Which manufacturers make well-built home theater equipment at a reasonable price?
February 4, 2005 7:21 PM   Subscribe

Over the past several years, I have been burned by poor quality in home electronics from various manufacturers. I have purchased pieces by Sony (home stereo), Panasonic (theatre-in-a-box) and RCA (various pieces of junk), and all have given out in one way or another far too quickly for my liking. In a renewed attempt to build a proper home theatre system (DVD/CD, receiver, speakers, etc), and recognizing that I haven't the money for really high-end stuff but will avoid anything cheap, I seek outside opinions as to which manufacturers are making products that are of reasonable quality, and reasonably priced. Your experiences, please.
posted by danwalker to Shopping (22 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Hm. How quickly is too quickly? I'd like to recommend my Sony DVD player, but it's only worked reliably for a few years. I can't tell if that will make your cut.
posted by scarabic at 7:40 PM on February 4, 2005

My My Pioneer SX-201 reciever has laster me over 12 years and has survived 12 moves, in none of which has it been treated gently.
posted by skwm at 7:46 PM on February 4, 2005

When I went to the super high-end store in Manhattan to look at home theater stuff, and I told the guy my budget, he told me that his average customer spent 20x what I wanted to spend, and that if someone with a real budget came along, he would ditch me. I appreciated the honesty.

That being said, he said that the only receiver he would recommend in my price range (definitely under $1K) was a Marantz. That was a few years ago, so the actual model's not relevant, but I've got to say it sounds _great_ compared to the other home theater receivers I've heard anywhere near that price--very rich sound from top to bottom, without the exaggerated bass a lot of the cheaper receivers use to try and compensate. I would definitely put Marantz at the top of my list again for the main component.

Regarding a DVD player, if you're not spending ton of money, then you really can't go wrong, quality-wise, on a unit that's got digital audio out, and component video. (Which almost anything more than $75 has, nowadays.) The main things to look at are reliability, and features--just about any name brand Sony, Panasonic, JVC, whatever that costs around $100 will do just fine. (Just make sure it's got progressive scan.) Basically, on the audio end, it'll just be passing a digital signal straight through to the receiver, so it really can't mess it up. Video-wise, if you've got a relatively new TV, it'll just be transmitting a progressive-scan, composite signal to the TV, so again, unless it's a piece of crap, it can't really mess it up.
posted by LairBob at 8:01 PM on February 4, 2005

My Sony VCR (SE800) and receivers (DE445 then DB940) have both been very solid and look like they'll last forever, but my experience with other products hasn't been so good. I don't think there are brands you can trust so much as product lines, and even then there are probably duff individual products.
posted by cillit bang at 8:05 PM on February 4, 2005

Although Aiwa is owned by Sony, and I have had lots of bad luck with Sony gear, the Aiwa gear I've had has been great. I have an Aiwa surround receiver that's about five years old now, cost all of $200, and still works fine.

Other brands I'd suggest are Denon (though they're not what they once were, I'm given to understand) and Pioneer.
posted by kindall at 8:15 PM on February 4, 2005

Rotel was recommended to me as the go-to low-end stereo amp maker by one of the gods of guitar amplification, Harry Kolbe. The $400 Rotel amp I got is clean and distortion-free up to, well, far louder than I want to drive my $400 B&W speakers, which is pretty damn loud.

It's the DVD/CD with all it's spinning sliding parts that is the weak point - I've been through like four of them. But progressive scan and component outs are pretty standard even on $50-$60 players from brands like Philips and Samsung - you might just think of them as disposable.
posted by nicwolff at 8:53 PM on February 4, 2005

I don't think it's so much about which brands are good as it is which items in which brands are good. Seems like across the board in many areas of manufacturing, all manufacturers now sell both good and bad models, where it is my perception that in the past some manufacturers sold largely good items and some poor ones. So, just 'cause it says Sony on it doesn't mean it'll be OK, even though I still have a sony discman that's well over 10 years old.

I think Denon makes some decent receivers. Keep in mind that in a given price range, items that "do less" are sometimes better, a cheap item with tons of inputs and outputs and buttons and lights probably isn't better quality than the hulk with one button (the power switch), one light and a knob. I have always avoided package systems. When I pick something out I try to go somewhere where I can listen to something (that I bring) on as many different kinds of equipment as possibly, ONLY changing the item I'm trying to buy. This is usually easy with speakers since they'll be set up for it. It's usually harder with CD players, receivers, amplifiers, preamps, decoders, etc. Esp. if you're not at some super high end store.

Be very suspicious of anything where you can only listen to it in a seperate area and only in highly specific configurations, i.e. no side-to-side comparisons, and no way to listen to the same speakrs, but a different amp, or same amp, different speakers. I'm looking in your direction, Bose.

I have a few items I like from Polk, Infinity, JBL. I would have to look to find out what they are in particular but they're a couple years old anyhow.

