Another year has come and (almost) gone, so it’s time for our annual tally of our favorite home entertainment gear. In this roundup, we’re ticking off our picks for the best TVs, smart speakers, headphones, soundbars, and other home entertainment products that are available in 2021.
We have more than one product in some categories, differentiated by price or feature set. And since smart speakers and displays are as important for smart home control as they are for entertainment, you’ll find them on our best smart home product list, too. Finally, keep in mind that not every product on this list was introduced this year. We’re not going to avoid recommending a great product just because it hit the market earlier than January 1, 2021.
Presenting our picks:
Best soundbar: Vizio Elevate
If you’re looking for an easy way to envelope your living room in big, immersive sound, the Vizio Elevate is your best bet. This $1,000 soundbar delivers 5.1.4 channels of audio, including support for Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, as well as swiveling front height drivers that can rotate forward when you’re listening to music or non-Atmos content. The result: bold, exciting, and even thrilling sound, although the included wireless subwoofer can be a tad overbearing. We also like the Elevate’s built-in Chromecast support, eARC support for lossless DTS-HD Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD audio formats, and a dedicated auxiliary jack for connecting a smart speaker.
Best budget soundbar: Denon DHT-S216H
Not ready to drop a thousand bucks on a soundbar? The all-in-one Denon DHT-S216H offers swell-sounding audio in a small package, not to mention a reasonable $250 price tag. While the DHT-S216H doesn’t support Dolby Atmos, it does pack DTS Virtual:X, a 3D audio mode that does a reasonably solid job of adding virtualized height and sound effects to any audio source. We were also impressed by the soundbar’s good bass response, and if you’re looking for more boom, you can always add a wired third-party subwoofer. If you’re on a budget and great sound is your priority, the DHT-S216H is the best soundbar for the price.
Best smart TV: TCL 6-Series 8K UHD TV
Once known primarily as a maker of budget TVs, TCL has been making a splash thanks to the introduction of mini-LED backlighting technology, and its 6-Series 8K TV is not only affordable (well, relatively speaking), it’s also among the best we’ve ever tested. Equipped with Dolby Vision and Atmos support (no HDR10+, unfortunately) as well as Roku’s intuitive streaming interface, the 6-Series 8K delivers an impressive image, with excellent contrast, accurate quantum-dot color, and solid video processing, particularly when it comes to upscaling lower-resolution content to 8K. All in all, you’re looking at the best TV value on the market right now.
Best budget smart TV: Hisense U8G-series 4K UHD TV
If you don’t feel the need for an 8K TV yet (there’s barely any 8K content out there anyway), this excellent mid-range 4K set from Hisense should top your list. The manufacturer’s U8G-series 4K UHD TV offers outstanding color, plenty of brightness, and impressive image processing, while gamers will be pleased by its 120Hz HDMI 2.1 support, complete with variable refresh rate and Freesync compatibility. Hisense covers all the HDR bases, including Dolby Vision, HDR10+, and HLG, while tossing in Dolby Atmos, a filmmaker mode, and IMAX Enhanced mode. This set was a bargain at $1,300, and with recent discounts bringing it down to as low as $1,000, it’s even more enticing now.
Best portable Bluetooth speaker: Tronsmart Element Force SoundPulse
This compact Bluetooth speaker packs a heck of a punch for just $60. Protected by an IPX7-rated water-resistant shell, the Tronsmart Element Force SoundPulse boasts surprisingly rich, full sound with its Extra Bass EQ mode, with an impressively wide soundstage that belies the speaker’s small size. Its 3D Stereo and Standard EQ presents may sound disappointingly thin and weak, and its controls can be difficult to spot, but the Tronsmart Element Force SoundPulse otherwise performs as well or better than speakers costing three times as much.
Best tabletop speaker: Sonos Move
Tipping the scales at six pounds and costing a lofty $400, the portable (well, mostly) Sonos Move is hefty and expensive, but it delivers glorious audio performance, both indoors and out. Capable of operating via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, the Move packs your choice or Alexa or Google Assistant, along with up to 11 hours of battery life and an unobtrusive charging cradle. It also boasts Automatic Trueplay, a feature that adjusts the Move’s audio according to the ambient conditions. Best of all, the Move is part of the rich Sonos ecosystem, which includes wired indoor speakers, soundbars, and amplifier components.
Best indoor TV antenna: Channel Master Flatenna 35
Our favorite over-the-air antenna may not be as cheap as it used to be (it was a mere $10 when we first reviewed it), but it’s still a tremendous value at $25. Only a tad larger than a sheet of A4 paper and intended for indoor use, this well-made antenna surprised us with its substantial feel (it’s thicker than similar antennas we’ve tested; more importantly, it managed to pull in all the major local channels during our tests. You will need to supply your own coaxial cable for connection to your TV’s tuner, but otherwise the Channel Master Flatenna 35 is a heck of a deal.
