Want it all when it comes to the ultimate home theater, but don’t have the spare funds to afford splurging? Behold a few simple ways to build the ultimate A/V center without breaking the bank, or shortchanging the kids’ college fund.
1. Shop Online or Buy Gently Used Equipment
True: Shopping online or buying used home theater components carries risks. Most of the time, you can’t get warranties on used equipment because some manufacturers don’t authorize online vendors to sell their gear. Additionally, returns are difficult, if not impossible.
However, if you are really on a tight budget, buying gear online may be worth the gamble. There are several websites you can check out to this extent. Audiogon.com, for example, specializes in high-end audio gear, while its counterpart, DigtialTheater.com, focuses on home theater video gear. Ebay.com is a great resource for used equipment as well, as is Buy.com (we saw a Westinghouse 42-inch HDTV here for only $690 – $810 off the original price). We also recommend that you frequent sites such as AVSforum.com to connect with a community of like-minded people who are trying to build a home theater in the most cost-efficient manner—considering both performance and price. These folks are on the frontlines of Internet shopping and usually have valuable insight to offer.
If you do end up buying online, be sure to read the fine print. Most sites will offer listing advice for sellers so that buyers know what to expect. For example, Audiogon.com has a grading scale all sellers must follow, and if the product is listed as “new” then it must be in a factory-sealed box. If it is, oftentimes warranty information will be included in the box. When in doubt, ask the seller. Also be sure to read the site’s guidelines governing returns or equipment that was damaged in shipping. And save all correspondence to and from the seller for your records. In short, it’s a great way to save, but caveat emptor.
2. Do Your Research
It’s often assumed that the most expensive systems are the best performers, but this is not always the case. In fact, much of the time, you have to have a golden ear to really discern the difference between an outrageously expensive, esoteric speaker system and a top-end system from a well-respected brand. The same is often true of video products as well. Seek out print and online publications to find hands-on reviews of potential gear. Be careful, however, not to mistake a press release for a review. Press releases often include marketing hype written by the manufacturer itself to help sell the product. Reviews will offer more in-depth information and commentary on performance. It may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how much money you can save just by doing your homework.
3. Prioritize and Budget Appropriately
When you are purchasing a home theater system, the first thing that you need to ask yourself is: What is the most important aspect of your home theater?
Are you hopelessly hooked on great movies? Then a picture-perfect image may be the Holy Grail of your home theater. Are you a music buff who believes that connecting emotionally with a film is always in large part thanks to the soundtrack? Then an immersive, bone-rattling audio system could be the area you want to put emphasis on. Then again, perhaps you don’t care as much about the quality of the audio and video as you do about the experience, and want to invest more in your movie collection or a new popcorn machine instead.
Budgeting to your specific needs will help you realize what your priorities are. Then, you can skew your budget toward what is important. If video is what matters most to you, for example, invest a step-up display or even a two-piece projection system and high-quality Blu-ray player and use a budget audio system. If acoustics are more important, buy a really great set of floorstanding speakers and consider a more entry-level video system. While both audio and video are equally important in our eyes, you can always upgrade later, which brings us to our next point…
4. Upgrade Gradually and Invest in High-Quality Gear
Building a great home theater is much like building a great wardrobe: You do it one piece at a time. One of the best ways to get started in home theater is to buy one key piece of must-have equipment, and use budget components elsewhere. Then, as you progress, you can slowly upgrade your other gear.
A great item to purchase first is the receiver. While it may not seem as sexy as that slick flat-panel display, getting a high-quality receiver will let you immediately enjoy the benefits of your home theater system and allow for easier future upgrades.
For example, if you buy a home theater in a box instead of a receiver, then you are “locked in” to the provided speakers and DVD player. A receiver, on the other hand, lets you swap out speakers and sources. Buying a quality receiver in the first place will also let you take advantage of the most current surround sound formats—such as those found on Blu-ray discs. While it’s tempting to buy an all-in-one system from the get-go, if quality is important to you, definitely consider investing in a receiver and building your sources and speakers around it.
A receiver, like Integra’s DTR-9.9, is a good place to start building your system.
5. Consider a Multi-zone Receiver
One way to really stretch your home theater dollar is to purchase a multi-zone receiver. A multi-zone receiver allows you to have two or more systems using the same set of equipment sources, such as a DVR, Blu-ray player and DVD player. You will still need to buy a display and an audio system for the other zones (or rooms) in your home, but you’ll save hundreds and even thousands of dollars by using one set of sources in more than one system.
6. Do It Yourself (DIY)
Doing it yourself is a tricky business, no matter what the endeavor–and that is especially true for home theater setup and isntallation. If you don’t put the time and effort into researching your equipment, thinking through your plan and budget, and being aware of your purchases, then it can really backfire.
However, there are many folks that pull off successful home theaters by doing the construction and installation themselves. For example, for a garage or basement conversion, you can save thousands by building out the room on your own. We’ve talked to DIY-ers who have shaved off as much as $60,000 from any given project’s budget by not hiring contractors and instead enlisting buddies to help.
There are certainly more risks, as there will be a huge learning curve, but it can be done. Remember: When it comes to selecting and installing gear, there will always be a fee associated with hiring a professional to do this for you. Even something that seems simple, such as hanging a plasma TV, can cost you $500 or more if you have a technician come out to your house for the installation. So don’t be afraid to go hands-on.
Additionally, don’t be shy about calling the manufacturer directly for help. They may have advice on what kind of ancillary gear or wiring will work best with your chosen piece of equipment.
DIY-er Marc Manus built his basement theater from scratch, with little help from hired contractors. He saved upwards of $60,000.
7. Buy Energy-Efficient Products and Turn Off Your Gear
It’s fast becoming a green-minded world, and manufacturers are rapidly warming to consumers’ desire to save the environment, not to mention cut their energy bills.
At a recent trade show, for example, nearly all the TV manufacturers we talked to were doing something to lower the energy consumption (and power bills) associated with their sets. Some are using dynamic technology that adjusts your television’s brightness based on the amount of light present in the room. If it’s sunny, for instance, your TV’s brightness will automatically be bumped up. If you’re viewing a show at night, your TV will not need to compete with ambient light, so the set will automatically self-regulate brightness.
Also look for the Energy Star label. It is a great barometer of energy consumption. Be certain to turn off your gear at night or when you leave the house as well. Products in “standby” mode still draw electrical current, which means you’re paying even when you’re not even using them!
In short, buying and setting up a home theater is not an inexpensive feat. However, a little planning, research and smart shopping will go a long way toward getting you your dream system without having to dip into your rainy day funds.
Sony’s BRAVIA KDL-52XBR652-inch LCD HDTV has a light sensor that automatically tailors image brightness to suit your viewing environment.