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How to Build a Quality Home Entertainment Center on the Cheap

6 expert tips for buying the best stereo setup on a budget
Published

If there’s one area of modern life that's almost as confounding as choosing a diet, it’s hunting for the right audio components to build a killer stereo system or home entertainment center. Just as in the dieting world, you'll hear lots of outlandish claims and hyped testimonials about soundbars, speakers, and the like. What's more, a lot of industry jargon can confuse the novice consumer.

If there's a refreshing antidote to the audio hi-fi snobs of the world, it comes from Simon Zreczny, the founder of Audio Consultants, which has four stores in the Chicago area. Since 1967, he's dispensed first-rate advice to all sorts of customers, from those seeking a starter set of headphones to those with money to spend on the best home theater system around. Here are his six tips for putting together a quality home entertainment center on the cheap.

Listen Before You Buy

You'd never think of buying a new car without taking it for a test drive. Alas, the one danger with buying any sort of home hi-fi equipment lies not so much in buying it online as buying it online without hearing it first. That's why Zreczny has listening rooms at his stores, so consumers can listen (and learn) first-hand the difference between a $300 receiver and a $3,000 one. The good news is that once you hear the right system for you, all the razzmatazz surrounding wattage numbers and specs tends to fly out the window. "You cannot get caught in the 'specs-manship' battle," Zreczny says. "A 200-watt system for $400, or 400 watts for $200? That doesn't mean a thing to me."

It's All About the Receiver

Let's say you've saved up for a big stereo purchase and want to spend $500 on a receiver, and $1,000 on a killer pair of speakers. Sounds smart, right? Not according to Zreczny. "I would immediately reverse that equation," he says. "The electronics will be the weakest link. You always have to watch for your weakest link, because that's what you will hear." In other words, the speakers, no matter how expensive, can only perform as well as the receiver or power amplifier that drives them. Spend the big money there first; you can always upgrade your speakers later.

Plan for Upgrades with Separate Components

It's true that an "integrated receiver" (one with its radio tuner, amplifier, and pre-amplifier built into one unit) will be convenient and cost less. And for consumers who don't care much for sound quality, that's where they'll want to go and stay. But if you value high quality sound and wish to upgrade your system someday, Zreczny says that with integrated receivers, you'll have to get rid of the whole thing and start over. While separate components are more expensive, one big advantage is that over time, you can improve your system one manageable piece at a time.

Home Theaters & Stereos Have Different Needs

There's been a lot of hype surrounding 7.1 surround sound audio systems, but Zreczny isn't buying it. Here's what's more confusing: The folks who name this stuff either can't add — or want to make it confounding for the consumer. You see, 7.1 is actually eight channels of audio: seven speakers to provide various shades of left, center, right, front and rear audio, plus a subwoofer. Zreczny says that 5.1 (left, right, center, left surround, right surround, plus a subwoofer) is just fine. "Most movies are five channels; that’s the standard for Dolby Digital and for live broadcast." And you might not need the subwoofer if, say, you pick good speakers with enough bass response.

If you want the 5.1 system to double as a place for music listening, your main left and right speakers are the ones to lavish some attention on, though you have to be careful. A system built for 5.1 surround sound isn't necessarily optimized to function as a true stereo. You can of course listen to music in 5.1, but most music listeners find simple left-right stereo more satisfying. "In an ideal word, I’d have two systems: one for video and one for listening to music," Zreczny says. "Then you don't have to compromise anything." Otherwise, pick a surround sound receiver that allows you to listen to music in simple stereo with minimal fuss.

Do Your Research & Take Your Time

Flash sales might be awesome for clothing sales, but not for entertainment systems. Given the investment you'll make here — and the amount of time you, your family, and guests will spend listening to music and movies on the system you build — you'll want to take your time making a decision. "A stereo system or a surround system is not something you want to get and install in a hurry, like an appliance," Zreczny says. "You should take your time, and get involved in the purchase. We have customers [with whom the purchase] takes months. We can go to the house, look at the environment, and make recommendations."

