Home Theater Systems Vs. Surround Sound Systems: What is the difference?


Is a Home Theater Also a Surround Sound System?

It’s fairly common to hear the terms “surround sound” and “home theater” used interchangeably. Sure, any proper home theater will incorporate surround sound, but not all surround sound setups are home theaters. There are other criteria that set home theater systems apart as a special entertainment experience. Whether you’re moving in to your first house or finally finishing that basement, read on to discover what distinguishes home theaters from surround sound.

What is a surround sound system?

Surround sound is an audio technique that uses multiple audio channels from speakers placed around a listener in your room to create an immersive audio experience for the listener. The goal is to give the impression that the sound is coming from all around you rather than simply in front of you - "surrounded by sound." This adds depth and directionality to your movie-watching experience and brings you into the action, rather than just being an observer.

Are there different types of surround sound systems?

There are different ways to set up a surround system in your home. A surround sound system includes primary speakers (front stage), satellite speakers in the rear, and a separate subwoofer and generally comprises of at least a 5.1 speaker setup. The "5" refers to five speakers: a front left, front center, and front right for your “front stage” and a rear left and rear right speaker just slightly behind the listener. The ".1" after the 5 refers to a subwoofer for the addition of powerful bass.

Also common is a 7.1 channel system, which has 7 speakers and one subwoofer. A 7.1 surround sound system will have two pairs of satellite speakers rather than one.

A soundbar can also be used to make up the front stage (left, right, and center speakers). The front stage handles the majority of your audio and includes dialogue, which is why many soundbar specs focus on dialogue clarity. Newer soundbars on the market may use additional speakers that are meant to bounce off of the walls of your home to create a pseudo surround environment. You’re not being surrounded by speakers but you will be engulfed in sound. Those types of systems are hit or miss depending on your room and big open spaces tend to fall short in that category. If you're looking for an instant improvement to your TV sound though, a soundbar is a easy upgrade. It's compact because it either sits in front of your TV or can be mounted to the wall directly underneath the TV and takes up very little space.

What is a home theater system?

A home theater system is a combination of audio and video components designed in a configuration to reproduce the cinematic experience in your own home. This term has been used more and more loosely through the years as dedicated spaces for watching movies and gathering with family and friends have become a must for any modern home. Whether in a small apartment, a mixed-use family room, or a dedicated theater room, an area where people gather in front of a screen with some sort of sound system has generally become dubbed "the home theater".

There are many different types of home theaters and it all depends on your space and your budget. Some people go all out with theater seating, popcorn machines, blackout shades, lighting scenes, acoustic treatments, the works. A TV with a soundbar is a great place to start, but when you're in our industry and designing a legit "home theater" that's going to give you the goosebumps you crave when you go to the movie theater, this is usually what we would recommend:

A good home theater generally consists of 1) audio, 2) video, 3) processing components, and 4) accessories.

The audio system should include a minimum of a 5.1 speaker setup, with great systems including a 7.1 or a Dolby Atmos speaker configuration.

Your video should include a 4K or 8K HDTV, laser projector, or laser TV.

Your components are what control and play your media, which would include a multi-channel AV receiver and some sort of media source like a Blu-ray player, or streaming device like a Roku or Apple TV. These days, your media source could also be the apps on your Smart TV. For an incredible home theater experience, look at a Kaleidescape system - there is nothing better out there.

The accessories include things like your wires to connect it all. And please, if you're spending money on a home theater system, do not skimp on cheap cables! You wouldn't put cheap tires on a Ferrari, right? If you're streaming, we also recommend hardwiring to your home network if possible rather than relying on a wireless connection. Cables that aren't matched to the quality of your system and bad Wi-Fi will not do your home theater justice and you'll just be wasting your money. Trust us.

What is the primary difference between home theater and surround sound?

The difference between a home theater and surround sound is that a home theater refers to the complete package: TV, Blu-ray player, AV components, accessories, and your surround sound speaker system. All home theaters should have surround sound. It's as simple as that.

To create a killer home theater system that will knock your socks off and impress the neighbors, here is what we recommend...

How to create a killer home theater experience:

Component Audio

Component audio is the use of separate hi-fi components such as a stand-alone A/V receiver. Component audio is typically the preferred setup from music and movie lovers that demand the highest audio quality. It also provides flexibility and scalability of your setup. Separate components allows for the absolute best of the best in terms of quality, but may be more of a challenge if space is at a premium and or you don't have the ability to run wires where and how you want them.

At its core, a surround sound system can produce sound in front of you, on both sides, and behind you. Now, the latest soundbars are a simple solution that do a pretty good job of simulating a surround sound experience leveraging subwoofers and wireless rear speakers to achieve deep bass and surround effects. But, when we talk about building out a home theater, component audio is a must.

