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Strategies For Building & Buying Your Home Theater System

by June 25, 2024
Audioholics Home Theater

Audioholics Home Theater

Strategies for Buying Audio and Home Theater Gear

Follow These Guidelines Towards BIG Savings While Building Your Dream System

Audioholics readers often ask how to go about building their dream audio system or home theater. It’s a complex topic with a multitude of factors to consider, and it’s easy to understand why it might feel overwhelming. My colleague Theo Nikolakis, who has years of experience under his belt, has put together a really thoughtful video to help guide the ambitious AV enthusiast down the path toward home audio happiness. I highly suggest giving it a watch, but if you prefer to digest your AV knowledge in written form, read on to learn what Theo had to say and how his insights can help you on your audio journey.

1. What’s your Motivation?

The first step, before you start shortlisting gear or window-shopping for a new must-have gadget, is to ask yourself what is driving your desire to build a system in the first place. Are you moved by music? Is high fidelity stereo playback your main goal? And if so, are you trying to recreate the experience of a live performance, or relive memories captured in the grooves of a vinyl record? Think about the kind of experience you want to have, and how you want to feel when firing up your new system. Or perhaps you’re more into high-performance home theater. Do you want to bring the cinema experience home, with a focus on high SPLs and room-rattling bass? Or are you more interested in the subtle details, spatial cues, and total immersion that you’d find in a world-class mixing studio? (And yes, you can have both if your budget allows.) To help answer these questions, consider whether the system is primarily for you, or whether the goal is to share experiences with friends and family. I know some folks who use their home theaters more for entertaining than for their own enjoyment, and that’s a valid goal too. Those shared experiences can be worth their undefinable weight in gold. The idea is to understand your true motivation for building an audio system or home theater before you dive into the deep end. Keep your motivation and values in mind throughout the process, and you’ll be more likely to end up with the right system for you.

2. Identifying What You Like (And Don't Like!)

Depending on your level of experience, you may or may not know what you like and what you don’t like when it comes to sound quality, speaker technologies, or even software interfaces. Figuring out your personal preferences can be a complicated and even confusing process, but if you’re an enthusiast, it’s also a big part of the fun. Because these are matters of taste, there’s no right or wrong answer, and you can’t rely entirely on recommendations from friends or experts. You can start with big-picture questions, like whether you tend to enjoy stereo demos or multi-channel demos. Do you prefer the “disappearing act” of a small two-way speaker, or the chest-thumping authority of big towers? This is also where things like aesthetics and industrial design come into play. Only you (and perhaps, the people you live with) can say what looks good in your space. Read AV magazines and websites (especially Audioholics.com), visit locals dealers, and maybe even attend a few audio shows. Soon you’ll begin to understand what appeals to you most.

MartinLogan Home Theater

Once you have a basic idea of your tastes and preferences, then you can focus on more technical considerations, like loudspeaker design and driver technologies. There are numerous speaker types out there, and they all have their pros and cons. With some experience, you’ll be able to align these pros and cons with your sonic tastes. The most common design is that of a traditional speaker with cone woofers and dome tweeters in a box-like cabinet, but even within this category, there is a huge variety. Perhaps you’ll discover that you like the sound of Air Motion Transformer tweeters, as you’d find in speakers from MartinLogan, Legacy and RBH Sound, or that you’re willing to pay big bucks for a really quiet, inert cabinet, such as those made by Magico and Rockport. Maybe you’ll be attracted to the customization offered by active speakers with built-in DSP (such as RBH Sound), or maybe you’ll find that you like the old-school sound of speakers with relatively thin, rectangular wooden cabinets, such as Harbeths. Big horn speakers with compression drivers deliver an immediacy and dynamic liveliness that draw some audiophiles to brands like Klipsch, Tannoy, and JBL, while others are willing to sacrifice some of that scale and snap for a sound with more refinement in the high frequencies. Electrostatic speakers, such as those from MartinLogan or Quad, can deliver detail in spades, thanks in part to the low mass of their drivers and the lack of cabinet-born coloration. But they tend to have narrow sweet-spots, making them less ideal for those who like to host listening parties, and they can struggle to deliver the wide dynamic swings of a similarly-priced traditional speaker. 

Magnepan Home Theater

Planar-magnetic speakers, such as those made by Magnepan and Diptyque, offer a huge, holographic soundstage. Personally, I love the way they can make music seem to magically appear within every molecule of air in the room. 

Perlisten Home Theater

But if you want deep bass and dynamic slam, you’d be much better off with a big Focal or Perlisten tower speaker. Spend some time familiarizing yourself with the options. Not only can it be entertaining and educational, it will also prove to be time well spent when it comes time to make a purchase.

