Editor s Note: This article was last updated September 10, 2015.
Big screen LCD TVs and Blu-ray players are all the rage right now. People want to make sure they get the largest and clearest possible picture, but what about the audio? Even if you have the biggest, baddest television on the market, if you don't have a quality surround sound system, you only have half of a home theater. High-quality speakers, especially the all-important center speaker, can make or break your film viewing experience.
But how do you know if you truly have a good sound system? We've come up with the best movies possible to stretch your tweeters and woofers to the limit. Whether it's for the soundtrack, sound effects or sound mixing, each one of these films is going to test a different aspect of your surround sound system.
So without further ado, here are the top 10 films that will test your home theater speakers:
Background: "Transformers" was released in 2007 and is directed by Michael Bay. Transformer purists may claim that the 1986 animated film, "Transformers: The Movie," is the only true film adaptation, but this live-action version was a crowd-pleaser and a money-maker. Additionally, this film was nominated for three different Academy Awards in the categories of Best Visual Effects, Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing.
Why it Tests Your Home Theater Speakers: Say what you want about Michael Bay, but he can direct action sequences. Explosions, slow-motion, sweeping camera angles and car chases are always present in Bay's films. "Transformers" has all of that, plus the added bonus of transforming robots whirling around the screen. The mechanical noises are distinct for each robot and a good sound system will allow you to hear that. Also, keep an ear out for the original transforming sound from the cartoon as it is played a handful of times in this movie.
Background: Released in 2002, "Signs" was the third movie in what many consider the M. Night Shyamalan trilogy ("The Sixth Sense," "Unbreakable," "Signs"). It stars Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix as two brothers who are dealing, on a personal level, with a worldwide alien invasion. It features an original score by James Newton Howard. Howard actually scored the film before it was shot, basing his composition on Shyamalan's storyboards.
Why it Tests Your Home Theater Speakers: "Signs" uses silence to its advantage. Though the soundtrack is haunting and, at times, jarring, it's the quiet moments where you'll see how your home theater system holds up. As Gibson stands in a corn field, trying to track down an intruder, he pauses, listening to the night. The rustling of the corn in the wind is suddenly interrupted by a very subtle, but unnerving clicking noise coming from behind. This juxtaposition between silence and sound is repeated throughout the film. Then there is also the scene in the basement where the lights are turned out and all you have is the sounds coming from your home theater speakers. M. Night may have made some awful movies after this one, but "Signs" still stands as an excellent sound test movie.
#8 Moulin Rouge!
Background: "Moulin Rouge!" (yes, the exclamation mark is part of the name) was released in 2001. It is a musical directed by Baz Luhrmann. The story comes from the Greek myth of Orpheus travelling to the underworld to save his love, Eurydice. The movie stars Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor, who did all their own singing throughout the film and on the soundtrack. It was nominated by the Academy for Best Picture and Best Sound.
Why it Tests Your Home Theater Speakers: "Chicago" may have won the Best Picture award in 2003, but "Moulin Rouge!" is a better musical to test your speakers. The film is filled with covers of popular songs and original compositions. There are big musical numbers with extensive choreography and there are intimate duets and solos. In addition to the constant variety of songs, there are also cartoonish sound effects thrown in for comic effect and punctuation. This is the musical of all musicals to test the limits of your sound system.
#7 Saving Private Ryan
Background: "Saving Private Ryan" is directed by Steven Spielberg with a soundtrack by John Williams. It was the highest grossing film of 1998 and it was praised for its realistic battle scenes. It is often called one of the best war films made by Hollywood. It stars Tom Hanks as Captain John H. Miller, who is in charge of a group of soldiers sent to find Private James Ryan (Matt Damon) to bring him home. This film won the Oscar for Best Sound Effects Editing and Best Sound at the 71st Academy Awards.
Why it Tests Your Home Theater Speakers: The opening battle is one of the most amazing, yet hard-to-watch battle sequences ever filmed. If you are only watching this using the speakers on your television, you're missing out. Spielberg puts you right in the middle of the chaos, with screaming, yelling, crying, shooting and explosions all around you. However, "Saving Private Ryan" isn't afraid of silence, either leaving the audience some time to contemplate along with the characters during some scenes. Then, when needed, John Williams musical score comes in to amplify the emotions of the film. His "Hymn to the Fallen" creates a somber tone to bookend this powerful film.
#6 Jurassic Park
Background: Steven Spielberg directed this science-fiction thriller released in 1993. "Jurassic Park" tells the story of a theme park where the main attraction is real dinosaurs. Computer-generated imagery (CGI) was used before "Jurassic Park," but it was the realistic-looking dinosaurs walking among humans that brought CGI into the forefront of filmmaking. It won Academy Awards for Best Visual Effects, Best Sound Effects Editing and Best Sound.
Why it Tests Your Home Theater Speakers: One roar of the Tyrannosaurus will let you know if your surround sound is up to par. The bellow of this beast was actually created by mixing the sounds made by an elephant, a tiger and an alligator. To test your tweeters, just watch any scene with the Velociraptors. Their high-pitched squeal was actually taken from a harmless dolphin mixed with the low growl of a walrus. Also, a good home theater system will make you feel like you're right in the middle of the Gallimimus stampede. In addition to the excellent sound mixing, John William's moving and memorable soundtrack will test the clarity and warmth of your speakers.
