All Systems Go! – Building your first home theater

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Open the blast doors!

If you’ve got some idea of what to keep in mind when shopping for your home theater system, these recommendations may help complete your journey. Remember that these represent just a tiny offering, and there’s plenty more to know about when selecting gear in each of the categories mentioned, so do the extra homework. When you’re ready to buy, it’s OK to shop online, even for a TV, but stick to reputable, known retailers. If you go the brick-and-mortar route, don’t fall prey to an aggressive sale on a product you haven’t researched, and please do not buy from people who drive up in a white van to sell you speakers you’ve never heard of, even if said brand has its own website.

System Recommendations

All prices are manufacturer suggested retail prices and may be subject to retailer discounts. For reviews on most of these products and additional recommendations, visit the Top Picks section at hometheater.com.


GOOD

  • Panasonic ST-P50ST60 50″  3D Plasma HDTV, $1,150
  • ZVOX Audio Z-Base 580 TV Sound System, $500
  • Panasonic DMP-BDT230 3D  Blu-ray Disc Player, $130

Total system cost: $1,780

For a tight budget, this is a killer system that has no right to look or sound as good as it does. The Panasonic ST series plasma (Available in 50″, 55″, and 60″ screen sizes) is Home Theater’s (and everyone else’s) value darling. You get super deep blacks, robust, saturated color and an almost silky look with film-based content. Panasonic’s budget DMP-BDT230 Blu-ray player delivers the superb picture we expect from the format and built-in Wi-Fi for streaming. The ZVOX Z-Base 580 is a squat, rectangular box upon which you rest your TV, or it can slip it on a shelf below. It throws a big sonic image and sounds great with both movies and music, thanks to bass output that goes down to about 50 Hz, but if you really need to rattle the walls, there’s also an optional subwoofer output. And it learns the volume commands on your cable box remote for simple daily operation.

Alternates: The Paradigm Millennia CT Compact Theater System, with two superb compact speakers and powered sub ($700), offers a bit less operational convenience than the ZVOX but has more refined sound. And for those who want the full surround sound experience, Yamaha’s RX-V475 ($400) budget AVR will mate well with Pioneer’s remarkably inexpensive and stupidly good-sounding SP-BS22-LR compact 5.1-channel speaker system ($520), engineered by high-end speaker designer Andrew Jones.


BETTER

  • Vizio E701i-A3 70″ LED LCD HDTV, $1,600
  • Denon AVR-2313CI A/V Receiver, $900
  • Definitive Technology Studio Monitor 55 5.1-channel  Speaker System, $2,494
  • Samsung BD-F5900 Smart  Blu-ray Player, $150

Total system cost: $5,144

You’ll trade some image quality for size in this Vizio E-series HDTV compared with the best, but at only $1,600, it delivers a huge 70″ picture at a stupendous bargain. The Denon AVR-2313CI receiver proved a solid performer for its price in Home Theater’s tests, and it’s mated here with Definitive Technology’s outstanding redesigned StudioMonitor 55 bookshelf speaker (really at its best on a stand) that creates audiophile sonics for a song. The recommended Blu-ray player offers up Samsung’s world-class streaming platform and Smart Hub interface, and even makes viewing recommendations based on your preferences.

Alternates: At similar price to the Vizio, demanding videophiles can opt for Panasonic’s 60″ version of the ST series plasma mentioned above ($1,700). If a receiver-and-speakers set isn’t practical, the Playbar soundbar from Sonos ($699) puts out an astonishingly wide, tall and natural-sounding image from a rectangular box the size of a 3′ wide deck plank, though you should mate it with the matching donut-shaped SUB subwoofer ($699). Once installed, you can spread Sonos’ $299 powered speakers around the house and use its smartphone and iPad app to enjoy your iTunes and Internet music in any room.


BEST

  • JVC DLA-X55R Projector, $3,499
  • Elite Lunette 96″ Curved Cinemascope Screen ($1,600, fixed frame)
  • Cambridge Audio Azur 751R A/V Receiver, $2,799
  • GoldenEar Technology TritonCinema 3 Speaker System, $3,000
  • OPPO Digital BDP-103 Universal Blu-ray Player, $499

Total system cost: $11,379

For rooms with controllable light, a separate projector and cinematic screen is the ultimate home theater experience. The JVC DLA-X55R is the over-delivering entry-level projector from the brand favored by many enthusiasts for its deep blacks and accurate color. Elite’s curved Lunette screen also boasts high value, and its 2.35:1 aspect ratio shows theatrical films without the black bars. The Cambridge 751R receiver skips a few bells and whistles in return for world-class amplification and sonics. OPPO’s Blu-ray players won’t look much better on screen than a good budget model, but they’re the reference point for virtually every reviewer out there, thanks to made-to-last build quality and a superior audio section for music playback. You’ll hear every detail it can muster on GoldenEar Technology’s much-lauded, high-end-for-a-fraction-of-the-cost TritonCinema three floor-standing speakers. They’ve got built-in powered subwoofers (no separate box needed), and you can blame the great imaging and accurate timbre on the folded-foil ribbon tweeters.

Alternates: If projection won’t work for you, have a look at Samsung’s new top-line F8000 series LED LCDs, which use the company’s new Precision Black Local Dimming for the backlight (46″, 55″, 60″, 60″, or 75″; $7,999 for the 75″, or just $3,500 for the more popular 65″ size). Also, Panasonic’s new 65″ breakthrough ZT series plasma, whose price was unannounced at press time but is estimated to be in the $4,000 to $4,500 range. If you’ve got coin and like being future-proofed, Home Theater found Sony’s 84″ XBR-85X900 4K-resolution Ultra HDTV impressive (it should be given its $25,000 ticket), and the 65″ XBR-65X900A ($7,000) Ultra HD model ought to deliver similar image quality.

Rob Sabin is the editor of Home Theater magazine.

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