SLIDESHOW

7 Home Theaters for a Wide Range of Budgets

These seven setups offer true surround sound and a DVD or Blu-Ray player to turn your existing TV into an irresistable cultural and technological oasis--maybe. And the price limit for these makeovers ranges from $500 to $3000.

Get the Most out of Your TV, No Matter What Your Budget

A TV can't do much by itself. To get true movie sound, you need to supplement it with a home theater system: a digitally friendly amplifier, a large subwoofer, and at least five satellite speakers (or something like Yamaha’s YSP-1000 virtual surround sound set). And your setup will need to include a DVD or Blu-ray player, too.

To turn your TV into something special, you can buy a Home Theater in a Box (HTiB)--which includes the amplifier and the speakers, and sometimes the player as well--or you can collect each component separately. HTiBs generally give you more bang for your buck, but separate components give you more bang, period: They're the higher-end choice.

Here are seven outstanding-for-the-price ways to make your home-movie-viewing experience a whole lot better, categorized by the price of the bundle. Since most of these products have not been reviewed by PC World, I've based my recommendations on my own knowledge of the technology, and on professional and user reviews.

Under $500

Sony Bravia Theater System DAV-HDX576WF HTiB with DVD player: $400 street (as of November 17, 2008)

Thanks to its its use of wireless technology, the DAV-HDX576WF home-theater starter kit eliminates the need to run wires from the amplifier to the surround speakers.

This kit's built-in five-disc DVD player can upscale DVD video to 720p or 1080p high definition before sending the video to your HDTV over HDMI. Not sure of the best way to calibrate your sound system? The DAV-HDX576WF can do the whole thing for you. Simply place the bundled microphone where you would normally sit, and the system will adjust itself.

Of course, the DAV-HDX576WF isn't perfect; In an Amazon review, a user complained that the subwoofer lacked the oomph needed to deliver suitable sound for today's action movies. And this HTiB can't perform DTS decoding, so you won't get the best soundtracks on many DVDs--much less a true Blu-ray audio experience--out of this Sony player. But for its price, this system still has plenty of features to love.

Under $750: Great Picture

Yamaha YHT-390BL HTiB: $350 (as of November 18, 2008)

Philips BDP7200 Blu-ray Player: $230 (as of November 18, 2008)

When you're on a budget, you have to prioritize. So what's more important to you: a great picture or great sound?

If you voted for great picture, you should spend a bit less on the speakers and amp, and instead spring for a reasonably priced Blu-ray player, such as the Philips BDP7200 (pictured, top). This player, which earned high marks when we reviewed it last spring, is especially notable for its standout image quality. The BDP7200 also supports Blu-ray's Bonus View, which lets you play back the picture-in-picture features available with some movie titles.

How can you buy a Blu-ray player and a surround-sound audio system for less than $750 total? You pick the Yamaha YHT-390BL home theater in a box (bottom). Despite its low price, this 5.1 system sends up to 100 watts to each of its five satellite speakers. And the 8-inch subwoofer should be powerful enough to shake your floor.

Under $750: Great Sound

Denon DHT-589BA HTiB: $508 (as of November 18, 2008)

Pioneer DV-410V-K DVD player: $95 (as of November 18, 2008)

If you want your DVDs to sound as good as your budget will allow, and your budget won't allow all that much, put off purchasing a Blu-ray player and concentrate instead on the audio.

Known primarily for high-end gear, Denon proves with the DHT-589BA home theater in a box (bottom) that it can handle midrange acoustics as well. Dynamic automated volume and equalizer adjustment, 75-watt reduced-baffle-diffraction speakers, and a down-firing 8-inch subwoofer (promising more bass at less expenditure of power) should add up to an exceptional audio experience.

The DHT-589BA supports Dolby Digital and DTS, but not higher-definition standards specific to Blu-ray such as Dolby TrueHD. And in case you get tired of watching TV, the Denon HTiB supports Sirius Satellite radio as well.

If you want a good DVD player to go with the strong audio system, try Pioneer's DV-410V-K (top). It upscales video to 1080p and has a USB port for watching home videos and photos stored on a flash drive or external hard drive.

Under $1000

Samsung HTS-BD2ST 7.1 Home Theater System with Blu-ray Player: $984 (as of November 18, 2008)

Samsung sells what may be the only home theater in a box to include a Blu-ray player (built into the amplifier unit), and it's priced just under our four-digit cut-off.

