So you’re finally tired of your old VCR and have decided to enter the 21st century. You have an HDTV, but you’re still not rich and famous, so you’d like to experience a modern home theater without breaking the bank. Truth is, you don’t need every type of component or feature. You can have a good home entertainment experience with just a few of the basics.
The center of any home theater system is an integrated receiver. This single device provides video and audio switching, audio and video processing, and speaker amplification. You can spend thousands of dollars on a receiver, but you really don’t have to. Start with only “5.1” channels of amplification. This means your receiver can power three main audio channels (left, front, and right), two rear channels (for surround), and a subwoofer (the “.1”). Neither the rear channels nor the subwoofer are required, but having a subwoofer allows you to buy smaller (i.e., less expensive) main speakers as the subwoofer generates all the hard-to-reproduce low frequencies. Likewise, you can even start your system without surround speakers if funds are tight.
For power, 100W (peak) for each front channel and 40W for each rear one is plenty, though make sure it’s spec’d into an 8 ohm load. Still, it takes a doubling of wattage to produce a noticeable increase in volume, so don’t sweat the difference between, say, 80W and 100W, as you really won’t hear the difference. Most of the time your system will be putting out much less than its rated power anyway.
HDMI is the new standard for hi-definition video cabling, so your receiver should have at least 3 HDMI inputs (one each for your TV, cable/satellite box, and DVD player/recorder). Audio and video processing modes (which massage the sound to make it seem like a “Jazz Club” or “Concert Hall”) are fun to play with, but don’t pay for more as you may not use them that much.
Onkyo makes a variety of solid receivers at various price points. Consider the Onkyo TX-SR505 ($299) or TX-SR605 ($499), or for small spaces, the value-priced TX-SR304 ($199). The Sony STR-DG810 ($299) or STR-DG910 ($499) are also good choices. (All prices are list, shop the web for better deals).
Next on the list is a DVD player. However, DVD recorders are so inexpensive that it’s silly not to buy one. Low-end models from Panasonic and Sony can be had for as little as $150. Consider the Panasonic DMR-EZ17K ($149) or Sony RDR-GX255 ($149). They handle all formats (including audio CDs), work fine as players, and are great for letting you archive recorded shows to DVD.
Of all the decisions involved in your system, speaker choice is the most subjective, but also the most important. Whereas any well-made digital receiver or DVD player does its job, and extra dollars typically buy extra features or ergonomics, higher quality speakers directly enhance your listening experience via richer, wider-range sound. “Satellite” or bookshelf systems often give the best quality per dollar. Though deceptively small, they can produce full-range sound at surprisingly high volumes. One contender is the Boston Acoustics MCS 100 ($499). For a little more money, the Bose Acoustimass 6 Series 3 ($699) provides an excellent audio experience while taking up minimal space.
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Jeff Winston has been writing about home electronics since 1998. An electrical engineer, Jeff has contributed to the development of products in the computer, consumer electronics, and wireless industries. He spends his spare time with his wife, kids, and many PCs, sometimes in that order.