Best rooftop TV antenna: Antennas Direct DB8e
If you can install your TV antenna outdoors, do it. You’ll be able to pull in more channels and you’ll get better reception because the broadcast signals won’t need to penetrate your home’s walls. The Antennas Direct DB8e is a large antenna that proved capable of pulling in even very weak TV signals with minimal interference. This is a large and heavy antenna, so you’ll want a strong mast that’s well secured to your roof. It’s a fabulous antenna if you live on the fringes of your local broadcast towers’ range, and you can point its two halves in different directions if the towers are in very different directions. Highly recommended.
Best over-the-air DVR: Tablo Quad DVR
No over-the-air DVR is perfect, but the Tablo Quad DVR hits the sweet spot of affordability and ease of use. Easy to set up, the Wi-Fi- and ethernet-enabled Tablo box can sit anywhere in your house, and it comes equipped with a USB port for external storage as well as a bay for a 2.5-inch internal drive. You can stream video from the DVR over a streaming stick, a tablet, a phone, or other supported devices using the Tablo app, while a $5-a-month Tablo subscription gets you access to a 14-day programming guide and the ability to browse programs by channel or genre. Other features include ad skipping, automatic discarding of older episodes, and 5.1 audio support. If you’re looking for a more affordable option, the $140 Tablo Dual Lite DVR packs many of the same features but records only two channels at a time rather than four.
Best video streamer: Roku Streaming Stick 4K
With its HomeKit home hub and Thread border router capabilities, the $170 (and up) Apple TV 4K is among the most tricked-out—and most expensive—video streamers on the market, but it’s not our pick for most people. Instead, we think Roku’s feature-packed and far more affordable Streaming Stick 4K is the better choice. This 4K dongle packs most of the features that cord-cutters are looking for, including Dolby Vision and HDR10+, improved Wi-Fi performance, a fast and fluid interface, AirPlay 2 for casting media from Apple devices, and easy search via Roku’s voice-enabled remote. Best of all, the Streaming Stick 4K is just $50, making it both great and inexpensive.
Best noise-cancelling headphone: Sony WH-1000XM4
Sony’s fantastic WH-1000XM4 headphones are the noise-cancelling cans to beat, complete with accurate sound, superb noise cancellation, a proximity sensor that detects whether the headset is on your ears and automatically pauses playback when it isn’t, and a clever new Speak-to-Chat feature that pauses your tunes and pumps in ambient sound when it hears you speaking. The comfy WH-1000XM4 also boasts support for LDAC, Sony’s high-res Bluetooth codec, as well as up to 30 hours of battery life with noise cancelling enabled.
Best budget noise-cancelling headphone: Wyze Noise-Cancelling Headphones
Applying its experience with low-cost, high-quality security cameras to noise-cancelling headphones, Wyze Labs has managed to crank out a pair of budget-priced cans that sound as good as headsets that cost twice as much. These super-comfortable headphones offer impressive noise cancellation performance (albeit at the cost of slightly altering frequency response), a clear and accurate mid-range, and about 16 hours of battery life. We do wish the headset’s audio sounded as good with ANC on as it does off, but won’t find better-sounding noise-cancelling headphones anywhere this price.
Best hi-fi headphone: Focal Elegia
Arriving with a head-turning design, Focal’s closed-back, high-end, and understandably pricey headphone is for the serious audiophile who wants to make a long-term investment in a reference-grade headset. Capable of delivering rich, lush audio, the Focal Elegia comes with breathtaking aluminum and silver accents, an aluminum yoke with a brushed finish, beveled screws at the earcups, and memory-foam earpads covered in plush microfiber. The low-impedance cans are easy to drive with any smartphone or digital audio player device. The sound absolutely fantastic.
Best true wireless noise-cancelling in-ear headphone: Bowers & Wilkins PI7
Rookie efforts are rarely this good, but the performance we experienced with Bowers & Wilkins’ first true-wireless, in-ear, noise-cancelling headphones is a testament to the depth of engineering talent at the British audio manufacturer. The PI7 are as beautiful to look at as they are wonderful to listen to, and their performance specs are formidable, including rated frequency of 10Hz to 20kHz. Support for both the AAC and aptX Adaptive Bluetooth codecs ensure broad compatibility and—with the latter—high-res music listening (24-bit resolution and sampling rates up to 48kHz). As our review notes: “B&W’s PI7 headphones create a defined, layered soundstage with instruments and vocals placed firmly in space and time.”
