Good Home Theater for Less Than $1000
Want to build a home entertainment system around your TV? Here's what you can get on a $1,000 budget.
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.
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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