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Home Theater Budget & Shopping Guidelines

by July 05, 2015
Image Courtesy of www.legaljuice.com

Image Courtesy of www.legaljuice.com

originally published: 3/28/2013

For a custom installer, one of the most important parts of any bid is to set the client's budget expectations promptly and accurately. For someone who doesn't work on home theater systems for a living, the list of components needed is typically quite small. The average consumer will budget for a display, speakers, receiver, Blu-ray player, and cables. But that leaves out a large portion of expenses that can drive up the price of the project significantly.

In the professional world I used to advise clients at a 30/30/30 starting point. 30% of the budget would be spent on the display, 30% on sound, and 30% on everything else (Yes, I know that leaves 10% left over. I'm not that base). Over the years I started to modify the budget, especially thanks to decreasing display prices, but the general idea remained the same. The goal was to get clients thinking about all of the small things that are needed to successfully build a home theater. As much as we would love to spend the entire budget on speakers and a display, that would leave us with nothing to watch and no way to power the speakers.  The extra 10% can also be recombined into the area of most importance based on your goals and needs.  Already got a Display? Great, put that money towards better speakers or a second subwoofer. 

 How to Budget your Home Theater System

With that mindset, below is a list of things to consider when building your own home theater system.

Home Theater Budget Considerations

  • Display: This is obvious. You need something to actually watch. We tend to recommend people stick with plasma TVs or projectors for an actual home theater. Projectors are becoming more and more affordable, and new screen technologies allow them to work well in moderately lit rooms. Plasmas have always worked well in dark rooms (actually, they work pretty well in moderately lit rooms as well), have deep blacks and great off-axis viewing.
  • Speakers: Don't skimp out here, good speakers will outlast everything else in your system. Also resist the temptation to skimp on the subwoofer, a good chunk of your speaker budget should go to one or more subwoofers.  Remember more is not always better with speakers.  A solid 5.1 system is better than a mediocre 9.1 or 5.1.4 system.  Don't sacrifice quality speakers to add height channels, especially the gimmicky Atmos Reflection speakers.
  • Cables: Cables can be expensive but don't need to be if you buy smart, especially when you need enough to outfit an entire system. Don't waste money on cable snake oil claims.  Buy the stuff that is grounded in science that we write about in the cable section of this site.  Besides speaker cable and your cables that connect your source devices to your AV receiver, there are also networking cables to consider. Running extra cabling will help future proof your system. A few runs of CAT5e/6 from your equipment to your display, and one back to your Internet router, is a must.
  • Electronics: You will want to budget for all of the equipment you want in your home theater—and not just source components. This might include a: Blu-ray player, game console(s), AV receiver, cable/satellite box, and anything else you want to hook up (you may find that a new wireless router or a switch is needed for Internet connectivity, for example). In fancier installations you may have to account for independent amps, cooling systems, or outboard video processors.  Spend a little extra on the higher model AV receiver with preamp outputs if you can in case you want to some day add more power with eternal amplification. 
  • Power: Electrical surges will come through any opening they can find in your system. I once saw lightning strike outside a client's home and it literally blew chunks of concrete out of their floor inside their garage. Surge protection is important, and should be used for each device you have. Don't just buy a nice power center for your equipment rack and forget to protect your sub(s) or display!
  • Labor: If you hire a professional expect to spend anywhere from a few hundred dollars to multiple thousands of dollars to have your system set up properly. Even something like programming an advanced universal remote can run hundreds of dollars in labor fees (and it's often well worth it).
  • Misc. brackets/pieces: Every install needs a slush fund to account for small, but necessary, pieces of equipment. A few examples of this are: wall plates, wall mounts, stands, lumber, mounting hardware, paint, cable ends, cable management, etc... Some of these items, like a wall mount, can cost well over $300, especially if you step into motorized or articulating mounts for larger TVs. Those rear speakers aren't going to float in midair behind your couch!
  • Tools: If you are going the DIY route then you may need some specialty tools. Small tasks, like cutting and crimping wires, to larger tasks, like fishing wire, benefit from having the proper tools.
  • Control: A simple way to control the entire system is critical to any complete setup. The cheapest route is a basic universal remote for under $100, but more reliable solutions that utilize IR/RF repeaters and advanced macros can be much more expensive. Companies like URC, Control4, RTI, and Crestron special in these systems and almost always require professional installation. A DIY option should run you less than $400, but good luck finding a professional solution for that price.
  • Furniture: Nice home theater seating tends to be expensive, costing thousands of dollars to outfit a row or two of seats. Of course, you can always just use an old couch, chairs, and blankets. Speaker, A/V and television stands also fit in this category. After you buy that stack of equipment you may need a new piece of furniture to hold it all together.
  • Acoustics: A few acoustic panels or bass traps can have a big effect on the sound of a system. Budget a few hundred dollars for some basic treatments. If you absolutely can't add acoustic treatments due to aesthetics, consider playing with the arrangement of your furniture. A well-placed bookshelf can make a great diffuser!
  • Final Set up: Investing money into simple optimization tools, like Disney's WOW disc and an SPL meter, will go a long ways in optimizing your system.

