Home Theater on the Cheap
December 29, 2003 1:03 PM   Subscribe

Assume I'm starting from scratch except for a 32" JVC TV with s-video input. How would you build a budget home theater for a multi-purpose room? Rather than get into my particular preferences (other than that I want to play DVDs, CDs and CD-Rs), I'd like respondents to make recommendations based on the variables most important to them (e.g., getting a cheap player and being indifferent to its picture quality because it's region-free; splurging on a center channel speaker because it's that important; insisting on a combo DVD-R/PVR regardless of price because it's such a killer app; going with simple stereo separation because surround sound is overblown, etc.). Specific product and retailer recommendations are especially welcome.
posted by blueshammer to Technology (8 answers total)
TiVo, every house needs one. You can build your own PVR, or get Replay or one from your cable company, but if you really really care for a good product, go with TiVo, from what I gather it's got absolutely the best software out there. You can pick up a DirecTiVo for $99 if you have DirecTV, check Matt's pvrblog.com for details.
posted by riffola at 1:07 PM on December 29, 2003

Well, this is going to be beyond lame for the hard-core home theatre types, but I bought a only-slightly-obsolescent refurbed Panasonic DVD recorder for a little over $200, plugged it into the S-video port of my cheapo 27" Advent TV, plugged my VCR and my mp3-playing Apex DVD player (the one with the MacroVision and Region coding ROM-chipped out, but which, BTW, does not fool the Panasonic one second if you try to copy a commercial DVD. Not that I would ever do such a thing, of course.) The extended basic service analog ComCast Cable also got plugged into the Panasonic.

Then I twinned the headphone jack on the Advent, plugged the cheapest ($30) 2.1 speakers Creative Labs makes into one jack, and a budget set of headphones on an extension cord into the other for when the rest of the household wants quiet.

Like I said, it's pretty...crude. But it works for me.
posted by mojohand at 1:36 PM on December 29, 2003

I've got an older version of the 32" JVC -- it's great, puts out a lovely picture once you get it calibrated. (If you do nothing else, go into the menus and crank the "Picture" [sharpness] down to about 2 notches above the bottom.)

Buy good speakers. "Good" is constrained by your budget (and your idea of a "budget" setup might be wildly different from mine) and taste, but take the time to go and listen to some. After all, you'll be buying quite a few. I made a pitch for the NHT SuperOne, which is the cornerstone of my theater setup. They're quite good for music, as well, and built like tanks.

Another important consideration is speaker placement. Where you put them is nearly as important as what you put. Survery the room and figure out what will work aesthetically as well as practically

Light control is the next most important aspect. If at all possible, figure out how you're going to make it as dark as possible in the room, and consider your light barriers to be of equal importance to the gadgetry. I know the picture on the JVCs is pretty good even in terrible viewing conditions, but you'd be surprised how much nicer it is once you get blackout curtains up.

After that, shop for bits based on the features you like. There are a few products I'd suggest you take pains to avoid, though, and a few things to pay attention to.

Don't use a PS2 as your DVD player. It has extremely limited functionality and the internal fans are noisy.

Don't bother with Monster-type cable for speakers. For the most part, it's no better than the cheap stuff from Radio Shack.

Do spend money on good S-Video cabling. Gold contacts and such aren't too important, but quality in the cable itself is worthwhile.

Do spring for a copy of Video Essentials to help you get video and audio calibrated well. I use the laserdisc version, but the DVD version is just fine.

Don't lavish tons of money on your DVD player. Get the features you need and don't worry about anything fancier. Picture quality does not vary substantially between midrange players except for a few bad apples.

Do think ahead of time how you'll do media storage. Those DVDs and VCDs will start to pile up!
posted by majick at 1:51 PM on December 29, 2003

I don't have a home theater set up, although I do enjoy a low-end audiophile stereo and watch movies through it in stereo -- some components are better than others, but I think without a doubt you should invest in good speakers if sound is important to you. And good speakers don't necessarily have to be ridiculously expensive. I think the difference in sound between good and bad speakers is much more noticeable than between a good and bad receiver.
posted by drobot at 1:53 PM on December 29, 2003

Interesting. I was having some audio problems this weekend. I have my DVD player hooked to the TV with component hookups, and the sound out the tuner with just the L-R stereo connections. My problem is that I have the Bose 2-cubes-and-a-subwoofer system where the speaker connections go into the subwoofer and then split out to the cubes. But I find when I watch DVDs that the dialogue is often almost inaudible while the stuff blowin' up rattles the windows. I assume the problem is that I am losing the center channel on the DVD audio, but this happens even when there is a stereo or 2.1 sound track.

Not to steal your question-asking thunder, blueshammer, but any suggestions without getting a 5.1 system?
posted by Kafkaesque at 3:33 PM on December 29, 2003

Having built a 'multi purpose home theater PC' from scratch, I'd say spring for a TIVO, especially if it's more than just you using it. If you need a PC to do other things, make that a seperate item. Much. much cheaper this way all things summed up.
posted by daver at 3:39 PM on December 29, 2003

Having built a 'multi purpose home theater PC' from scratch, I'd say spring for a TIVO, especially if it's more than just you using it. If you need a PC to do other things, make that a seperate item. Much, much cheaper to get a tivo all things summed up.
posted by daver at 3:44 PM on December 29, 2003

For a DVD player, I highly recommend the Panasonic DVD-F85K (or F85S, the only difference is the color, K=black, S=silver). It's an ultra-slim 5-disc changer with basically everything: built-in decoders for both Dolby and DTS audio tracks (plus, of course, digital audio out); progressive component video out; support for DVD-R, DVD-RAM, DVD-Audio, JPEG picture CDs, and MP3/WMA audio CDs. It even has virtual surround sound for when you're listening with headphones and several snazzy video and audio signal processing features. The only thing this player is missing that a serious home theater maven might want is a DVI (digital video) output, but most people don't even have monitors with DVI inputs yet.

I did not really need a new DVD player (my old player, also a Panasonic, still works fine) and yet I bought a DVD-F85K. Why? It replaces both my 5-disc CD changer and my DVD player and uses a quarter of the rack space. And, hell, for under $150, how could you not buy one? That's right, I said UNDER $150. Sheesh! A player like this would have easily cost $1000 a few years ago.

On the TiVo front, I wouldn't buy one until DirecTV introduces their HD service (and new TiVo boxes to go with it) early in 2004. Even if you don't want to go HDTV (and you might not; I hear rumors that the HD TiVos will be quite pricey) you will be able to get great deals on used standard-res DirecTiVos from early adopters of HD.
posted by kindall at 8:53 PM on December 29, 2003

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