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Turning your living room, den, or basement into a home theater isn’t as daunting as it sounds. Having a dedicated place to watch movies and TV shows in the highest possible quality only requires a handful of components, and you can tailor your system to your needs and space.
We’ve put together this guide to explain all of the choices you’ll have to make when you build a home theater system, along with some recommendations of which hardware to get. Whether you’re looking for a quick and easy solution you can set up in minutes, or a larger system you can build up over time, we’ve got you covered.
Step 1: Choose Whether You’d like a TV or Projector
The first step to setting up a home theater is deciding where you’re going to watch your entertainment (I.e. in your family room, basement, etc). After that, you’ll want to figure out how to watch. For that, consider whether you’d like a traditional flat panel 4K TV, or a projector. Here are the pros and cons to consider
4K TV: There’s never been a better time to get a TV as the centerpiece of your home theater system. Most have big screens (generally 55 to 65 inches) with a resolution of 4K (almost twice the resolution of a 1080P display), and support for Dolby Vision HDR (High Dynamic Range), a new technology that substantially improves color accuracy.
They’re also “smart,” which means that you can access popular streaming services right from the set, instead of getting a media streaming device. All of this technology is packed into a thin frame that’s light enough that you can mount it onto a wall.
Projector: Thanks to movie houses, projectors are the first thing people think of when they hear “home theater.” They can “throw” huge screens (up to 300 inches) onto a blank wall, and be moved around easily. But, many projectors haven’t made the leap to 4K yet, and only support HDR-10, which doesn’t replicate colors as well as TVs with Dolby Vision HDR.
They’re also much more susceptible to light interference — a bright room will dull a projector’s image substantially. Still, under the right conditions, a projector will create a true cinematic experience a TV can’t touch.
TCL 6 Series
If you’ve decided on getting a 4K TV, there’s only one I would recommend: TCL’s 6 Series. The company’s 6-series (originally called the P-Series) has gained a reputation over the past couple of years for offering stellar picture quality in an attractive package. I’ve seen the TV for myself, I have to agree.
This TV supports Dolby Vision, and uses a technology called local dimming zones to intelligently illuminate the image it’s displaying. It’ll brighten parts of the scene that are vibrant, and darken the parts that aren’t, which makes lighting in movies and TV shows a lot more realistic.
TCL’s 6-Series TVs come with an array of ports, so you can connect game consoles, streaming boxes, and other home theater equipment to it very easily. There are four HDMI ports, one USB port, an RF Port, a set of composite video ports, a headphones jack, optical audio out, and Ethernet.
One final feature: This TV has a Roku built into it, which means you automatically have access to major streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, and more without having to get a streaming stick. You can download additional channels through Roku’s App Store.
In my experience, the picture and audio quality from the TCL 6-Series has been excellent. Colors looked vibrant on a Blu-ray copy of The Lord Of The Rings: Fellowship Of The Ring, and while playing an assortment of HD and classic video games. I was similarly impressed by the extremely small bezels around the screen, which virtually disappear when you turn the lights off.
If you’re going the projector route, I’m going to recommend Optoma’s HD27HDR, an updated version of the HD27 that I’ve used for a couple of years.
The HD27HDR’s specs are impressive for a projector in its price range. It has a native resolution of 1080P, maximum screen size of 300 inches (100 inches from 11’3” away), HDR-10 support, and peak brightness of 3400 lumens. These specs make it best-suited for medium-sized rooms with some light pollution, and the screen quality will improve substantially once the sun goes down.
It has an array of ports: two HDMI, one USB, one 3D Sync, and an audio out, so you’ll have no problems connecting it to a media streaming stick, game console, and stereo receiver. The HD27HDR doesn’t have any built-in smart features, so you will need to physically connect streaming hardware to it to watch movies or TV shows.
My experience with the previous generation of this projector was extremely positive; the picture quality was very solid, even during daytime hours and without HDR. The addition of these two features makes it an excellent choice for people who really want a movie theater-like experience in their home.
Step 2: Decide On a Sound Bar, Stereo, or 5.1 Surround Sound Audio System
A home theater’s audio system is just as important as its video source — what’s a good picture without sound? This is especially important because the speakers in 4K TVs and projectors aren’t that good.
Setting up a home theater audio system was a major production until fairly recently, but now there are a bunch of options, whether you’re looking for a single-box solution, or want to pick every single component out for yourself. Here’s the breakdown of pros and cons between sound bars, and 2.0 (or 2.1) audio system, and a 5.1 audio system.
Sound Bar: Sound bars have become popular in the home theater world because of their small size, smart features, and easy setup. The downside is that while they sound a lot better than your TV’s built-in speakers, they can’t quite match the audio quality of a larger speaker system. Also, because the speakers are clustered together, you get less of a full stereo soundstage, which makes audio in movies and video games feel less real.
2.0 (or 2.1 Audio System): A 2.0 or 2.1 audio system is the same type of stereo system you’d set up if you wanted to listen to music. It’s comprised of two speakers, and can be augmented with a subwoofer for extra bass. It does take up more space than a sound bar — especially if you have a subwoofer — but not as much as a 5.1 surround sound system. The downside is that you do have to connect the speakers to a stereo receiver, and stereo speakers can’t match the immersive experience of surround sound.