Final Thoughts

The above list isn't comprehensive, but it should help get you started in developing a budget for a basic home theater. For more construction intensive systems you will need to budget for all of the expected building supplies, plus extra acoustic materials to keep sound in/out and prevent wall rattle. As always, we recommend moving slowly and building a great home theater rather than moving quickly and having a mediocre end result. 

It's perfectly OK to build your system in stages.  Buy the best pair of main speakers you can afford now to enjoy two-channel and later add the center and surround speakers to complete your theater system.  Or, get a high quality pair of bookshelf speakers and a sub. Use this 2.1 configuration as your main system and later move those speakers to the surrounds when you can buy those hulking towers you've always wanted.  The point is, plan your system and think of the end game  in advance.  This will help you make better purchasing decisions while avoiding buyers remorse. 

If we forgot anything put in the comments below.


vinod.r posts on July 07, 2015 11:48
I am from India and I have been following your forum for quite some time.

I have in fact almost done the same. Equipment out in India is usually 2 to 3 times the cost out in the US (You guys are lucky!!!)

Most of my equipment is pre owned (Except the speakers) and I have a reasonably good system after what you have just said in your video. I did this in 2005 and still use the same system today.

Got a Denon AVR 3803, it does not have DTS-HD MA, so I have it hooked up to the Pioneer BDP-51FD which does the decoding and hence I get the latest codecs that I can think of. Of course atmos and other new codecs have made this obsolete, but I can live with this!

My TV is also pre owned. My speakers I got at a good bargain 40% discount as they were display pieces.

Based on a rough estimate, I would have had to spend at least 40% more if I had bought everything new.

Karen Molinares posts on July 05, 2015 14:47
MidnightSensi2 posts on March 29, 2013 13:51
I think this article is good in the respect that it brings up things that a neophyte might not consider.

However, I think one important thing to consider in budget is SCALABILITY. How much will it cost me over a period of time. For example, a nice set of LCRs may be purchased with the idea in mind that they would become rears when budget allowed for what they ultimately wanted as fronts.

Not all things can you do this, but, it saves money in the long run.
Steve81 posts on March 28, 2013 19:02
Cliff_is, post: 959789
you need to watch the other two videos. The first one is kinda boring, but quite pedantic.

I found them all pretty entertaining. Then again, I like watching infomercials too, so my tastes might be a little suspect. Still, this guy might be my new hero.
internetmin posts on March 28, 2013 14:55
Steve81, post: 959850
This might give you some ideas:
Speaker Cable Face Off 1

I've been following the site for a while and have never previously come across that article before. Thanks for that!
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About the author:
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Cliff, like many of us, has always loved home theater equipment. In high school he landed a job at Best Buy that started his path towards actual high quality audio. His first surround sound was a Klipsch 5.1 system. After that he was hooked, moving from Klipsch to Polk to Definitive Technology, and so on. Eventually, Cliff ended up doing custom installation work for Best Buy and then for a "Ma & Pa" shop in Mankato, MN.

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