If you have the time and the inner geekiness (we mean smarts, of course) to buy and install audio/video gear yourself, you can find some good deals and enjoy some cheap labor. After years of going it alone, I’ve learned a few lessons about shopping on the cheap and minimizing blunders.
Here is some advice for other die-hard DIYers. (And click here to see Stephen’s budget bonus room theater if you’ve missed it.)
REFURB GEAR. My best advice on refurbs is to stick with brands that have more than 90-day warranties. Onkyo and Marantz both offer one-year warranties on factory-refurbished items from authorized refurb dealers, including shoponkyo.com and accessories4less.com.
Harman Kardon extends the same full warranty for refurb pieces as for new. Denon, on the other hand, offers only 90 days.
I also try to avoid brands that dump their refurb stock at shady Internet resellers. That, plus a mere 90-day warranty is a combo to avoid.
INTERNET DIRECT. Internet direct (ID) brands can offer some of the best values anywhere, especially for loudspeakers. Brands like Swans, Onix, SVS, HSU and Salk provide high-performance gear. On the lower end, The Speaker Company, BIC Acoustech and Premier Acoustic come to mind.
All but Premier and Acoustech sell mainly through their own sites, while those two companies sell through many Internet dealers, which gets you far less customer service than if you buy from the manufacturers themselves.
Except for Premier and Acoustech, the other speaker vendors offer no-risk in-home trial periods where you can return the item for all of your money back, except for shipping. The Speaker Company even foots the bill for the initial shipping and your return.
Speakers tend to be where you’ll find the most ID options, but there are good choices in processing/amplification from companies like Outlaw and Emotiva. And Oppo offers some of the best values on scaling DVD players and a new Blu-ray disc player.
SMALL MISTAKES ARE OK. In terms of elbow grease, my best advice is to know your limits, but don’t be afraid to push them if you’ve done your research and have an exit strategy. Mainly, don’t be afraid to make a mistake as long as fixing it isn’t the end of the world. Drywall is easy to patch and paint. MDF is cheap.
BRIDGING THE PRICE GAP. Find pieces of equipment that are “bridges” between high-end and low-end lines. Pioneer usually has A/V receivers and DVD players at the top end of its standard line for 20 percent to 30 percent less than nearly identical units with its Elite badge.
Onkyo’s SR805 had identical amplification, audio processing, and primary video features as its SR875 and flagship NR905, but with one or two fewer HDMI inputs and less-robust video scaling, for 25 percent to 50 percent less cost. These bridge units push the edge of the law of diminishing returns, especially if you can live without the Elite name or have video sources that don’t need a robust AVR-based video scaler.
DIY BLUNDERS. There have been times that I’ve grossly underspent without adjusting expectations, for example when buying a really cheap scaling DVD player or really cheap learning remote. Value shopping doesn’t mean cutting corners—or more precisely, it’s knowing which corners to cut.
I also regret a few impulse purchases I just didn’t use: like a Slingbox and a DVD-R based DVR.
I have botched a few DIY jobs, like my first subwoofer build—I messed up the finish but it still sounded great—and my first DIY screen. But what I lost in time I more than made up for in education. I’ve also had refurb items that have required warranty service, but no more often than similar brand-new items.
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Stephen Hopkins is chief technology editor for EH Publishing. He writes product reviews, features, and focuses heavily on 3D TV, iPhone and iPad apps, and digital content.