When I first started speaker shopping, I always wondered what the difference was between a “hi-fi” and “home theater” system, so I set out to research exactly what each was. It may not seem like there’s much of a difference, but for the audiophiles and movie buffs out there, it’s actually quite a big one!
So what is the difference between hi-fi and home theater? A home theater is simply an arrangement of speakers around a TV or projector meant to make a room in your home mimic the feeling of being in a movie theater. Hi-fi, or high fidelity, is meant to put more focus on sound precision. In other words, high fidelity is an attempt to recreate audio exactly the way it would sound in the recording studio.
Choosing between a home theater and hi-fi system will depend a lot on which activities you think you will be doing the most. What’s more, the audio route you choose will require different types of equipment and setups.
Movies have a complex and dynamic range of sounds depending on the scene, so keeping the audience immersed is very important. In order to get a 3D surround sound effect, the speaker arrangement will need to be fine-tuned with a receiver. All of the wires connecting the speakers and display are ran through the receiver as well.
However, when just listening to music, it’s much more important that the sounds coming out of your speakers are exactly as the musician intended, and that’s where hi-fi systems come in. Hi-fi speakers are usually routed through an amplifier.
There are some pretty big differences between hi-fi and home theater systems. Their components, setups, and main uses can greatly vary. It truly depends on what you are looking for in a system when trying to decide on a hi-fi or home theater style system.
With a hi-fi system, your primary focus is on receiving a near-perfect reproduction of an audio recording. Hi-fi systems mainly just require a 2.0 arrangement in the form of two loudspeakers on opposite sides of each other.
This configuration is also referred to as a stereo arrangement. A good stereo system will have a large frequency response, meaning that it can accurately produce sound from very low to very high frequencies within the range of human hearing.
Both stereo speakers are connected to an amplifier. An amplifier is like a receiver but contains fewer functions; its main purposes are to amplify a signal from your input device to your speakers and to power the speakers. For a hi-fi system, your inputs are usually music players, like MP3, CD, tape players, and sometimes Bluetooth.
Hi-Fi systems are typically used by audiophiles. Or someone who seeks to reproduce sound with sound quality as the main focus. The dictionary definition of an audiophile is actually "a hi-fi enthusiast".
If your primary focus is to enjoy movies to their fullest effect, then your focus should be on acquiring the right home theater system. A good home theater system will have a full range of speakers, which include a subwoofer, center, front left, front right, and rear speakers.
All of the speakers and the subwoofer are connected to the receiver. At a minimum, your home theater system should contain a 5.1 arrangement, which means that you have five speakers and one subwoofer. Depending on the size of your theater room and budget, you can also do a 7.1 or even 9.2 arrangement. To learn more about the different home theater speaker arrangements, check out our article about home theater speaker configurations!
Movies deliver a large variety of audio information ranging from sound
Low-frequency rumbles will be routed to the sub, dialogue to the center speaker, musical soundtracks to the front right and left channel speakers, and background effects to the rear speakers.
This type of surround sound setup helps immerse the listener into the content they are watching. A hi-fi system typically cannot create this same feeling, unless you have loudspeakers arranged all around the room in a similar fashion.
The cost of a hi-fi or home theater set up is going to depend on many factors including the quality and number of devices you want. For example, home theater systems require several speakers, as opposed to a hi-fi system which generally requires a good pair of stereo speakers. Home theaters also require a display unit and depending on the size and quality of your TV or projector, you could be spending anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars.
Home theater systems also require an A/V (audio/video) receiver while a hi-fi system needs an amplifier at the least. A high-end A/V receiver could set you back about a thousand dollars, but on average you can get a pretty decent receiver for around $500-$700. High-end amplifiers, on the other hand, are about the same cost as an average receiver. Check out our in-depth analysis of the difference between receivers and amplifiers (this could be really useful if you are confused about their differences).
One of the biggest cost drivers behind hi-fi setups is going to be input devices. Music can be played through several sources, like CD players, cassette players, record players, and MP3 players. Some audiophiles will try to find the best versions of all of these, and that could potentially set them back many thousands of dollars.
