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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.

Home Theater Reviews
Home Theater Audio
Blu-Ray Home Theater Reviews

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.

Home Theater Reviews

Home theater reviews by experts and consumers agree that a low-cost package is no match for a pricey home theater assembled one piece at a time or for a total system with a price tag exceeding $800. Even so, entry-level systems are a big improvement over the poor sound quality that plagues even expensive HDTVs. The home theater systems we researched are easy to set up and sufficiently varied that you should find a package with the components you want and lacking the ones you don't.

Home Theater Sound.

Because TV speakers just don't cut it, many consumers buy inexpensive home theater systems to add higher quality audio to an existing setup. Home theater reviews clearly indicate that the packages we researched will put your TV's audio to shame.

Boston Acoustics' TVee 26 (starting at $299) may be the best sounding of the bunch. This simple 2.1 sound bar impresses reviewers at sites like Audioholics with its punch and very clear mid and high ranges. An expert home theater review by Big Picture Big Sound reports no distortion when cranking up the volume on the sound bar but noticeable distortion when doing the same on the included subwoofer. That said, the review notes you don't need turned up volume to get a rocking bass.

The Zvox Z-Base 220 (starting at $200) wins high praise in home theater reviews for its sound and easy set up, box-like design. A CNET expert was "blown away" by this unique system, with its excellent audio and a dialogue enhancement feature that's a boon for movie watching. The powerful bass and clear spoken words earn a shout-out as well in PC Mag's home theater review. One minor complaint about this system concerns a less-than-impressive virtual surround sound effect.

The Panasonic SC-BTT195 (starting at $358) is a full-fledged surround sound system with two front speakers, two rear speakers, a center channel, and a subwoofer. That home theater in a box configuration makes for an immersive experience, according to a home theater review at About.com, which nonetheless notes that the audio could use a little more detail. PC Mag considers the SC-BTT195 a first-rate starter system that produces excellent surround sound even though the midrange and treble disappoint slightly.

Another Panasonic system worth considering is the SC-HTB350 (starting at $198), a 2.1 system with separate control box. The slick design, which can be arranged as a sound bar or as two separate speakers, appeals to a reviewer at Digital Trends, as does the user-friendly support for wireless Bluetooth connections. On the down side, this home theater review reports that the bass from the subwoofer is too loud, especially when playing music. Other expert reviews commend the wide sound field and excellent dialogue playback in movies but say the speakers struggle a bit with detail in higher frequencies and the bass is a little too boomy.

We identified several other systems that can buoy the sound of your home theater even though they didn't make our list. The Vizio SB4021M-A1 (starting at $221) is a simple 2.1 sound bar with a built-in control that a home theater review by Gadget Review praises for its accurate midrange tones and a powerful bass that doesn't overwhelm the speakers. The Toshiba Mini 3D (starting at $162) sound bar is a tiny device that still manages to fill up a room with well-balanced sound; a home theater review by Digital Trends deems the sound quality remarkable and lauds the good detail and balance and the clear dialogue during movies. The Samsung HT-E5400 (starting at $307), a 5.1 home theater in a box system that includes a 3D Blu-ray player, has yet to be reviewed by experts but consumer comments at Amazon and Crutchfield contend its small speakers produce high quality sound.

Review continues below

Another 5.1 home theater system, the Yamaha YHT-397 (starting at $248), includes a receiver rather than a simple control box or Blu-ray player. The small speakers are plenty loud and this home theater in a box is a good value, according to home theater reviews at Amazon and Newegg. We came across a few grumbles about a slightly underpowered subwoofer and audio quality that doesn't quite meet expectations.

Home Theater Systems Video.

Home theater systems of the past included a DVD or Blu-ray player more often than not, but that trend has played out now that many buyers already own a Blu-ray player or would rather choose one independently. Only two of the products we researched come with a Blu-ray player -- the Panasonic SC-BTT195 and Samsung HT-E5400.

Both Blu-ray players performed well, according to home theater reviews. The Blu-ray player in the Panasonic SC-BTT195 package displays excellent color, contrast, and detail, reviewers report, and its black levels are impressive. A review in PC Mag also points out that the Ethernet connection on the Blu-ray player enables a connection to a home network and access to HuluPlus, Netflix, and other streaming services. None of our other picks can make that claim. Users of the Blu-ray player in the Samsung HT-E5400 like it well enough. The only grousing we noticed in home theater reviews came from a consumer who claims the Smart TV menu is a bit slow.

Home Theater Audio

The main purpose of a home theater system is to give a big sound boost to your entertainment complex. That being the case, speakers are a top priority. Home theater audio components should include at least two separate speakers or a sound bar containing at least two speakers plus a subwoofer.

Home Theater Audio.

Speakers are basic components. True audiophiles may haggle over minutia such as frequency response, impedance, and other technical details, but frugal shoppers need not worry about these numbers. They simply aren't as important as the improvement in sound quality from even a low-cost audio package. Although home theater audio at this end of the market doesn't compare to stand-alone speakers that cost more, sometimes thousands more, it will be more than adequate for most consumers. The superiority of home theater audio compared to TV speakers will be immediately noticeable.

Manufacturers and retailers signal the number of speakers and subwoofers in a home theater audio package with jargon such as "5.1 speaker system." This particular notation indicates that the system includes five speakers and one subwoofer; a "2.1 speaker system" has two speakers and one subwoofer. You'll also come across the term "channels," which refers to the number of speakers the system can support, as in a 7.1 channel audio system, which translates as seven speakers and one subwoofer.

