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Building the Ideal Home Entertainment System on a non-Rock Star Budget

- March 8, 2011 - 0 Comments

This blog was contributed by Tim Washer, Marketing Manager for Cisco’s Service Provider Group.

This article is aimed at those who don’t fall into the early adopter or fanatical enthusiast set, although I trust most readers have upgraded from their 8-track system.  Keep in mind most of the technology facts in this article will be obsolete by the time you reach the fourth paragraph.

Best time to buy is while you’re single and retain some discretionary income and decision-making authority.   If you’ve missed that deadline, then set your sites on March and April when retailers don’t have a big draw such as the holidays, Super Bowl or World Cup, and are more willing to negotiate.

Decide on your priorities.  Music, movies,  gaming, Grey’s Anatomy.  This will be helpful later when you set the budget.

Set a budget.  My wife insists this should be the first step.  (Here’s a bonus tip, never marry a CPA, especially if you’re fiscally irresponsible.  Sure, she may save you from bankruptcy, but the downside is every three months you’ll get audited.)

Even if you’re like me and haven’t gotten around to upgrading your 27” full-bodied set (did I mention my wife is an accountant?)  it’s time to consider making the move to at least a 40” screen which start around $700.  Rarely will you be disappointed by buying a larger TV than you think you need, but choosing something slightly smaller invites cognitive dissonance.  Tell the decision-maker of the household you’ll justify the cost by spending less at the movie theater.   Include the price of jumbo popcorn in the cost-benefit analysis.   If your powerpoint presentation doesn’t convince your mate or if you’ve married a bean-counter, keep your relationship healthy and go for a 32” screen TV for $300.   Your sacrifice will give you leverage for later, like shortening a holiday visit with the in-laws.

Once you decide on screen size, consider the signal and display type.

Resolution: 720p and 1080i refer to the number of horizontal lines/pixels  displayed on the screen. Of course, the more lines, the higher the resolution and better image.   The “p” refers to “progressive scan” which conveys all of the lines of resolution sequentially in a single pass.  This creates a smoother, cleaner image working well for sports and Jackie Chan movies.

1080i conveys the images in an “interlaced” format where the odd-numbered lines appear on your screen first, followed by the even-numbered lines.  All of this occurs 1/30 of a second.   Personally, I don’t watch most shows that fast.


LCD – Liquid crystal displays are the most energy efficient as they don’t emit light directly but rely on the light modulating properties of liquid crystals.  LCDs work well if you plan to use the monitor with a computer, a digital multimedia streamer  or for viewing still images.

LED – Light-emitting diode televisions are basically LCD televisions that use LED lights for back lighting instead of the fluorescent lighting traditionally used for LCDs.  Because these lights can be manufactured in very small sizes, they allow for very thin and light-weight screens.

Plasma is worth considering for screens over 50”.  It offers the best contrast ratio, which is the difference between the darkest darks and the whitest whites.   It’s the best performer for fast moving images, so if Rush Hour trilogy is coming up in your Netflix queue, step up to the plasma.

So to keep this practical for the non-fanatic, if you’re buying a TV set with a screen that is:

·         32” –  40” TV, this 1080i difference is not noticeable enough to warrant the extra cost, so go with 720p.   Much of the HDTV content is still delivered in 720p as well as gaming content from Xbox, Wii, etc.

·         40” – 46” LCD models will be in 1080p, and there will likely be more models to choose from in the LED category.

·         If you watch a lot of Blu-ray or have a screen larger than 55”, then consider both 1080i and yourself lucky.   If you decide to splurge, go ahead and upgrade your sofa, as you might be sleeping there for a week.


A quality surround sound system does wonders in creating a theater-like experience, and I love hearing the sounds from behind me except when I’m watching Hitchcock.  While audiophiles will want to build a system by selecting a receiver and speakers separately, the rest of us can get what we need at an electronics retailer in the range of $300 – $1,500.  These systems  include a receiver and usually five compact speakers–two front, one center channel, two surround speakers for the rear, plus a subwoofer for deep bass sounds.  Discount retailers and warehouse stores offer pretty good home theater-in-a-box options starting around for $200.

If your space is limited, consider a sound bar, around $200 – $1,200.   This is a thin “bar” that includes two to five speakers usually and is about 40 inches long. It connects directly to the TV without requiring a separate receiver, and some models now include Blu-ray. It can emulate surround sound without requiring speakers all over the room.

Be sure to do your research online, and consider shopping at your local retailer for in-person guidance.  And if you haven’t done so yet, use the time on your drive over to set a budget. Finally, save a spot for Videoscape.


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