Best smart speaker with Alexa: Amazon Echo Studio
While Amazon has some fine-sounding speakers in its Echo lineup, only the Echo Studio can deliver 3D audio, including support for the object-based Dolby Atmos and Sony 360 Reality Audio formats. Outfitted with three 2-inch mid-range drivers (firing left, right, and straight up), a 1-inch tweeter, and a 5.25-inch down-firing woofer, the Echo Studio bounces sound off your walls and ceiling to envelope you in audio, cranking out great audio performance for the money. We have heard better-sounding smart speakers in our time (the late, lamented Google Home Max comes to mind), but if you want a great-sounding smart speaker that answers to Alexa, the Echo Studio is at the top of our list.
Best smart speaker with Google Assistant: Google Nest Audio
Our favorite Google Assistant-enabled smart speaker for music used to be the imposing Google Home Max, but now that it’s been discontinued, the smaller—and far less expensive—Google Nest Audio has taken its place. We still think the Home Max packs some of the best sound we’ve ever heard from a smart speaker, but the Nest Audio is no sonic slouch.
With a 19mm tweeter and a 75mm mid-woofer in a sturdy aluminum housing, the Nest Audio delivers precise sound with a surprising amount of bass, while a bass extension feature boosts lower frequencies when the volume is dialed down. Toss in Google Assistant, a homey, fabric-covered exterior, and a reasonable $100 price tag, and the Nest Audio becomes one of the most enticing music-focused smart speakers around.
Best smart speaker with Siri: HomePod Mini
Apple only sells a single smart speaker at the moment, making this pick an easy one. But while the larger HomePod, which was discontinued in March, was undoubtedly the better-sounding smart speaker, the $99 HomePod Mini makes the most of its single full-range, neodymium magnet-powered dynamic drivers and two force-cancelling passive radiators, delivering full-bodied and detailed performance given its compact size.
You can connect two HomePod Minis together for stereo sound or pair it with an Apple TV, and the speaker just got support for lossless tunes from Apple Music. You can also cast audio to the HomePod Mini from an Apple device via AirPlay 2, as well as group it with other AirPlay-compatible speakers. And of course, the HomePod mini comes with Siri, which can answer queries, control HomeKit-enabled smart devices with voice commands, and send messages to other Apple users in your household.
Best budget smart speaker with Alexa: Amazon Echo Dot (4th gen)
For its fourth-generation Echo Dot, Amazon took the 1.6-inch driver from earlier generations and changed it from an up-firing to a front-firing configuration, resulting in slightly clearer and fuller audio than the previous generation. We’re also fans of the new spherical design, the easy setup, and the new tap-to-snooze gesture for alarms. Of course, you’re going to get better sound from the $100 Google Nest audio or the $250 Amazon Echo Studio, but if you’re looking for the best sound from an Alexa-enabled smart speaker that costs $50 or (often) less, the Echo Dot is the clear choice.
Best budget smart speaker with Google Assistant: Google Nest Mini
Equipped with an upgraded driver and audio-boosting software improvements, the $49 Google Nest Mini steps up a rung compared to the so-so sonics of its predecessor, the Google Home Mini. Compared to the pricier Nest Audio, the Nest Mini sounds merely OK, good for listening to music rather than truly enjoying it, although pairing the Mini with a second unit for stereo sound helps deepen the experience. Frequently on sale, the Nest Mini makes for an inexpensive way to jump into smart wireless audio, and you can group it with other Nest speakers in your home or transfer tunes from one device to the other. Also, don’t forget Google Assistant, which is an ace at answering questions, setting alarms, ticking off schedules, and controlling smart home devices.
Best smart display with Alexa: Amazon Echo Show 10
You might already have a small TV screen in your kitchen, but have you ever had one that automatically rotates its display so it’s always facing you? Enter the Amazon Echo Show 10, an Alexa-powered smart display with a bright, swiveling 10-inch display that can follow you around the room, perfect for watching Netflix videos while you cook. Equipped with twin 1-inch tweeters and a three-inch woofer, the Echo Show 10 sounds great, too, and with onboard Alexa and a Zigbee radio onboard, the 10-inch Show makes for a smashingly good smart home hub. In short, the Echo Show 10 is the best entertainment-minded Alexa smart display on the market.
Best smart display with Google Assistant: Google Nest Hub Max
Besides its smart home and Google Assistant abilities, Google’s Nest Hub Max makes for an impressive home entertainment hub. Built into its base are a pair of 18mm tweeters and a 75mm woofer, which are capable of delivering robust stereo sound, perfect for cranking a Spotify playlist in the kitchen, while the Media tab in the Nest Hub Max’s touch interface lets you see and control tunes that are playing on your other Google devices.
The Nest Hub Max also offers native support for Netflix, Disney+, and YouTube, including (for subscribers) live YouTube TV channels, and you can cast videos from other supported streaming services via Chromecast. If that’s not enough to justify the $230 price tag, keep in mind that the Nest Hub Max packs its own Nest cam, not to mention its top-notch photo frame and smart skills.