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post #1 of 25 Old 11-26-2013, 01:55 PM - Thread Starter
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AVS Forum's Top 8 Low-Cost Surround-Speaker Packages

When it comes to surround-speaker packages, there is no shortage of great ones out there—SoundandVision.com lists over 50 in its Top Picks! And they range in price from several hundred to tens of thousands of dollars. So to keep this buying guide manageable, I've decided to limit it to surround systems with an MSRP (manufacturer's suggested retail price) no more than $2500. I realize that $2500 is hardly "low cost" for many people, but there are several systems far below that in this guide—and believe me, even $2500 is low cost compared with the top end of the speaker market.

[Jump to Top 8 Low-Cost Surround-Speaker Packages]

Also, I've decided to include only systems sold by the manufacturer as a complete package. Of course, you can assemble a 5.1 or 7.1 system from individual speakers, but that would extend the scope of this buying guide well beyond reason. If you want to assemble your own system from individual products, my strongest recommendation is to combine speakers from the same manufacturer and product line in order to maintain a consistent tonal character, which is critical for surround systems so that a sound moving from one speaker to the next doesn't suddenly change its timbre.

"$2500 is hardly 'low cost' for many people, but there are several systems far below that in this guide—and even $2500 is low cost compared with the top end of the speaker market."

Most of the packages in this guide use bookshelf or small satellite speakers for the main channels. As the name implies, you might think that bookshelf speakers can be placed in a bookshelf, but that's not generally the best place for them. All standalone speakers sound their best when they're out in the open air, though surround speakers are often mounted on a wall, and center speakers are usually placed on a shelf above or below the TV. Be sure to include the cost of stands in your budget, at least for the front left and right bookshelf or satellite speakers.

Spec Speak

Speakers come with lots of specifications, some of which don't mean much in the real world. But others are important—for example, impedance, which is the speaker's resistance to the flow of current in an audio signal. The precise impedance of most speakers varies with frequency, but manufacturers specify a nominal impedance that is useful for matching the speaker to an AV receiver or power amp. Speakers with low nominal impedance draw more power from the amp than those with higher impedance, taxing the amp more heavily and possibly causing it damage.

Virtually all AV receivers and power amps can handle speakers with 6 to 8 ohms (abbreviated with the Greek letter omega, Ω) of nominal impedance, but speakers with 4Ω or less need amps designed to drive that load safely. All the speakers in this guide have 6-8Ω of nominal impedance, so they are not difficult for any AV receiver or power amp to drive.

"All the speakers in this guide have 6-8Ω of nominal impedance, so they are not difficult for any AV receiver or power amp to drive."

Sensitivity is the sound pressure level measured at a distance of 1 meter from the speaker with an input signal of 1 watt at a specific frequency. Basically, this spec tells you how loud the speaker can play a 1-watt signal. Typical sensitivity specs are between 85 and 95 dB for 1W at 1m (often written "dB/W/m")—the higher the sensitivity, the less amplifier power you need to achieve a given level.

Speaker specs also include power handling, which—as the name clearly reflects—is the amount of continuous power the speaker can handle from the amp. This spec is useful in matching the speaker to an AV receiver or power amp. In general, you want the amp's rated power output and the speaker's rated power handling to be about the same. If they're not equal, it's better to have more amp power than the speaker is rated for. With a less-powerful amp, you'll tend to turn it up more, which could cause it to distort and potentially damage the speaker. And for the most part, you'll only be using 1 watt or less, and a more-powerful amp will have more "headroom" for momentary peaks with less strain.

Virtually all main speakers can reproduce frequencies up to 20,000 Hz (20 kHz), and many can go beyond that. The low end of a speaker's frequency range is perhaps more important, because that determines where the crossover to the subwoofer should be set in the AV receiver or preamp/processor. The THX recommended crossover is 80 Hz, because frequencies higher than that start to become directional—that is, you can identify the direction they are coming from. Frequencies below 80 Hz are more or less non-directional, which means you can put the subwoofer just about anywhere without being able to tell where it is by listening. In any case, the crossover should be set slightly above the main speakers' low-frequency limit.

Sub Sonic

The subwoofer reproduces the low frequencies, especially the "low-frequency effects" or LFE channel—things like the rumble of a rocket blast-off or an earthquake. If the main speakers can't reach very low frequencies—a virtual certainty with low-cost systems—the sub can also play the low frequencies from the main channels. This is where the crossover in the receiver or pre/pro comes in—frequencies below the crossover setting are redirected from the main speakers to the subwoofer. Most subwoofers can reproduce frequencies up to 120 or 150 Hz or even higher, and the crossover should be set lower than the sub's highest frequency.