Oh, and when I was in the mood to really seriously care about this stuff I tracked down an audiophile to find out what the badass thing was about a year or two ago, which you can pick up for 25% of retail from other audiophiles who are seeking to upgrade to the latest and greatest. An awesome theater processor from 2 years ago is infinitely better than some cheap shiny new thing. All my stuff got stolen though and since then I moved to an integrated receiver (a no-no in the audiophile world) and I'm pretty happy with it. Denon 1701 AVR I think or 1801. Something like that.
posted by RustyBrooks at 9:37 PM on February 4, 2005

One thing I've noticed (especially in DVD players) is that often the only reason they break is because the fuse blows. The manufacturers usually don't bother to tell you this, but if you have a piece of equipment die, try and open up the case. Things like DVD players are essentially specialised, dumb computers. You can generally take the case screws off just like with any PC. You'll see a motherboard, a power supply, etc. And often, you'll see the little fuse from the power supply is burned out. Buy a new one for 79 cents from Radio Shack and pop it in.
Doesn't specifically answer your question, but a little tip that's saved me money through the years.
posted by sixdifferentways at 10:05 PM on February 4, 2005

I have no models to recommend, but have you considered your electric service? It seems odd that so much of your equipment has failed. Have all your early breakdowns occurred at the same address? It is very difficult to get your power company to supply a monitor, but spikes and lows can affect performance.
I assume you have a surge protector for your computer.
posted by Cranberry at 10:36 PM on February 4, 2005

BTW, I am not an electrician.
posted by Cranberry at 10:36 PM on February 4, 2005

My Yamaha receiver is still going strong after so many years I can't remember. (15?) And I still think that the top of the line Sony VCRs are pretty good despite your problems.
posted by krisjohn at 11:01 PM on February 4, 2005

I second Yamaha. My CR-640 is, let me see, damn near 28 years old. Most of the lights burned out years ago, and the string that connected the back of the tuning knob to the tuner finally broke, too. But it still sounds like the day I bought it (great), in spite of all the mouse droppings that have fallen through the cooling grill. I have a P-350 turntable that's still going strong, too, although it doesn't get used much anymore.

Of course, it may be that Yamaha no longer makes such good stuff. I was a bit surprised at LairBob's Marantz recommendation--in my day, Marantz was a great name fallen into disgrace. Things change.
posted by bricoleur at 3:14 AM on February 5, 2005

Seconded Pioneer - I have only one piece of their kit, a SX-750 receiver which is older than I am (I'm 26). It's great, and REALLY heavy.
posted by altolinguistic at 3:47 AM on February 5, 2005

Consumer Reports surveys its subscribers on recent purchases of all kinds of things, including electronics. They then generate reliability comparison charts for manufacturers in a given industry. While many people disagree with the methodology and conclusions of their tests (sometimes I am one of those people), the magazine is a valuable resource. The reliability comparisons are an objective measure of a manufacturer's products, and are reasonably current.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:48 AM on February 5, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks for all the replies thus far, folks.

Regarding a couple topics that came up along the way... "too quickly" is within about three years. The Sony CD lens died on me, making it impossible to load or listen to discs. The Panasonic subwoofer suffered from overheating. (Both of the above are apparantly known issues, as I've found several others around this here interweb discussing the same problems I've had.)

Electrical problems are actually an interesting suggestion, but both of the above occurred at different addresses. I have moved around frequently until now.

I welcome further comment. Thanks all.
posted by danwalker at 5:14 AM on February 5, 2005

I've had terrible luck with Sony stuff (as far as premature failure) and good experiences with JVC, which is usually cheaper.
posted by shoos at 5:37 AM on February 5, 2005

Sony audio equipment is prone to failure. It's cheap stuff and Sony has been coasting on its reputation for more than a decade. As far as reliablity, I've been extremely happy with Yamaha receivers. I have a Yamaha 995 that's got to be going on ten years old and it's showing no signs of problems. Kenwood used to be pretty good, but the newer stuff seems rather flimsy.

JVC is the first place I go for reliable CRTs. I just gave away my 32" JVC from a few years before that Yamaha, and it's going strong. The tube is indistinguishable from new, as is the picture overall, and it's more than ten years old. It survived an magnet attack from a toddler with a simple unplug-and-replug, so the degaussing coil inside is actually useful. Based on the quality of that unit I would look towards JVC's offerings before I even bothered with anything else.

I'm pleased with my Samsung DLP HDTV, but reliability is not its strong suit. In less than a year I've gone through two bulb packages when the TV decided to fail to boot. I understand they've addressed some of this in recent models, but I don't have anecdotal information to share.

I wouldn't trust all-in-one anything, especially not theater in a box rigs.

Pioneer DVD players are good, though they don't offer much at the low end any more. DVD players in general are now so cheap as to barely be worth purchasing for reasons of reliability.

I haven't purchased a non-optical video source in more than 15 years, so I really can't comment on what kind of tape drive to get. I would, for the obvious reason of high failure rate, steer clear of Sony, however.

