If you want full range speakers, consider buying just the three front speakers, and using an old pair of stereo speakers for the less critical surround locations. Start with a pair of Polk Audio Monitor 50s ($179), and add a Polk Audio CS-1 center speaker ($139).
Upgrade your cable or satellite service to include a HD DVR. Time-shifting is the essence of entertainment in the modern age. You program the DVR to collect your favorite shows, and watch what you want, when you want to watch it. Since these devices do occasionally fail, consider renting from the cable company. That way a failed unit is their problem and not yours. Typical units can record shows on two different channels while playing back a prior recording at the same time.
Although all home theater equipment can tolerate a loss of power, a momentary spike or dropout can be rough on the equipment. Always plug your gear into a surge protector, and consider using a small APC UPS (350 or 500VA, ~$40-$60) for your DVD recorder and DVR.
A “home-theater-in-a-box” seems like a great place to get started, but shop carefully. Some systems have quality components that can be upgraded individually, while others are designed to work only as a unit. Consider each component and make sure it has not only the features, but also the quality that you’re looking for. Nothing comes for free, and lower-end HTIB systems have been accused of poor reliability and sound quality.
Buy from a store with generous return privileges. You never quite know how things will sound or fit until you get them home. Make sure you can get a partial refund if anything you buy goes on sale in the next month.
Finally, here are some things you don’t need: You don’t need fancy wires or cables. Standard quality cables (sold at places like Radio Shack) are fine. You also don’t need a power conditioner. These multi-hundred-dollar devices have utility only in very specific situations. A Blu-ray DVD player is nice to have, but they’re still expensive, and only a small percentage of movies have actually been recorded in hi-definition formats. Now that the format war is over, prices should drop steeply this year, so waiting may be prudent.
The good news is that most of this technology is reasonably mature, and so it’s hard to buy something really bad from a name-brand manufacturer. Set a budget in the $500-$999 range, read up on the web (many sites, including Circuit City, have good customer feedback forums that can aid shopping, and avsforum.com is always a good place to get critical opinions) and prepare yourself to be dazzled.
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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.