A sub's low-frequency limit determines how deep the bass will sound—the lower, the better. The limit of human hearing is about 20 Hz, but if a sub can reproduce even lower frequencies, that can add to the visceral impact of the LFE channel. And because low frequencies require a lot more power than mids and highs, most subwoofers include their own onboard power amplifier so they don't tax the receiver or power amp. The more power provided by the onboard amp, the louder the bass can be.

The speaker packages in this buying guide were selected as the best available in 2013 by consulting various review outlets such as CNET and Home Theater/Sound & Vision as well as AVS reviews and owner threads and a special call out to members for their top picks.

Monoprice 10565 (MSRP $249)

Who would think that a complete 5.1 surround system for less than $250 could possibly sound any good? CNET, that's who! In their review of the Monoprice 10565, Matthew Moskovciak and Steve Guttenberg actually liked the sound better than CNET's long-time Editors' Choice for a compact speaker system, the Energy Take Classic 5.1, to which the 10565 bears a striking resemblance. The only thing keeping this system from usurping the Take Classic 5.1 from its Editors' Choice perch is the less-stylish look and shorter warranty. Also, notice that the subwoofer is specified to go down to 30 Hz, but at -10 dB, which means that 30 Hz is very quiet. The Energy Take Classic sub goes down to 33 Hz at -3 dB, so it should have a bit more punch in the low end.

Satellites, Center

Impedance: 8Ω

Sensitivity: 88 dB/W/m

Power Handling: 100W

Low Frequency: 110 Hz

Subwoofer

Onboard Power: 200W

Low Frequency: 30 Hz (-10 dB)

Scott Says: This is a great system for college students and others with a severely limited budget and severely limited space.

Pioneer SP-PK22BS (MSRP $450)

The speakers in this 5.1 bookshelf-based system were designed by Andrew Jones, who also designs the ultra-high-end speakers from Pioneer's ultra-high-end division TAD, and it shows. This system performs way above its price class, and the build quality is much better than anyone should expect for under $500. The speakers are bigger and bulkier than satellites, which is especially problematic for fitting the center speaker under the TV screen. But if you can get past the aesthetic limitations, the system is a sonic joy without blowing out your wallet.

SP-BS22-LR (fronts, surrounds)

Impedance: 6Ω

Sensitivity: 85 dB/W/m

Power Handling: 80W

Low Frequency: 55 Hz

SP-C22 (center)

Impedance: 6Ω

Sensitivity: 88 dB/W/m

Power Handling: 90W

Low Frequency: 55 Hz

SW-8 (subwoofer)

Built-in Power: 100W

Low Frequency: 38 Hz

Scott Says: This system is my top recommendation for getting the most for the least.

Pioneer SP-PK52FS (MSRP $550)

This system is essentially the same as the PS-PK22BS with two floorstanding speakers for the front left and right channels. Also designed by Andrew Jones, it offers even better sound quality than the bookshelf system for only $100 more. Both systems include the SW-8 subwoofer, which isn't the be-all and end-all of bass, but it's certainly respectable. The floorstanders might not fit in every decor, but at this price, who cares?

SP-FS52 (fronts)

Impedance: 6Ω

Sensitivity: 87 dB/W/m

Power Handling: 130W

Low Frequency: 40 Hz

SP-C22 (center)

Impedance: 6Ω

Sensitivity: 88 dB/W/m

Power Handling: 90W

Low Frequency: 55 Hz

SP-BS22-LR (surrounds)

Impedance: 6Ω

Sensitivity: 85 dB/W/m

Power Handling: 80W

Low Frequency: 55 Hz

SW-8 (subwoofer)

Onboard Power: 100W

Low Frequency: 38 Hz

Scott Says: Even if you can spend twice as much or more, I see little reason to do so from a sonic point of view, except to get a subwoofer with lower bass extension and more power.

Energy Take Classic 5.1 (MSRP $599)

This satellite/subwoofer system has been around for years, but it's still going strong—hey, if it works, don't mess with it. And the Take Classic 5.1 works exceedingly well. The satellites are much smaller than the Pioneer bookshelf models in the systems listed above, making them less conspicuous. The crossover between the satellites and subwoofer must be set pretty high, but once that's done, the system performs well above its price. CNET gave this system its Editors' Choice award for outstanding sound quality, exquisite looks, and superb value.

Honorable Mention: There are several other sat/sub packages that compete directly with the Energy Take Classic 5.1—two of the best are the NHT Super Surround 5.1 (MSRP $800) and Klipsch Quintet (MSRP $1050). All three systems are very highly regarded; which one you choose depends on your budget and personal sonic preferences—for example, the Klipsch speakers use horn-loaded tweeters, which have a particular sound that many people prefer.