#5 Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
Background: Released in 2006, "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" is the second in the Pirates of the Caribbean film series. It stars Johnny Depp as the iconic Captain Jack Sparrow and Bill Nighy as Davy Jones. It is directed by Gore Verbinkski. It received mixed reviews by critics, but it is currently the fourth highest grossing film of all time. It was nominated for Best Sound Editing and Sound Mixing at the 79th Academy Awards.
Why it Tests Your Home Theater Speakers: While we all can agree that "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" is the better movie, "Dead Man's Chest" offers all the sound of the first movie, plus more. In addition to the swords clanging together and the occasional black-powder explosion, this movie includes a cannibal chase in the jungle, the water-logged Flying Dutchman, a mournful beating heart and a roaring Kracken. Plus, Hans Zimmer creates an adventurous soundtrack to match the mood of what's happening on the screen.
#4 The Matrix
Background: Directed by Andy and Larry Wachowski, "The Matrix" was released in 1999. It stars Keanu Reeves as Neo and Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus. This mind-blowing film informed the public that reality was nothing more than an elaborate computer program. The use of "bullet time" has been copied and parodied countless times since this film came out. However, despite all the praise for the visual effects of this film, it also walked away with an Academy Award for Best Sound Effects Editing and Best Sound.
Why it Tests Your Home Theater Speakers: The lobby scene alone would be a suitable test for your home theater system. The Propellerheads' techno number "Spybreak" booms along in the background as bullets whiz by the heads of Neo, Trinity and you. This elaborate fight scene is then capped off by giant slow-motion explosion in the elevator shaft, which then leads to another shoot-out on the roof, which then leads to a helicopter explosion. In addition to all this exercise your subwoofer is getting, the tweeters will be doing their best to keep up with the high-pitched digital noise that accompanies entering the matrix and every time an agent takes over a human.
Background: "Gladiator" is directed by Ridley Scott and was released in 2000. Russell Crowe stars as Maximus, a leader of the Roman army who becomes a slave and is forced to fight as a gladiator. Despite a number of rewrites, Russell Crowe's ego, real-life injuries and the death of one of the main actors (Oliver Reed), this film was a success both commercially and critically. At the Academy Awards, "Gladiator" won the Oscar for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Visual Effects, Best Costume Design and Best Sound.
Why it Tests Your Home Theater Speakers: The soundtrack alone is worthy of a speaker test. Hans Zimmer's rousing compositions such as "The Battle" and "Barbarian Horde" will fill your room with clashing cymbals, beating drums and fiery horns. And then, in the end, you get the beautiful, swirling, serene "Now We Are Free" song with the enigmatic, yet enchanting lyrics of Lisa Gerrard. Plus, the fight scenes are more than just clashing swords -- they include chariots, whips, flaming pots of doom, explosions, roaring tigers and the roar of the crowd. Even if the film is not to your liking, the soundtrack should be.
#2 Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
Background: "Return of the King" is the final installment of the Lord of the Rings film trilogy. It is directed by Peter Jackson and was released in 2003. This film starred Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Ian Mckellen and Viggo Mortensen. Lauded by both newcomers to the series and fans of J.R.R. Tolkien's books, this movie did very well at the box office and received the Academy Award for Best Picture. It also won an Oscar for every one of the 11 categories it was nominated for, including Best Original Score, Best Original Song and Best Sound Mixing.
Why it Tests Your Home Theater Speakers: Any of the Lord of the Rings films by Peter Jackson would be suitable for a speaker test, but "Return of the King" stands out from the rest because of one particular scene, when Aragorn meets the Army of the Dead at Dunharrow. In this scene, the voices of the dead will echo throughout your room along with a haunting wind. It's hard to tell where the voices are coming from if your system is set up correctly. All of this, of course, is in addition to the epic battle scenes, the screeching Ringwraiths on their flying beasts, the boiling lava of Mount Doom and the collapse of Mordor. If that all weren't enough, the accompanying musical score by Howard Shore provides yet another reason why this is one of the best movies to test your speaker system.
#1 The Star Wars Saga
Background: With the original series being released in 1977, 1980 and 1983, and the prequels being released in 1999, 2002 and 2005, Star Wars spans generations of fandom. George Lucas was the director of all of the films, except for "The Empire Strikes Back," which was directed by Irvin Kershner and "Return of the Jedi," which was directed by Richard Marquand. Star Wars is currently the third highest-grossing film series of all time (behind James Bond and Harry Potter). This film series has won countless awards, including Academy Awards for Best Film Editing, Best Original Score and Best Sound Mixing.
Why it Tests Your Home Theater Speakers: Is it unfair to include all six movies in this ranking? Maybe. But if we would have separated them, they would have dominated the entire list. Few will argue against the Star Wars films being a great test of a home theater. Your tweeters will tremor with the high-pitched laser blasts in the space battles as the ships whoosh past. Your midrange drivers will hum along with the lightsabers as they are wielded by the Jedi. And your subwoofers will boom as each incarnation of the Death Star is destroyed. George Lucas knows what he's doing with sound -- after all, he helped create THX, the current standard for movie theater sound. John Williams composed the music for each one of the films. The "Star Wars Main Theme," "The Imperial March" and "Duel of the Fates" are all iconic compositions that are instantly recognizable. In short, if you only have time for one film to test out your home theater speaker system, make it one of the Star Wars films.