Home Theater Shopping Guide: What, Where, and How to Buy
Can I be frank with you? I hate buying guides. Yes, I know people search for them all the time on the Internet. Yes, I knew they get lots of clicks. But I hate them. They are almost immediately out of date, the prices are never correct, and I usually end up more frustrated than enlightened. So, rather than give you a buying guide, I’m going to put together a home theater shopping guide. Where to go, what manufacturers to look at, and what order to buy your home theater gear. Let’s begin.
You probably already have one. In my history of people asking me for home theater buying advice, they’ve almost never NOT had a display. They may have wanted a new, bigger, or better one, but they had a display. If you have a display, and no other gear, buy the other gear first. That’s why we aren’t starting with the display (my advice will be last on this list).
Step One: Analyze Your Room
Our shopping guide starts with analyzing the room you will be placing your home theater gear. Too often people shop first and then realize they’ve bought completely inappropriate gear. We’re not going to do that. We are going to look at our home theater space so that we can plan and buy appropriately. What do we need to know? Well…
- Where will you place your speakers
- How many speakers do you want
- Where will you place your subwoofers
- Where will you sit
- Where will you place your room treatments
Step Two: Room Acoustics
While most people buy all their home theater gear and then try to fix their room, we highly recommend the opposite. You can’t truly know how your speakers sound if you haven’t treated your room. This means adding as much absorption as you can, moving your seats to their optimal position, and making any other changes that you can to improve your room’s acoustics. No, I don’t expect you to transform your living room into a home theater. Just do whatever you can and do it first. Need some help? Here’s a guide for adding absorptive panels to your room.
Once you’ve done what you can to treat your room, it’s time to start shopping for gear.
Step Three: Stereo Sound
You now need two things: A receiver and a pair of speakers. Don’t worry, we aren’t going to break the bank here. But we do need to shop smartly. You don’t necessarily need to buy your dream speakers right now, you just need a pair that will match well with your dream speakers. This means you need to know what your dream speakers would be.
You’ll also need a receiver. So let’s start there. If you are in the US, head over to Accessories4Less.com and start shopping. You can look for receivers and speakers there. Most everything they have is b-stock directly from the manufacturers with full warranties. When shopping for a receiver, don’t look at watts. Look at the features that you want that are important to you. Don’t know what those are? Check out our handy guide. Just make sure you know how many speakers you’ll eventually have and buy a receiver that can power them (either with internal amps or a mix of internal and external).
Now, you’ll need to pair this receiver with some speakers. As I said, you don’t need your dream speakers, you just need a pair that will give you some sound that you can later use as surrounds. Don’t worry, we have a guide for this too. Other than looking at local stores, you can shop online. Check out SVS and Aperion Audio. These two online retailers have free returns and free shipping both ways. You can audition them in your home and send them back if you don’t like them.
Step Four: Add Surround
Now that you’ve lived with stereo sound for a while, it is time to add more speakers to the mix. If you’ve followed our shopping guide and loved your stereo speakers, buy some more and round out a five or seven speaker home theater system. If you’ve hated them, sell them and start shopping. Either way, you’ll want to upgrade at least to a 5.0 system. This is three speakers up front and two to your sides. Not sure how to set them up? You guessed it, we have a guide for that too.
Step Five: Drop the Bass
After you’ve been “wow’ed” by surround sound, it is time to add some bass. A subwoofer (or preferably a pair of subs) will make a massive difference in your home theater experience. We’ve got a guide for shopping for subs, but there are definitely places we’d send you. SVS is a favorite as are HSU Research, Power Sound Audio, Rythmik Audio, and REL.
Step Six: Consider Atmos
If you haven’t already eliminated overhead speakers as a possibility, now is the time to add them. Don’t expect a big difference and don’t spend a bunch on speakers. Our experiences with Atmos have been very mixed. Some people really like overhead speakers, others don’t. We have a buying guide (which is probably out of date by the time you read this) that you can use. If the speakers we recommend aren’t available, basically any in-ceiling or on-ceiling speakers will work.
Step Seven: Upgrade your Display
We list the display as seventh in our home theater shopping guide because you probably already have one. It is probably too small and you probably sit too far away. Don’t worry, we have a guide for how to buy the right size TV. The key is to get the right size to give you that cinematic experience. Beyond that, check out our shopping guide to make sure you are getting a TV that is right for you. If you are shopping locally, check out our in-store shopping guide.
From a technology standpoint, OLED is still king. It is also the most expensive. LCDs (which come with all sorts of names including Neo QLED, QNED, and LED) are getting better but still can’t match the contrast (black levels) of OLED. LG makes great OLEDs and you can get great LCDs from Sony and Samsung.
If your display budget is tight, check out offerings from Vizio or TCL. Vizio makes good displays but you need to be careful. They have a lot of lines of TVs and many cut corners to hit their price points. Keep to their P or, if you can afford it, their P Quantum X series. We’ve also been impressed by TCL. Their 6-series and higher have local dimming zones and great features for the price point. They generally use Roku or Android TV as their front end which some find convenient and others annoying.
And that’s it. Make a plan, fix your room, and then start shopping. We’ve got some online resources for you as well as some specific suggestions. Follow our specific guides when you are ready to shop for a specific piece of gear. And if you have the money, do it all at the same time! You don’t have to buy stereo speakers first. You can get a full speaker setup. But if you don’t, we’ve broken it up so that you can save between steps. Most of all, have fun!