Take Classic Sat (fronts, surrounds)

Impedance: 8Ω

Sensitivity: 89 dB/W/m

Power Handling: 100W

Low Frequency: 115 Hz

Take Classic Center

Impedance: 8Ω

Sensitivity: 89 dB/W/m

Power Handling: 100W

Low Frequency: 110 Hz

Take Classic Sub

Onboard Power: 200W

Low Frequency: 33 Hz (-3dB)

Scott Says: If your space is as limited as your budget, this package is a no-brainer.

Hsu Research Various Packages (MSRP $1029-$2369)

Hsu Research is well known for making outrageously good subwoofers for outrageously low prices. But the company also makes the HB-1 MK2 bookshelf speaker and HC-1 MK2 center-channel speaker, which several AVS members—and many professional reviewers—recommend very highly. Both models use horn-loaded tweeters, which are also used in all commercial-cinema speakers, making these extra-appropriate for listening to movie soundtracks in the home.

It turns out that Hsu offers many packages—including seven 5.1 systems and five 7.1 systems, all within the $2500 limit of this buying guide—combining these speakers with various subwoofers to achieve different low-frequency limits and fill rooms of different sizes. The least-expensive Value surround package ($1029, seen in the photo above) uses the STF-1 sub (150 watts) to reach 32 Hz in a room up to 2000 cubic feet, while the most-expensive Ultra system ($2369 in rosenut-wood finish) boasts a ULS-15 sub (600 watts), which can reach down to 15 Hz and fill a room up to 4500 cubic feet. The Hybrid systems can fill a room up to 6000 cubic feet and go as low as 16 Hz.

All of Hsu's surround packages use the same main speakers, so they should sound virtually identical. Which one you get depends entirely on your budget, room size, and desire for deep bass.

HB-1 MK2 (fronts, surrounds), HC-1 MK2 (center)

Impedance: 8Ω

Sensitivity: 92 dB/W/m

Power Handling: 10-250W

Low Frequency: 60 Hz

Scott Says: Any of these packages sound amazing, and the price is definitely right for such strong performers.

Aperion Intimus 4T Hybrid SD (MSRP $1561)

Aperion is one of a growing number of companies that sell to consumers directly from its website rather than through dealers. Even better, it offers free shipping and a 30-day in-home trial period—if you don't like the speakers, they pay the shipping to send them back! Among the company's surround packages is the Intimus 4T Hybrid SD—not the most or least expensive, but it hits the sweet spot of performance and price, with many strongly positive reviews. And the svelte, attractive cabinets don't take up much real estate in the room.

Intimus 4T (fronts)

Impedance: 6Ω

Sensitivity: 88 dB/W/m

Power Handling: 25-150W

Low Frequency: 60 Hz (-3 dB), 50 Hz (-6 dB)

Intimus 4C (center)

Impedance: 8Ω

Sensitivity: 86 dB/W/m

Power Handling: 25-150W

Low Frequency: 78 Hz (-3 dB), 72 Hz (-6 dB)

Intimus 4B (surrounds)

Impedance: 8Ω

Sensitivity: 87 dB/W/m

Power Handling: 50-150W

Low Frequency: 120 Hz (-3 dB), 100 Hz (-6 dB)

Bravus II 8D (subwoofer)

Onboard Power: 300W

Low Frequency: 33 Hz (-3 dB), 30 Hz (-6 dB)

Scott Says: The speakers are smaller than those in the Pioneer SP-PK52FS, and the sound is a bit more refined according to noted reviewer Steve Guttenberg, who uses this system as one of his references.

GoldenEar SuperCinema 3 (MSRP $1750)

After co-founding Polk and Definitive Technology, renowned speaker designer Sandy Gross went on to start GoldenEar Technology, and the fruits of that labor have the audio world abuzz. The SuperCinema 3 sat/sub system sounds far better than you would expect from five small satellites and a small subwoofer, partly because of the satellites' folded-ribbon tweeters and partly because of the sub's 1000-watt power amp and subterranean bass down to 18 Hz. And the curvilicious cabinets look great, making this a "lifestyle" system that audiophiles can love.

SuperSat 3 (fronts, surrounds)

Impedance: 8Ω

Sensitivity: 92 dB/W/m

Power Handling: 20-200W

Low Frequency: 80 Hz

SuperSat 3C (center)

Impedance: 8Ω

Sensitivity: 92 dB/W/m

Power Handling: 20-200W

Low Frequency: 80 Hz

ForceField 3 (subwoofer)

Onboard Power: 1000W

Low Frequency: 18 Hz

Scott Says: Sat/sub systems don't get much better than this.