Home theater audio comes courtesy of up to three types of speakers: satellite speakers, a subwoofer, and a center channel. Satellite speakers are the front speakers (and rear speakers in a 5.1 system). A center channel's main job is to emphasize dialogue, and this speaker should be placed in front of or very near the TV. A sound bar is a long, narrow speaker enclose that typically houses two speakers, and, like the center channel, is designed to fit below or above the TV. A subwoofer plays the lower, deeper tones in the home theater audio system and can be placed anywhere in the room. Dolby's web site includes an excellent guide to speaker placement.

The one speaker specification that often attracts the attention of average buyers is the watts, which indicates how much power the speakers can handle and subsequently the maximum volume to expect. This number is not so clear cut, however. Manufacturers use two common measurements of watts: peak power and RMS. Peak power is the maximum power the speakers can take in one blast. RMS power is the amount of power the speakers can support over a period of time. The peak power rating is higher than the RMS rating, but the RMS rating is more telling of a speaker's true power-handling ability.

Unfortunately, manufacturers of entry-level systems don't always specify which measurement they're providing and some home theater systems (including most of those we researched) don't list the watts at all. If the manufacturer doesn't state the watts as RMS watts, assume the number given refers to the peak power measurement.

Home Theater Formats.

Home theater systems usually support many audio processing formats that can significantly enhance the system's sound quality. Look for home theater audio that supports formats such as Dolby Digital, Dolby Pro Logic II, DTS, and DTS-HD, which use digital tricks to enrich the sound for music and movies. You'll find such features on the Boston Acoustics TVee 26, Panasonic SC-BTT195, Panasonic SC-HTB350, Samsung HT-E5400, Yamaha YHT-397, and Vizio SB4021M-A1.

Home theater systems that incorporate a sound bar or two speakers almost always include some sort of virtual surround sound format that mimics a full 5.1 speaker setup. This effect creates a wider sound field, which gives the impression that the speakers are playing sound across a broader swath of the room than you'd expect given their relatively small size. The Zvox Z-Base 220, Panasonic SC-HTB350, and Toshiba Mini 3D are examples of home theater systems that showcase this kind of audio processing technology. The Panasonic SC-BTT195 and Yamaha YHT-397, by contrast, provide full surround sound.

Blu-Ray Home Theater Reviews

Despite the trend toward packages comprised of just audio components, you can still find some Blu-ray home theaters and others that come with a receiver. As you shop, note the number and types of inputs and outputs to be sure the system matches up with all your devices. And of course you'll want home theater setup to be easy as pie.

Home Theater System Connections.

Today's home theater systems don't require many inputs. All the system needs is a digital optical input that connects to the TV and relays sound from the television to the home theater system. Most units, though, include a handful of extra inputs and connections. For example, most home theater systems have a 3.5mm input for an MP3 player so you can listen to music. The Zvox Z-Base 220, Boston Acoustics TVee 26, and Vizio SB4021M-A1 all include a 3.5mm connection. Many systems also have an analog audio input to connect to the TV in case the set lacks a digital optical output.

Blu-ray home theater systems and packages that include a receiver contain more inputs and outputs, of course. A system with a Blu-ray player should have at least one HDMI port in addition to a digital optical port. The Panasonic SC-BTT195, a Blu-ray home theater, has an HDMI output as well as two USB 2.0 ports, optical output, an Ethernet port, and a memory card slot that supports SD/SDHC/SDXC memory cards. The Samsung HT-E5400, the only other Blu-ray home theater we researched, features two HDMI inputs and one HDMI output, a digital optical audio input, a composite output, and a USB port. Home theater systems without a Blu-ray player may also include one or more USB ports, as do the Vizio SB4021M-A1 and Samsung HT-E5400.

Home theater systems with a receiver, like the Yamaha YHT-397, will likely include more inputs and outputs than the others so you can connect and manage several devices, such as a TV, Blu-ray player, and DVD player, to name a few. The YHT-397 has several component and composite inputs and outputs, digital and analog audio inputs and outputs, HDMI inputs, and one HDMI output.

Home Theater Setup.

As home theater systems have become smaller -- i.e., with fewer components -- they've become easier to set up. Entry-level home theater systems are often comprised of just a sound bar that contains two speakers and a subwoofer. Instead of a Blu-ray player or receiver, many systems have a control module built into the sound bar or a separate control module that's plugged into the speakers and subwoofer. The wires connecting these devices are usually color coded, which simplifies home theater setup even more. Some systems, such as the Boston Acoustics TVee 26 and the Vizio SB4021M-A1, feature a wireless subwoofer so there's nothing to plug in.

The easiest home theater setups among the systems we researched include the Boston Acoustics TVee 26, Zvox Z-Base 220, Panasonic SC-HTB350, Vizio SB4021M-A1, and Toshiba Mini 3D. Installation of the Z-Base 220 may be the most straightforward of all -- the speakers and control module are built into one box -- so all you need do is plug it into the TV.

A few of the systems discussed here have more speakers and components to manage. The Panasonic SC-BTT195 and Samsung HT-E5400 are both 5.1 home theater systems with a Blu-ray player: Just attach the speakers directly to the Blu-ray player, then connect the player to the TV. The Yamaha YHT-397 is a 5.1 system with a receiver and a home theater setup that's equally clear cut.



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In this review:
  1. Best Cheap Home Theaters
  2. Discount Home Theater Features Comparison Table
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