The HTS-BD2ST doesn't just play Blu-ray discs; it makes them sound good, too. Unlike the less expensive systems recommended in this slide show, the HTS-BD2ST supports Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD audio. And rather than being a 5.1 audio system, it's a 7.1 system, with four surround speakers instead of the usual two. (Few programs take advantage of 7.1 sound yet, but you'll be ready for when it becomes more common.) The system outputs a total of 1100 watts to those speakers.

What else can it do? Upscale your DVDs, play MP3s, and display JPEG images. Unfortunately, it doesn't have a USB port, an SD Card slot, or a network connection. Consequently you have to burn your music and photos onto a disc to enjoy them through the HTS-BD2ST.

Under $1500

Onkyo HT-S9100THX HTiB: $900 (as of November 21, 2008)

Sony PlayStation 3 (80GB) Blu-ray player and game console: $400 (as of November 11, 2008)

Besides offering convenience and a relatively low price, home theaters in a box have another possible advantage: The entire sound system can be THX-certified to work properly all of a piece. The Onkyo HT-S9100THX (bottom) is, as of Thanksgiving 2008, the only THX-certified HTiB on the market.

Onkyo worked with THX on the HT-S9100THX to ensure that the 7.1 speakers would take full advantage of the amplifier's enhanced capabilities (such as a THX preamp front end). The speakers include 130-watt satellites and a 12-inch subwoofer capable of 20-Hz performance. The HT-S9100THX supports Blu-ray's Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD audio formats, as well as Dolby Digital Surround EX and DTS-ES Matrix 6.1--and of course, 7.1 surround sound.

What Blu-ray player should you buy to go with the HT-S9100THX? I recommend the Sony PlayStation 3 (top); a great game console that doubles as a great Blu-ray player. After all, your games--like your movies--deserve to be heard in THX sound.

Under $2000

Onkyo TX-SR606 7.1 Channel Home Theater Receiver: $350 (as of November 19, 2008)

KEF KHT2005.2 speakers: $1199 (as of November 19, 2008)

Samsung BD-2500 Blu-Ray player: $300 (as of November 19, 2008)

With their parabolic, egglike shape and their big, black, eyeball-like cones, KEF's KHT2005.2 speakers (top, right) look like something animated by Pixar. You expect one to hop over to you and want to be loved--or maybe mutate into a higher-stage Pokemon. Their odd shape reduces the speakers' distortion, effectively increasing their dynamic range. The 10-inch subwoofer, surprisingly enough under the circumstances, looks like a normal subwoofer.

I would power the KHT2005 with the Onkyo TX-SR606 7.1 Channel Home Theater Receiver (top, left). Churning out 90 watts per channel, it can't quite push those 100-watt eggs to their power limit, but it comes close enough for full audience enjoyment. The TX-SR606 is ready for Sirius Satellite Radio as well, and it supports Dolby True HD and DTS-HD.

For Blu-ray-playback, go with the Samsung BD-2500 (bottom). It supports BD-Live 2.0 and Internet connectivity. In fact, it even supports Netflix downloads.

Under $3000

Yamaha RX-V863 amplifier: $900 (as of November 19, 2008)

Klipsch RF-10 Home Theater System Speakers: $1450 (as of November 19, 2008)

Denon DVD-1800BD Blu-ray player: $600 (as of November 19, 2008)

Few speakers can surpass Klipsch's Reference series, but to keep the total below $3000, I'll recommend the least expensive entry in this pricey product line: the RF-10 Home Theater System (left). This is a hefty 5.1 set of speakers. The left and right speakers are tall floor-standing models that list for $518 each when sold separately. Everything else is similarly massive--even the surrounds are more than a foot wide each.

Power these monsters with the Yamaha RX-V863 (top, right). This 7.2-channel system can send 110 watts to each speaker, it upscales standard definition video to 1080p, and it has three HDMI inputs with one HDMI output. It supports just about everything you'd want it to work with, including Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD, XM Satellite radio, and a feature called Silent Cinema that creates a surround-sound experience through conventional headphones.

A fancy system deserves a fancy Blu-ray player, like Denon's DVD-1800BD (bottom, right). This $750 player comes with Bonus View support; detailed image controls for brightness, contrast, and other settings; the latest DivX 6 codec for home movie viewing; and an SD Card slot for playing media from your PC.