Upgrading the audio need not cost a lot, and can completely change your viewing experience.
Here are our picks for different budgets and different situations.
The most basic upgrade is the soundbar. This single cabinet holds multiple drivers, usually an amp, and mounts or sits below the TV. The better soundbars come with, or can add, a subwoofer. A sub supplies all the low bass rumble, and fills out the sound that small speakers just can’t produce. One of the latest trends is wireless subs, so you can place them in a corner or near an out-of-the-way power outlet.
The Sony HT-CT150 has HDMI switching, a rarity at this price range. It even has an 85 watt subwoofer. It’s $224.09 on Amazon.
The Yamaha YHT-S400BL has a unique design, with the subwoofer built into the receiver. Like the Sony, it has 3 HDMI inputs. It’s currently 42% off on Amazon, at $349.95.
The Yamaha YSP-2200 Digital Sound Projector uses the walls in your room and some clever enginneering to create a sort of faux-surround sound with just a single soundbar. There’s 3 HDMI inputs and a powered sub. It’s currently 20% off on Amazon, at $799.95.
The next step up is a home theater in a box. These, as their name suggests, house all the speakers and assorted gear required to make a small home theater. Typically this is 5 small satellite speakers, a subwoofer, and some sort of receiver. The receiver could range from a thin, small box that just houses inputs and controls, to a larger, more traditional looking unit with the amplification built in. Some may even have a Blu-ray player, though we advise against these. The appearance of simplicity is outweighed by the difficulty in upgrading.
The Denon DHT-1312XP has a 110 watts per channel, 4 HDMI inputs, compact statellites, and an 8-inch, 100-watt subwoofer. It’s currently $331.15 on Amazon.
The Denon DHT-1312BA replaces the Denon speakers of the system above with a Boston Acoustics MCS 160 5.1 system. It’s currently $549.99 with free shipping via Prime.
The Onkyo HT-S9400THX is THX Certified, ensuring a high level of audio quality. Tons of features, 7.1, upconverting receiver. It’s about as serious as HTIBs get. Currently 18% off, at $899.98.
Speakers and a Receiver
The benefits of getting a receiver and speakers separately is that you can get more precisely what you want in terms of features and performance, and what you get will be significantly easier to upgrade down the road. The speakers and “receiver” in many HTIBs are often designed to only work with the equipment they came with. Blow out a speaker, or just want a better center channel? That cheap included receiver may be EQed to only work with the supplied speakers. Want to upgrade the receiver? The speakers might not sound right for the same reason.
Receivers range in price from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. Almost all will have that crucial feature of HDMI switching. My personal must-have feature is analog audio outputs, so you can upgrade to a new amp down the road. This feature is usually only found on more expensive models, though.
Many of the best receivers now have extensive networking capabilities. Some, like several Denon models, even have built in Apple AirPlay, letting you choose the receiver in iTunes and play music directly from your computer to the receiver.
Onkyo’s TX-NR509 has 80 watts for each of its five channels, 4 HDMI inputs, and does Internet audio streaming from Pandora, Spotify, and others. Currently an amazing 42% off, at only $229.99.
Denon’s entire CI line, including this Denon AVR-2311CI, has Airplay, tons of HDMI inputs (7 here), and does Internet audio streaming from Pandora and others. A big 39% off right now, at $549.98.
And for speakers, Polk and Definitive Technology make excellent speakers of all sizes. Here are some small subwoofer/satellite systems that would pair well with the above receivers for an inexpensive, yet excellent sounding, audio system.
The Polk Audio RM705 is small, but performs big. Rated at 40Hz-22kHz. Hard to pass up 63% off and only $219.99 for a quality 5.1 system.
Definitive Technology’s Pro Cinema 60.6 system has a similar size to the Polk’s but a 150-watt subwoofer for even better bass. Currently $352.90 on Amazon.
The Definitive Technology ProCinema 600 system is a big step up from the 60.6, with a 250-watt subwoofer, and a claimed system frequency response of 22 Hz to 30 kHz. It’s $799 on Amazon.
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