How to make your living room a home theater on any budget
Bring the cinema to you with these brilliant home theater gadgets
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While the pandemic is slowing down, most of us are spending a lot more time at home these days. For many of us, that means a lot more time in front of the TV. Whether for gaming, family movie night, or simply vegging out in front of your favorite streaming service, if you’re staring into an antiquated TV or listening to weak and tinny sound, you probably already know what we’re going to say: it’s time for an upgrade.
For some, going out to the movies may still not be an option, so the best way to get some cinematic wow factor in your life is to bring the theater to you. Luckily, you don’t have to dip into that college fund to upgrade to features like 4K, HDR, or spine-tingling Dolby Atmos sound. Our guide will show you how to spend light—or go large—on a new home theater without ever leaving the house. Follow below for the best way to put some cinematic punch back in your life.
A glimmering new 4K TV
The budget option: TCL 4-Series TV
If you’re building a home theater on a budget and you’re looking to invest in a new TV, it’ll be tough to find a better option than the TCL 4-Series, which offers a great picture for an out-of-this-world price. It’s available in six sizes ranging from 43 inches all the way up to 85 inches.
Priced as low as $260, the 4-Series isn’t crammed with fancy-schmancy features, but it sports a pretty 4K picture with vivid colors and solid contrast for the money. Especially if you’re upgrading from an HD (1080p) model, you’re in for a real treat. The 4-Series supports HDR (High Dynamic Range), and while the panel doesn’t get bright enough to show off all the benefits of HDR, it’s a nice feature to have in tow if you spend a good amount of time on streaming platforms like Netflix and Hulu.
Speaking of streaming, our favorite feature of the TCL 4-Series is its built-in Roku smart platform. We love Roku for its intuitive interface and its vast library of supported apps, and since the 4-Series offers it right out of the box, you can skip the streaming box and save the TV’s HDMI ports for other home theater devices. For those already entrenched in the Google home ecosystem, all 4-Series sizes are available with the Google TV smart platform (and Android OS is available for all but the 50-, 65-, and 85-inch models).
Between its straightforward software and dependable performance, the TCL 4-Series is affordable simplicity in a box. If you don’t need a top-shelf TV to keep up with the Joneses, the 4-Series is more than capable of being your new home theater cornerstone.
Going premium: LG C2 OLED TV
If you’d rather spare no expense in your quest to build a home theater, why not consider one of the best TVs money can buy? The LG C2 (which starts around $1,400 for a 42-inch and goes up from there) is one of the best TVs of 2022 and the quickest way to transform a humdrum living room into an impressive home theater.
Being an OLED TV, the LG C2 features the signature near-perfect black levels that we’ve come to expect from this premium technology. Stellar contrast is the primary reason that TVs like this look so good, but you can also expect gorgeous, vivid color production and excellent motion handling.
In addition to top-of-the-line performance, the C2 is also stacked with future-proof features that will help it maintain its flexibility for years to come—particularly if you have an Xbox Series X or PlayStation 5, or plan on investing in one. HDMI 2.1 ports, FreeSync/G-Sync support, Auto Low Latency Mode, and the ability to display 4K content at 120 FPS are all on the table if you invest in the C2. In short, if you’re looking for one of the most advanced TVs the industry has to offer, the LG C2 is a safe bet.
Rounding out this impressive list of features is LG’s built-in webOS smart platform, Dolby Atmos support (via eARC), and a shockingly thin panel design.
A new sound system
The budget option: Vizio V-Series 2.1 soundbar
The Vizio V-Series 2.1 Home Theater Soundbar packs very solid sound into its combination 2-channel soundbar and wireless subwoofer for the price. If you aren't interested in paying for advanced features like Dolby Atmos or eARC compatibility, this simple, effective soundbar has it going on—and it only costs $230.
The V-Series 2.1 makes for an easy, plug-and-play upgrade for any living room. The bar provides detailed sound that's effortless to control via its included remote, allowing you to tweak volume, treble, and bass emphasis separately. Of course, if you want to keep things easy, you can find a sound mode you like—Music, Movie, and so on—and simply use your TV remote to adjust volume thanks to the HDMI ARC connection. And perhaps most importantly, the subwoofer, which is paired right out of the box, provides a luxurious amount of bass for what you're paying.
While the Vizio V-Series 2.1 soundbar isn't actually a "smart" soundbar, it can interface with smart speakers and be controlled via voice assistants like Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant. Whether you're enjoying movies and TV, streaming music on Spotify Connect, casting via Wi-Fi, or utilizing it as a Bluetooth speaker, you can expect clear, voluminous sound that's leagues beyond your TV's built-in speakers.
Going premium: Sonos Arc soundbar with Dolby Atmos
If you're looking for something more ambitious, Sonos’ first-ever Dolby Atmos soundbar is as powerful as it is nuanced, offering 11 individually powered drivers to create impressively potent Dolby Atmos sound from a singular tube. This is premium sound the Sonos way, offering a sweet mix of minimalist design and gluttonous performance for everything from your favorite Friends reruns to your best Spotify playlist.
