You may not know it, but we are currently in a golden era of home theater systems. Never has there been a better time to invest in improving your viewing and listening experiences: the advances in technology make for a plethora of setup options no matter constraints of space, know-how, or money. There really is equipment to be had at every price point that can take your system — and home viewing experience — to the next level.
But a myriad of technology and design options can make figuring out where to start overwhelming. To make things a bit easier, we've settled on a spending cap of $500, and determined what we think are the best home theater systems for a handful of budget-minded buyers. (Please note that we're working under the assumption that most people already have a nice, new HDTV.)
Starting from Scratch
While most experts will tell you that a home theater in a box system is never going to be as good as a piece-by-piece setup, for the person who has yet to upgrade to Blu-ray and wants an all-in-one package, it is still a viable option. We like the Panasonic 1,000-watt 5.1 Channel 3D Blu-ray Home Theater System, model SC-BTT195, ($339.99 with $41.65 s&h, a low by $18), which PCMag calls "a great choice for a starter system."
As opposed to including a separate receiver and Blu-ray player, this system has a single unit that does the jobs of both — without sacrificing features. The SC-BTT195 can play just about any disc you put in it: Blu-Ray, DVD, CD, Super CD, etc., and if you hook it up to a 3D HDTV, you can enjoy 3D movies and convert 2D movies to 3D. Whether you are happily engaged in the third dimension or not, Panasonic's Adaptive Chroma Processing ensures extremely high color resolution, and the system is capable of 24p output (the same format used at movie theaters) when connected to a 24p video-on-demand source and a compatible TV. Speaking of VOD, the system comes with Panasonic's Viera Connect platform, which allows users to connect to services like Netflix. And if you buy one of Panasonic's communication cameras, you can also video chat using Skype. Unfortunately, it doesn't come equipped with WiFi, so you must connect to your network with either an ethernet cable or a WiFi adapter.
Of course, that's just the half of it. The SC-BTT195 is a powerful 5.1 system capable of 3D cinema surround sound. Depending on mode, this unit will deliver 1000 or 430 watts via two front tower speakers, one center channel, two rear bookshelf speakers, and a subwoofer. While the SC-BTT195 is short on inputs (there's just a front-panel USB for connecting your iPod and a rear panel analog input), the fidelity should more than impress the surround sound novice.
If you have already made an investment in the visual components of your system, but are still listening to the tinny sound of television speakers, we have two words for you: sound bar. This recent innovation saves you the hassle of setting up multiple speakers that you may not really need, and is the simplest way to dramatically improve the aural component of your viewing experience.
We have to agree with CNET and The Wirecutter's recommendations for the Sony 300-watt 2.1 Channel Sound Bar Home Theater System, model no. HT-CT260, ($246 with free shipping, a low by $51). This bar, which has plenty of digital, optical, and analog inputs for whatever you want to plug into it, outputs 85 watts through each of its two channels, and also includes a wireless 130-watt subwoofer that you can place anywhere in the room. Additionally, it is equipped with Bluetooth for streaming music from your smartphone or tablet. And while many publications have praised the HT-CT260's sound, what really sets this sound bar apart from the competition is its IR repeater. This ensures that if the sound bar is blocking the infrared signal for your TV's remote, it gets repeated out of the back of the bar as if it wasn't there at all. That even Sony itself is currently out of stock lends itself to the quality and popularity of the HT-CT260.
For the Gamer
One of the great joys of gaming is becoming totally immersed in another time or place — whether it be smoking Nazis in World War II or smiting goblins in Azeroth. For complete escapism, a gamer is going to need a good surround-sound system. Most gaming devices are capable of playing Blu-ray and DVDs, so a gamer's money should be spent on a good sound system rather than a home theater in a box with a superfluous playback device. And as the difference between a 7.1 system and a 5.1 system is negligible, the most bang (and all sorts of other noises) for the buck comes from going with the latter.
With glowing reviews from countless sources, there is probably no better 5.1 system for the money than the Energy Take 200-watt 5.1-Channel Home Theater Speaker System ($299.99 with free shipping, a low by $80). Called the "best budget speakers for the money," this speaker system is compact enough not to fill up your whole room, while delivering a big, rich sound through its 100-watt satellite and center speakers and 200-watt subwoofer. Of course, you will need a receiver to power these beauties, but with the Energy Take Classic 5.1 system available at a great price, you will have enough ducats leftover to pick from the many adequate receivers available for $200 or less.
For the Budding Audiophile
While the options we've discussed thus far have been primarily entry level, those who have already discovered the joys of home theater may want to take their system to the next level for a more nuanced sound. For such budding audiophiles, we suggest the Andrew Jones Designed Pioneer 5.1 Channel Home Theater Speaker System, model no. SP-PK22BS, ($450 with free shipping).
Designed by Pioneer's chief speaker engineer, Andrew Jones, this 5.1 system delivers high-end sound at a modest price. This is largely a result of the center channel and satellite’s curved construction and bass reflex design, which help deliver a more immersive sound field. Moreover, the medium density fiberboard used in this system alleviates unwanted vibrations. About.com guide Robert Silva says, "You will be hard-pressed to find a better sounding system priced under $1,000," and we wholeheartedly agree.
For the Streaming Enthusiast
One of the great advents of the digital era is that we no longer have to keep movie and/or music collections on hand. We can either store entertainment in the Cloud or simply use a streaming service to access films, television shows, or songs as we please. So as long as we are eliminating clutter, why not streamline the playback system as well? For that purpose, we suggest the Boston Acoustic SoundWare XS Digital Cinema Home Theater Speaker System ($249 with free shipping, a low by $1).
This system is comprised of a subwoofer, two super small satellite speakers, and a remote control. Hooking up the self-powered, 250-watt system is done through the subwoofer, which has an analog input as well as an optical audio input with Dolby digital decoding, perfect for connecting to an Apple TV to hear movies with Boston's proprietary Digitally Optimized Virtual Surround sound. It also comes equipped with Bluetooth so you can stream music from your smartphone. Home Cinema Choice said the system produces "a fulsome and dynamic sound... that'll be a revelation to anyone raised on the tinny sound of TV speakers."
Of course, with a bigger budget comes many more options, but no matter how much you are willing to spend on your home theater system, it is always best to think about how your system will be used, what is compatible with the equipment you already have, and how it will fill your space. The latest bells and whistles may not make sense for your system, so think about what will work best for you before you spend your hard-earned dollars.