The $3500 Stereophile Killer Home Theater System

written by Mike Shea on 12 December 2002

Note: This was updated on March 31st 2003 for pricing and model changes.

I was thumbing through the glossy Stereophile's Guide to Home Theater and was frustrated in finding that very few of their "2002 Editor Recommendations" were reasonably priced. Only one receiver was recommended, a $4200 Pioneer. Having interactions with people interested in investing in a home theater system every day, I know that even pricing a whole system at $4200 is way out of the ballpark of most budgets. Rather than even offering a reasonably priced system, SGHT chose to only recommend the top of the line. While they did mention the very reasonably priced and high quality Energy Take 5.2, their top equipment recommendation was a $100,000 CRT video display. I am not renewing my subscription.

Most people's home theater budget starts at around $600 for a surround system and DVD player and goes up to about $5000 max for a full blown system. I refuse to believe that there are not worthy systems that can be put together for that price range, systems that can capture the art of film and capture the full attention of the viewer. The following system is a very respectable and affordable system running $3600. It has all the top end features of a good home theater including a 16x9 display, dolby digital and dts sound, and a full range speaker system. Listed at the end are many of the accessories one needs to purchase to fill the whole system out. This isn't a cheap system, but it will certainly make an impression on anyone who sees it.

Home Theater Direct Level 2 $550: This speaker set contains five main speakers and a 10" 125 watt subwoofer. It can be ordered direct over the internet and includes a 30 day money back guarantee. I have not personally reviewed these speakers but reviews say they are far better than a $550 speaker set should look. Four wall mounting brackets run another $64 or pick up a cheap pair of stands. I think it is difficult to say that a Snell XA 2900 system sounds fifty times better than this set. When you're watching "Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood", it hardly matters. Worthy upgrades include a HSU VFT-2 Subwoofer ($450) or SVS PCi 20-39 Subwoofer ($600). If you want to upgrade the main speakers, consider the more traditional B&W 300 series including four CM303 main speakers and an LCR3 center speaker ($820 total without a sub).

Outlaw Audio 1080 Receiver $500: The Outlaw has gotten enough attention to be reviewed by SGHT and even got a gold award last year, proving that at one time, even the editors of SGHT had some common sense. Consumer reviews also rave about it. The outlaw is a full 6.1 channel receiver with Dolby Digital and DTS sound. It is very high quality and will run circles around the components you might find for a similar price in Best Buy (not to mention those junky "lifestyle" systems). Like the Home Theater Direct speakers, it is purchased directly from the internet. There are other receivers in this price range that all do excellent jobs such as the Yamaha RX-V 630 ($400), Onkyo TX-SR 600 ($300) or Denon AVR 1803 ($500). There is no reason to spend more than $500 on a receiver these days. If you have the money, go for a bigger subwoofer.

Panasonic DVD-S35K Progressive Scan DVD Player $100: If I am confident that you may not find a $25,000 speaker system that sounds 50 times better than the speakers above, I guarantee that the Panasonic progressive DVD player is just as good as the $2000 "Editors Choice" players fawned over in SGHT. With progressive re-coding chips manufactured by the same company that makes $40,000 line multipliers, you will definitely get the best quality DVDs provide. Simple and stable operation lets it fit into the home without requiring a PhD in engineering. There is no reason to get any other DVD player. If you want to upgrade, go for a bigger subwoofer.

Panasonic 53WX42 53" Widescreen HDTV $1700: A couple of years ago the cheapest HDTV you could get was $6000. Now they are as cheap as 32" sets. Panasonic has been making HDTV sets since the beginning and with each generation they get cheaper and better. The 53" screen is big enough to fully enjoy a good widescreen anamorphic movie. Make sure to properly calibrate it using the THX Optimizer available on many DVDs, and it should be plenty good enough for a great film screening (see, you can be a snob too!). There are a lot of good widescreen HDTV monitors available today for the $2000 to $3000. Read the reviews and pick the one you like.

Accessories and media $500: Speaker stands ($160 for four), a good universal remote ($100), signal and speaker cables ($100), a DVD with the THX Optimizer on it ($20), and an SPL meter ($40) need to be budgeted in with your final estimate. Reference copies of Seven, Royal Tenenbaums, and Fellowship of the Ring Extended Edition will add another $80. One should consider these required accessories. There is no need to spend any more or less.

For a grand total of $3500 you will have a reference home theater system that will allow you to enjoy good movies as well as the $150,000 system Stereophile's Guide to Home Theater would make you believe you need. The snob factor isn't quite there with this one, and it isn't exactly DIRT cheap, but upon reviewing anyone who spends more will wonder why they did (including myself) and anyone who spends less will know instantly where there system is lacking. A good home theater isn't cheap, but it doesn't cost as much as a BMW either. With a little budgeting and some good research, a good home theater is reachable.

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