Stay Within Your Budget

Assuming you've picked the right receiver, your speakers will have a fair shot at performing optimally. Here, Zreczny's advice couldn't be simpler. "Whether its a floor speaker or not is irrelevant; stop at the speaker you like," he says. "It's a very personal thing. It should produce low frequencies well, commensurate to the room you are listening in. You don't want to put small speakers in an enormous room. That's why I like to build the system up to the speaker."

With all that established, the world of stereos and home audio might still confuse you. If so, don't feel bad; part of that represents an intentional effort by slick companies to impress you (or intimidate you) into buying something brand-name. As with any other potentially big-ticket purchase, arm yourself with knowledge. Read, study, ask questions of your knowledgeable friends. But most of all, listen: The system you hear before you buy has the most chance of sticking with you, and providing real entertainment value, for years and years to come.

Contributing Writer

Lou Carlozo is a DealNews contributing writer. He covers personal finance for Reuters Wealth. Prior to that he was the Managing Editor of WalletPop.com, and a veteran columnist at the Chicago Tribune.
Please note that, although prices sometimes fluctuate or expire unexpectedly, all products and deals mentioned in this feature were available at the lowest total price we could find at the time of publication (unless otherwise specified).
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13 comments
robinteractive
Concurring with many of the other commenters... speakers are the most critical investment out of the whole setup, not the receiver. An all-in-one receiver isn't a bad way to go on a budget. Sony and Onkyo make some low-cost receivers that are just fine, and even if you want to spend a bit more you can still pick up a (relatively) affordable NAD T 748V2 for $500-$600.

Right now a good speaker to look for is the Klipsch Synergy speaker line. Being discontinued from what I can tell. Newegg occasionally has them for blowout prices, and Amazon is also competitive with that pricing at times. Yes, they are Chinese-made. That's why they are low-cost. Get them on a great sale and tough to find anything that can touch them anywhere near the same price. (Klipsch Synergy could accurately be described as a budget audiophile line.) They are incredibly efficient, so a little power goes a long ways, too. For kicks I powered them with a Lepai LP-2020A+ (w/ laptop-size power supply) and they did fine.
tleaf
you can't go wrong with the Polk Monitors, however my rec for a great affordable speaker set are the super zero 2.1 speakers from http://nhthifi.com and match it with either one of their subwoofers or something even a little more affordable like a polk psw10. The klipsch quintet set are a safe bet if you are looking for a little smaller speaker around the same price, but you definitely need a sub for them. An Onkyo, Yamaha or Sony low to mid level receiver, just look at the reviews on amazon and see what they say.

Also, the 7.1 receivers are not only for systems that have seven speakers for the home theater, they also can be programmed so that the extra set of speakers can be used as a second pair of stereo speakers. This is important if you are looking for a multi room set up to go along with your theater setup.
iowac
Why the hell is Lou Carlozo a personal finance writer doing a article about How to Build a Quality Home Entertainment Center.. stick to finance dude, this article really is a waste of bits.
iowac
What a complete waste of article it says HOW TO BUILD, yet it gives NOTHING in terms of HOW, no examples of equipment he is referencing too, I have a Yamaha HTR-7065 currently set up with 5.1, BIC PL-200 Acoustech Platinum Series Subwoofer, 2 Polk Monitor 50, Polk Monitor 60, and Polk center, sounds awesome, and this guy says you may not need a sub, get the F out of here, the sub is seriously what helps give that theater type effect you look for when watching movies, my chair shakes, and you feel the bass.. once more movies are using 7.1 I will add the speakers, and another subwoofer since the receiver is capable of 7.2, the receiver was at Costco for 449.00 bucks, or was it 350, either way great deal, the system is awesome for movies, and has lots of great options. I would strongly suggest something like the Yamaha above, or someone also mentioned the Onkyo high end receivers.

This guy did not even give example of what he considers to be a good choice receiver. Just jibberish.
dealme
I 100 percent disagree with the advice in this article......can't believe it was posted.