GoldenEar SuperCinema 50 (MSRP $2500)

If you want an even bigger sound than the SuperCinema 3, step up to the SuperCinema 50, with two floorstanders for the front left and right, a larger center, and a larger ForceField 4 subwoofer with 1200 watts of power and a low-frequency extension down to 14 Hz. Designer Sandy Gross has outdone himself with this package, which rivals much more expensive systems.

SuperSat 50 (fronts)

Impedance: 8Ω

Sensitivity: 92 dB/W/m

Power Handling: 20-200W

Low Frequency: 60 Hz

SuperSat 50C (center)

Impedance: 8Ω

Sensitivity: 92 dB/W/m

Power Handling: 20-200W

Low Frequency: 60 Hz

SuperSat 3 (surrounds)

Impedance: 8Ω

Sensitivity: 92 dB/W/m

Power Handling: 20-200W

Low Frequency: 80 Hz

ForceField 4 (subwoofer)

Onboard Power: 1200W

Low Frequency: 14 Hz

Scott Says: It's hard to beat the sound of this system, even if you spend a lot more.

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post #2 of 25 Old 11-27-2013, 12:56 PM
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Thanks for the reviews Scott. Any plans for a top list of compact 5.0 speaker systems? I'm considering upgrading my Energy Take classic speakers and I was hoping for some recommendations (I'm going to keep my Energy S10.3 sub so I'm looking for 5.0 packages).
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post #3 of 25 Old 11-27-2013, 02:06 PM
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Sorry, no plans for such a list. I suggest using your existing sub with a 5.1 system; after all, 2 subs are normally better than one.<br>

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post #4 of 25 Old 11-28-2013, 09:17 AM
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No love for Polk?

Denon X4000: Yamaha AS500;TS500;CDS300: Pioneer BDP62FD;BDP23FD;DV58AV;DV610: Panasonic DMP-BDT500; Sony BDP-S790; Samsung PS60E6500
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post #5 of 25 Old 11-28-2013, 11:00 AM
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Polk makes some great speakers, but only a couple of members mentioned them in my call for recommendations, and I didn't see any Polk packages in the top picks of the sites I researched.<br>

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post #6 of 25 Old 11-28-2013, 07:03 PM
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Hi Scott, thanks for the review. There is another low budget system you may want to consider that sounds great for the money. The NHT Super Surround 5.1 for $800.<br><br><a href="http://www.nhthifi.com/bookshelf-speakers-subwoofer-Super-Surround-5-1?sc=12&amp;category=3830" target="_blank">http://www.nhthifi.com/bookshelf-speakers-subwoofer-Super-Surround-5-1?sc=12&amp;category=3830</a>

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post #7 of 25 Old 11-29-2013, 08:21 AM
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Awesome write-up! Was wondering if 7.1 doesn't really improve a 5.1 setup, as none was mentioned here. On the other hand, if the reason was the obvious price boost, but there is a considerable difference, is it safe to assume just get 2 more of the exact same side satellites? Many thanks!
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post #8 of 25 Old 11-29-2013, 06:34 PM
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cavchameleon, yes, I seriously considered including the NHT Super Surround 5.1, but I decided that the Energy Take Classic 5.1 is on par with the NHT for a couple hundred less.<br>

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post #9 of 25 Old 11-29-2013, 06:39 PM
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Taranteacher, actually, some of the Hsu packages are 7.1, but you're right, most packaged systems are 5.1, and getting two more of the same satellite speakers would get you to 7.1. As for whether or not 7.1 is all that much better than 5.1, more and more Blu-rays are being released in 7.1, but how much is really going on in those rear-surround channels? Other than that, most of what you play in a home theater is 5.1, so I'm not convinced that 7.1 is all that important, at least for now.<br>

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post #10 of 25 Old 11-30-2013, 09:52 AM
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cool list, but wow no love for EMPTEK? Come on now scott
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post #11 of 25 Old 11-30-2013, 12:30 PM
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The Murderousone, well, EMP Tek speakers appear in no major review outlet's top-product list, and only one AVS member—you—mentioned them in the call for recommendations. I'm sure they are excellent, but I had to be very selective and go with products that have more universal recommendation.<br>

