Home theaters have entered the modern era. Video and audio equipment is smaller, cheaper and works over wi-fi. You can now access immense libraries of HD movie and television content through a $50 plastic stick. The frantic evolution of technology has recast the industry. “It used to be unheard of to do a home theater in the sub-$10,000 category, and when I say used to, I mean five years ago,” says home theater installer Tom Manna, founder of Digital Home Systems. “Now, you can actually put a really kick-ass system together.”

The fear of immediate obsolescence still paralyzes many from taking the first step, especially at a time when advanced formats like 4k and Dolby Atmos are poised to become the new industry standard. As movie and music lovers ourselves, we contacted several experts in the field for guidance. Everyone’s viewing can benefit from a home theater, so we asked for advice on building a home theater at three price points: $2,000, $5,000 and $20,000. These kits represent the essential audio and video tech required to get up and running. Other typical costs inherent in home theaters — such as design, construction, lighting, and decor — were not included due their case-by-case nature.

The experts agreed that even these modest investments could have an enormous impact on the home entertainment experience, and that starting small was prudent. As Dennis Erskine of The Erskine Group pointed out: “You can put in a nice receiver, some speakers, and a TV. That’s a start… and if you don’t start somewhere, you’re going to go nowhere.”

MEET THE EXPERTS

The home theater experts we consulted were kind enough to share their knowledge and predict what they think will be the next big technology. If you’re interested in building a home theater and need help, contact these company owners.

Kerry Bright, Bright Home Theater, New York, NY
Dennis Erskine, The Erskine Group, Dallas, GA and Vancouver, WA
Theo Kalomirakis, TK Theaters, New York, NY
Tom Manna, Digital Home Systems, Rye Brook, NY
Mark Prancuk, Sight & Sound Showroom, Norwalk, CT

The $2,000 Theater

Your Home Theater Essentials
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THE GEAR:
Panasonic 55-inch CX400 Series 4K Ultra HD TV ($899)
LG Electronics BP255 Blu-Ray Player ($79)
Pioneer SP-PK52FS Andrew Jones Speaker Set ($508+, 5.1 bookshelf set)
Onkyo TX-NR636 7.2-Ch Dolby Atmos Ready Network A/V Receiver ($365+)
Logitech Harmony Home Control ($97+)

“$2,000 is a pretty good budget to do a medium sort of entry-level home theater,” said Kerry Bright of Bright Home Theater. It’s at least more than enough to elevate a space from a TV on a coffee table to something made for watching films and playing video games. Though the equipment at this level lacks the precision of more expensive alternatives, most buyers should still be thrilled with the visual clarity and room-filling sound it can create. In terms of bang for your buck, it’s nearly impossible to do better. Amazingly, future-proofing features on receivers such as Dolby Atmos and 4k support are also available in this range, providing an easy upgrade path in the future.

KEEP STREAMING

The majority of modern smart TVs, Blu-ray players and gaming systems offer access to a basic set of streaming services like Netflix and Hulu Plus. If you don’t own either, prefer a wider array of content options or are looking for extra features like the ability to share content from your Android or iOS device on the big screen, one of these devices is the way to go. They have all similar set of content apps and features. Deciding which one is best for you revolves around the other technology or content ecosystems you’re already invested in.

Amazon Fire TV ($99)
Apple TV ($149)
Roku 3 Streaming Media Player ($90)

On the question of paying for advanced features that are at least a few years away from being mainstream, Dennis Erskine advocates buying now. “I think it’s a mistake to buy the $300 receiver because in six months the bigger, better, faster one will be cheaper and more in line with the budget. You’re going to be chasing that tail for the rest of your life. Buy what you need and what you want now.”

Theo Kalomirakis saw Dolby Atmos features in particular as nice, but not critical now. “You know, it’s incremental improvements. You’re more enveloped in the movie if you hear things coming from above. Does it change the way you experience movies? It gives you some initial thrill, and it’s good to have it, but it’s not the difference of watching a movie in DVD and seeing it on Blu-Ray.”

Tom Manna was clear on where to direct funds in more modest setups, “In this type of system, you want to put most of your money in the speakers because you can always upgrade the electronics.” Even if a greater emphasis on video impact is preferable, though, the picture quality of projectors at this range won’t compare to a quality LED HDTV. Picking up a universal remote will eliminate the headaches of switching between various devices. Finally, a Blu-ray player is also a must for the best video experience. If you prefer streaming exclusive solutions like an Apple TV, be sure to hardwire it in for the best possible picture.

