Not everyone interested in surround sound wants their living room to be overwhelmed by a set of towering boxes, which has led to the popularity of compact speaker packages. These smaller systems may not be able to fill the largest rooms but the latest designs have improved immensely - not to mention being more affordable and less intimidating than their oversized alternatives.
Compact packages can be divided into two groups - smaller sub-sat systems that now look as good as they sound and more conventional packages that typically use standmount-sized speakers.
We've collected four packages featuring both designs across a range of prices to find which system makes the most of your movie watching experience.
Price: £800 More info: Acoustic Energy Front/Centre/Rear speakers: Aego T satellite Size: 202x124x146mm Weight: 2.5kg Drivers: 25mm thermally bonded voice coil tweeter, 100mm damped fibre cone mid-bass Power handling: 100W Frequency response: 100Hz-20kHz Subwoofer: Aego T subwoofer Size: 390x360x420mm Weight: 18.5kg Driver: 2x 200mm fibre cone with 48mm thermal bonded voice coil Power amplification: 200W
Acoustic Energy Aego T
Acoustic Energy's Aego T is quite definitely a 'style speaker' package. Style isn't always supported by substance but a recent revamp has made a success of both - and this is one of the finest sub-sat systems in its class.
The unassuming design is excellently constructed using elegantly curved alloy cabinets finished in glossed black (or white), which corresponds to the latest flat screen designs. The four identical satellites are reasonably sized but can still be placed inconspicuously around the room using supplied wall brackets.
Each speaker features the same tweeter and mid/bass drive units designed by Acoustic Energy, which allude to an even-handed tonal balance throughout. And you can always add more satellites if you want to upgrade to a six or seven-channel system.
The package has improved over its earlier incarnation by using a new twin drive subwoofer that's far more agile and fluid than its predecessor. Low frequencies now pack plenty of punch and move swiftly enough to enliven even the fastest, adrenaline-fuelled action scenes.
Overall, the sound is surprisingly large for a small speaker package while superb integration opens up an expansive sound field that firmly grabs your attention. Far stretching dynamics add to the excitement without sounding too shrill at the high end or undefined at the low end. And intricate detail exposes all the natural expression that dialogue needs. Stereo listening is slightly restrictive but then, that isn't what this system was built for.
If you're looking for a small-sized package that performs on a large stage then the Aego T is a frontrunner in the style speaker stakes.
Inconspicuous design; expansive sound; even-handed balance; improved subwoofer
Restricted stereo performance
Price: £975 More info: B&W Front/Centre/Rear speakers: M1 satellite Size: 114x243x172mm Weight: 2.7kg Drivers: 25mm metal dome tweeter, 100mm woven glass fibre cone mid/bass Max power handling: Unkown Frequency response: 80Hz-23kHz
Subwoofer: AS2 Size: 325x325x393mm Weight: 15.5kg Driver: 250mm mica cone Power amplification: 150W
B&W's MT-20 is another style speaker package that has raised expectations of what small sub-sat systems are capable of - and, if this were a beauty contest, then this package would be crowned queen.
The small but perfectly sculpted M1 satellites that comprise all main channels are carefully constructed from aluminum and oh-so sexily styled. They're supported by small stands that can also be used as wall brackets and connections have been cleverly integrated into the base, like a table lamp. This does keep cable management tidy but can be a bit fiddly when you first hook up the system.
Internally, the design features a favourably simple crossover with the same high quality tweeter used in other B&W models and a woven glass fibre cone mid/bass drive that's said to reduce standing waves. The accompanying AS2 subwoofer isn't quite as attractive and is this package's weak link - although you can upgrade to the MT30 package (£1,500), which features the much superior spherical PV-1 sub.
Unlike the Aego T system, the sub lacks authority and low frequencies don't sound as tight or controlled as they should. Consequently, you don't get the same dynamic reach but the encompassing sound is rescued by detailed clarity that unearths the slightest subtleties to create an ultimately realistic soundstage. The speakers are expertly integrated with special effects steered cohesively around the room without confusion and there's no hardening up even when pushed at extreme levels.
The MT20 system proves it's more than just a pretty face but it's expensively priced compared to some rivals that offer better performance without the looks.
