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Building a Budget Home Theater for Under $5k

by Rachel Cericola September 15, 2008
Image credit Stephen Hopkins

Image credit Stephen Hopkins

It’s one thing to hire an installer to create the ultimate home theater dream room. It’s an entirely different story (and a fun one) to create that room all by yourself—for less than five grand. While many home theater creations flaunt wealth in our faces, Stephen Hopkins was all about making us jealous for what he didn’t spend.

“Budget was a definite concern,” Stephen says. “Since we were building the house (our first) there was very little budget available for the theater itself.”

However, this doesn’t mean that Stephen did not have his eye on his home theater prize. He designated a third-floor bonus room for the spot that would soon house a screen, projector, and other A/V equipment. To prep for that magical day, Stephen pre-wired the entire room, which included in-wall wiring for speakers and a subwoofer, as well as HDMI and power for the projector.

Sure, there was plenty of equipment—items that he had built up over time, mostly while Stephen was in college. So he added theater seats, as well as a screen, which he purchased from a custom installer on craigslist. This wasn’t a “pssst…. buddy” type of business; the installer was trying to unload a crop of “scratch-and-dent screens from Tiger Direct.” His trash was Stephen’s treasure.

From there, Stephen filled in the blanks using his hands, as well as refurbished, “B-stock,” and/or open box equipment deals, which helped him keep costs down. For instance, Stephen says he scored a Samsung BD-UP5000 Blu-Ray/HD-DVD combo player for half of the $450 purchase price at Circuit City. He also got his Onkyo SR805 for $500. “That, more than anything else, has kept my costs down significantly.” he says. “There are risks [with refurbished], but usually not that much more than a new piece of equipment—as long as it’s purchased from an authorized dealer.”

The only downside was that each product was missing its respective remote. It didn’t matter; he uses a Harmony 520 to control everything, as well as wow friends and family. The unit is programmed full of activities, which means that the touch of one button can fire up equipment, drop the screen and dim the lights.

Always a bargain hunter, Stephen also saved by purchasing all of his cables at Monoprice.com . He took advantage of many of the discounts this e-tailer offers—and saved a bundle, especially on HDMI cables.

Another cost-cutting measure was Stephen’s homemade subwoofer. Consisting of a 12-inch Ascendant Avalanche XBL2 driver, a 350-watt BASH Digital Switching amplifier and a custom 6.5-foot enclosure, the total cost was about $300. “It performs at levels similar to an SVS Ultra, flat below 20Hz in-room at over 110db,” Stephen says proudly.

Despite what some may think is a hodge-podge of equipment, Stephen’s room has a clean, simple look. “I’ve always been somewhat OCD about clutter and especially about wiring,” he says. “In apartments you can’t do much to the walls and you can’t really hide wiring all that well. Now that I had a blank canvas that belonged to me, I wanted every wire hidden.”

Part of the room’s clean appearance also lies in Stephen’s projector installation. The mount was another Stephen special, made from a single 20-pound ball-joint speaker wall mount and a 1/4-inch piece of birch plywood. The mount meets the wall directly on a joist in the ceiling, which is perfectly lined up with the center of the screen. “The mounting plate was cut/drilled to match the bolt pattern on the projector, the edges were rounded with a router, and it was painted to match the ceiling,” Stephen says. “The mounting plate was mounted to the speaker side of the speaker mount using the supplied hardware and then mounted to the projector using bolts and acrylic spacers purchased from Lowe’s. The projector assembly was then mounted to the wall side of the mount. Aiming was also very easy. I simply aimed the picture until there was no keystoning at the top/bottom, adjusted the side keystoning on the projector, aligned the top of the image with the top of the screen using the optical lens shift, and zoomed to fill the screen.”

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