The Upgrade Guide: Home Audio System

Upgrading From Entry Level to Prosumer

There comes a point in your life where those TV speakers just won't do the trick when you're watching a Bluray version of Avatar on your giant HDTV. While many of us know our TV tech like the back of our hands, home audio is sort of an under appreciated category, reserved for the audiophiles among us. We covered the basics of home theater setup, now join us as we continue our upgrade series with some home audio upgrade recommendations.

Here are a few quick tips on picking out your need sound system before we dive into the meaty stuff. There a several ways to go to upgrade your home audio system, we'll focus on the entry-level solutions of Home Theater in a Box (HTiB), sound bar system, and purchasing separate components for maximum quality.

For many just diving into the audio world, HTiB solutions might do it for you. It's a cost-effective and hassle free solution to your first step into setting up your home theater. The sound bar is a great solution for those small space dwellers looking to save space and some money. Finally, purchasing separate components are for those who are looking for serious sound and have the quality content to back it up. We'll dive into each of these options and give you tips on how to pick the best one for your home theater set up.

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Sound bar

A relatively new class in home audio, the sound bar systems are geared towards those with little space for multiple speakers and a even less in their budget. Keep in mind that even with fancy virtual surround sound technology, there is no way for sound bar systems to sound as good as a having actual speakers set up around you. We are recommending a sound bar system instead of just a add-on sound bar speaker to your TV even though these systems usually cost slightly more but they provide a more comprehensive solution with the inclusion of a subwoofer. You can't fake heart pounding bass, even with a good set of speakers.

Our Pick: Vizio VHT510. Made by the budget TV maker, this is definitely the best bang for the buck in this category. Unlike many in its class, this is a true surround sound system, with two included rear speakers that connect to the subwoofer. Did we mention the subwoofer connects to the system wirelessly? This means you'll be able to put the subwoofer in the back of your room with the two rear speakers connected. We just love reducing cable mess whenever possible.

Sound bar alternative: Sony HT-CT150. We like the simple and understated design that will blend in with any TV you have. We love it for the whopping three HDMI input, and as you can tell we're big fans of expandability. But since we're focused on sound quality, the Vizio takes the crown.

Sound bar features to look for: HDMI input is the up-and-coming feature, a subwoofer, and most of all a sub-$350 price tag (if you're spending over that, you should just get a comprehensive HTiB solution)

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HTiB

This is the perfect solution for those who are starting off with not much besides their TV and a one-stop-shop audio solution. A typical HTiB will come with speakers, a Blu-ray player/receiver. What HTiB lacks is the ability to upgrade speakers as well as ability to adapt to fast changing tech trends. If you bought a HTiB system 3 years ago, it will likely lack a Blu-ray player and the ability to connect wirelessly. Many HTiB solution nowadays still lack HDMI input making it difficult to add on extra components to your system... and that is a major factor in our recommendation.

Our Pick: Samsung HT-C6500. This Samsung model is a 5.1 system (5 speakers and one subwoofer) with a built-in Blu-ray player with excellent sound quality. It can connect to your home's wifi network, allowing for Samsung's own built-in app to stream online videos from Netflix, YouTube etc. What really got us though, is the two HDMI input on the system. This means that you'll be able to plug in your PS3 directly into this system, so your games can sound as good as your movies.

HTiB alternative: Sony BDV-E770W. Coming in at a close second, the Sony received great reviews all around, but lacked the HDMI input for expansion.

HTiB features to look for: Blu-ray is a must, also look for wifi connectivity, as well as HDMI inputs. With HTiB purchase you want to be sure you're on the forefront to ensure all your other components are compatible with your new audio system.

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Purchasing separate components

This is the option for the most experienced of us (and I'm not one of them). But here's the basics that you'll need to know if you want to step up. First off, the basic components you'll need is a A/V Receiver and a set of speakers. All of your home theater components will be connected to your A/V Receiver, while the video will output to your TV and the audio will go out through the speakers. The advantage of this system is the ability for you to customize your home theater system. You can match different speakers and add on more components.

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Our pick for A/V receiver: Pioneer VSX-1021-K. This is the complete package with some added extras. It beats out its competitors with the latest and greatest feature list, including HDMI inputs, DLNA compatible (if you have a media server) and also built-in AirPlay. What really caught our eyes is the option to add wifi connectivity.

A/V receiver alternative: Denon AVR-1912. Although it trumps the Pioneer with six HDMI ports, the lack of wifi option puts it in second for us.

A/V Receiver features to look for: Support for 7.1-channel, for the ability to add-on speakers. HDMI input, and make sure it's not just HDMI "pass through" which means that the signals just pass through the receiver without getting processed. But do look for "standby pass through" which allows HDMI signal to go through when your receiver is not on. Also look for AirPlay if you own an iOS device.

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Our pick for speakers: Energy Take Classic 5.1. Although these were released a few years back, it remains the best value for many. And since this is the upgrade guide, not the get-the-best-you-can-regardless-of-price guide, we think these will make a perfect first step into the world of home audio. We particularly like them for the small size of the speaker and the great reviews it received for the sound quality.

Speakers alternative: Pioneer SP-PK21BS. Coming in at a similar price range with the Energy Take speakers set, it also received great online reviews for its sound quality. But what turned us off is the obscenely large size of the speakers.

Speakers features to look for: Don't get anything less than a 5.1-channels system. Otherwise, make sure you listen to the speakers before you purchase. Listen for clear high end sound as well as a solid bass.

Last bit of note, before purchasing anything home audio, make sure you test it out in person. Try to listen to any speakers before you buy them, especially with your favorite music and movies. Also keep in mind that the room size will greatly affect how any system sounds. Make sure your existing components will be compatible with your new system. Definitely ask a professional for help if you have any questions about setting up your home theater system.

We don't claim to be audiophiles here at Unplggd, so if you have any suggestions for our other readers, feel free to leave a comment below!

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