Budget home theater
September 9, 2009 3:07 PM   Subscribe

Help me design a budget HD home theater.

I am planning on upgrading to HD. I have a small room and a few constraints. The size of the room dictates a 42" TV. I have about $2000 to spend on everything (this is slightly flexible). I currently have a Tivo (Series 2) and love it. I have Cox cable and will probably switch to their digital/HD service. Help me figure out where to best spend my money. Possible components:

HDTV (no preference for plasma or LCD currently)
HD DVR. Preference is Tivo (or is it worth living with the Cox box?) I am under the impression that with HD Tivo is the only option, I can't build a media center PC
Blu-ray player. I have Netflix and could switch to their Blu-ray plan. Although I am also considering relying primarily on services like Amazon on Demand, Cinemanow, etc.
Speakers/Sound. Major constraint here is I cannot have a full surround sound system. I can't run wires and I can't mount rear speakers. I am thinking about a "virtual" surround sound system.
Universal Remote

Any components I have forgotten? Anything I should do without? Can I build a good setup and stay close to my budget?
posted by bove to Technology (17 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Virtual sound systems (simulated) surround sound are exactly what they say - they are simulated surround sound. As a heads up make sure that you use digital cabling for your sound otherwise your simulated system. You do not need the greatest cabling ever, just something that meats the digital audio specification and that also reaches your components. Red & White cables (analog) are not sufficient with a simulated system. Remember - its simulated... this will not sound like a 5.1 system, but it will sound better (hopefully) than the TV speakers. As a heads up: be picky about pass through audio on your devices: some lower end TVs accept in a digital signal and downgrade, so if you run audio from source to TV to System you can sometimes kill your digital audio quality.

On TVs: Avoid plasma if possible. Its requires a great deal of babysitting and has some serious downsides to gaming if you own a system.
posted by Nanukthedog at 3:35 PM on September 9, 2009

This is a great question for Crutchfield.com. I would go to that site and poke around.

As for Netflix's Blu-Ray plan, it's great, but be aware that unless your taste in movies skews toward recent ones, not all movies are available in Blu-Ray.
posted by dfriedman at 4:00 PM on September 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you can stand a TV that's about a foot deep and can't be wall-mounted, DLPs are a very good value. I have a Samsung LED DLP 56" that I just love. You can in fact see the screen-door effect sometimes, but it's still a stunning picture.
posted by Doctor Suarez at 4:18 PM on September 9, 2009

Response by poster: Any specific recommendations for the components listed above? Where should I scrimp and where should I pay more for overall value?
posted by bove at 4:46 PM on September 9, 2009

Popcorn Hour or small form-factor HPTC built on the cheap.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 4:54 PM on September 9, 2009

I Like LG's LCD's they are a good value. they include lots of input options and most have rs232 which is good if you are going to integrate it into some sort of control system. Having an RGB pc input makes them very flexible for connecting a computer.
posted by jmsta at 4:55 PM on September 9, 2009

Universal Remote - Harmony ONE It may be pricey, but MAN is it worth it.

We also have a PS3 and it's a great blu-ray player as well as a fantastic upscaling DVD player. It actually does a better job of upscaling our standard DVDs than our dedicated LG Upscaling DVD player did.

One tip- buy your HDMI etc cables from monoprice.com Waiting a few days for shipping is well worth the savings on all of your AV cable needs.
posted by ThaBombShelterSmith at 5:33 PM on September 9, 2009

I haven't looked into most of these components since I put a similar setup together for my parents a couple of years ago, but I would suggest browsing around avsforums for a bit to get a better idea

If you're willing to space out the purchases by a bit, you're more likely to run across deals for each of the individual components on slickdeals, and seconding dfriedman on crutchfield - they have great customer support and product selection.

Where you put most of your money depends on what you see bringing you the greatest return on investment. Definitely go to the stores and find the minimum level of quality for sound and video with which you're happy and price up from there. Remember that a lot of the stores don't exhibit the TVs and audio components consistently so you're going to have to do some legwork, for example to check how black those blacks really are.

You'll still need the HD DVR, but if you can find extra use out of it, I'd suggest an Ion-based mini-itx HTPC for your Blu-ray, DVD, and internet streaming consumption. You get the added bonus of gaming, easy access to music/pictures and components are more easily upgraded. The current media center options, regardless of OS, are all good. Even a while back, I found the HTPC setup to be more cost-effective in the short and long term than buying an individual (decent) blu-ray player and vudu/netflix box.

If you don't already know, don't buy any of your cables at the big box stores like Best Buy and get them online for a fraction of the price. You can also then customize your space a little better.
posted by palionex at 5:34 PM on September 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I like the idea of of a HTPC, but I thought that if I wanted to DVR HD cable that I had to use either a Tivo or the cable company box. Is this incorrect? Can I build/buy a HTPC that will take a cable card?

