Used to be, when you said you were shopping for speakers, the word 'pair' was implicit. Those days are long gone. Today, a "complete speaker system" most often means a 5.1-channel home-theater surround array. You'll find countless variations of such a system on offer today, at prices that range from toaster-oven to Testarossa in scale. Here's a selection of excellent options, by price-range.
The Powerball Winner: Revel Ultima2/Performa System - $36,000 (system) Salon2 (L/R), Voice2 (C), S30 (surr.), B15a (sub)
Revel combines the technological muscle (and acoustical facilities) of the sprawling Harman International family to which it belongs, with the audiophile ear and street-cred of founder and chief designer Kevin Voecks. The combo has yielded some of the finest loudspeakers available. With your unlimited winnings, go straight to the top: the imposing flagship Salon2 and Voice2 models up front, but with two pairs of the surround-dedicated, multi-pattern S30 from the step-down Performa line. The Salon2s don't really require a subwoofer, but what they hey - we'll add in a couple B15 15-inchers for the LFE channel to make sure that movie mayhem can loosen drywall screws.
Serious Stuff: PSB Synchrony System ($10,500) Synchrony One (L/R), Synchrony One C (C), Synchrony S (surr.), SubSeries 500 (sub)
PSB is a Canadian firm that's been producing amazingly good speakers amazingly cheap for some 30 years now, in large part thanks to the dedication and expertise of founder (and violinist/engineer) Paul S. Barton (P.S.B.). The Synchrony line demonstrates what Barton might achieve with, if not a cost-no-object design, at least a cost-less-object one. The product of several years' dogged refinement, Synchrony is the epitome of "value high-end" - your get about 98 percent of the musicality, dynamics, and spatial refinement money can buy, for about a tenth part of what it's possible to spend.
High-End Value: Atlantic Technology System 6200e ($5,600) 6200e (L/R), 6200eC (C), 4200eSR (surr.), 642SB (sub)
As one of the very first companies to market subwoofer-satellite speaker systems back in the two-channel era, Atlantic Technology qualifies as a home-theater pathfinder. This verifiably full-range (and THX-certified) suite is engineered for movies first, but delivers delicately detailed music playback, from stereo or multichannel recordings, with equal aplomb (its dipole/bipole-switchable surround speakers make it highly adaptable). Atlantic's dedicated front-speaker pedestal stands pair are absurdly expensive (our price above applies to speakers only); so, I personally would just assume prop the speakers on cinderblocks instead and apply the difference to a Blu-ray library.
Value First: Outlaw Audio LCR System ($3,894) Outlaw LCR (L/R, C, surr.), LFM-EX (sub)
Outlaw Audio is a web-to-consumer audio company whose name sums up its attitude to the traditional manufacturer-rep-retailer-consumer distribution path of AV gear. The idea was to eliminate middlemen and reduce cost to the end-user (a not entirely novel idea), and with Outlaw's first home-theater speaker, the results speak volumes. The Outlaw LCR is a one-size-fits-all design, something I usually disapprove of. But this one has a difference: a rear-panel switch that reconfigures the crossover for vertical or horizontal orientation (2-way vs. "2-1/2-way" filtering), so they can indeed work better in back as well as in front, and whether standing up or lying down, than would otherwise be the case. Add in the LFM-EX 12-inch subwoofer, a basic but effective performer, and you have a sub-$4,000 system that challenges the status quo for a movies-centric multichannel speaker system.
Bang-per-Buck: DCM TimeFrame ($2,350) TFE200 (L/R), TFE60C (C), TP160BDP (surr.), TB1212 (sub)
I recognize that some buyers, nearly all of them male, will be powerless to resist the call of the hulkingly large, impressive, bass-happy, slambanctious, low-dollar systems from major-brand retailers. Here's a better alternative from DCM, an American brand that started out as a small audiophile firm three decades hence, but is now part of the Mitek family of home and car audio brands. The TFE200 towers around which this suite is assembled should be big enough to satisfy even the most impressionable teenager, but the system's looks belie unexpectedly accurate, level octave-to-octave balance, acceptable center-channel solidity, while dual-tweeter surround speakers that provide at least a little bit of the virtue of more fully dipolar designs.
Penny-Pincher: SVSound SBS/SCS-01 System ($1,150) SBS-01 (L/R, surr.), SCS-01 (C), PB12-NSD (sub)
SVSound began at the bottom - the Midwest maker earned its colors on low-cost/high-performance subwoofers of impressive value. It's first foray into a full-range system, the subcompact SBS-01 (and SCS-01 center speaker) carries that upward to the remaining 8 octaves of sound with accurate, balanced reproduction and very low cost. Add in the PB12-NSD 12-inch subwoofer, and you have a system for not much beyond the thousand-dollar mark that goes low, plays loud and clean, and delivers an unexpectedly natural, warm musical balance. (Sounds simple, but you try designing one for that short money!)
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