8 Tips for Putting Together a Great Home Theater on a Budget

Home theater provides an exciting entertainment experience, but at what price?

Couple on a couch looking at home theatre


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Many consumers are confused about how to get started in home theater and how much to spend. Contrary to popular belief, those on a budget can still afford a modest system that will do the job.

What you ultimately spend depends on reconciling your desires with your available cash. There are inexpensive and mid-range options that provide great value and performance, while some very expensive options only deliver a marginal increase in performance and may not always be the best value.

The following tips will enable you to merge your desires with some practical, cost-effective, strategies for assembling your home theater.

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Think About What's Most Important for Your Home Theater

Sony XBR-X930E Series 4K Ultra HD TV

Photo from Amazon

A home theater system is an exciting entertainment option that provides the consumer with an immersive viewing and listening experience. Your home theater system can be just a TV and modest sound system or a sophisticated custom-built system with a high-end TV or video projector, in-wall and ceiling speakers, expensive home theater seating.

Here are the basic questions you need to seek answers to: Do you want the biggest viewing image possible? Will you be spending more time watching TV, watching movies, listening to music, or playing video games? Do you want to incorporate the internet into your home theater system?

As you get excited about your home theater plans, also be aware of common mistakes that can impact both your budget and enjoyment of your new system.

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Decide Whether to Upgrade or Start From Scratch

Enclave Audio CineHome 5.1 Wire-Free Home Theater System Package

Photo from Amazon

Take stock of what you already have and think you might want to keep—at least for now. As you survey what you have, take into consideration what you want your completed home theater system to include. Here are some examples:

  • A Display Device - In order to watch video content, you need a TV or video projector/screen.
  • One or More Sources - You need something to provide you with the content you watch or hear. Home Theater source component options include Blu-ray or DVD players, game consoles, network media player/streamers, antenna, cable, or satellite TV box.
  • A Sound System - In order to hear your movies, TV shows, or other video content, you need to connect your source to a stereo or home theater receiver and speakers.
  • Equipment Rack or Cabinet - You need a place to put your TV or source components, and if own CDs, DVDs, and Blu-rays, having a place to store them is a good idea.
  • Seating - To complete your home theater setup, a nice, comfortable chair or couch is a great way to add to the enjoyment.
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Consider a Home-Theater-In-A-Box or Sound Bar

ZVOX Audio SB400 and SB500 Sound Bars

ZVOX Audio

If you have a small room to work with, or just don't want the hassle of putting together an elaborate setup, consider an appropriate TV and either a home-theater-in-a-box or soundbar system.

Home-theater-in-a-box systems are affordable packages that contain most of the components needed, including speakers, a surround receiver, and, in some cases, even a DVD or Blu-ray player.

A sound bar is a device that creates a wider surround-like field from a single speaker cabinet, which can be placed above or below a TV. Some sound bars have their own internal amplifiers and most also come with a separate subwoofer. Soundbars save a lot of space and eliminate the need for extra surround speakers in a modest setup.

If you dream of the day when you can afford your ultimate home theater system but don't have the cash, a home-theater-in-a-box or sound bar are definitely affordable.

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Evaluate the Hidden Benefits of Blu-ray Players

Official Blu-ray Disc Logo
Blu-ray Disc Association

Although Blu-ray players are more expensive than DVD players, most are now priced at less than $100. There are some real money-saving advantages to owning a Blu-ray player over a DVD player. Blu-ray players not only play Blu-ray discs but also play DVDs and CDs as well.

Also, most Blu-ray players can also play audio, video, and still image content from USB flash drives via an onboard USB port. Lastly, almost all Blu-ray players incorporate internet streaming capability. These players can be connected to the internet via a router, allowing you to stream online audio and video content directly to the player for viewing on your TV or video projector. Check for these, and other features, when shopping for a Blu-ray player.

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Don't Over-Pay for Accessories

HDMI Cable with plug

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When you buy a TV, Blu-ray player, home theater receiver, speakers, and subwoofer, the cost for those items isn't your final total. You still need cables, wires, and possibly other accessories, such as a universal remote control and surge protector, to get it all set up and working. Accessories can be expensive, but they don't have to be. Avoid both the $100 HDMI cables and the too-good-to-be-true bargain basement stuff.