I don't play videogames, so is buying a PS3 worth it, or is it cheaper/better to buy a DVD player?
posted by bove at 5:46 PM on September 9, 2009

Well, if your cable provider supports it, you can now have CableCard DVR cards in your own system without buying it direct from HP, Dell, etc so yes you can substitute an HTPC for an HD DVR like Tivo or your cable box and assemble it by yourself. The cards should be out soon for your own pc.

If you feel like troubleshooting and getting an HTPC working might be too much work for you, you can get an HD DVR from your cable company and get a Bluray player that also streams vudu or netflix and others. Or throw a popcorn hour as inspector.gadget mentioned or something like it into the mix.

Figure out what minimum capabilities you want from your home theater setup and then you can weed through the various options. Do you have a lot of videos on your computer that you'd stream to watch, or would you like to stream music to your HT area. If so, the PS3 is a viable option because of its recent price cut (though it doesn't do netflix streaming like the xbox360), but you'll find that the more recent Blu-ray players are faster in loading time and seek than the PS3.

One word of advice is to not consider the internet functionality of the tv you will be buying. I've found the widget/netflix/etc. functions in the tv to be subpar compared to the standalone/integrated boxes so go for the simpler (and thus cheaper) ones.
posted by palionex at 6:36 PM on September 9, 2009

Best answer: I just did this about a month ago for my apartment, so I'll run through what I learned in the process and ended up with. The completed setup includes a 46" Panasonic Plasma, TiVo HD, Xbox 360, Blu-Ray Player, all networked and connected to the internet. The only thing I think that will vary would be your sound system since I was cramped on space, I did a low-end 2.1 system.

For the television, you should go with plasma - preferably Panasonic. I chose the 46" G10 1080P model because it is one of the best you can get right now without breaking the bank. When shopping around, you'll probably see the G15 models, but be advised you're only paying more for a housing that's an inch thinner, the panel is the exact same. It was rated best of 2009 CES, has amazing picture quality and deep, rich blacks. My only complaint with it is the fact that it only has 3 HDMI ports however that actually ended up being enough for me. You should be able to find it for about $1100-1500 depending on who you purchase it from. Also, it does IPTV through VieraCast for Unbox, YouTube and such which is pretty cool although I never actually end up using it. To the person earlier in the thread that said "avoid plasma if possible. Its requires a great deal of babysitting and has some serious downsides...": ignore this. That is quite possibly the most inaccurate thing I've read on AskMeFi outside of an IANYD question. Current generation PDP HDTVs offer far superior black levels, lower cost generally for the same picture quality, and a better viewing angle over LCD.

For the DVR, go for the TiVo HD. When I first started setting this up, I thought that I could cope with the default Scientific Atlanta box that Cox Communications gives, but it's just so awful I took it back after a week and ordered the TiVo. I had TiVo before and gladly pay the $13/mo subscription cost just to not have to deal with the cable company DVR. You can upgrade the TiVo HD base model with a 1TB drive extremely easily up from the 160GB drive that it comes with stock (and avoid paying for the TiVo XL which costs $300 more). The TiVo also offers Netflix streaming, Amazon Unbox, and many other value adds that make it worth it. There's an open-source project being developed on the TiVoCommunity.org forums called Streambaby which is a cross-platform streaming solution so that you can get ALL of your media to play on your HDTV since all the transcoding of the video codecs is done on another computer.

A Netflix subscription and a Panasonic Blu-Ray Player round out the system. The BD-60 is a great model which offers all the current features like BD-Live, 7.1, upgradeable firmware and IPTV through VieraCast (ethernet jack is on the back of the unit). Load time is on par with other current players and if you do get a Panasonic TV, they interface through the HDMI connection with VieraLink which makes controlling it a lot easier (inputs automagically switch when a disc is inserted, etc). For content, Netflix offers a large Blu-Ray catalog for a minimal fee on-top of a normal subscription. Plus you can then use the TiVo HD to stream those movies over the internet with Watch Instantly.

An optional component would be a game console. I already had an Xbox 360 which I love that fit in perfectly with the setup. It also plays Netflix but it just a really well rounded game system with tons of games and cool things you can do with it. Now that the PS3 dropped in price, the decision on whether to go 360 and Blu-Ray or just PS3 alone is more difficult, but I'd recommend a 360 if you plan on gaming at all. to link everything together, I use a NETGEAR gigabit switch that then links to every other device back at the Airport Extreme.

Lastly, to control it - go for a Logitech Harmony. You can usually catch great deals on them at Amazon. Just set up a Deal Alert at SlickDeals for Harmony and you'll get an email when they're on sale. I was able to get the Harmony 890 for only $99; if you want higher end, the Harmony One is phenomenal but honestly doesn't offer anything to me that is worth the extra cost. The configuration software is fool-proof and runs on both OS X and Windows. Setting up activities makes it easier to use everything and it just fits well. Plus it's rechargeable.

