One Home Entertainment System to Rule Them All
September 9, 2011 5:11 AM   Subscribe

I would like to buy a home entertainment system. I would like to listen to music, watch television, movies, and play videogames. I would like to have Netflix. I would like to stream media from my network or the cloud. I want great sound but I am not an audiophile, although I am not averse to spending a lot on speakers. I do not want to spend more than 8 hours doing research. I will spend up to $2500-$3000. How do I attack this problem? Can you recommend specific TV's, receivers, speakers, or stuff like a Roku box? Can you recommend sites that provide easy to understand, objective reviews of equipment like TelevisionInfo? I do not want to hit the forums if I don't have to. Can you recommend specific configurations of equipment or point me to sites that supply this information. I feel like if I don't get pointed in the right direction, I am going to over analyze this and spend far too much time that I don't have. I just want a rocking home entertainment solution for my family that I won't want to upgrade a week later.
posted by jasondigitized to Technology (13 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
the ps3 has more features than i even know what to do with (1080p games ROCK, bluray, 3D, music, etc)...aaand it streams netflix...that, and a (3d?) tv and you're good to go...i'd only add more 'stuff' as you feel the need (surround sound systems are CHEAP these days...but i'm happy with just computer speakers (with subwoofer)). LG makes a good set (just got a great deal a few months back)...menus all make sense, remote isn't all unnecessarily overcomplicated with useless won't spend a ton of time trying to figure out how it works (but everything (picture, sound, etc) is all super-customizable). hit up the local bestbuy and see it in person first. remember!: stand as far away as you will be watching from (sofa to tv distance)...too big and you will get walleyed and headaches trying to fit it all in, too small and you'll be squinting...led backlight will last longer and use a lot less power...
posted by sexyrobot at 5:44 AM on September 9, 2011

If you opt for the PS3 as sexyrobot has mentioned, you can also stream any *cough* movies you might have on your PC's hard-drive to the PS3 with PS3 Media Server (free!). Mine easily streams 1080p .mkv rips with no problem.

Not a fanboy, but it really does do just about everything.
posted by kuanes at 6:16 AM on September 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I came here to suggest the PS3 as well. Games, Netflix, and it's easy to plug a thumbdrive into the front that might have, oh, .avi files of a TV show you downloaded, as just one example.
posted by Windigo at 7:00 AM on September 9, 2011

Best advice I got buying a TV- when you've narrowed down to a brand and feature set, get the biggest set you can afford and reasonably use in the space. No one ever wishes they had bought a smaller set.
posted by mkultra at 7:29 AM on September 9, 2011

How big is the room you're buying for? Is this for an apartment or a house? That makes a big difference for stuff like speakers.

Also: Cnet has really good reviews of everything. I usually go there first.

One thing to think about these days is how you're going to handle digital media (downloading it, storing it, streaming it, playing it).
posted by empath at 7:31 AM on September 9, 2011

Also, look for refurbed stuff and floor models, you can really save a lot of money that way as long as you don't mind it being maybe a little dinged up.. just make sure you get the extended warranty, if you do, though...
posted by empath at 7:32 AM on September 9, 2011

I am going to suggest you find a local AV specialist with knowledgable salespeople that is NOT a big box superstore (there are still some around, really) and go to them with your budget budget and make them figure it out for you. Make them work for the money. This is what they are there for. Protip: tell them you want to buy everything there and they will cut you a deal, but tell them up front that if they try to upsell you on fancy cables or power strips you will walk out of the store instantly and never, ever come back.

Having a PS3 as a data source is excellent, I commend this choice, so subtract $400 out of your shopping budget for that and a remote and extra controller.
posted by seanmpuckett at 7:44 AM on September 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

As a media player, I'd rather have a Boxee Box or home-built XBMC solution. The Boxee Box is pretty nice, but it has no local storage, so you have to have a separate NAS. I used the PS3 as a media player for a long while, but I got tired of transcoding things to one of the streaming formats it supports. My XBMC box currently does Hulu and Amazon streaming, plus has Icefilms, so I haven't missed Netflix in the least. Between those three, it's very nearly enough to get me to cancel Giganews, where I have had an account for almost a decade now. There are cheaper Blu-Ray players that are just as good as the PS3 these days, unlike two years ago when the PS3 was absolutely the best value for money in Blu-Ray players, period.