Like all Sonos speakers, the Arc ($899) offers Wi-Fi connection through the Sonos app so you can connect wirelessly to other Sonos speakers (such as the Sonos One) either in a group, or as part of a surround sound setup. This lets you build as you go, and you’ll also get built-in smart features with your choice of Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa.
Apart from its size (which may require you to mount your TV) the only real drawback is that, while the bar includes HDMI eARC for seamless connection to your TV, it doesn’t offer a second HDMI input for outboard devices like streamers and game consoles. That means, for setups without the latest HDMI connection, it doesn’t support high-resolution Dolby Atmos, and you’ll need a TV that’s 2017 or newer for any Atmos playback. Still, the Arc exudes quality all the way down the line, making it a brilliant way to upgrade your system for years to come.
True surround sound: A discrete speaker system from Yamaha and SVS
While we adore the sound of Sonos’ Arc, there’s nothing like a true surround sound setup to knock your socks off and immerse you in the moment. If you’re someone who’s more versed in the arts of sonic connection, but don’t know where to start your shopping excursion, we’ve got everything you need to setup your dream surround station.
First, you’ll want to start with a solid receiver. This will be the hub for all your components (saving precious HDMI slots on that new TV) and will also power your shiny new speakers. In our experience, you can’t go wrong with Yamaha receivers, which are both affordable and easy to use. If you’re simply looking for power and affordability, we recommend Yamaha’s entry-level RX-V series.
At $350, the RX-V385 is the starter kit for your surround sound future. This value-packed machine provides 5.1 surround sound, 4K/HDR passthrough (including HDR10 and Dolby Vision), as well as auto-calibration, Bluetooth connectivity, and more.
Looking to upgrade to Dolby Atmos? The RX-V6A sports all the features of the V385, as well as 7.2-channel audio with Dolby Atmos support (and its rival DTS:X), Wi-Fi (including AirPlay 2 and Spotify Connect), and voice control via Alexa and Google Assistant. It also has HDMI 2.1 that supports passthrough of signals up to 4K/120Hz or 8K/60Hz, as well as sought-after gaming features like ALLM and VRR.
Now that you’ve got your receiver, it’s time for speakers. And frankly, we’ve never found a set as luscious and impactful for the money as SVS’ Prime Series, which start as low as $350 per pair.
Whether you want to build your system around the entry-level Prime Satellites, the Prime bookshelf speakers, the deluxe Prime Towers, or a mix of all three, the Prime Series absolutely dazzles with luscious, detailed sound. The Prime Center Speaker sounds terrific, and the Elevate speakers make it easy to upgrade from 5.1 to Dolby Atmos (now or later). Plus, SVS’ subwoofers like the SB-1000 are among the best in the business when it comes to bringing the boom. Even if you just pick up a stereo pair for starters, you’ll be amazed by the performance for your investment.
Once you’ve got your speakers and receiver picked out, follow to the bottom of our list for a good line on speaker wire and HDMI cables.
A user-friendly streaming solution
The budget option: Roku Streaming Stick+
While most TVs are "smart" these days—meaning they connect to the internet and can directly stream content from services like Netflix, Hulu, Prime Video, and so on—they're rarely considered the best way to get your binge on, even if they're highly convenient. If you don't already have a Roku TV (like our pick above), a great streaming device will provide a snappier and more easily tailored experience, and the Roku Streaming Stick+ has been our favorite budget streaming device for years.
You can add the stick to your setup for around $50-60, and for that price you're getting plenty of home theater functionality: 4K and HDR streaming, Roku's massive array of non-proprietary apps, and an excellent, user friendly remote control. The tiny Roku stick plugs directly into one of your TV's HDMI ports, and though you can power it via AC adapter, you can also just plug it right into one of your TV's USB ports. It's a streamlined, portable solution that's still packed with streaming power.
One thing to note is what you're not getting here: the ability to stream video in Dolby Vision; no way to plug an ethernet cable into the device (so you're stuck with Wi-Fi); and limited Dolby Atmos support. You also don't get the remote with a headphone jack like you do with the pricier Roku Ultra, but you can listen through headphones on your phone via Roku's app. For what you're paying, this device is a great value, and should be your first stop on the budget streaming device railroad.
Going premium: Apple TV 4K
If you don't want to "settle" for the Streaming Stick+, the $180 Apple TV 4K should have everything you're looking for in a premium streaming device. Naturally, you're getting access to all the basics here—Netflix, Hulu, Prime Video, Disney+, HBO Max, Peacock, and of course, Apple's whole ecosystem of content—as well as the ability to stream in 4K, HDR, and Dolby Vision.
You'll also get a lot more processing power and general RAM compared to the more affordable, stick-shaped devices. That's not to mention a remote control that's Siri-compatible, making the Apple TV 4K an especially attractive choice for iPhone users. You'll also have the ability to plug in an ethernet/LAN cable if you choose, which can be a much more reliable way to stream high-fidelity HDR/Dolby Vision content. The Apple TV also has among the best streaming support for Dolby Atmos sound.
