How to set up a home entertainment system for n00bs
May 17, 2016 7:42 PM   Subscribe

I'd like to set up a home entertainment system where I can watch stuff and listen to stuff, and I'd like to upgrade from watching everything on my 13 inch laptop screen with crappy computer speakers. I haven't had a TV since, oh, sometime around 2001. I have no idea what I need or what all the new doodads and gadgets and various streaming options are. Please explain this to me like I'm your mom, but internet savvy.

I am not an audiophile nor do I need the fanciest equipment. I want to spend as little as possible for a reasonably decent system.

What I would like to do:

Watch stuff online like Netflix (but no actual network TV)
Listen to music through Spotify
Listen to vinyl records

What I currently have:

A laptop (MacBook)
Teh internets
A blank space in my apartment opposite the couch

What I think I might need:

A turntable
Some sort of monitor or TV
A way to connect everything

Please help me figure out the modern world!
posted by Dilemma to Technology (14 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
My mom is both internet, and tech savvy. Please stop using moms as your example of people who are not internet or tech savvy.

I have a similar set up to what you're describing, though there may be easier ways to do it. Basically the piece you're missing is "a way to connect everything", which is an AV receiver. FWIW, I think the record player is the thing that makes your set up more complicated than buying a sound bar and hooking it up to your TV. Dedicated speakers will sound better, and an AV receiver will give you more options anyway though.

Here's what you need for this setup:
  • Unpowered speakers. Unpowered meaning they are powered by the amplifier in your amp, instead of by a built-in amplifier.
  • Streaming device, like an Apple TV, Roku or similar. This is what you use to play TV, movies, and music. Which you choose mostly depends on where you get your media, but if in doubt, an Apple TV is a safe bet.
  • Record player. I don't know too much about record players, except that you need something called a "phono preamp" which takes the signal and boosts it for your receiver. Some newer players have these built in I think, but probably not the good ones.
  • AV receiver. All your inputs (streaming device, record player, laptop) connect to this, and then it sends the signal to your TV and speakers. It usually also has bluetooth and/or Airplay so you can play to it from your phone.
  • TV. There's an output that goes from your receiver to the TV, and it plays the funny pictures at you. Doesn't do much else.
This set up sounds a bit complicated (because it is), but it really gives you a lot of flexibility, and is still the best way to get good sound. I base all my purchasing decisions for this type of thing on The Wirecutter, which is a review site, except it's one that actually gives a shit. They usually have a range of options depending on your budget.

If you have followup questions, I'm happy to answer them.
posted by !Jim at 8:15 PM on May 17, 2016 [3 favorites]

I can't make any recommendations on the other hardware, but I think you need a Roku.
posted by mudpuppie at 8:23 PM on May 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

We went down this road a ways and finally decided to get a Smart TV, which I think you're calling a "network TV." We only wanted to stream content and did not want cable. For this reason, it made more sense to us to get a TV that was already networked than to get a non-networked TV and then purchase a separate box (Roku or similar) to beam our internet to the TV. One less piece of black plastic.

A Smart TV is like a giant iPad. You hook it up to your wireless, and it has apps. All the streaming services you use now are on the TV already in the form of these apps. So you log into your Netflix, Hulu, whatever right on the TV and then choose from the content. Spotify and Pandora are included on the TV, as are dozens and dozens of more obscure apps and services - everything from yoga lessons to a faux aquarium where you can just tune into watching fish go by. We don't do gaming, so maybe that's a factor, I dunno. It meets our needs.

I hadn't bought a TV in, well, ever, so I had a lot to learn. Since it's basically a computer, processing speed is important. The difference it makes is how responsive your TV is to loading and starting new content and to responding to your remote clicks. Also, more memory means you can have more TV apps. However, you don't need a lot IMO. We subscribe to 8 or 9 apps and have like 80% of our memory left.

I haven't integrated vinyl records into this setup and wouldn't bother unless we had awesome external speakers, which we don't. We just use the TV speakers and I think they're fine. BUt it would seem to me that a simple coaxial cable would be able to hook a turntable to the the TV speakers as the output.
posted by Miko at 8:55 PM on May 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

Thanks IJim, this sounds like exactly the solution I'm looking for.

Theoretically, if I were to get a TV and Chromecast, but no turntable, would I still need a receiver? I only ask to understand all the components better. I'm leaning towards Chromecast for various reasons, but would still want to add a turntable.