Speakers have ALWAYS made the most noticeable difference of any component in a system when swapped around. Yes....you can hear a small bit of change when going from receiver to receiver in the way it processes a digital signal or amplifies it or equalizes it. As long as you have the enough watts (power) in said receiver to power speakers, the difference is small compared to crappy speakers vs. decent speakers.

World of change in the speaker department going from one to the other.
tleaf
The speaker is what is making the sound, the amplifier is only interpreting the data. Sure, an expensive amp will come with a setup microphone to give you the best audio experience that it can offer, but any receiver can be tweaked with highs, mids, lows, and other manual data that there is little difference in what an expensive and inexpensive amplifier can offer. Your speaker, however, will sound the way it sounds regardless to a degree of how much tweaking. I agree, spend the money on a good pair of speakers. A good set of speakers will last far longer, and amp technology will only get better and cheaper through the years.
bbcrock
Dealguy- I stand by my statement, the subwoofer channel is not an 8th channel like the writer suggests in this statement "You see, 7.1 is actually eight channels of audio." I am correct, there are not 8 channels per se, one is a subwoofer channel and this would require describing it as 7.1 (or some specialized naming scheme) and not calling it 8 channels.
carlosriosness
just to give my 2 cents.

I have always liked Onkyos. the TX-NR626 is 7.2 with Blue tooth built. Should be good/great for most people. the 525 is the older version for $100 less. and i would pair that with Klipsch RF-52 II Home Theater System and you will be blown away!

both these items are usually on sale a few times a year!!!
carlosriosness
i hate to say this, i really do... but they would have been better off asking Magnolia (Best Buy) for a recommendation.

I also agree, buy a $400-$500 receiver, and $1,500 5,1 system you will be happy. If you have moved on to Blu Ray really go with a 7.1 if you you have the room. (and lets face it, if you are buying $2000 worth of audio you should be pairing that with a nice HD tv and decent Blu Ray player.
bladerunner6
I found the advice in this article to be simply disastrous for a person learning about buying audio gear.

Buying separate components is of course a valid idea if you have the budget. But with modern solid state amplifier technology, there is no discernible difference between amplifiers that are operating without clipping. So spending extra money from that standpoint is a waste.

Also, what people really hear are the speakers, not the amp. Spend more on the speakers and sub and less on the amplifier. A $300 receiver with $1200 of speakers and sub is going to sound a lot better than a $1000 amp/pre-amp combo with $500 worth of speakers and sub.

I am embarrassed that Dealnews published such a counterproductive and dangerous piece of shopping advice.

I am sure the author had good intentions,but the research and analysis really needs to be vastly better.
dealguy
@bbcrock Um, #FAIL. From the text above: "You see, 7.1 is actually eight channels of audio: seven speakers to provide various shades of left, center, right, front and rear audio, plus a subwoofer."

However, I absolutely agree with you that receivers go out of date super quickly because the connectivity technology changes so fast.
carlosriosness
"And for consumers who don't care much for sound quality, that's where they'll want to go and stay." - this guy sounds like a condescending butt hole.
bbcrock
There are many flaws with this article:
1. 7.1 Channel receivers are not 8 channels as the writer suggests. They are 7 channels plus one subwoofer channel. The .1 designation shows that one of those channels isn't really a full channel.
2. Additionally, it doesn't really matter that current Blu-Ray is set for 5.1 sound- most consumers use the additional two channels (if they use them at all) for Zone 2 speakers. I have not purchased a Sonos or similar system for my house yet, so instead have Zone 1 set for 5.1 and Zone 2 set for two speakers. How does that make getting a 7.1 receiver in any way unnecessary?
3. Speakers last 10-20 years and the technology behind a receiver lasts about 5 years. The streaming video apps and related that are key to modern receivers will be obsolete in 5 years and maybe even 3! The reason people spend $1000 on speakers and $500 on a current receiver is because over the 10 years they will replace the receiver once and not replace speakers at all.
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