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post #12 of 25 Old 12-01-2013, 09:07 PM
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Scott, i'm in an apartment and want the system for music as well. I'm looking at those pioneer's. Do you think I should go with the floor-standing or just stick with the bookshelves to save 125?<br>
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post #13 of 25 Old 12-02-2013, 01:35 PM
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I browsed the used market for Ascend Acoustics, and if Im not mistaken I think I got L/R and central CMT-340's and a pair of CBM-170 for around $600-700 total. Can't beat that for the price
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post #14 of 25 Old 12-05-2013, 06:45 PM
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wbl2012, if you can afford it—and you've got the floor space—I'd go for the floorstanders; in my view, they are worth the extra dough. Otherwise, the bookshelves are mighty fine in their own right. You really can't go wrong either way.<br>

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post #15 of 25 Old 12-06-2013, 07:29 AM
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Great article Scott, and I'm also impressed with how you're answering people's questions in the comment. Great job, keep it up.
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post #16 of 25 Old 12-18-2013, 10:59 AM
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i got the pioneer floor standers coupled with the center and surrounds for 249 out the door at best buy early last year..i do say for what was spent i am very pleased although last years models compared to the new front grilles are uuuggglyy but i can live with the looks..get a decent sub and receiver and you are set for a budget surround system.<br>
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post #17 of 25 Old 12-19-2013, 09:05 AM
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Nice list of budget speaker systems. I have heard a few of these and own the Energy Take Classic 5.1, used in the master bedroom. I also own the budget Fluance SX-HTB system and given more room for the much bigger floor standing main speakers, it sounds better and is a better value in my opinion, it just doesn't fit in the master bedroom. I am a long time user of both of these systems although I have expanded the Fluance system to 7.1.<br><br><a href="http://www.sears.com/shc/s/p_10153_12605_SPM9820655813P?ci_src=184425893&amp; ci_sku=SPM9820655813&amp;sid=IDx20131030xMPAPxCPA2 8" target="_blank">http://www.sears.com/shc/s/p_10153_12605_SPM9820655813P?ci_src=184425893&amp; ci_sku=SPM9820655813&amp;sid=IDx20131030xMPAPxCPA2 8</a>
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post #18 of 25 Old 12-19-2013, 10:02 AM
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Scott: I have to agree with your selection of the Energy Take 5 Classic system as an excellent choice for people on a budget. I have one in my master bedroom and the sound is outstanding for the price.<br>I would wish that you would have included Paradigm speakers in your list. I have a Paradigm system in my family room: Focus fronts, CC170 (now Center1?) center, Atom rears (discontinued) and PDR8 sub (surprisingly good low end) and an ADP as rear center. Total cost was in the sub $1K range when I bought them several years ago. A similar 5.1 system consisting of Focus front and rear speakers, Center 1 center speaker and Monitor Sub 8 subwoofer would weigh in at around $1900 USD -- perhaps too pricey for low cost systems, but a true value.
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post #19 of 25 Old 12-19-2013, 12:06 PM
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Scott, I have been considering the HSU 5.1 + VTF-15H ($1579) for a while now. Would you say that the speaker sets listed below it actually sound incrementally better?
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post #20 of 25 Old 12-19-2013, 12:15 PM
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Viche, the only difference in sound quality from one package to the next will be in the bass: how deep and how loud. The main speakers in every case are identical. Which package you choose depends on your budget, the size of the room, and how much bass you prefer.<br>

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post #21 of 25 Old 12-19-2013, 02:02 PM
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Hi Scott,<br>It is hard to believe Dali is not mentioned in this list. I have had the Dali Ikon surround sound package for years now and it is amazing.<br>Cheers,<br>Allan
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post #22 of 25 Old 12-19-2013, 02:53 PM
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Scott, thanks for the response, but I meant differences between speakers on this page, not on HSU's website.
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post #23 of 25 Old 12-19-2013, 03:29 PM
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Scott, I already have a HSU VTF-3 MK4 Sub and am looking to change out the 5.0 speakers. I was looking at the HSU HB-1 / HC-1 MK2 combo as well as the Klipsch RB-61 II / RC-62 II. If money wasn't the deciding factor, is one that much better than the other. What are the pros / cons of each?
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post #24 of 25 Old 01-24-2014, 06:39 PM
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If you want cheap, find Polk T15 speakers on sale at BestBuy for $50/pair*. Buy 3 sets, add a 10" or 12" sub and you've got a nice 5.1 system for the money. If you add in a budget AVR you can probably clock in at under $500. I use this setup in my bedroom and I can't say enough about having 5 matching speakers. Dialog intelligibility is much better than my more expensive Paradigm setup in the projector room. To be fair, acoustics plays a part, but I have no treatments in either room yet, so that facet should be relatively equal.<br><br>*They usually run that price around Black Friday or Christmas time (or they have in the past).

"War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling that thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a...
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post #25 of 25 Old 02-07-2014, 07:04 AM
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