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Cheap Home Theaters Buying Guide

Consider our two favorite cheap home theater systems. The Boston Acoustics TVee 26 (starting at $299) is simply a sound bar and wireless subwoofer; the Zvox Z-Base 220 (starting at $200) packs the speakers and control unit into one wooden box.

The Panasonic SC-HTB350 (starting at $198), another good cheap home theater package, is also a small system that comes with two speakers, a subwoofer, and a separate control unit. The only home theater in a box among our top picks, the Panasonic SC-BTT195 (starting at $358), features a very good 3D Blu-ray player and a 5.1 speaker package. Expert reviews indicate all four cheap home theater systems deliver rich, satisfying sound.

We didn't find any entry-level home theater systems worth panning, but we did find a handful of overlooked models. The Toshiba Mini 3D (starting at $162) is a truly tiny sound bar that packs quite a punch. The Vizio SB4021M-A1 (starting at $221), a 2.1 sound bar that's been around for a while, garners strong support from experts for the quality of the sound given the bargain-level price. Samsung's HT-E5400 (starting at $307) is a very affordable 5.1 home theater in a box that includes a 3D Blu-ray player. Yamaha's YHT-397 (starting at $248) is also a 5.1 home theater in a box but swaps a Blu-ray player for a home theater receiver, a setup we actually prefer.

Cheap home theater systems come in a variety of component combinations. Blu-ray players were once the star of the home theater systems show, but the market has evolved and consumers seem to prefer to choose a Blu-ray player separately or use a player they already own. And while a separate receiver lets you manage all the components of a home theater from one central hub, few new home theater packages now include one. Indeed, the current crop of cheap home theater systems are often stripped-down affairs.

Some simple systems (like the Boston Acoustics TVee 26) are nothing more than a sound bar with a built-in controller and a separate subwoofer. Other systems come with speakers and a controller only, while a few add a Blu-ray player or receiver. Most cheap home theater systems have two or five speakers, plus one subwoofer (thus the 2.1 and 5.1 abbreviations usually displayed on the packaging). Home theater systems always include a remote control to run the setup and some inexpensive home theaters support wireless Bluetooth connections, a nice bonus for users who want to listen to music through a smartphone or MP3 player. Home theater systems do not include a TV, a game console, cable box, or other similar components often found in a well-wired media room.

As with any electronics purchase, it pays to do your homework before buying. Cheap home theater systems vary considerably in quality and price, and as we pointed out above, they contain different components. Expensive home theater systems boast top-notch (and probably large) speakers or an equivalent sound bar, and perhaps a good Blu-ray player or powerful receiver. And while cheap home theater systems no doubt cut a few corners -- the speakers won't be as loud or crystal clear as high-end speakers, for example -- the audio is guaranteed to sound far, far better than what you'd hear through the speakers built into your TV.

The heavy hitters in the consumer electronics industry aren't releasing as many home theaters in a box as they used to, but they're big into home theater systems qua audio packages. Samsung, Vizio, Panasonic, Pioneer, Toshiba, and Yamaha are some of the more popular names.

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