5.1 Surround Sound: Many people associate 5.1 surround sound systems with the term “home theater,” which makes sense. A surround sound audio system creates an incredibly engrossing environment by simulating the experience of being in the middle of the action taking place on screen. There’s nothing quite like it. But, setting up a surround sound system means stringing a bunch of wires all across your room, and positioning five speakers in just the right places, which may not be feasible, especially if you’re in a small room.
We kept this in mind when writing this guide, which is why the sound bar and 2.0 audio systems we’ve chosen can be turned into 5.1 surround sound systems by setting up additional speakers. This gives you the flexibility of starting one a smaller system, and working your way up to surround sound as your home theater evolves.
Here’s what we recommend:
1. Sonos Beam Sound Bar
The Sonos Beam earned the top spot in our best home theater sound bars guide, and it’s the one I recommend based on personal experience. This was my only piece of home theater audio gear for a year, and I really enjoyed my time with it.
Sonos says the Beam is as a “smart, compact sound bar,” and that’s a perfect description. At 25.6 x 2.7 x 3.9 inches, it’s thin enough to fit under many TVs (most sound bars aren’t!) It has Amazon’s Alexa and the Google Assistant built-in, so you can use the Beam to control smart-home accessories, answer questions, set timers, and more using just your voice. And, it supports both Bluetooth and Apple’s AirPlay 2 audio standard, so you can stream audio from your PC, Mac, Android phone, or iPhone to it wirelessly.
As I mentioned earlier, sound bars are the easiest home theater speakers to set up, and the Beam is no different. Connect it to your TV with an HDMI cable, plug it into the wall, and run through a quick setup process using the Sonos app (available on iOS and Android). The app will let you control all of the Beam’s controls, from adjusting the volume, to changing between a handful of EQ (equalization) settings.
None of this would matter if the Sonos Beam didn’t sound good, but it does — it sounds really good. Its five drivers (the part of the speakers that produce sound) do a great job of delivering a solid amount of bass, midrange, and treble without distorting, even at high volumes. Sonos calls the beam a 3.0 audio system: the two right and leftmost speakers are considered a stereo pair, while the one in the middle acts as the center channel speaker.
Dialogue (typically handled by the center channel in a surround sound system) is clear, and there’s a speech enhancement mode if the sound effects in your movie or TV show are overpowering them.
To compensate for its fixed speaker positioning, Sonos programmed the beam to use its microphones to determine its positioning within your room. By playing and recording a series of tones, the Beam figures out where it is, and optimizes its sound accordingly. Be sure to run this feature every time you move the Sonos Beam to a different part of your room.
If you want to turn the Beam into a 5.1 surround sound system, you need the Sonos Sub (a subwoofer) and any pair of Sonos’ other speakers; I recommend the Sonos One because of its impressive audio quality and small size.
Note: If you want to get a Sonos Beam as part of a 5.1 surround sound system, you can get the “Sonos Surround Set,” which includes a Sonos Beam, Sonos Sub, and a pair of Sonos Ones in a single package for $1,496.
2. Pioneer SP-BS22-LR Bookshelf Loudspeakers (and The Entire Andrew Jones Collection)
If you want to build up your home theater system over time, or are only interested in stereo sound, you can’t go wrong with Pioneer’s SP-BS22 bookshelf speakers.
They were created by Andrew Jones, a famous loudspeaker maker who used his years of experience making speakers for audiophiles to design an entry level pair.
As I said in our bookshelf speaker guide, these speakers produce really impressive sound in a lightweight package. Each speaker has a four-inch woofer that handles bass and midrange frequencies, and a one-inch soft-dome tweeter for treble.
I’ve spent a fair amount of time listening to the SP-BS22-LRs, and always come across impressed by the richness of their sound. Movies, video games, and music (both analog and digital) have an excellent amount of detail, even at higher volumes.
Like I said earlier, the downside to building your own stereo or 2.1 audio system from scratch is that you’ll have to get several pieces to put it together. These speakers are great, but you’ll still need to pick up some speaker wire and a stereo receiver.
A stereo receiver amplifies sound from your source (in this case a TV or projector), and sends it to your speakers. You can also use a stereo receiver to play records, CDs, cassettes, or digital music by connecting a turntable, CD player, etc.
I’m recommending you pair these Pioneer speakers with Yamaha’s R-V385. At 80 watts, it has more than enough power to drive these speakers without having to turn the volume up too high, which introduces distortion.
It has four HDMI in ports, one HDMI out port, an optical in port, and three sets of composite (yellow, white, red) ports. It does not have a built-in phono preamp, so you can’t plug a turntable directly into it.
It also has support for Bluetooth, so you can stream music to it wirelessly, and an AM/FM tuner, so you can listen to the radio. The receiver comes with a remote, but you can also switch between all of its modes via buttons on its face.
The R-V385 is a 5.1 compatible receiver, so you can build a surround sound system up over time. If you go that route, I recommend buying an additional pair of SP-BS22s along with the center channel speaker and subwoofer Andrew Jones designed to go with them.
Note: If you want to get the entire Andrew Jones speaker collection (four SP-BS22-LRs, one center channel speaker, and one subwoofer) at once, it’s available as a bundle for $495.94.