This is the first of a series of buying guides for those looking forward to this holiday season as a time to assemble a home theater system.
First up: budget setups.
Whether you need to create a home theater on the cheap, or you live in a small space that can't handle a big system, you can assemble a solid set of components for less than ever. Even if you hold off on Blu-ray and don't spring for a dedicated A/V receiver, you can create a perfectly adequate HD setup while sparing you wallet too much pain.
Vizio VO32L For those on a very tight budget, or who don't need a big set, the 32-inch 720p VO32L delivers fine performance for an entry-level price. In particular, the VO32L handles black levels well, which is almost always the Achilles' heel of cheaper LCD sets. You also get a couple of HDMI ports so you can hook up set-top boxes and DVD players with a pure digital connection.
List Price: $649.99Panasonic Viera TH-42PX80U One of the reasons LCDs have eclipsed plasmas as most people's HDTV of choice has been the high price for even entry-level plasmas. But prices have plunged so dramatically that you can now get a 42-inch 720p plasma like the Viera TH-42PX80 for well under its list price. After Pioneer, Panasonic is the most highly regarded plasma provider, so you can expect deep shades of black that will put similarly priced LCDs to shame.
Direct Price: $999.95Samsung LN40A530 You probably won't notice the difference in sets smaller than 50 inches, but if you must have a 1080p HDTV for under $1,000, the LN40A530 will fit the bill well. With three HDMI ports, accurate color, and better-than-average black-level performance, this 40-inch LCD should reward you for the bit of holiday splurging you're doing.
Street Price: $999.99Budget Speakers
Sony HT-CT100 The soundbar-speaker option—where you have a lengthy primary speaker that offers virtual surround sound (and can be mounted under your HDTV) along with a dedicated subwoofer—is a chic choice that usually requires a few tradeoffs in audio quality. But that's not the case with the HT-CT100, especially considering its bargain price. In addition to its stellar performance with movies and music, it handles surround-sound processing of Dolby and DTS source material, so you don't even need a dedicated A/V receiver if you're on a tight budget.
Direct Price: $239.99Panasonic SC-PT660 If you prefer the traditional home-theater-system setup instead of a soundbar, the SC-PT660 provides a receiver, five-disc DVD player, five satellite speakers, and subwoofer for under $300. Bonus points for the DVD player upscaling standard-definition discs to 1080p as well as the integrated iPod dock.
Direct Price: $299.95Budget Video Player
Sony DVP-NS700H/B You may want to take the Blu-ray plunge if you pick up a 1080p set, but most viewers will do fine with an upscaling DVD player that boosts regular DVD discs to high-definition quality. Most cost under $100, and I've had no complaints with my Sony DVP-NS700H, which isn't the latest model but can found for $74 at Amazon.com.
Street Price: Around $75Universal Remote
Philips Prestigo SRU8010 The finishing touch for a home theater setup is a universal remote that lets you place all of your other remotes in the closet. The Prestigo SRU8010 offers a lot to like for the price, handling up to 10 different devices, sporting large buttons a bright screen, and making it easy to set up and program.
Street Price: Around $75