A worldwide pandemic made 2020 the year many of us would like to forget, but it wasn’t all bad. More than a few great products came to market between January and December 31. That said, the best products in several categories are ones that came to our attention one or two years ago. So, our list of the best home entertainment products of 2020 consists of the best products in a given category that were available in 2020, not necessarily products that were introduced this year.
We have more than one product in some categories, differentiated by price or feature set. And you’ll find some products—such as smart speakers—duplicated on our other best-of list, the best smart home products (but with different rationale).
Presenting our picks:
Best budget streaming stick: Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K
If you’re in the market for a 4K streaming player that won’t break the bank, this is it. Amazon’s Fire TV Stick 4K delivers speedy performance, support for MPEG-2 playback (handy for use with TV tuners such as the HDHomeRun Connect), Dolby Vision and HDR10+ support, a remote with TV power, volume, and mute buttons, and of course, Alexa integration.
The cluttered Fire TV interface can be somewhat intimidating, but still, the Fire TV Stick 4K packs in an impressive arsenal of features for just $40. The new Chromecast with Google TV is another option to consider.
Best streamer for power users: Nvidia Shield TV
Saddled with software that’s still annoyingly rough around the edges, the Tegra X1+-powered Nvidia Shield TV isn’t a slam-dunk recommendation as far as 4K streaming players go. That said, it does pack in some enticing features in its tube-shaped shell, including support for Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos audio, AI-powered 4K upscaling, a backlit voice remote powered by Google Assistant, a multitasking menu, and the ability to stream games via Steam or Nvidia’s GeForce Now gaming service.
Best budget Bluetooth speaker: Tronsmart Element Force
This diminutive Bluetooth speaker cranks out impressively rich and full sound given its compact shell, and at just $60, the price is right. The catch is that you’ll need to select the Extra Bass EQ mode to make the most of the Tronsmart Element Force’s audio; once you do, however, this 27-ounce, 40-watt speaker matches up nicely with speakers that cost twice as much.
The battery-powered Tronsmart Element Force also boasts an IPX7 water-resistance rating, which means it can survive a dunk in a kiddie pool.
Best high-end Bluetooth speaker: Bluesound Pulse Mini 2i
Bluetooth is just one of the protocols this $500 speaker supports. You can also add the Bluesound Pulse Mini 2i to your Wi-Fi network and stream music from all the major services, including the high-res services Tidal, Qobuz, and Deezer. Support for the BluOS operating system means you can set up multi-room audio with other Bluesound speakers, or—thanks to its support for AirPlay 2—with any speaker that supports that Apple protocol.
While not quite as sophisticated as the multi-room offerings from Sonos, Bluesound speakers support much higher-resolution audio Best of all, the speaker delivers great sound and a variety of custom EQ options.
Best outdoor speaker: Sonos Move
Weighing in at 6.6 pounds, Sonos’s first portable speaker could be more accurately described as a luggable. The Sonos Move connects to your W-Fi network when you’re home, and Bluetooth when you’re on the beach, campground, or park.
Either way, it boasts fantastic sound in a rugged, weatherized shell, and it comes with your choice of Alexa or Google Assistant, Sonos’s Trueplay room-correction technology, and delivers up to 11 hours of battery life.
Best budget headphone: Wyze Noise-Cancelling Headphones
We were skeptical when Wyze, the smart home manufacturer known for its $20 Wyze Cam, announced a pair of noise-cancelling Bluetooth headphones for a mere $50. But not only are the Wyze headphones impressively comfy, they deliver some of the best noise cancellation we’ve heard, with sound quality that rivals some far pricier competitors. The Wyze Noise-Cancelling Headphones are a pleasant surprise.
Best noise-cancelling headphone: Sony WH-1000XM4
Our favorite noise-cancelling Bluetooth headphones just got better with the all-new Sony WH-1000XM4, which adds a proximity sensor that pauses your tunes when you slip the headphones off, support for Sony’s high-resolution LDAC audio codec, and the ability to connected to multiple Bluetooth devices simultaneously. And like the older XM3, these new headphones are comfy to wear and offer superb noise cancelation.
Best budget soundbar: Denon DHT-S216H
No, the budget-priced Denon DHT-S216H doesn’t have Wi-Fi connectivity or Dolby Atmos support, but this compact, all-in-one soundbar will blow your TV’s speakers away with clean, crisp sound and surprisingly powerful low-frequency response—and if you want even more bass, an RCA-type connector lets you add a wired third-party subwoofer. Rounding out the package is DTS Virtual:X audio processing for virtualized 3D sound.
Best high-end soundbar: Vizio Elevate
We’ve seen—and heard—plenty of Dolby Atmos soundbars with upfiring drivers that bounce sound off the ceiling, but the Vizio Elevate is the first soundbar we’ve tried with height drivers that can swivel forward for non-Atmos audio content.
In other words, the Elevate makes the most of its 18 drivers at all times, resulting in some of the most exciting sound we’ve heard in a soundbar.
Best budget smart TV: TCL 8-series 4K UHD TV
Outfitted with super-granular mini-LED backlighting array that delivers deep blacks rivaling OLED technology, TCL’s 8-series 4K UHD TV (we reviewed the 65-inch class TCL 65Q825) is one of the best-looking LED TVs we’ve tested. We’re also happy that one of our biggest gripes about this Roku-powered TV—namely, its lack of AirPlay support—has been remedied following Roku’s adoption of Apple’s popular casting protocol.
Prices for this set have fluctuated wildly over the past few months—it was going for a ridiculously low $999 when we reviewed it in August. Snag one if you find it on sale for $1,500 or less.
Best DVR software: Channels DVR
At $8 a month or $80 a year, Channels DVR is considerably pricier than other software DVR services, and you need to provide the hardware to run it on. That said, you get more for your money, including top-notch video and audio quality for over-the-air recordings, a sleek interface with robust customization options, a 14-day channel guide, ad detection with manual and auto-skip functionality for commercial breaks, and the ability to record both over-the-air and streaming content.
Best budget smart speaker Amazon Echo Dot (4th Gen)
The latest version of Amazon’s ubiquitous and inexpensive Echo Dot smart speaker has arrived, and it boasts slightly improved sound and a spherical makeover. Otherwise, it’s pretty much the same Echo Dot, but given Alexa’s unmatched smart home abilities, including the ability to keep an ear out for breaking glass and other suspicious sounds, that’s a good thing.
Best smart speaker for music: Google Nest Audio
Google’s $99 successor to the dear departed Google Home cranks out big sound in a small package. Equipped with touch-enabled volume controls, a trio of audio-boosting technologies, and an on-device machine learning chip that helps to speed up Google Assistant, the Nest Audio is the best-sounding smart speaker in its price range.
Best smart display: Amazon Echo Show (2nd Gen)
We’re waiting with bated breath for the third-gen Amazon Echo Show to arrive, with its tricked-out motorized rotating display; until then, we’ll continue to recommend the Amazon Echo Show (2nd Gen) from late 2018. Amazon made all the right improvements here: A brighter, higher-resolution display; much-improved speakers (you can add a wireless subwoofer for even deeper bass response); and an integrated Zigbee radio that can eliminate the need for a separate smart home hub.
If you’re deep into the Google ecosystem, the 2019 Nest Hub Max is also a worthy choice.