Home audio is one of those gadget categories where prices can range anywhere from $250 to $25,000. It also has a range of subcategories and mind-boggling terminology. So we thought we'd provide a quick and easy overview for shoppers who are just interested in getting the most for their money--especially at the lower end of the price scale.
First off, identify your audio and video needs. If you've already got a video source you're happy with--a Blu-ray player, game console, or DVD player--then you'll want to go with a component-based home theater package (a receiver/amp plus speakers) or you'll want to put together your own home theater system (an AV receiver plus speaker system). However, if you're starting from scratch--you're ready to start fresh with Blu-ray or a new DVD player--you'll want to consider a Blu-ray home theater system. For 2009, such all-in-one systems start at $500.
Secondly, stick to 5.1 or less. For true surround, you'll need at least a 5.1-channel system (five speakers plus a subwoofer). There are also 6.1 and 7.1 configurations, but they're overkill for anybody but purists. Of course, all those speakers means a lot of cables and placement questions (speaker stands, commandeering bookshelf space, going for wallmounts, and so forth). For a lot of people, it's more trouble than it's worth. There's nothing wrong with opting for a stereo or "virtual surround" speaker configuration. There are several options--everything from a single speakerbar that mounts under the TV to 2.1 or 3.1 configurations. You'll lose the true surround effect, but you'll also ditch the front-to-back wiring. Bottom line: spending your money for two good stereo speakers instead of a so-so surround package is a worthwhile trade-off.
Remember, don't overpay for sound quality you can't hear. Prices for speakers, receivers, and home theater systems can easily spiral into four figures or more. What's the difference between a $500 audio system and one that costs $3,500? For the so-called "golden eared" set, the sonic improvement they'd get from the latter configuration is well worth the premium. For many others, that difference may well be negligible.… Read more