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The Perfect Home Theater for Any Budget


Not long ago, perhaps a decade, home theaters were reserved for homeowners who could easily spend $20,000 or more to make their at-home movie watching dreams come true. Today, with the advancement of video and audio technology, a top-notch movie-viewing experience has come within reach of even more frugal enthusiasts. Whether you are building a dedicated theater in your home or just upgrading your living room setup, you can build a satisfying home theater on any budget.

Where to Spend Your Money

One of the most critical choices you can make is where to spend your money as you build out your home theater. Nearly every type of home theater equipment is available at prices ranging from the very entry-level up to extravagant top-of-the-line technology. Whether you plan to spend $2,000 or $20,000, or even less, you need to decide where you want to put your budget. Focusing on the right components will give you the biggest bang for your buck.

A big part of the movie-watching experience, and what separates at-home viewing from professional theaters, is the sound. When you go to a theater, you are surrounded by high-end speakers that provide wrap-around sound with booming bass and crisp middles and highs. But when you watch at home, if you don't have the right speakers, you'll find your movies seriously lacking. If you don't have speakers, you'll have to rely on your television's built-in speakers. But even high-end televisions have a problem with their audio. Sound requires vibration, and good speakers need room for their parts to vibrate. As TVs get thinner, there just isn't enough room for high-quality speakers. If you listen to your television's sound in a vacuum, you may think it sounds okay. But the moment you hook up some speakers, you'll immediately hear what you were missing.

If you are willing to spend some money on decent speakers, the next most important place to spend money is on your receiver (think "stereo system"). Your home theater's receiver is like your computer's central processing unit. Every other part of your theater is only as good as your receiver. So if you are building anything other than an entry-level theater, this is the place to spend.

Once you have taken care of your sound and receiver, you can take a look at the rest of your budget to decide where you can afford to go big and where you need to shave off a few bucks.

The Perfect Home Theater for Any Budget [infographic]

Sound Systems at Any Budget

As we've mentioned, the sound is the biggest difference between a theater and the at-home watching experience. Today, televisions have gotten larger and clearer, with 4K now coming standard on all but the cheapest models. So the first place to lay out some cash is on your sound system.

Sound System for Under $500

If you plan to set up an entry-level theater, you can skip the receiver and go right to the speakers. For a low-budget sound system, start with a soundbar. A soundbar is a wide and thin speaker that rests beneath your TV and replaces your TV's speakers. For under $200, you can get a soundbar that will significantly enhance your viewing experience. Many soundbars in this price range also include a subwoofer. The subwoofer creates those rumbling bass notes that require more vibrating room than a soundbar can provide. The combination of a soundbar and subwoofer can turn your viewing area into an entry-level theater, even if it's just one corner of your living room or rec room.

Sound System for $500 - $1,500

If you're ready to spend a few hundred or a thousand dollars, you can start building out your sound system. But remember, a good chunk of that budget should go towards a good receiver. Plan to spend around $400 for a quality receiver. The receiver serves many purposes, but as far as your sound system is concerned, it functions as an amplifier and mixer. A good receiver in the $400-$500 range has hookup for 5.1 surround sound (five speakers and a subwoofer), plus plenty of room for networking and video connections. Also, look for a receiver that includes a setup system to help with room calibration. Good speakers are a starting point, but you won't get the best sound without proper calibration for your specific space.

Once you have a good receiver, you can build out your sound system with loudspeakers and satellite speakers. A typical 5.1 surround sound setup included a center speaker and two loudspeakers in front, two satellite speakers in the middle, placed left and right, and a subwoofer. With the right calibration, a 5.1 surround system can recreate the immersive experience that the creators intended for movies and video games. Some TV programs include surround sound, but even if they don't, a surround sound system will make them sound much better than just one speaker.

Sound Systems for $2,000 and Up

Once you enter the $2,000+ range, you can start investing in some really high-end technology. Start with a better receiver. If you can spend $1000 or $1,500 on a receiver, you'll get more power, more connections, and native support for more sound formats. You'll also get nice touches like better design, nicer graphics, and better room setup. The extra connections allow for premium 7.1 sound as well as additional speakers in the ceiling or another room, and you can also hook up more video input devices, like gaming systems, Blu-ray players, streaming devices, and audio players.