If you require Netflix, the easiest way is to just buy a TV with Netflix built-in. I paid a hair over $800 for a Toshiba 46" (actually 45.9") a couple of weeks ago for my pinball cabinet. I mention this because it's got Netflix, in addition to DLNA streaming for video and audio. Plus, unlike most TVs in that price range, it has 802.11a/b/g/n built in. 5GHz N is nice and fast. The downside to a networked TV is that it'll bug you about firmware upgrades whenever they're available unless you disable it in the menu. I'm not too sure that I like my TV acting that much like Windows. ;)

mkultra's observation is a very good one. My living room is pretty small, but I still wish I had a 52" screen instead of the 47" I have. The 47" just doesn't quite fill my field of view at my viewing distance (about 8 feet).

As far as audio, don't cheap out. Home Theater in a box systems are indeed cheap these days, but the speakers that come with it are always crap. You can get the $400-level Onkyo and spend about $400 more on speakers and get some reasonably decent 5" Polks plus a cheap (but good) 10" subwoofer like this Dayton and have a rocking setup for a small room.

If you have a little more to spend on the sound side of things, I'd strongly recommend a Hsu STF-1, or for a little bit more a Hsu VTX-2.
posted by wierdo at 7:45 AM on September 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sean makes a good point -- never, ever, ever pay for cables that cost more than a few bucks unless you're doing professional sound or long cable runs or you have some kind of problem with interference (basically never do it) -- this goes double for anything carrying a digital signal (like HDMI -- which either works or it doesn't).
posted by empath at 7:47 AM on September 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

To be more technically accurate, I wasn't actually transcoding, in that the video and audio streams themselves were not being changed. It was actually repacking, basically turning MKV into MP4, which takes much less time but is still something that must be done. (even if it's automated with PS3 Media Server)

Also, you never know when Sony is going to up and decide you can't have a feature any more, leaving you stuck on outdated firmware if you actually used said feature. I really enjoyed my PS3 until they did that. I shouldn't complain too much, though, as it's saved me thousands of dollars in game and DLC purchases.
posted by wierdo at 7:50 AM on September 9, 2011

PS3 will definitely handle Netflix, DVDs/BluRays, local streaming, and gaming. We got ours last weekend - a 320GB version with a $60 game (InFamous 2) for $299. The harddrives are standard 2.5" laptop drives and easy to replace. If we'd gotten a smaller one, I'd have thrown a TB drive in there, but the 160GBs were going for $250.

FYI, HDMI cable quality doesn't much matter because it's a digital signal - as long as the connection works, there's no perceivable difference.

To speak to the rest of your question:

Bose is excellent quality for sound systems. You can get comparable quality for less, or audiophile-quality for more, but they are truly excellent. I have a set of their 2.1 computer speakers (Companion 5) and like that they get such big sound out of such tiny speakers. I'll almost certainly go back to them for home theater components.

Consumer Reports is a great resource for you for specific items. I also use things like the Amazon reviews. Look at Amazon's Buying Guides, too. Here's one for TV size by viewing distance, or there are size calculators to give you recommendations.

One thing I found with our TV is that, since we're sitting 10-15 feet away, there is little discernible difference between 720p and 1080p, but 720p is getting less common. I'm very glad we got a 55" though - the extra couple inches make a huge difference.

Also, Vizio is a store brand but has good quality. I know a lot of people who've gotten them and been pleased. The main difference between it and a comparable Sony of the same generation were the TV menu interface and peripheral features. If you have a Costco membership, they typically offer better warranties than standard. You probably already know, but in-store they often have strange settings on the TVs to make them look good in fluorescent light - ask if you can have a remote to play with the settings!
posted by bookdragoness at 7:55 AM on September 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

wierdo: "but I got tired of transcoding things to one of the streaming formats it supports."

I just use TVersity with my PS3, and I haven't had to do any transcoding of anything. TVersity handles all that for you!
posted by Grither at 9:17 AM on September 9, 2011

Grither wrote: I just use TVersity with my PS3, and I haven't had to do any transcoding of anything. TVersity handles all that for you!

At least in the version I used, TVersity couldn't remix MKV files into MP4, so it had to transcode them, which can't be done in real time on my Core 2 Duo system. (Maybe an i7 can transcode 15Mbps H.264 in real time, I don't know) PS3 Media Server was the same way when it was first released. I think they fixed it, but it is (or was) Windows-only.

The PS3's interface is crap compared to XBMC, anyway. I'd take it in a heartbeat over a WDTV live or Toshiba's DLNA interface on their TVs, but they all pale in comparison to XBMC.
posted by wierdo at 11:18 AM on September 9, 2011

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