written by Mike Shea on 21 November 1999
Being known as a home theater hobbyist who has put a significant amount of resources into his own system, I am often asked by normal citizens how they can get into the world of home theater. Often they look at high end systems and are immediatly turned off by the huge price tags. There is also a misconception that you can get a well performing home theater system for $300. This is unfortunately not the case. This article will discuss the required features for a well performing home theater for a low cost. It will cut through the fuzzy marketing speak and the attitude rich audiophile snobbery to get into the realistic idea of building a good home theater without breaking the bank. Much like the Home Theater 101 article, I will cover each of the required components and point out exactly what features should be present and what can be thrown out with the glossy product ads. Because the focus of this article is home theater for cheap, I won't get into the higher end features one should look for if they are willing to spend the extra money. Here are the main things to look for in a cheap home theater.
Here we cut to the bottom line since it seems to be the first question people have. About the minimum someone could spend to build a good home theater system is about $1500. This includes a display (TV), a source (DVD Player), audio electronics (receiver) and speakers (mains, surrounds, center and sub). You may very well have some of these already available so this cost doesn't have to be spent all at once, but everyone I have talked to who has started building a home theater has ended up spending about this much money on their system over a period of 6 months to a year.
If you plan ahead, you will end up not wasting money upgrading components and instead build the system you always wanted.
The minimum screen size for a home theater display should be 27". A regular tube TV is still the way to go even though digital displays and projection TVs are becoming much more popular. This tube TV will run anywhere from $300 to $500 for a 27" screen. The only feature you should shop for when buying this TV is a component input (in addition to composite and s-video). This input is about 1/2 an inch in diameter with about five pins in the center. Make sure to ignore useless "cool" features such as picture in picture, digital tuners, digital comb filters (when did adding the word digital to everything from TV comb filters to headphones become so cool?), color correction features, lines of resolution and any other marketing ploy. The only real feature that has anything to do with a good home theater system is this component video input for your DVD player. Any extra money should be put into screen size.
If you have a few bucks more, you can get a true 50+ inch HDTV 16x9 widescreen display for around $1700. Its a bit more, but it is the biggest bang for the buck right now.
DVD is the only way to go. For $100 you can get an excellent DVD player and get the cleanest picture possible from a home prerecorded source. Once again, ignore all the useless features such as a built in AC3 decoder, 3D spatial sound matrix, and jog shuttle control. Don't spend more than $100 for a player and stick to brands like Sony or Panasonic. Any extra money should probably go towards your TV's screen size.
There are only two features that are really important for a good receiver and that is Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS. Both of these sound decoding methods are what really add the theater like sound to your system. I am not going to get into the differences between the DD 5.1 and DTS except to say that having both gives you the most flexible system and can be purchased without any more expense than just Dolby Digital 5.1. You will continue to be bombarded with extra features and marketspeak to get you to pick one over another, but as long as it is DD 5.1 and DTS, you have all that you need.
Receivers from Sony, Onkyo and Yamaha can run around $300 to $400 and will give you exactly what you need for a decent audio system. Beyond the $700 mark you are paying for features that won't make near as much difference as a large screen would, drop any extra cash into your TV.
The speakers you choose will make the biggest difference in how your system sounds. The main concern here is getting a set of five speakers from the same manufacturer and same model. You need two main front speakers, a center speaker, a pair of surround speakers and a subwoofer. There are many excellent speaker systems from companies such as Atlantic Technologies, B&W Speakers, Definitive Technologies, Boston Acoustics and Energy Speakers. For more on subwoofers, see the Subwoofer Buyers Guide. Most speaker packages cost around $500 to $1000 for a full set. Home Theater Direct sells speaker packages from $150 to $1000 that are all a good value for the dollar.
The only requirement for interconnects is that they are large and shielded. If you can get 14 gauge wire for your speakers you are doing fine. For electronic interconnects, make sure they are shielded and not the flimsy cables that come with the system which are very sensitive to outside electrical disturbances. Depending on how you plan to set up your home theater, you may need stands for your front and or surround speakers. These can run about $70 a pair but are easy to make if you are relatively handy. A pair of phone stands from the local superstore can cost a bit less and do the same job. The top remote right now is the $20 Cinema 7 learning remote from One-for-All. This remote is renowned for it's ability to control even the most complex systems with hardly any faults.
The environment you watch your movies in is more important that the components themselves. If you have a constant stream of traffic, phone calls or other interruptions, you can't get lost in the movie no matter how much money you put into your system. Try to find a good time to relax without interruption and watch your favorite Michael Bay brainless thriller. The actual room configuration is the other key factor in setting up your system. Unfortunately the set up for a home theater is relatively rigid as this article on home theater setup from Dolby shows. Many crazy new age methods of room decor as well as room construction itself go against the square approach to a good home theater setup. Care needs to be made when compromising on the location of the display or speakers as the money you spent on quality electronics can be lost if proper placement isn't followed.
There are three main rules to my home theater buying philosophy.
Make sure that you don't spend lots on small upgrades and little on big ones. The difference between a $300 Onkyo receiver and a $2600 Yamaha receiver is not near as big as the difference between a $300 RCA 19" TV and a $1700 Panasonic 53" widescreen TV. The key is spending the money on the biggest difference.
I know the point of this article is to buy for cheap, but the key is making sure you get the features you need. Don't scrimp out on $50 when that $50 was for Dolby Digital in a receiver or for s-video on a TV. The key to this rule and rule number two is that you know what features are important and what features aren't which is covered above.
With these basic rules in mind, a normal individual should be able to assemble and set up a very nice home theater system without breaking the bank. Keeping the balance of quality, requirements and cost into the picture with each purchase made will help you spend your hard earned money wisely instead of blowing it on marketing slogans.
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