Once you start spending on speakers, the sky's the limit. You can build out a premium sound system for a couple of thousand dollars, or spend as much as $10,000 or more on the most high-tech, top-of-the-line speakers. Like musical instruments, speakers depend on vibration, and the quality of the materials, fine engineering, and artisan craftwork know no limits. You can get very, very good speakers for about $500 to $1,000 apiece. But if you have an unlimited budget and a very good ear, you could invest the Stradivarius of speakers for tens of thousands of dollars.

Video at Any Budget

There are two primary methods of creating a picture for your home theater, a backlit television and a projector (like they have in theaters). Which method you choose depends as much on your viewing situation as it does on your budget. Both televisions and projectors are available in a range of prices.

Home Theater Televisions

Almost every American home has at least one television, and the quality of televisions has steadily improved as the prices have dropped. There's a lot of jargon that gets thrown around about televisions and lots of detailed specifications. The most important specs that affect the viewing experience are brightness, contrast, and refresh rate. 

If you're on a tight budget, you can get a 50" 4K TV for $250-$300. Read the reviews to pick your favorite, though TCL televisions are often editor's picks. There's nothing wrong with these TVs, and you'll get a great picture. You may not get the deepest blacks and high refresh rates of more premium TVs, but unless you're viewing them side-by-side, these televisions are a testament to just how much quality you can get at bargain prices in today's television market.

If you have a little more money to spend, the first upgrade you can make is on size. A 55" or larger television will be immersive in most settings. If you have a larger space, you can get a 65" or even as large as an 85". For the 55" and 65" TVs, plan on spending around $1,000—slightly less for the smaller TVs and slightly more for the bigger ones. Once you get bigger than 65", prices can jump considerably. For an 85" TV, plan on spending $3,000 or more.

Today's TVs use one of two technologies: LCD or OLED. LCD is by far the more common and less expensive. OLED is a newer technology and, on most accounts, a better one. On the other hand, LCD televisions come in a wide range of sizes, qualities, and prices, while OLED TVs are only available in a handful of sizes. At larger sizes, OLED TVs are priced beyond the reach of most consumers, starting at $4,000 for a 77" TV and nearly impossible $30,000 for an 85" OLED TV. If you want a 65" or smaller, you may want to consider an OLED TV. If your budget is unlimited, you can get a top-of-the-line 65" OLED that rolls up into its base, disappearing when you don't need it, for the low, low price of $60,000.

Home Theater Projectors

If you have a dedicated viewing space for your home theater, you may want to consider a projector. For living room home theaters, projectors are mostly impractical. But if you have a space that you can completely darken and where you can install a permanent screen, projectors offer screen sizes you just can't get with a television. The most significant issues with projectors are ambient light and resolution. If you can get a room completely dark, and with the right screen, some projectors can achieve 4K quality.

If you're on a budget but want the best picture, expect to spend at least $750 on a projector. Many technology reviewers recommend the BenQ brand, but check the reviews before you make a purchase. If you have some money to spend—and if you are building a dedicated theater room, that may be the case—$6,000 can get you a very nice projector that can splash a theater-style image across your screen.

Speaking of screens, a good screen is just as important as your projector. A screen needs to have the right reflectiveness to produce bright colors and deep blacks without shimmering or glare. Fortunately, quality doesn't have to mean high prices. There are perfectly good screens in the $200-$500 range. Don't get caught up in screens that cost thousands of dollars; the price jump is rarely worth it.

Professional Home Theater Construction

If you don't have the time or expertise to build your own home theater, you may want professional help. Once you've decided to invest in your home viewing experience, the last thing you want is to make a mistake on the wrong equipment or setup. That's what it pays to use a professional TrustDALE certified home theater company. Whether you need help hanging a flat-screen TV or want to design a dedicated theater room, TrustDALE certified experts can help make your dreams a reality.