The REAL Cost of Cheap Home Theater Gear
You’ve just bought a new TV. Best you could afford. You did your research, you read all the reviews, and you ended up with something you are pretty sure will last you a long time. But the weak point in nearly any TV these days is the speakers. They, in a word, suck. You knew that going in (because, again, you read the reviews). That’s okay. You’ll just grab a soundbar or something. That’ll be good enough, right? It isn’t like you are an audiophile or anything. But the cost of cheap home theater gear goes way beyond the price tag.
We value what we understand. In the above example, the buyer valued good picture over good sound. That can easily go the other direction. As we probably all realize, when we buy the least expensive home theater gear, we aren’t getting the best. But what will we be missing? Let’s discuss.
All Home Theater Gear
When you buy cheap home theater gear, you know you are going to be missing features. But that’s okay because you don’t care about those (or so you think). Regardless of what you buy, when you buy cheap, you are rolling the dice with quality control. Cheap gear is made…well…cheaply. They are mass producing it with the least expensive parts as quickly as possible. Quality control? It’s way down on the list of things they care about. If you are going to buy cheap, buy from somewhere with a good return policy.
Because the last thing you want to do is to call the manufacturer about a warranty issue. One main cost of cheap home theater gear is that the margins are so slim that the manufacturer is unlikely to be very helpful. Why would they? They make money on volume, not on making sure you have a working unit. If they can frustrate you with their labyrinthine custom service phone menu enough, you’ll just give up and buy something else.
And that’s what it really costs when buying cheap home theater gear. If (when) it breaks, it’ll never be worth it to repair. It will be cheaper to replace. You are basically buying a disposable device. This isn’t something you’ll have for years. This is something that you’ll replace in a year or so. Either because it breaks or you realize you want something that works better.
Projectors and TVs
Nowhere is the cost of cheap home theater gear more apparent than in a display. The TV may have looked okay at the store, but it clearly has problems at home. Cloudy screen, poor motion, terrible contrast…the list goes on. Yes, your flat panel TV has terrible speakers. That’s pretty much a given. But a cheap TV cuts corners everywhere.
Too often people worry about size and resolution. They see a 65″ 4k display next to a less expensive 75″ 8k display and think they’ve discovered gold. Someone must have made a mistake! This bigger TV with 8k resolution is actually less expensive? Ha! They snatch it up before the staff figures out the mistake.
But it wasn’t a mistake. There is more to a display than the size and resolution. In fact, resolution is the least important spec much of the time! Instead, you should be worried about some of the latest gaming features, HDR performance, and, where applicable, backlight solutions. Sure, that big TV may be relatively cheap, but the cost of that particular piece of home theater gear is performance in the one thing you care about it doing well.
Lastly, a TV does more (these days) than just displaying a picture. They have apps and interfaces that need to be navigated. They have HDMI settings that have to be adjusted. Cheap TVs outsource these features. You may find yourself dealing with a buggy version of Android for your apps. The interface often is inexplicably complex and confusing. Sure, you saved a few hundred dollars, but you’ll be paying in time and frustration as you try to figure out how to operate your TV.
Speakers and Subwoofers
Buying cheap speakers and subwoofers may seem like the way to go. Mostly, they just can’t play all the notes they should. If you can’t hear it, you can’t miss it. But it is more than that. A cheap speaker or subwoofer won’t just omit sounds, they’ll make sounds they shouldn’t. This means more distortion, port chuffing, and tons of other sounds. You presumably got the speakers so that you could better hear what people say (or add surround sound). Cheap speakers and subwoofers may actually make your sound experience worse.
That quality control aspect we mentioned before? That’s doubly true with speakers and subwoofers. Cheap subwoofers don’t have the protection they often need from being overdriven. Cheap speakers can be damaged by being turned up too loud easily. As many of the “cheap” options are really only applicable for very small rooms, if you place them in a living room, you are pretty much inviting disaster.
If you think that your AV receiver is the most complex and confusing piece of gear in your home theater, it is because you bought a cheap one to save on the cost. An AV receiver is the brains of your home theater. It powers your speakers, routes your video, and applies EQ to help everything sound better. They may all look nearly identical, but it is inside that the differences really matter.
When you buy a cheap AV receiver, the first things that go are any and all convenience features. Since it is hard to tell what features an AV receiver will have without diving into the manual, you probably won’t realize what it can and can’t do until you’ve already set it up. Here is an abbreviated list of some of the features a cheap AV receiver will lack:
- No upconversion (converting analogue inputs to HDMI)
- No automatic setup assistant
- No pre-outs
- Limited HDMI 2.1 inputs
- Limited expandability
- No ability to reassign amps
- Lower quality room correction
- Lack of streaming options
Many people think they only want an AV receiver to power their speakers. But when they are hard to configure, don’t convert signals the way they want, and don’t have all the features they expect, they act surprised. The cost of cheap home theater receivers is a piece of gear that is hard to use and doesn’t do everything you want.
Are we saying you should go out and buy the most expensive home theater gear? Absolutely not! We have tons of guides (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here to name a few) that don’t list anywhere near the most expensive offerings in their categories. That said, buying based simply on price is a fool’s game. Instead, take some time and do some research. We understand that some AV gear can be confusing. But the cost of cheap home theater gear is often poor performance, bad customer service, lack of features, and frustration. Home theater should be fun, not frustrating. Buy right the first time so you can buy once, cry once. If not, you’ll be crying every time you have to use your home theater. And no one wants that.