How Much Should a Home Theater Cost?
I’m often asked how much someone should spend on a home entertainment system. This is another one of those straightforward questions that has more than one answer. I will almost always answer the initial question with one of my own; what do you want to do? The answer to this second question usually gets the conversation going in a direction that will, eventually, answer the first question. In other words, it depends.
I have been in home theaters that cost more than a San Francisco Bay Area house. On the other end of the scale, home theaters can consist of little more than a TV, sound bar, Blu-ray player and cable box with a combined cost of less than $2,000.00. That’s quite a range of potential investment. That’s the first reason I start by asking a lot of questions.
The second reason why I ask a lot of questions is that the perception of what is a home theater usually falls into the first (expensive) category. If, by asking questions, I can communicate that a home theater can be more like the second (budget-friendly) category, we can explore a whole different realm of possibilities.
Options, Options, Options
Sometimes the answers to my questions boil down to “I want to impress my neighbor/coworkers/ girlfriend/brother, etc.” In other words, the motivation is ego driven. That means using only the most expensive equipment that the budget will allow. Flashy is better and performance is used to impress and not necessarily for the best listening and viewing experience. The conversation gravitates towards curved screen, 4K TV’s. Because bigger is better, we will likely talk about projectors and retractable screens. Because loud is good, placement of big speakers is going to be a topic. Flashy LED indicator lights and needle sound level indicators on equipment that is prominently displayed is obligatory. This is very much the perception most people have of what a home theater means.
The sound aspect of this conversation will revolve around the quality, and placement of the speakers. Size doesn’t matter as much as the speakers performing well and reproducing sound well within the room they are located.
If the answers boil down to “I want the best quality experience I can afford”, we are going to have a very different conversation. This conversation will touch on viewing angles, the optimum distance from the screen and the resolution of the TV. LCD, OLED and Quantum Dots are terms that will enter the conversation. We might talk about projectors, screens and the pros and cons of using a projector over a TV. The conversation might even take a side trip to automated blackout blinds, sound treatments, theater seating and dimming lights.
The sound aspect of this conversation will revolve around the quality, and placement of the speakers. Size doesn’t matter as much as the speakers performing well and reproducing sound well within the room they are located. Budget is always a consideration, but can usually be compromised in the interest of quality. One interesting note about building for quality is that it almost always impresses much more than the flashy approach noted above – After the initial Oohs and Aahs, it really does come down to how good was the movie watching experience. This is the reality of what a home theater can be.
The third result of the questions I ask is “I have a start on a system, but I want it to be better.” This is almost always followed with “But, I don’t have a lot of money to spend on it.” We are back to the perception I wrote about above. This is also the reality where the majority of people find themselves. The good news is this is a really good place to be. This conversation will revolve around what is already in place and what steps can be taken to make those components better.
Step by Step
If the only piece in place is a Tube TV, the first obvious improvement is with a flat screen TV. There have been huge advancements in the quality of color reproduction, resolution and energy efficiency that make this the starting point for any home theater. The days of the cat basking in the warmth of the TV in the cabinet below are long gone! One of the best parts of an upgrade like this might be how affordable a new flat screen TV really is. As of this writing, you can get an LG, 55 inch, 1080P, HD TV for less than $800.00. This deal would be the perfect place to start.
One not-so-obvious accessory for a flat screen TV is mounting it to the wall.
Accessorizing the flat screen is probably the next place to look. The obvious choice here is a Blu-ray player to watch HD movies. Blu-ray players play movies that are produced in HD and do so with an amazingly low investment. As of this writing, a new Blu-ray player can be had for less than $100.00! Yep, they are that cheap! Depending on the time of year you are shopping, you may even find TV’s that come with a Blue-Ray Player thrown in. Bonus!
One not-so-obvious accessory for a flat screen TV is mounting it to the wall. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission 2015 report, there are more than 15,000 emergency room treated injuries associated with TV’s and TV related furniture tipping over. (http://www.cpsc.gov/PageFiles/132250/TV-hazard-report-January2015.pdf ) This means, at the very least, every single TV should have an anti-tip strap attaching it to the wall. Better than the anti-tip strap, mounting the TV on the wall is not only a safety improvement but it also frees up real estate on furniture that can be used for speakers and decoration.
Professional quality wall mounts start at about $80.00, plus labor to install, for a fixed-position mount and go up to around $200.00, plus labor to install, for a full motion rotating/tilting mount. These are prices for the mounts available for a 55” Samsung, UHD, TV. Other models may have slightly higher or lower costs associated with their mounts. This is a minuscule investment for the safety gained, plus a wall mounted TV opens up space in a room. Who doesn’t need a little more space in their home?
Let’s say the flat screen and Blue-ray player are already in place. The next improvement should be in sound. If you think about it, the speakers in a flat screen are small to fit in the space allowed. Flat screen TV’s are usually only about three to four inches thick, and at least one of those inches is needed for the screen. It’s impossible to get a quality speaker to fit in the narrow space left over. In addition, the speakers are usually pointed down towards the floor or back towards the wall behind the TV. This means that any sound they produce will have to be reflected to get to the viewer’s ears. You'll probably have to crank up the volume to hear at normal levels and your neighbors will also be forced to listen.
One widely accepted guideline says that a home theater sound system should cost about twice what the picture cost. If we accept the price of a quality flat screen above, the sound system should cost around $1,200.00. Adding a quality sound bar and sub-woofer will give a quantum leap improvement in sound quality over the speakers supplied in the TV. A very nice quality sound-bar can be found for under $400.00. When considering the guideline above, this becomes an easy decision.
The next step beyond a sound-bar is a full surround sound system. One of the first articles we put up on our website – “An Experiment with Budget Audio” – shows how a surround sound system can be installed for right around $500.00. This is well within the range of the $1,200.00 guideline above. There are dozens of packaged surround sound systems between $500.00 and $1,200.00. As the price increases, the features included in the receiver and the quality of the speakers get better. My recommendation is always to get as much AV receiver and speakers as can be accommodated by the budget. AV Receivers and speakers are components that instantly reward increased investment with a better home theater experience.
A fabulous home theater can be put together one piece at a time, and on a reasonable budget.
As components are added to the system, remotes start piling up on the coffee table. It’s not uncommon to have four or five remotes for a home theater system. When faced with all of those remotes, a universal remote starts to make a lot of sense. Instead of four remotes needed to watch TV, A universal remote lets you push a single button. Everything turns on and sets itself to the proper input and output. The remote then controls all of the different components just like you would expect it to. The volume button controls the receiver volume, the channel buttons control the cable box etc. If you want to watch a movie, push the Movie button and everything switches over. The buttons on the universal remote work with the Blu-ray player just as you would expect them to. Some remotes can even dim the lights and close the curtains for you when it’s time to watch a movie. Slick! Universal remotes can be a little as $150.00 or as much as $1,500.00 depending on the features you want and how many devices they control.
Assembling a home theater can be as easy as writing a great big check to an integrator to purchase, install and configure a top-of-the-line home theater. That option, however, is usually out of the range of possibilities for most of us. A fabulous home theater can be put together one piece at a time, and on a reasonable budget. Said budget is determined entirely by what you want to accomplish. At the end of the day, you determine what it costs to put the home theater of your dreams together. Isn’t that the way it should be?
About Brian Hill
Brian Hill is a home theater enthusiast who has an extensive background in sales. His interests include music & movies, F1 & NASCAR auto racing, hot rods (he has a '56 Nomad) and hockey — Go Sharks!
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