The only real drawback with the Apple TV 4K is the price—it's quite a bit more expensive than something like the Roku Streaming Stick+. It also may not have as much appeal if you don't utilize any Apple products already. That said, there's no denying that the totality of the experience you'll have is much more polished and "professional" feeling than the cheap sticks. If you want your streaming device to feel downright luxurious, this is a great choice.
A quality device for physical media
The budget option: Sony UBP-X700
Let's be real: streaming is an easy solution, but it's not always the best way to get real "home theater" quality. If you want to be able to play 4K/HDR Blu-rays, or even if you have an extensive DVD collection, a great Blu-ray player—such as Sony's UBP-X700—is where you should start.
You can also stream content with this player, but it isn't as flexible as the streaming devices: it only supports 4K/HDR from YouTube. However, it makes up for it in terms of hardware/connection flexibility: you're getting two HDMI inputs (one traditional, one for connecting a receiver), a digital coaxial output port, and even a USB port for local media. In addition, the UBP-X700 makes for a brilliant audio device for playing back those vintage CDs on your new sound system.
A huge majority of folks don't partake in Blu-rays or DVDs anymore, but if you want a disc player that's compatible with 4K/HDR hard media—it can be hard to go back to streaming when you've seen a Blu-ray in HDR—this is a great value even if the price of around $200 isn't exactly peanuts.
Going premium: Xbox Series X
The biggest issue with next-gen consoles like the Xbox Series X is actually tracking one down. If you can find one in stock, though, it's a great solution.
A solid 4K/HDR-compatible Blu-ray player is fine if you only want to play Blu-rays and CDs, but with the Xbox Series X (priced at $500), you're getting a full entertainment center solution for streaming in 4K/HDR, Blu-rays, DVDs, and blockbuster, AAA video games. The Series X supports Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos, as well as 4K gaming up to 120Hz.
Far from being a console geared solely for video games (despite the gamepad controller), the Xbox Series X is kitted out to be snappy and powerful enough to handle essentially any kind of media at any bitrate. While Sony's UBP-X700 is limited to streaming YouTube in 4K/HDR, the Series X is compatible with HDR and Dolby Vision formats across all apps, and (naturally) you can plug an ethernet/LAN cable right into it to make sure you're getting the bandwidth you need to stream such robust media.
Other things to consider
Once you get your awesome new gear, you're going to have to hook things up with some cables. Most soundbars and hard media devices come with included HDMI cables these days, but you'll likely need more to get all your devices hooked up to your fancy new flat-panel TV. Check out our roundup of The Best HDMI Cables for great solutions (the top pick is super cheap) or you can just buy some now.
While we don't test speaker wire (which you'll need for receiver/speaker setups), what you mostly don't want to do is pay too much for it. You can get a decent deal on speaker wire from Amazon, too.
Questions you might have
What is 4K and UHD?
4K refers to resolution—specifically for consumers, it refers to 3,840 x 2,160 pixels. This is the current standard resolution for most TVs, which offers four times the resolution of the previous standard, 1080p HD (1,920 x 1,080 pixels). UHD means Ultra High Definition, and actually refers to a suite of picture improvements like 4K resolution and Wide Color Gamut, which can display millions more shades of color than HD TVs.
These days, you can find a slew of 4K content on streaming platforms like Netflix, Disney+, and Amazon Prime Video. As mentioned above, 4K Blu-rays are also an excellent source for content—provided you've got a 4K Blu-ray player to play them.
What is HDR?
High Dynamic Range in the home theater realm refers to both a type of TV (or projector) and a type of content that expands on the typical range of brightness (luminance) and color that a TV will produce. Quality HDR TVs are usually a bit more expensive, but can have many times the brightness and 30% more color production than non-HDR TVs. Current top HDR formats include HDR10, HDR10+, and Dolby Vision. Not all HDR TVs are created equal, and brighter, more colorful HDR TVs are generally better at delivering the expansive contrast for which the HDR is praised.
Streaming platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Disney+ offer select titles in HDR, and 4K Blu-rays mastered in HDR are becoming more mainstream, too. Most important to know is that HDR content is among the most notable upgrades to the latest TVs, and you will definitely want your next TV to offer HDR support, even if you're planning on securing a budget-friendly one like the TCL 4-series.
What is Dolby Atmos?
If you're considering a high-end soundbar or a media solution like the Xbox Series X, you might be wondering, "Do I need Dolby Atmos?" Dolby Atmos is essentially a kind of surround sound format that intelligently places sound (sometimes called "object-oriented audio") in both a traditional surround sound atmosphere and via "height channels," which place sound up above and around you.
In short, it's a super cool way to become more immersed in movies and music, but it can be a bit pricy/confusing to get functioning properly. If you've already got an Atmos-compatible device or want to learn more about it before you buy one, check out our big guide to Dolby Atmos.