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Buy Refurbished Products If You Don't Need the Latest and Greatest

Man looking at music equipment through windows of electronic shop

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We are always looking for bargains. One way to save money in putting together a home theater is to buy refurbished products, especially if you don't need the latest and greatest. When most of us think of a refurbished item, we think of something that has been opened up, torn apart, and rebuilt, like an auto transmission rebuild, for instance.

However, in the electronics world, it is not so obvious what the term "refurbished" actually means for the consumer. Before you embark on your quest to find those great deals, arm yourself with some useful shopping tips for buying refurbished products.

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Consider the Long-Term Costs of Using Your Home Theater System

Man's hands holding an Empty wallet

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It doesn't do any good to spend money on a home theater if you don't have the money to enjoy it on an ongoing basis. Here are some things to take into consideration:

  • Discs - The average price of a DVD movie is about $15, while the average price of a Blu-ray movie is about $25. Always watch for sales. Consider renting DVD/Blu-ray discs if you are not interested in keeping them.
  • Cable and Satellite Fee - The amount you pay depends on the package that you contract for.
  • Pay-Per-View Fees - The prices vary, can be a little as $2 per view or $20 or more for certain newer film releases or special events.
  • Internet Streaming Fees - Some providers require a monthly subscription, while others impose pay-per-view fees. One cautionary note is that even though internet streaming is a very attractive alternative to cable or satellite, costs can be just as high depending on how you manage what you watch. One benefit though is that you only pay for the service or specific content you want.
  • Video Projector Lamp Replacement - If you opt for a video projector, rather than a TV, most projectors incorporate a lamp that needs to be periodically replaced. Although lamp costs have come down in recent years, depending on the projector, it could still be as much as several hundred dollars. Typical video projector lamp life ranges from 3,000 to 5,000 hours.
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Saving Money Is Good; Acquiring Great Value Is Better

Couple sorting money out of a jar of change

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A home theater can be a real money saver — if you buy smart. The key things: Don't buy the cheapest, but don't overpay for just a minor increase in performance. Be comfortable with your purchase. If you can't afford everything right away, a practical way to start is to buy a good TV and build out from there.

When shopping for your home theater components, keep the following in mind:

  • Be Realistic - When buying a product, budget for additional expenses such as sales tax, delivery charges, and needed accessories. When looking at the purchase price of the product, add an additional 20 to 25 percent. This will more accurately reflect your final register total.
  • Research Before You Buy - Before buying any type of home theater component, check out information on both internet and print on the type of products you are considering. On the web, there are resources such as manufacturer sites, comparative reviews, online price guides, and more that can help you with your choices. Don't ever tell a salesman you know nothing about the item you are trying to purchase, especially if he/she is on commission.
  • Read Those Ads Carefully - One important way to prepare for the shopping experience is to learn how to interpret the different types of ads that clutter the Sunday ad inserts in your newspaper.
  • Understand Store Return Policies - During the excitement of making a purchase, asking about the store return policy is often overlooked. Make sure you know right up front what the return policy is. This is especially important if you are buying the product as a gift for someone. Some retailers have restocking fees (usually 15 percent) on some, or all, items (once opened) whether defective or not. Although some retailers may be lenient in a specific case, most are strict on this policy. It is possible that even if you are even just one day past the return policy cutoff, the product is yours, even if the product is unopened. A store's return policy should be posted at the cash register stations, and may also be imprinted on the back of your receipt. If you don't see it—ask.
  • Extended Service Plans - To Buy or Not to Buy? ​- When making a home theater product purchase on a strict budget, you may be highly resistant to buying a service plan or extended warranty. However, if you are buying anything mechanically based, such as a CD/DVD/Blu-ray player, or you are buying a large screen LCD or OLED TV, consider buying extended service. Of course, the cost of the plan, the type of coverage offered, and the price of the plan are also important considerations. Make sure you look at the fine print of the contract before buying.
  • Buy Everything You Need the First Time - Buy EVERYTHING a product needs to make it work. Make sure you buy any needed cables or other accessories so the item can be used when you get it home. If you are buying a DVD or Blu-ray player, buy a couple of DVD or Blu-ray movies. If you are buying a DVD Recorder, make sure you buy a package of blank DVDs in the correct format.
  • Know the Rules of Mail Order and Online Buying - To find the right product at the right price, many consumers are buying more and more off of the internet, mail order, or from QVC and other shopping channels. However, as attractive as those internet and mail order shopping prices are, there are some pitfalls. Make sure you understand the total costs of shopping online or via mail order.