The Small Space Renter's Home Theater Upgrade Plan

Being a renter with a modest income and even more modest space to work with means compromises will be made when putting together a decent home theater setup. We've been pretty satisfied with our current setup, which includes an Optoma HD70 720p DLP projector, a 92" Panoview manual pulldown screen, a Yamaha YSP-800 Soundbar, Apple TV and Oppo 971H upscaling DVD player. But we're looking forward to 2010 as the year we move toward a proper 1080p setup with true surround sound.

Let's get it out right from the start that we know our setup is not high end. It was cobbled together on a limited budget and over the stretch of a couple years, afforded by scouring eBay and Craigslist offerings, and jumping upon some notable discounts from the now defunct Circuit City ("Free screen with purchase of projector? Why thank you!"). But the upgrade from a 40" LCD display to a 92" screen has been a game changer in our household where movies, sports broadcasts, and the occasional video game play a part in our lives. Once you go truly large, most LCD and plasma displays just don't cut it for the cinephile looking for a cinema-like experience.

As noted recently in past posts, I made a decision to transition away from the Apple TV as our home media device, adopting the PS3 slim as the new centerpiece to our home theater setup. Unfortunately, as is often the case, introducing an upgrade sets off a domino effect, igniting a desire to upgrade everything else in relation to the newest component. The limitations of our 720p display options (both the projector and LCD display) are evident when playing Blu-ray or PS3 games now since transitioning from the less information rich DSS HD broadcast sources, the Apple TV's quasi-HD content and an upscaling DVD player. The simulated surround sound of the Yamaha now doesn't seem sufficient for our discerning ears. Yes, it's bad news in regards to our bank account, this coming 2010.

Here's what I hope to upgrade over the next year:

Upgrade to a 1080p projector: The 1080p category of projectors is the most competitive segment in home theater today, with a handful of very capable 1080p projectors available at a once unthinkable price point. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your perspective, we have room dimension limitations that make our upgrade options an abbreviated one. First there's pricing, so sub $1000 is definitely our range. Second, our 12' width room requires a projector that can fill up the 92" screen with a fairly short throw. Last, the current ceiling mount is pushed back as far as it can go, so the location dictates the new projector must have dimensions and weight close or smaller compared to the current HD70 unit.

Basically we've got three choices: the Vivitek's H1080FD, the Optoma HD20, or the BenQ W1000, all three DLP units. We've loved our Optoma HD70, so the HD20 was our first choice. But the consensus at this time from projector junkies seem to lean toward the Vivitek's superior contrast and color reproduction. 1800 ANSI brightness and a 4000:1 contrast are more than capable for our viewing needs. Also, the quiet characteristic of the H1080FD is highly desirable when the projector will sit right above our heads.

Our goal: Vivitek H1080FD DLP projector $999

True 5.1 Home Theater System: here's where I'm sure people will want to chime in, as my choice may ruffle the feathers of those more serious about their home theater audio. The current candy bar YSP-800 does a decent job of reflecting sound off the walls for a quasi-surround effect, but comparing to the full sized Nakamichi surround system we setup at our mom's home, there's no comparison. The YSP-800 was chosen not only for budget, but because it's a compact, self contained unit which doesn't require girlfriend-bothering, decor ruining wiring.

We want to continue without having to run wires across our small studio apartment, yet upgrade to a better sound experience. Home Theater in a Box is often chastised as an inferior route, and in reality, it is. So with that out of the way, we still think people living in small spaces can enjoy the home theater experience with a decent system that only has to service a small apartment studio space like our own, with the hopes of choosing a system that is both audibly enjoyable and visual invisible.

Our requirements for a small space, decor-friendly and affordable 5.1 audio system was best fit by the specifications of the Sony HT-IS100 BRAVIA Theater Micro System. The 5.1 channel home theater system notably offers the upgrade option of wireless speakers and HDMI connectivity; the speakers themselves are atomic particles compared to even most mini home theater in a box systems, making them discrete additions to any room, only noticed when turning on the system (we only wished we could get these in white to blend into our walls). And at under $350 for a full 5.1 system (minus additional wireless transmitter and receiver), this may be our first upgrade purchase.

Our goal: Sony HT-IS100 BRAVIA Theater Micro System $348

Wrangle in our Remote Control Issue: the death of our volume button on our Logitech 880 remote spelled doom for us in regards to our K.I.S.S. (keep it simple, stupid) philosophy for remotes. Despite our frustration of the possible button defect on our remote (an issue noted by others online of the very same button), we still believe Logitech makes the best consumer priced programmable remotes. The latest Logitech Harmony One is the heir apparent to the 880/890 models, improving and upgrading features, adding touchscreen interface, a rechargeable lithium-ion battery and a GUI that actually operates very easily. And importantly, they've redesigned the buttons for both easier use and more mechanically sound endurance over the lifetime of being pressed (aka mashed). And we already know setup and use using Logitech's Windows and OS X web remote programming application is very easy, a category we think other manufacturer's remotes still lag. This should be the easiest upgrade to budget and integrate.

Our goal: Logitech Harmony One Remote $179-199

Other Eventual Upgrades:
Keeping within budget means a lot of compromise, and there are several components we'd eventually like to upgrade to supplement our choices above.

Living With Less Wires and Cables: this is unlikely, but after testing out the Philips Wireless HDTV Link, I'm now convinced we need to find a way to be able to eventually integrate full 1080p content without wires. At $800, this isn't yet priced for consumer-level consumption, including us, but we'll be keeping a close eye on how the pricing eventually drops.

Upgrading the Screen: Eventually we'd like to replace the 92" Panoview screen, as the edges are a bit curled and the reflective quality not optimized for the eventual introduction (we hope) of the Vivitek unit. We're taking Sound & Vision Magazine's recommendation and eyeing the Elite Screens 1.0 CineGrey, which comes in at $584, which is a bit rich for our blood, making this a "later" purchase.

Controlling Ambient Light: our apartment provides us with a fantastic view of Silver Lake and the surrounding Hollywood Hills. The sunsets are truly glorious and better than even the most brilliant 1080p image. Bu it also results in a lot ambient light during the day, making light control an issue when using the projector (thus, we've kept the Samsung LCD for daytime use). I'd love to upgrade to better light blocking roll down shades throughout the apartment, purchasing a few more custom made roll shades from JustBlinds, so we can extend use into day time hours.

We're looking at about $1,600-$1,700 in total upgrades if we go this route of options (factoring in the optional EZW-T100 S-AIR Ready Transmitter and AIR-SA10 Air Station receiver/speaker for wireless surround speakers), manageable if tackled piece by piece or if Santa brings us a nice fat Christmas bonus. The likely route is to upgrade sound first, then remote, then finally the projector. We'll report back as we make these baby steps forward to upgrading our system now that our plan has been set.

But in the meantime, we'd love to hear from you how you'd upgrade with a similar budget and a small space.