Once you’ve figured out what kind of speaker technology you like, you can determine the shape and size of the speakers you’re after. (This will also be dictated to a certain extent by the size of your room.) Do you want a full-range speaker with true bass capabilities, or do you want a smaller bookshelf speaker that more effectively “disappears,” both visually and sonically? Are you looking for freestanding speakers that you can position carefully in the room, or do you need in-wall and in-ceiling speakers that draw little attention when the system is off? Do you plan to use subwoofers, and if so, do you want big beastly subs like the RBH Sound 21-SF/R, or tiny, discreet designs like the KEF KC92? Again, many of these considerations will depend on the size and layout of your listening room. Is it a dedicated home theater, where hulking speakers and monster-truck subwoofers have free rein to visually dominate the space, or is it a multi-use family room where functionality and aesthetics will factor in? The room itself also plays a big part in the sound that reaches your ears. Do you have the option to acoustically treat the room, and if so, to what extent? The interaction between the speakers and the room is, in my opinion, the most important factor in determining sound quality. That’s why room correction technology has become so important, especially in the home theater world, but also in some stereo products like the NAD M66 streaming pre-amp or Cambridge Audio EVO 150.

3. Pick Your Room Correction

Anthem ARC

Room correction technology has become an essential part of system-building strategy for many audiophiles. These tools have become so powerful that they can have an immense impact on the sound quality you can achieve without changing core components like loudspeakers, amplifiers, and room acoustics. Some audiophiles are so impressed by a certain technology that they will only consider buying a product if it supports their preferred room correction solution. We’ve been able to achieve good results with various solutions, and there’s no one best system for everyone. At the high end of the spectrum, the StormAudio processor in the Audioholics Smart Home uses the latest Dirac Live Active Room Treatment software. Dirac is generally neck-and-neck with the home-grown room correction inside the pricey Trinnov processors. These days, some versions of Dirac are also available in more affordable gear from the likes of Denon, Marantz, and Onkyo. Audyssey room correction also comes in various forms, with more granular adjustments available in higher-end products. Anthem’s Arc Genesis is not only effective, it’s also a bit more beginner-friendly than some of the other options out there. 

McIntosh Reference Home Theater

RoomPerfect is another impressive solution available on some electronics from McIntosh and Steinway Lyngdorf. At the end of the day, room correction is an important feature to consider when buying electronics, but it shouldn’t be the only consideration. In all cases, less tech-savvy buyers have the option of seeking help from a dealer or a professional calibrator to make sure that their system is delivering its best.

4. Choosing Electronics


Speaking of electronics, it all starts with source components. You probably know whether you’re into digital audio or vinyl (or both). You can of course stream music from Spotify, Tidal, Qobuz, and so on, or you can curate your own collection of digital rips and downloads using a music server solution like Roon. Similarly, on the home theater side, you can get by with a $50 Roku stick if you’re OK with streaming-quality picture and sound, or you can pony up tens of thousands for a high-end movie server like the Kaleidescape Terra Prime. Most folks will split the difference with a UHD Blu-ray player, which can provide lossless sound and reference-quality picture for folks with real-world budgets — as long as they’re willing to buy and organize discs. Once you have your sources and your speaker layout sorted, it’s easier to figure out what electronics you need to fill the gap in the signal chain. Do you need an analog stereo integrated amp, or a Dolby Atmos AVR capable of handling 16 channels of audio? Do you need electronics that fit into a certain software ecosystem, like Roon, Apple AirPlay, Chromecast, Spotify Connect, or Tidal Connect? Do you want to buy the whole system at once, or start small and build the system over time?

Check out the Kaleidescape Strato C + Terra Prime Bundle Deal

5. Set a Plan and Long-Term Goals

This leads us to one of Theo’s most important topics: making a long-term plan for your system. Some folks want an entire home theater system immediately, and will choose to buy all the gear and all the speakers in one fell swoop, even if budgetary limitations require some compromises in the level of performance they can expect. What they want is functionality, and they want it now. Others are willing to temporarily compromise on functionality in order to avoid compromises in quality. Maybe they’ll start with a really good 5.1-channel system, and then add height channels and an additional subwoofer (or three) as their budget allows. Again, there’s no wrong approach — you simply need to think about which method best suits your goals and your space. Whatever your budget, you might find yourself trying to decide how to allocate your funds to get the best bang for your buck. In the context of a home theater, Theo suggests focusing on your front-stage loudspeakers. That means spending more on your main left, right, and center loudspeakers than on anything else. In a stereo system, I’d follow the same logic and spend more on the speakers than on any other component. (My friend Bryce wanted really high-quality sound from his home theater, but only had the budget for a 3.0-channel system to start with. He added more speakers and subwoofers every year for a few years, and was happy at every stage of the development.) If you do invest in high-quality speakers for your front stage, it might be worth investing in an external amp just for those speakers, even if you use an AVR’s built-in amps to power the rest of the channels. This strategy can yield a terrific bang-for-buck ratio. Focus your budget on the most important channels — both for speakers and for amplification — and compromise elsewhere as needed.

