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How to Select a Great Home Theater for Any Budget, Big or Small

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By , dealnews senior feature writer

With the right TV, Blu-ray player, and speakers, your living room can rival any movie theater. And, contrary to popular belief, it doesn't have to cost you a small fortune. Below we've put together a quick and dirty primer to help you pick the right components for your in-home cineplex.

The Big Picture

Many of us envision home theaters as renovated basements fitted with theater-style seating and a massive projection screen. While the TV you choose does indeed play a large role in your home theater, a sprawling 70" display isn't required. In fact, the average living room can probably make do with a 40" set, like the Sharp AQUOS 40" 1080p LCD HDTV ($429.98 plus $39.97 s&h, a low by $90). Keep in mind that screen size should be determined by your budget and living space, and not by the TV size your neighbors just purchased.

As a rule of thumb, CNET recommends you should sit no closer than 1.5 times your screen's diagonal measurement, and no farther back than twice the diagonal measurement. So for a 42" TV — like this LG 42" 1080p LCD HDTV ($491.95 with free shipping, a low by $71) — you'll want to sit between 63" and 84" away from the screen, or 5 to 7 feet. If you're sitting farther than 7 feet back, you'll want to look at the next size category television.

It's Time to Choose Between Plamsa or LCD

Both Plasma and LCD technologies have their advantages and disadvantages; however, their differences aren't as pronounced as they used to be. That said, most consumers will be happy with either technology. If you're looking for outstanding image quality, your best bet are plasmas TVs. Plasmas generally offer deeper blacks and better viewing angles than LCDs, though there are a few LCD TVs that can match the image quality of today's best plasmas. (Those sets will cost you a premium though.)

Moreover, plasmas don't suffer from motion blur as many LCDs do. To compete, many LCDs have refresh rates of 120Hz and 240Hz; the faster the refresh rate, the more adept the unit is at handling fast-paced scenes. Also keep in mind that plasmas generally perform better in dark rooms, whereas LCDs are better suited in brighter rooms. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule.

If you decide to buy an LCD HDTV, you'll have to choose between a traditional LCD and an LED-backlit LCD. LED backlighting allows for thinner sets and slightly improved image quality. There are two camps to look at: direct backlighting, which means that the LED lights are mounted behind the LCD panel, and edge-lit LED (like on the the Samsung 55" 240Hz 1080p 3D LED LCD HDTV) which uses a series of LEDs along the four edges of the screen. LED-based LCDs are slightly more expensive than traditional LCDs, but their prices are steadily coming down. If you're looking to future-proof your home theater, we'd recommend investing in an LED-backlit LCD. (Check out our feature on 2011's best-performing HDTVs for help with choosing the right HDTV.)

1080p is a No-Brainer

As far as features go, you'll definitely want 1080p resolution, as nowadays there's no reason to opt for less than that. And although 3D TVs are falling in price, they're still pricier than traditional models and 3D content is limited, so we'd say skip that fad. Instead, you might want to consider a television with ethernet ports or built-in WiFi, such as the Vizio XVT553SV (pictured above, $1,399.81 plus $50 s&h), which allows you to stream content from Amazon Instant Video, Netflix, and Hulu Plus straight to your TV. Also, look for TVs with as many HDMI ports as possible, as these let you add multiple components to your TV.

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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