Good point about using moms as an example - I appreciate you calling me out on my stereotyping.
posted by Dilemma at 9:31 PM on May 17, 2016

Miko, I actually meant that I didn't want to watch TV shows like on regular old TV. Only internet stuff. With a Smart TV, are you limited to the apps that are included, or can you also stream whatever is on your laptop? Thanks.
posted by Dilemma at 9:40 PM on May 17, 2016

Miko: "BUt it would seem to me that a simple coaxial cable would be able to hook a turntable to the the TV speakers as the output."

Nope. As !Jim mentioned above, turntables need preamps (or a receiver with a phono preamp stage built in)

The turntable is definitely what complicates this overall. Whereas Miko is right that for all of your other needs, the TV has speakers, the turntable can't really leverage them (nor would you really want to, quality-wise.)

So for records you need a receiver (with phono preamp stage), speakers, and turntable.
On a budget, I would get the Onkyo TX-8020, the Pioneer SP-BS22-LR bookshelf speakers, and the Audio-Technica AT-LP120 turntable, though if you have the extra scratch I'd spring for the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon.

For streaming Spotify, Netflix, et. al. you want the Roku 3, and not a so-called "Smart" TV.
The Roku is in widespread use, well supported, has a long model life, and sees updates - "Smart" TVs generally do not.
I own and can definitely recommend the Roku 3 to meet your streaming needs.

(on preview)
The roku will let you cast things like youtube from your laptop to your TV. Whether your "Smart" TV will or not depends on its capabilities - they are not at all standardized.
posted by namewithoutwords at 9:43 PM on May 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

The receiver takes all your various inputs and distributes them to your screen and your speakers--this is the same basic setup that people were using a couple of decades ago, even though the inputs/outputs have changed. In theory, without the turntable, you could just use your TV speakers, since most TVs these days have more than one HDMI input, so you can plug, say, a Roku right in. But I can't imagine you make a point of listening to vinyl and are indifferent to sound quality, which means you would be ill-served by that setup, or even a soundbar. I'll leaving the squabbling over the specific speakers to the pedants, but you're going to want some.

If you want to play files from your laptop, not just project websites, Chromecast is not really (when last I checked) the best option. You want a DLNA server on your laptop and some equipment in your setup that can be a client. In theory, Roku supports DLNA but I haven't tried to get it to work myself.
posted by praemunire at 9:54 PM on May 17, 2016

Blu-Ray (because still cool stuff and very cheap)
2 compound (bass/ treble) speakers

How you connect them:

Router connects to BluRay by Ethernet cable (for firmware updates and rare SmartTV apps actually better than Roku)

Router connects to Roku by Ethernet cable

Router connects to TV by Ethernet cable (for firmware updates and rare SmartTV apps actually better than Roku)

Roku connects to TV by HDMI cable

Blu-Ray connects to TV by HDMI cable

Roku connects to Receiver/Amp by TOSlink fiber optic cable

Blu-Ray connect to Receiver/Amp by TOSlink fiber optic cable

Turntable connects to Receiver/Amp by RCA two-jack (red/black) analog cable

Receiver/amp connects to speakers by heavy-gauge speaker cable -- probably TWO runs to each speaker (amp separately transmits bass and treble)
posted by MattD at 10:28 PM on May 17, 2016

I have a Samsung dumbtv (~400$) and a Roku streaming device (~90$) coupled with a smartphone I already owned and they cover everything I need minus audio. Haven't bothered with speakers since I already owned a record player and ipod-dock sound system, but I figure sooner or later I'll add them if I find a good deal at a thrift shop.

Streaming is mostly through the Netflix and Youtube apps on the Roku. There's also hundreds of free Roku channels, I added a bunch when I bought it but have never touched them since. I paired the Roku with my phone for live streaming sports and political debates and dogs learning to ride bikes via wifi (on a Samsung android phone, go into settings and turn on Screen Mirroring). Also have an old external hard drive that I plug into the usb on the tv for movies that I download, which means actually getting up and walking over, taking it to my laptop, copying files, returning it, watching .. oh the humanity! But there's newer harddrives that can copy files wirelessly if you want to go that route. Alternatively you can just plug your laptop into the tv with an hdmi cable.

But for a basic shopping list:
-flat screen tv
-hard drive
-hdmi cable

Should be do-able in the 600$ range.

Also a nice little trick for youtube + roku -> make sure you're signed into your google account on both the roku and your laptop, watch a few seconds on the laptop, then in the roku app, go into 'history' and it will be the top video. Using the remote to peck out your search query suuuuuuuucks.
posted by mannequito at 10:36 PM on May 17, 2016

I just bought a TV when a bunch of big-screen models got marked down at my local store a couple of months ago. (It was immediately following the end of March Madness, but have no idea if there is a causal relationship) I was studiously avoiding getting an smart TV because the online streaming features are usually clunky and insecure and add roughly $50-150 to the cost of the set, and I own a Roku anyway (which I LOVE) so it didn't seem like an important thing. But I ended up going with a Samsung Smart TV because the discount actually made it cheaper than the closest off-brand/non-smart match.

