 ($219)
Sonos sets the standard for wireless speakers and The Play:1 increases the options for simple and seamless audio throughout the home. These speakers connect to your wireless network, gives you access to Internet radio and music stations, your computer’s music library, and even your mobile devices. About the size of a small loaf of bread on end, the Play:1 is almost undetectable on a book shelf, a dresser, or end table and yet delivers full and robust sound for such a small package. Two of the speakers can be paired to provide you with left and right stereo channels, and they can be added, as rear speakers, to a Sonos configuration that includes a Playbar and Sub to create a 5.1 surround theatre system.
Best value: Sharp GX-M10 boombox ($300)
This boombox is not retro as much as it is a throwback to the ’90s, when “portable” stereos were in every house. The GX-M10 is huge when compared to the mobile devices we’ve become used to, but it’s a great system for a teenager’s room. It’s got a radio tuner and can play CDs, for those kids who want to explore their parents’ jewel-encased music. It can also function as an amp for a guitar and microphone for those burgeoning stars in your house (parental earplugs not included). The iPhone/iPod dock uses the old connector, but newer lightning dock models can be plugged into the USB port on the front of the box and get charged at the same time.
Cheap and portable: Philips Shoqbox ($150)
This water resistant, rechargeable speaker is small enough to hold in your hand. Available in three colours, it connects to your music player or mobile device with Bluetooth and can sense motion, so after you’ve set it down you can use your hand to control the music. Simply wave at the Shoqbox to make the audio playback start or stop, or to fast-forward and rewind. Get two of these and they will pair to give you left and right audio channels.
Very cheap and portable: Buckshot ($50)
You love to listen to music and podcasts but you can’t always walk around with cables plugged into your head: The slick Buckshot speaker means you don’t have to. And, because it’s also got a built-in microphone, you can use it to take calls, too. It can be strapped to your baby stroller or bike, and thanks to it’s rubberized design it’s resistant to the elements and also to drops. The palm-sized unit has a battery life of 10 hours and a range of nearly 10 metres.