Sound bars and home-theater-in-a-box (HTIB) systems can sound "good enough," but if you want a home theater experience that's actually exciting, you need a bona fide 5.1 speaker system. And they're less expensive than you might think.
We've rounded up six 5.1 speaker systems that cost less than $500. You can find 5.1 packages for less than that, but around $500 is the sweet spot where sound quality starts to get pretty good. And we've also thrown in an ultrabudget option that comes in at just $84 and holds its own against the pricier competition.
One quick note before we get to the speakers. Unlike an all-in-one system like a sound bar or HTIB system, the speaker packages require a separate AV receiver. Check out CNET's list of best AV receivers for recommendations.
Best overall budget speaker system
While most of the systems we've reviewed have trade-offs, the Energy is seemingly without compromises, with excellent sound quality, a compact and elegant design, and a $400 street price. It's one of the best home theater values we've ever seen and it's an investment likely to last you at least 10 years--much longer than the average gadget purchase.
Even with its budget price, the Energy Take Classic has significantly better sound quality than all of the other speakers in our roundup, except...
Best-sounding budget speaker system
The catch here is that the speakers are huge, especially compared with most of the compact systems in our roundup. (And the center channel is enormous by any standard.) The speakers also sport a plain, black wood-grain finish, which isn't an eyesore, but it's not stylish, either.
If you don't mind the bulk and have the space, the Pioneer SP-PK21BS offers the best sound quality for the money, but it's more speaker system than many buyers need.
Best ultrabudget speaker system
While we'd consider all of these speaker systems to be affordable, the Monoprice 8247 costs hundreds less and delivers a true surround-sound experience. The build quality is also surprisingly decent for the price and Monoprice even throws in four swivel wall-mounts.
Don't get us wrong: this isn't an audiophile system, so set your expectations accordingly. But it's a perfect starter system or option for a secondary room.
Best ultrasmall budget speaker system
The speakers are each just a little larger than a baseball, but they sound surprisingly good for their size. (But don't expect miracles. The larger Energy and Pioneer systems sound much better.) Their unique cubelike shape also helps them fit into tight corners where standard speakers won't fit.
Our major knock is that it's tough to fit speaker wire into the cramped connectors in the back, but you'll only put up with that during the initial setup process.
Both of these systems are good, but it was hard for us to find a reason to recommend them over the other options. Specifically, both systems are similar in size, price, and design to the Energy Take Classic 5.1, and we prefer the Energy in both cases. However, if you find the Harman or Klipsch at a significant discount, they'll do the job.
Honorable mention: While the Mirage Nanosat 5.1 system wasn't included in this roundup, we've reviewed it in the past and were impressed. The list price is more than $800, but we've occasionally seen it discounted for less than $500 online.
Editors' note, November 14, 2011: This roundup has been updated to include the Monoprice 8247 speaker system.