If you do end up doing what I did, I strongly suggest not adding the Smart TV to your home network or connecting it to the internet in any way. That way you don't have to worry about the TV accidentally blabbing your wi-fi password or compromising your credit card or phoning home to Samsung about what you're watching or even what you might be talking about with people in the room. (all of these are things that tend to happen with insecure "smart" devices, caveat emptor) Thankfully, in five years of following internet security news, I haven't run across a single mention of problems with Roku, so having it as your one and only household portal to online video and music is probably a sound choice.
posted by Strange Interlude at 6:37 AM on May 18, 2016

Only internet stuff. With a Smart TV, are you limited to the apps that are included, or can you also stream whatever is on your laptop?

Yes, you can. Most things you'd stream on your laptop have an app, like YouTube, but you can also play direct to the TV and use it as a giant monitor.
posted by Miko at 8:05 AM on May 18, 2016

I'm generally a fan of having a device that does a limited number of things well and most tvs I've seen do not do streaming very well or become outdated. A dedicated device is generally much more user friendly, more likely to stay updated, more likely to keep working, and if you want to upgrade it in the future, it's easier to replace. I've used a Roku and recommend it highly. Currently I use a PS3 which is capable of doing pretty much anything a Roku can do and also has a good gaming library with a lot of inexpensive options. If you're interested in exploring console gaming as well I'd recommend looking into that as an option.

I've also recently been looking for upgrades to my home entertainment system, mostly with surround sound. I can't personally recommend this as I haven't bough it, but Pioneer VSX-530-K is almost exactly what I want due to the HDMI inputs But it's missing phono pre-amp and I also want a turntable at some point. I couldn't find anything below $350 like the Pioneer VSX-530-K though, so I might just get a seperate turn-table pre-amp when I eventually get a turn-table. Just food for thought if you're interested in the same capabilities as I am.
posted by Green With You at 11:53 AM on May 18, 2016

As another data point on the smart tvs, my sister has an LG smart TV that updates its apps periodically. My Vizio smart tv has only updated the netflix app once in 4 years, and never updated the amazon app.
posted by hootenatty at 4:35 PM on May 18, 2016

I did the same thing earlier this year: started upgrading from a PC and computer speakers to a "traditional" home media system. Last time I had a home stereo and TV was in 2004.

I found the /r/budgetaudiophile subreddit to be a treasure trove of information (though I view anyting on reddit with great skepticism). The sidebar has well organized recomendations for every budget.

I spent $80 on a tiny amp, bookshelf speakers, and basic speaker wire on Amazon. I also sought out music that was encoded as either FLAC, or a higher bitrate MP3 than I had previously.

Having 2 real speakers (not PC tweeters and a subwoofer), on separate sides of the room, sounds amazing to me. I thought my hearing was too damaged to really hear all the little sonic nuances of music any more. It sounds completely superior to my $250 "surround sound" setup with 5 tweeters and a giant sub. I picked up a $20 bluetooth receiver, plugged into the second input on my amp, for when I wanted to stream to the speakers from a phone or tablet (usually when friends are over and want to share something). The bluetooth doesn't sound quite as good as the cable plugged into the headphone jack of my computer, but makes things easy with multiple wireless devices.

To improve on this very basic setup, for listening to music that is stored on your computer, you can invest in a Digital Analog Converter (DAC). These are hardware devices that plug into a USB port on your laptop, and handle the conversion of your audio files into analog signals. Having this external device generally sounds better than what your laptop can output on its own. It's about the size of a flash drive, and has inputs for the cables that go to your amplifier. Make sure you get one that is compatible with your Mac laptop.

I'm seconding what others have said about an A/V receiver. This can act as an amplifier for all sorts of speaker setups, and accept all the inputs and outputs of all those cables and wires for everything. It is the central hub.

Bluetooth is a great technology, but it doesn't sound as nice as a wired connection (though it keeps improving). It's great for when you want a portable self powered speaker, for travel or outdoors, or anywhere that a boombox would have been used in the past. But, all the soundcubes and soundbars are limited by having all the speakers in the same small package. Physics is a limiting factor here, and those peripherals will never sound as nice as two or more speakers in heavy robust enclosures.
posted by ethical_caligula at 2:03 PM on May 21, 2016

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