First, a receiver and speakers will provide better clarity and detail than the best soundbars, thanks to better quality amplifiers (in the receiver) and larger, superior speaker drivers. You’ll also gain access to room correction software, an on-screen display for your audio settings, and the ability to connect multiple sources - including devices with legacy audio connections - directly to your audio system.

Second, component audio can adequately fit a larger space, and more specifically a larger seating area. A dedicated center channel speaker will ensure that dialog is positioned dead center, whether you’re in the front row or back corner - and it won’t seem blended with the music or sound effects. Positioning the front left and front right on either side of the screen, instead of directly underneath as part of a soundbar, creates a wider soundstage, which means a bigger sense of space.

The BIG screen

Surround sound can be paired with any size screen, but when you’re selecting gear for a home theater, a big screen is a must. The bigger the better! (If you can fit it). There is no cut-and-dry minimum, unless you are looking for a movie theater experience. THX has done the math on re-creating the equivalent of sitting in the middle of the theater. In that case, you want ten inches of screen size for each foot of viewing distance:

"To determine what size TV you should purchase, we recommend you measure the distance between your couch and where your TV will be located (in inches). Then multiply that number by .835, and that should help you determine what screen size you should get. But for 4K or UHD TV sets, the process is a little different since the nearer you sit to these models, the more detail you’ll be able to pick up. -THX.com

For example, if you are sitting 12 feet back, you would want a 120” diagonal screen. The goal is to fill your field of vision, creating an immersive environment.

A conventional projector and a fixed-position screen can create a gargantuan visual for a reasonable price. As with component audio, you can upgrade or repair each piece only as needed, allowing greater flexibility. Screens that require assembly are also easier to fit into basements and other tight spaces.

Other technologies have become more cost-effective in recent years, too. Sony now offers a 100” Bravia television for less than $20,000. If you lack the throw distance for a conventional projector, but a TV won’t work, you may benefit from ultra short throw (UST) projection. Hisense offers a bundle with a projector and your choice of a 100” or 120” screen. Home theaters have nowhere to hide: they need one of these big screens.

A dedicated space

Surround sound systems are common in family rooms and dens - after all, that’s where we do most of our viewing. If you’re creating a home theater, though, you owe it to yourself to make it a dedicated space. What does it mean to have a dedicated space for a home theater system?

Let’s start with four walls and a door that shuts. That will allow you to capture the best performance from your audio gear, keep out unwanted sounds, and eliminate distractions.

You should also be able to control the lighting. While that doesn’t necessarily mean automated lighting, you should have the ability to make a home theater room close to pitch black. If there are windows, they should have treatments - ideally blackout shades. This will allow you to get the best picture quality and contribute to a movie theater atmosphere, even during daytime.

A home theater isn’t used for other things. There’s no pool table, no dart board, and no wet bar. Any of that could tempt you to turn the lights on and talk! That would all be fair game if you are looking to create a shared space that happens to have surround sound.

Your decor

This is where you can get creative with a hardcore home theater space. There are still performance and fidelity considerations, but the possibilities are endless.

Your walls and ceiling should be a dark color. That’s often unappealing for a family room, making it a hallmark of a home theater space. Darker colors minimize the excess light reflecting off of your walls and ceiling, helping you get the most from your projection system or TV.

Seating in a dedicated home theater is always oriented towards the screen, and often it’s one or more rows of theater seats. Our vendors, such as CinemaTech, Palliser, and Salamander, have seats that offer top notch support and high quality fabrics and leathers. By contrast, a regular surround sound system might be built around a conventional sofa, a sectional, or a variety of seating.

The room is the last component in any audio system, and everything - including your walls, furniture, and decor - will impact its performance. A surround sound system is rarely the primary consideration in a living space, but in a home theater, audio performance is a reason to treat the walls with absorptive material, throw down an area rug to prevent sound from reflecting off of the floor, and even design a room that isn’t a perfect rectangle (seriously).

Many home theaters are also decked out with a movie theme. Popcorn machines, movie posters, and Hollywood memorabilia are all signs of a full-fledged home theater.


Although every home theater features some kind of surround sound configuration, many surround sound systems simply aren’t geared towards movie magic. Home theaters use component audio to create a larger-than-life sound. They feature screen sizes designed to feel like a theater - sizes that might feel overpowering in a normal living space. For these reasons, home theater systems need a dedicated space, and in turn that space can be fine-tuned and furnished to maximize performance. Can you smell the popcorn?

As always, don’t hesitate to contact us before you plan your next project. Check out some of our recent home theater and home media room solutions here.

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