Assuming you are the casual buyer who just wants a pretty decent home theater or hi-fi system, here are some examples of complete setups:
Generally in a home theater system, you will either have a television or a projector and a screen. It is rare for people to install both, but I have seen it done before, and it can be highly practical.
So based on these estimated prices you can see how it would be possible to build a great hi-fi or home theater setup for very similar price points. Of course, the prices can start to increase quite a bit the more higher-end you go.
They can also get much lower if you opt for lower-quality equipment. I would try to go with the higher-quality equipment because they tend to last for many years with relatively no issues.
You may notice that a home theater system essentially contains all of the components of a hi-fi system and more. So is it possible to obtain a high fidelity audio experience through a home theater setup?
For many casual movie-goers and music fans, there may not be much of a difference between playing music out of your home theater system or having a completely separate hi-fi system. But for the consumer with more acute audio quality tastes, there are some subtle sacrifices to having your home theater stand in as an all-in-one entertainment system.
The most important components of a hi-fi system are the stereo speakers. Hi-fi speakers are designed to handle all of the possible frequency ranges of music. Check out our article on using studio monitors in a home theater system.
The fact that hi-fi speakers are meant to handle all frequencies is why there is often no need for a subwoofer in traditional 2.0 hi-fi systems. So if you decide to use a pair of hi-fi speakers as the side speakers of your home theater arrangement, you could possibly create idiosyncracies with how your audio is being routed to each speaker and subwoofer.
You could also opt to not use a subwoofer at all and let your hi-fi speakers handle the low frequencies, but you may then miss out on some of the really low-frequency special effects in certain movies.
Another important component of a hi-fi system is an amplifier. The amplifier is going to be optimized specifically for routing the right amount of power to your stereo speakers. An A/V receiver contains an amplifier, but that amp is going to need to power many different devices simultaneously, which means that your hi-fi stereo speakers wouldn’t get the power they need to deliver optimal sound.
For those who like to have their cake and eat it too, it may be desirable to have both a hi-fi and home theater system in one setup. Technically this is possible, but it is difficult.
You will need the following things to have both a good hi-fi and home theater system at the same time:
In general, having both a hi-fi and home theater system in one is predictably far more expensive than having one or the other! It can also be extremely complicated to setup correctly.
The first number represents the number of regular speakers, while the second number represents the number of sub-woofers in a sound system. In a 5.1 system, there are 3 front speakers, 2 rear speakers, and a sub-woofer. In a 2.1 system, there are 2 front speakers and a sub-woofer.
This is actually a very common question for people just getting interested in home theaters and audio setups. Here's one of our articles that is purely dedicated to the differences between 2.1 and 5.1 surround sound systems.
It has long been debated among audiophiles what the best music format is. The general consensus is that between vinyl, CD’s, digital, and cassette formats, choosing the best one mainly comes down to personal preference. What it often comes down to is the way the music is mastered, which is basically the process of finalizing a record for playback across many types of speakers and devices.
Some artists, depending on their personal preferences, may choose to master a record specifically for vinyl. So if you’re knowledgeable about the specific format a record was mastered for, you can choose to buy and play it on the appropriate device. Most artists master their music in a more general way meant for equal playback quality no matter what audio device you choose to play from.
This is why many audiophiles tend to buy all possible audio device sources so that they can easily choose which device to play from based on convenience and day-to-day preference.
Soundbars basically act as both center and side speakers and can fit neatly underneath your TV. Over the past few years, soundbars have become really popular due to their space-saving qualities and ease of setup.
Some soundbars even attempt to mimic 5.1 surround sound arrangements. So naturally, you may wonder if there are any soundbars that would go well in a hi-fi or home theater system.
As far as home theater setups go, the problem with soundbars is that you would be sacrificing a true 3D experience afforded by having spaced-out side speakers and rear speakers. The same goes for high fidelity systems -- having two loudspeakers spread apart from each other is going to create a larger sound stage. In both cases, soundbars are mainly used for convenience and not quality.