6. Factors To Think About When Buying Audio Gear

Denon AVR A1H

We’ve just touched upon the idea of using an AVR in tandem with a 3-channel amp to maximize your performance-per-dollar, but this is, of course, just one of several options. Some high-end receivers, such as the Denon AVR-A1H, Marantz Cinema 30, and Anthem MRX 1140, might have more than enough power to handle your whole system. On the other hand, if your speakers are especially demanding, or if you want the very best performance possible, you’ll want to go the separates route, combining an AV processor with separate power amplifiers. There are benefits to both approaches. The main advantage of an AV receiver is price. By combining everything into one component, you aren’t paying for multiple chassis, multiple power supplies, and the considerable amount of cabling necessary to connect an AV processor to outboard amps. But buying separate components does have some benefits beyond superior performance. AV processors and AV receivers contain loads of internal technology that changes every few years. Things like HDMI features, audio format support, room correction options, and even the user interface can make an older component feel out-of-date after a relatively short period of time. Meanwhile, power amplifiers (and quality loudspeakers) can last for decades. If you have separates, you can keep your whole theater cutting-edge just by upgrading your processor. If you use a receiver, you’re paying for new amplification every time you want or need a technological upgrade. Keep an eye out for components that support both hardware and software upgrades — these tend to cost more up front, but can save you money in the long run, if you always want to have the latest and greatest at your fingertips.

7. Purchasing Strategies

Theo touches on several important purchasing strategies to consider. The most important of these is to make sure, when buying new gear, that you’re buying from an authorized retailer, or directly from the manufacturer. Do not be tempted by the discounts offered by disreputable, unauthorized online resellers. So-called “grey market” resellers might be offloading B-stock, damaged gear, used gear, or knockoff products. Furthermore, most manufacturers will NOT honor a warranty if the product in question was purchased from an unauthorized dealer. If the price seems to good to be true, it probably is. (Many years ago, I ordered an AVR from a random seller on eBay, before the online auction site had protections in place for buyers. The price was so good, and I didn’t know better. I never received the receiver, and it took me months to get my money back.) If you see a great price advertised, always check the manufacturer’s website (or shoot them an email) to make sure that the seller is an authorized dealer.

Note: Audioholics has two channel partners we work closely with and trust you can choose from including Audio Advice and Dreamedia.

8. Smart Ways to Save

Denon Refurb

If you are looking for a deal, there are some smarter ways to go about saving some dough without taking ill-advised risks. Many reputable manufacturers, like Denon and Parasound, sell refurbished products either directly on their websites or through authorized dealers. These products have been certified at the factory to work like new, and they come with a warranty from the manufacturer (sometimes it’s a full warranty, sometimes it’s for a shorter period than a warranty on a new item). Another option is to buy demo gear from a local authorized dealer. Demo items might be floor samples used in the store, items returned by other customers, or even brand-new items used in a photo shoot. Sometimes they’re flawless, but sometimes they have small cosmetic dings and scratches. Either way, any authorized dealer will be transparent about what you’re getting, and these items should also come with a manufacturer’s warranty. Just make sure to buy these items from a dealer you trust. Finally, you might be able to save money by shopping during sales like Black Friday or Prime Day. These sales tend to focus on consumer-level gear, so high-end companies might not offer any discounts at all. But it doesn’t hurt to check. We’ve seen great deals from companies like SVS, Sony, JBL, Revel, and more. Finally, you might just get a great deal by buying used gear. I’ve seen really cool gear advertised at US Audio Mart (www.usaudiomart.com). If you buy directly from an individual, there is a certain level of risk, though this can be mitigated by shopping through a site like eBay or AudiogoN, where sellers have reviews and there are protections in place for the buyer. I highly recommend an online store called The Music Room (https://tmraudio.com), which does a great job testing gear and ensuring quality.

Trade-in or Trade-up Programs

Some dealers and manufacturers offer trade-in programs, which essentially buy your old gear from you in exchange for a significant discount on the purchase of new gear. Some dealers offer trade-up programs, which are slightly different. Basically, you can buy a new piece of gear from the dealer, and then if you decide to upgrade within a certain period of time (often 1 year), you return the item to the dealer. The dealer then applies the full purchase price of the original item toward the new more-expensive item. It’s a great way to enjoy a piece of gear now, while you save up the extra cash needed for something even better. Unlike selling gear on the used market, these trade-up programs don’t force you to take a loss in order to upgrade. And if there’s one thing that audiophiles love, it’s upgrading to something bigger, better, and newer. These programs also foster good relationships between local dealers and customers.

Final Thoughts

The process of putting together a system can be complicated, and there’s no guarantee that you’ll enjoy years of listening pleasure without a few missteps. Whatever you do, try to have fun and remember that this is not life-or-death — it’s a hobby, and one that we’re lucky to participate in at any level. Personally, I’ve never had the necessary coin to build my dream home theater, and while I’d love to have the kind of megabuck stereo system that I see at audio shows, that’s not in the cards right now. Even with modest gear, it is possible to get true satisfaction from the music and movies we love. If, however, you are in a position to go all out and build the system of your dreams, I’d recommend consulting a professional, like our fearless leader Gene DellaSala or our friendly neighborhood acoustics expert, Matthew Poes. If you live near a world-class dealer like Audio Advice or wish to pursue online options like Dreamedia, that’s a great place to start as well. What would your dream system look like? Do you have any tips or horror stories to share from your own audio journey? Share your thoughts in the related forum thread below.


About the author:
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Jacob is a music-lover and audiophile who enjoys convincing his friends to buy audio gear that they can't afford. He's also a freelance writer and editor based in Los Angeles.

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