The $5,000 Theater

Recliner Seats Not Included, Unfortunately
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THE GEAR:
Sony KDL70W850B 70-inch 1080p 120 Hz HDTV ($1,899)
Onkyo TX-NR737 7.2-Ch Dolby Atmos Ready Network A/V Receiver ($700)
Aperion Intimus 5T Hybrid Speaker System ($2,295)
LG Electronics BP255 Blu-Ray Player ($79)
Logitech Harmony Home Control ($97+)

THE PROJECTOR & GAMING UPGRADE:
PlayStation 4 ($350, replacing the LG BP540)
Epson Home Cinema 5030UB ($2,299)
Stewart CIMA 135″ Fixed Frame Screen (Learn More)

Tempted to repurpose a lesser-used room in your house into a dedicated home theater? $5,000 is the base-level budget to consider. Sound quality takes a particularly big leap at this level and is more than capable of delivering precise audio across a film or a hi-fi recording’s full dynamic range.

1080p projectors and 4k TVs are available within this budget — if not at a slight stretch. But Erskine warned that overextending to 4k in this price range could be a mistake, largely because there are still plenty of details around the format that must be hammered out. “Right now I wouldn’t advise anybody to buy a 4k in any case for reasons that have nothing to do with picture quality. The real problem is that the current transport mechanism — the method by which we get the picture from the source to display — has not been completely settled,” Erskine said.

The decision to go with a TV or projector at this stage is all about space and use habits, as he points out. “If your seating distance for your room is not big enough for a 10-foot-wide screen, why are you talking about a projector? If you are in a situation where you have a lot of windows and a lot of light in the room day and night, then why are you talking about the projector?”

The $20,000 Theater

Feel Free to Charge an Admission Fee
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THE GEAR:
Denon AVRX4200W 7.2 Channel Full 4K Ultra HD A/V Receiver ($1,500)
Definitive Technology BP-8060ST 5.1 System ($3,195)
Definitive Technology BP-8060ST Bipolar Tower with Built-In Powered Subwoofer x 2 ($1,400)
Velodyne Wi-Q 12 Inch Wireless Subwoofer x 2 ($1,598)
Sony VPL-VW350ES 4K Projector ($7,998)
Stewart CIMA 135? Fixed Frame Screen (Learn More)
Oppo BDP-105D Darbee Edition Blu-ray Player ($1,300)
Logitech Harmony Home Control ($97+)

IF 4K CONTENT IS KEY:
Sony XBR65X930C 65-Inch 4K Ultra HD 3D Smart LED TV ($2,498)

When speaking to the experts, this was the expected cost of the technology for a “devoted home theater.” We’re not talking about a multi-purpose living room, but rather an impressive space built solely for watching great films. Proper audio in this range can handle nuance and room-shaking bass with ease. Moving up to two additional speaker channels for a full 7.2 system, capable of making the most out of Dolby Atmos productions is possible. An outstanding 1080p or newer entry-level 4k projector capable of reproducing the true detail and color the director of photography intended is also an obvious choice. If space is still an issue, 4k OLED TVs that can produce the best possible picture quality of all are also an option, though their screen size is limited.

FOR KARAOKE HEROES

The experts said it’s common for a client to request that their home theater double as a karaoke room. Instead of only home theater speakers, you need PA speakers that are built to handle sudden volume and pitch changes. A PA system can be a pair of two-way speakers and amps used to power them. “You have to mix pro audio and home audio because if you’re singing into a microphone and you scream, you would destroy home theater speakers. So you have to have a PA,” Kerry Bright said.

While it’s not included in this price, seeking the help and advice of a professional can also yield serious gains in performance at this budget, particularly in the realm beyond mere equipment selection. In the words of Tom Manna: “When you start getting into the higher-priced systems and wanting to invest, only somebody with the knowledge about these types of rooms can really develop the right plan for the individual, and there’s a lot of physics that go into this. You can’t go into a room and say ‘I want a 110 inch screen or whatever-sized screen and I am going to use this projector.’ No, you can’t do that because you have to calculate the throw distance for the projector, where you are going to mount and make sure all the physics are going to work.”

If you go completely DIY or get help from a professional, each element needs to work together, down to the cushy leather chairs. Theo Kalomirakis put it another way: “So it’s like cars. You don’t buy the engine of a Rolls Royce and the wheels of a Ferrari and the chassis of a Maserati. You buy a car that everything works in unison, and that’s what the project is all about.”