Here's what things look like when it all comes together (warning, large JPEG). Ignore the whiteboard in the background I've been to lazy to move into the other room. You can mix and match any components, but I found this works really well and I'm satisfied with every part of it.

If you have any questions about any of that, reply back or MeMail me and I'll assist where I can.
posted by cgomez at 7:22 PM on September 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

cgomez above should set you on the right path.

My wife and I just purchased a new home, and I sold all my "bachelor pad" electronics (a lot of dazzle without a lot of substance), and went toward a more sensible approach.

Although my system may be a tad hi-end, the television was something you might consider. I did a ton of research on Plasma vs. LCD and everything from reputable sources said that Plasma is a mature technology but gets a bad rap from it's beginning years (burn-in isn't an issue, power consumption is mostly on par with equivalent LCDs, the picture a more akin to CRTs, better in my opinion).

Here's my opinion on your system:

Panasonic Plasma you can get a 42" for less than $1000
Budget receiver (Denon, or Harman Kardon) around $350-$400
There are L/R/Sub packages available, I'll defer to the hive mind for that
Logitech Harmony universal remote ($250 at the most, depending on how you roll, the Harmonly one should be cheaper now since they introed a replacement)
Used Mac Mini with elGato EyeTV for all your media and DVR playback needs

By the way, please consider that cables (HDMI, DVI, etc) add to your expenses as well. And a good surge protector to protect your investment.

If your intention is to grow, don't skimp on the television and the receiver. And save money and add to your system as the years go on.
posted by lonemantis at 7:06 AM on September 10, 2009

Response by poster: This has all been good advice. I think the issue I am still struggling with is the choice of HD Tivo + Blu-ray player vs. HTPC. I am still not sure which is the optimal choice in terms of features vs. budget. I may have to ask around on some of those other forums.

It seems to me that the Tivo solution would cost:
$199 Tivo HD (They have an upgrade package for current subscribers)
$299 Lifetime Service
$149 Extra Hard Drive
$250-350 Blu-ray player

Can I build or buy a great HTPC for that same price? Especially since it seems like it was just yesterday when Cablecards were released for PCs.
posted by bove at 8:39 AM on September 10, 2009

Depending on when you're planning to put your setup together, you'll have your decision made for you since the CableCard cards probably won't be released until the first few months of 2010. You can easily build an HTPC for your total price of $900, but I see the HTPC as being more extensible and giving you greater flexibility to grow with need and technology. If you want something that works out of the box that you'll replace individually as price/performance go down, you can go the route that cgomez suggests.

I haven't taken a look at the specific components, but without reading reviews and deal-hunting, you can put the following together

Mini-ITX Case $85
Mini-ITx Motherboard $130
Intel C2D @ 2.8 ghz $115
4 GB RAM $50
Blu-Ray/DVD Player $60
WD 1 TB Hard Drive $95
Extra 1.5 TB HD $130

And buffer for the CableCard tuner.
posted by palionex at 4:07 PM on September 10, 2009

I wouldn't go the HTPC route, it would seem like dedicated devices would work out better. With Windows Media Center, you wouldn't be able to do HD Cable since that's a whole mess of OEM licensing and DRM that you probably wouldn't want to fuss with (plus, you don't get the nifty TiVo Suggestions feature and all that good stuff that comes with TiVo). TiVo HD does a sufficient amount of IPTV as does the Viera with Unbox, and if you ever need something else, you can always just plug in a laptop to the display through HDMI in a pinch.

Cost-wise, the TiVo HD is $199 as you said. An appropriate 1TB drive is about $90 and upgrading is really easy (although it does void the warranty). The Panasonic BD-60 is selling for a mere $170, so you get a total of about $460 before you factor in the TiVo monthly or lifetime sub. If you ever do start seeking out more streaming or internet content, a Mac mini would be a better choice over a Windows 7 HTPC.
posted by cgomez at 9:53 PM on September 10, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks again for all of the helpful advice. I have gone ahead and I have ordered my stuff. Here is the list of what I am getting:

42" Panasonic Viera G10 1080p HDTV
Panasonic BD-60 Blu-ray player
Tivo HD
My DVR Extender (500GB)
Sony HTCT100 Sound Bar w/Subwoofer
Harmony One universal remote

Total Cost $1960

I will probably do one final post once everything is hooked up and working.
posted by bove at 12:15 PM on September 11, 2009

Response by poster: I have been using my system for about a month. I ended up returning the speakers and the remote because I didn't have room for the speaker bar in front of my TV and it couldn't just sit on the TV stand. Without the speakers I didn't need the fancy universal remote. Everything works great and the picture is awesome.
posted by bove at 8:45 PM on October 10, 2009

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