Anyone can stroll into Best Buy or a local AV store and drop a pile of cash on some speakers and a TV, but that doesn’t mean you’ll end up with a home theater. That doesn’t even mean you will end up with a good TV or speakers. The most common problem is that consumers and sales people alike struggle with where to best spend money. Should we spend an extra $100 on the TV or use that for a better subwoofer? What about the fancy cables? Do I go with the $150 HDMI cable instead of buying a $30 cable and spending an extra $120 on the receiver? Do I even need a projector screen? Why is this so damn complicated? These problems are compounded in the world of home audio, where it’s not uncommon for the most expensive equipment on the market to actually be worse than mid-level gear.
Luckily, we’ve done all that work for you. This guide covers everything you need to asseble a real home theater system. We’re talking a giant-screen, 1080p-3D, glass-shattering, heart-thumping bass type of system. To go just one step further, we’ve also included things like a universal remote, light dimmers, and décor into the price. These often-overlooked pieces take the room from just an area with a big screen and some speakers, to a cozy theater. After all, a theater is more than just nice equipment; it’s about a certain look and feel, a particular milieu.
Three letters: D-I-Y
We’ve set up this guide to be helpful to DIY’ers. Most of the gear can be bought at brick and mortar stores, and the stuff that’s only available online is from reputable companies we have personally ordered from before.
This guide presumes that you’ll be comfortable running and hiding wires where needed (the projector, in particular) and setting things up for yourself using help from online AV forums and the all-powerful Google to get any help you might need. If you’re not down with that, that’s ok. You can always hire an installer; just be aware that’s going to bump the cost up a bit.
Before we dive in, here’s what to expect: This system is designed to offer maximum performance for the dollar. That means the 5.1 speaker system isn’t made up of tiny little cubes that sacrifice performance for looks, but they aren’t monstrous 1970s-era speakers either. We also include a very capable A/V receiver with AirPlay and 4K, a 3D Blu-ray player, surge protection/power filtering, and the cables needed to hook everything up. This system also utilizes a projector and screen, so be prepared to control for ambient light (or spend more on a screen made for well-lit rooms). Ready? Let’s do this thing.
Done right, the sound system in your home theater can transport you right into the movie. We’ve chosen each component in this section not only because can it play extremely loud, but because it can also deliver the subtle nuances sound engineers put in the surround mix and dialog that are key to a thrilling experience.
Speakers: Pioneer SP-PK52FS Speaker System ($478)
Every now and then a new speaker will be released that takes the idea, “you get what you pay for”, ignores it, and proceeds to walk all over the competition. These “entry-level” speakers from Pioneer have been acclaimed as bar-raising and standard-setting by almost every AV magazine in publication, including Digital Trends. The system we recommend uses a pair of SP-FS52 floor-standing speakers ($125/ea) for the front, the SP-C22 ($99) for the center channel, and a pair of SP-BS22-LR ($129/pr) bookshelf speakers for surround duty. You can also purchase another set of bookshelf speakers for a 7.1 system. While these speakers won’t win any beauty contests (they don’t have a nice glossy finish or real wood veneer that higher end speakers have) they excel where it counts: sound quality. If you want some lookers, check out the EMP system we list as an alternative. If you want smaller speakers that can still play crazy loud, checkout the HSU Research system listed below
Subwoofer: SVS PB-1000 ($499)
The single most underrated component in a home theater system is the subwoofer. But those of us who love this hobby will tell you this is where you need to spend a good chunk of cash. An under-powered, poorly-designed subwoofer will suck the life right out of your movie experience, whereas a quality sub can take even a mediocre system and make it glow.
The SVS PB-1000, like the Pioneer speakers we chose, is a true class leader in terms of price-to-performance. Be warned, it’s big, heavy and not particularly attractive. But what it lacks in aesthetics it makes up for in outstanding performance. Besides, this isn’t the centerpiece of your mantle, it goes in a purpose-built room. Go for it. The PB-1000 ships free to your home; and if you don’t like it, SVS will pay for return shipping.
If 18.4 x 15 x 18.4 (H x W x D – in inches) is just too big, consider The PB-1000’s smaller brother, the SB-1000. It’s the same price, but trades off some low end performance in favor of a smaller profile. On the other end of the spectrum is SVS’s PB12-NSD.
Receiver: Yamaha RX-V475 ($450)
You could probably choose any $249+ receiver on the market and it would work well for this system. Practically all modern AVRs (audio/video receivers) support 3D, and all of them will do 5.1. Everything else is considered a bonus. In terms of power, there isn’t much of a difference between mid-priced receivers. Even if you find a receiver that claims to have substantially more power than the competition, we can almost promise you the ratings are manipulated by tricky measurement techniques. Jump up to $450 and you’re likely to find a host of HDMI inputs, as well as USB, Ethernet (for network features), and control via a mobile app. Still, even though entry-level receivers are so similar, we think the Yamaha RX-V475 offers the best bang for your buck.
The only area where the RX-V475 lacks is in the amplifier section. It is limited to a 5.1 system and has no zone 2 support at all. For both of those features you will need to jump to the RX-V575 ($549).
If there is one place on a home theater you can save money, it’s with the cables. Don’t get fooled into believing spending hundreds of dollars on fancy cables will improve the picture or sound of your system. At the same time, buying the absolute cheapest cables you can find might yield problems with reliability and longevity.
Monoprice is revered for offering some of the least expensive home theater accessories on the market, but we tend to avoid its cheapest-of-the-cheap offerings. However, go one step up to what it calls “high-end” and you can get a cable of solid design (won’t fall out, fall apart, or otherwise quite working) at a bargain-basement price.
You will need a single subwoofer cable and a roll of speaker wire. The placement of a subwoofer in a room can have a dramatic effect on its sound quality, so we recommend a 25-foot cable ($7) to give you enough length to move the sub around a bit. As for speaker wire, a 250-foot roll of 16-gauge wire ($37) will work nicely. Although you might be tempted to go with a 100-foot spool, you might be surprised how much extra is needed to properly route the wire, especially for the surround speakers. Depending on how you place the speakers in the room, you might also need to purchase wall mounts, a center speaker stand or wall plates. We would recommend purchasing all of these supplies through Monoprice to help save on shipping costs.