Beautifully styled; cohesive integration; subtle detail Minus points
Comparatively expensive; strained subwoofer
Price: £600 More info: Mission Front/Rear speakers: M30i Size: 220x145x190mm Drivers: 25mm Viotex dome tweeter Max power handling: 75W Frequency response: 68Hz-20kHz Centre: M3C1i Size: 135x500x130mm Drivers: Max power handling: 150W Frequency response: 75Hz-20kHz Subwoofer: M3as Size: 410x280x500mm Power amplification: 150W Frequency response: 30Hz-165kHz
Mission Cinema m30i
Mission's Cinema m30i package employs larger m3i standmount speakers for both the main front and rear channels. These speakers feature an upgraded design and innovative construction that enhances both stereo and home cinema listening.
The smartly designed cabinets are unusually constructed using two u-shaped sections that improves rigidity and reduces debilitating vibrations. Unlike most designs the drive units are inverted with the tweeter arranged above the mid/bass driver, which claims to equalize the path length to the listener and thus producing a more balanced sound. Plus, there's a new crossover design that's wired to the drive units using special oxygen-free cables.
The package is completed by the m3as subwoofer and a dedicated m3C1i centre channel - that's designed to fit across an AV rack. But it's these two channels that struggle to scale the heights of the surrounding speakers.
For the most part, the sound is beautifully balanced and expressive, especially from the detailed midrange. Film scores produce an open and articulate soundstage that's lively and engaging while stereo tracks are equally impressive and well timed. But, using a different centre channel creates some tonal inconsistency across the front speakers leaving vocals sounding strained. And, although the accompanying subwoofer is capable, you can get better low-frequency impact without spending as much money.
If you can find the m30i package for a discounted price then it's well worth an audition but it's no longer a class leader at this price.
Advanced design and construction; balanced, detailed and expressive sound Minus points
Tonally inconsistent centre channel; subdued low frequency performance
Price: £500 More info: Wharfedale Front/Rear speakers: Diamond 9.0 Size: 145x236x165mm Weight: 2.8kg Drivers: 25mm tex tweeter, 100mm mid-bass Max power handling: 75W Frequency response: 60Hz-24kHz Centre: Diamond 9.cc Size: 330x120x130mm Drivers: 25mm tex tweeter, 2x 100mm B/M mid-bass Max power handling: 120W Frequency response: TBC Subwoofer: SW 150 Size: 330x330x370mm Driver: 250mm mid-bass Power amplification: 150W
Wharfedale Diamond 9HCP
Wharfedale's affordable Diamond 9HCP package has been in a class of its own for as long as we can remember - and you'll struggle to find a better budget system for £500 or less.
Don't be diverted by the outdated aesthetics or conventional construction - there may be better looking packages around but few sound as good. Like Mission's m30i system, this package uses identical standmount speakers (Diamond 9.0) for the main front and rear channels. The small size of the cabinets is slightly restrictive but does allow for more flexible and out of the way placements.
Although the original Diamond speakers have evolved since their inception in the early 1980s, the basic two-way box design has remained constant. All speaker parts are surprisingly manufactured in-house, which offers an explanation for their tonal consistency. Each of the main channels features a curved cabinet construction that reduces vibration and a comparatively simple drive units and crossover design.
The difference between this package and the Missions is that the dedicated 9CC centre channel perfectly complements its surround speakers. Superb integration means that sounds are subtly steered to create an accurate and involving soundstage that's full of realism. The relatively small speakers may not be room-shakers but all the authority you need comes courtesy of the outstanding SW150 active subwoofer. Low frequencies are powerful and agile enough to add oomph to explosive scores without overwhelming the presentation, which produces a commanding and convincing performance with both music and movies.
At this price, the Diamond 9HCP's unrivalled all-round ability makes it a clear class leader that looks set to dominate the budget market for some time yet.
Superb integration; convincing soundstage; excellent subwoofer Minus points
As all of these packages feature varying designs across different price points it's difficult to decide on an overall winner. Ultimately, it's a question of preference between stylish sub-sat systems and larger conventional packages.
In the past, smaller systems like Acoustic Energy's Aego T and B&W's MT-20 compromised sound quality for space-saving appearance. But, times have changed, and the Aego T's surprising scale, excellent integration and influential bass gets our vote for the best performing system at an affordable price. The MT-20 package was equally inspiring but an underperforming sub and expensive price tag mean you're paying more for looks alone.
Wharfedale's Diamond 9HCP may not carry the same wow factor but, quite simply, there isn't a better sounding package for around £500 - making it an ideal entry-level system for anyone that puts performance first. Mission's m30i is another decent system that's let down by an insubstantial sub and, while it's by no means poor, standards have been raised elsewhere.