As far as speakers and subwoofers, my house is filled to the brim with NHT products for high quality audio reproduction, and Cerwin-Vega speakers for when I need it loud. Both are very good sources of equipment that offers high quality at relatively low prices, though I'm given to understand C-V has gone a bit downhill in the 12 or so years since I've purchased a product from them. The NHT stuff is indestructible.

In general, you can get really fantastic prepurchase information for anything home theater related from AVS Forum. I normally steer clear of that kind of place, but they have the real goods, and aren't a bunch of fantastically rich snobs with hardware so good you've never heard of it. Well, there are some of those, but they won't bother you.
posted by majick at 8:55 AM on February 5, 2005

RustyBrooks is spot-on. First he says that you really can't make an across-the-board opinion of a consumer-level brand, and then he gives the best advice in the whole thread.

Oh, and when I was in the mood to really seriously care about this stuff I tracked down an audiophile to find out what the badass thing was about a year or two ago, which you can pick up for 25% of retail from other audiophiles who are seeking to upgrade to the latest and greatest.

Online message boards (in this case, ones like HeadFi and HydrogenAudio) have made tracking down audiophiles, and buying their used equipment, easier than ever. There are other advantages to this tactic--audiophiles take care of their equipment, and, frequently, consumer electronics are never so durable and well-constructed as they are when they're lavishly-expensive toys for early-adopter types.
posted by box at 9:04 AM on February 5, 2005

Another vote for Pioneer.

I've had the same Pioneer reciever for almost 11 years now. Got it new at J&R Music World back when they had that cool "gotta have it" catalog (maybe they still do?)

One of my closest friends has this multi-cartridge Pioneer CD changer made around 1994. Each cartridge holds 6 CD's, the entire unit holds 3 cartridges. It is one of the most mechanically loud and complicated pieces of home audio I've ever seen. But for some reason, the thing just keeps on working, complexity be damned.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 11:19 AM on February 5, 2005

I've had good luck with Kenwood receivers, other than a knob falling off one when it was about seven years old. Combined service for the two Kenwood receivers I've had is 17 years. The first one was still going strong (minus the knob) when it was stolen, otherwise I might still be using it. I have no personal experience with Athena loudspeakers, but I've heard that they produce excellent sound for the price. I've never heard anything about their longevity or quality though.

I had horrible luck with a Sony DVD player. I've always liked AudioReview.com as far as review sites are concerned.
posted by hootch at 11:24 AM on February 5, 2005

My Yamaha Receiver has served me well over the last 10 years. and (knock on wood) it shows no signs of slowing down.

My Yamaha CD Player, however, died after about 5. The turntable stopped turning. It was probably an easy fix, but CD player prices were/are so low I never bothered.

My Mirage speakers which I also purchased about 7 years ago are doing just fine.
posted by szg8 at 12:54 PM on February 5, 2005

My 29-year old Pioneer SX-950 receiver is still one of the finest pieces of equipment I have ever owned. Their current Elite Series equipment continues to garner rave reviews in the midrange price arena. Weighs almost 60 pounds! They don't make them like this anymore.

I've had excellent luck with Toshiba CRT televisions with two models lasting more than 15 years without a problem. A couple of years ago I went with their 36" CRT HDTV instead of a big screen projection (returned it), and am still happy with the purchase.

I definitely second the aforementioned NHT Audio speakers-excellent quality/price ratio with superb styling.

Klipsch speakers have also been a favorite of mine when sheer volume is desired. Cant go wrong with their tractix horns- my KLF-30s are teh cool loud, and paired with the KLF-C7 center make for a truly seamless, bone-rattling and crisp HT experience. All driven by a Yamaha RX-2300.

Samsung has also filled my office/audio/visual studio needs quite nicely with their exceptional progressive DVD-HD841 with DVI outputs paired with their 26" widescreen CRT HDTV with built-in HD tuner and DVI Input (TX-P2670WH). Using a cheap Pioneer VSX-D814 for digi in/out and power.

JVC, Infinity, Alpine, and Kicker are my weapons of choice for my current auto audio needs-although this was my first foray into self-install (exiting and scary). Initially very happy with my setup, but have only had it for about 5-6 months so I can't vouch for longevity. Alpine SPX177a components in the front. JVC Arsenal KD-AR7000 Head unit paired with a Terk XM Commander on the AUX in, boosted by an Infinity Reference 7540a amp feeding a Kicker 04S8L72 for punch. (Self linkage)

I use Audio Reviews and the previously mentioned AVS forum for recommendations as well as alot of trips to various local electronics vendors for up close, pre purchase looks. However, I tend to use various online vendors and eBay for actual purchasing (YMMV).

Definitely spend some bucks on power protection and good connection cables.

Oh yeah. Stay away from Sony, period.
posted by HyperBlue at 4:58 PM on February 5, 2005

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