The Urban Home Theater 2.1: The Starter System

Guest Post

Not that long ago I posted my 2010 upgrade plans for our apartment home theater, outlining the hopes of changing out to a full 1080p HD projector, a better universal remote (done!), and the pie in the sky hopes of ridding of HDMI cables. Unplggd reader and audio specialist, Ragan chimed in, noting specifically my audio selection was too much of a compromise in performance. He accepted the challenge of putting together a respectable home theater setup on a budget (actually one of three), catering to small space dwellers and has followed up with an informative and detailed selection of expert choices below.

Not long ago, I accepted the challenge of assembling a respectable home theater rig on a budget. No problem, the market is full of affordable systems from reputable companies, so I decided to take it one step further. In the spirit of Apartment Therapy & Unplggd, the system picks have to include the crucial yet often forgotten element of style. If given the right consideration, home electronics (even the inexpensive ones) can complement and even enhance a room's decor. This post will be the first of three system recommendations that embody performance, value, and design in home entertainment. If you're a urban dweller looking for a starter system this first setup is for you.

  • Sony PS3 Slim - $299
  • Audioengine A5 Bamboo  - $449
  • Glow Audio Sub One  - $348
  • Red Eye Remote Control  - $188
  • 32" LCD TV - $829 

Pick a Size, any Size...

Pin it button big

We recommend a 32" LCD flat panel for most small spaces, but choosing a 37",40",42" or larger is up to you. With models and prices changing at a rapid pace, a quality 32" set should range anywhere between $450 - $1000. The Samsung LN32B650 32" LCD ($829 reduced price) offers excellent performance and a touch of vibrant color with its piano black frame. It's good looking even when turned off. 

Jack of all Trades
Even if you're not interested in playing video games, you should still consider Sony's Playstation 3 ($299) as the best overall value for DVD/Blu-Ray playback. Besides the obvious benefits of high definition video, the newer and slimmer PS3 can download, store, and access music, pictures, games, videos, and movies on its large build-in hard drive. You also get Wi-Fi compatibility, The Playstation Network, web browsing, access to your Netflix movie steaming account, a bluetooth enabled controller, and much more. For only $299 it stands alone. However, if you despise or fear anything having to do with video games, check out the LG BD390 Network Blu-Ray Player. ($299) 

Awesome Sound, Marvelous Looks, Eco-Friendly, and Panda-Safe 

Pin it button big

The way I see it, every audio system should look and sound good. If your speakers are going to be prominently displayed in your living room a pair of Audioengine A5 ($449 pair) Powered Bookshelf Speakers should do the trick. The compact size makes them unobtrusive yet the sound can easily fill a small to medium sized room. No fake wood veneer, just gorgeous looking carbonized bamboo. The facade is a departure from the conventional loudspeaker and the rounded edges give it a soft touch. No separate amplifier needed, the Audioengine is self powered and connect easily with a PS3, iPod, computer, subwoofer and other electronic devices. (If you're not a fan of bamboo, Audioengine offers the same powered speakers in high-gloss black and white for $349) Place them on a shelf or separate stands, either way they deliver the movie/music experience. I'm so impressed with the A5's performance and looks that I've come over look two capabilities that some folks may find necessary. The A5 has only one selectable audio input and does not possess an IR volume remote. (Its does have a front volume knob) If you desire a remote for volume control and two audio inputs for movies and TV programing, check out similarly sized Kanto iPair 5 ($359 pair) in high-gloss black, white, and other colors. 

There's Something Missing.... 
Regardless of a room's size, some people just gotta have more oomph. While the Audioengine does a great job with bass response, hearing lower into the audible range of your favorite music and movies is a must, so you have the option of hooking up a subwoofer. Forget about the King Kong sized subs that rattle your windows, (and your neighbors) we're talking a small decor friendly sub that adds to the music rather than taking it over. Behold the Glow Audio Sub One. ($348) Its small footprint, stunning bamboo side panels, and articulate bass are perfect for any urban system. If you're in the "subs should be heard, not seen" camp, consider the Soundmatters SUBstage 100. ($379) Place the sub under or behind your furniture with 4.5 inches of clearance and you've got subsonic stealth action. 

Does Stereo Home Theater = Oxymoron? 
If you're perplexed by the very notion of passing off a 2.1 stereo configuration as a home theater, let me explain. All too often, I see folks trying to force a surround sound system into a space that wasn't designed for one. As cool as it is to have 5,6, or even 7 speakers surrounding you during your favorite film, some room configurations aren't meant for an abundance of speakers, and quite frankly a poorly installed theater system can ruin the look of any room. Running/ hiding wires, wall mounts, speaker stands, and optimal speaker placement can be hard to implement in urban spaces. I realize this scenario doesn't apply to everyone, so keep a look out for our next theater posting that will recommend a 5.1 surround setup.

At this point, some of you may ask "why not recommend a surround bar? While companies like Yamaha have created unique one box solutions that simulate surround sound by use of time delays and room reflections, the overall fidelity generally doesn't compare to conventional bookshelf speakers. If you're someone who enjoys movies but loves music, your favorite tunes deserve monitor speakers. However, If you're a movie fanatic and you absolutely gotta have the surround sensation, and then the sound bar is your ticket.

Control This, Control That, Just Make it Work!
If this is your first system and looking to save a few bucks, the addition of an universal remote is not a necessity but a luxury. However, If you're reaching for a remote, it's sure nice to have one vs several on the coffee table. While remotes from Harmony and Universal Remote Control have the potential of more flexibility and permanent control, those who consider the iPhone to be the center of the digital universe might consider the RedEye ($188) from Thinkflood. It turns your iPhone or iPod Touch into a customizable touch screen remote and will control practically anything with a Inferred sensor. Since the PS3 is bluetooth operated, check out the PS3IRX1 ($20). A small USB plugin gives you simple I.R. commands for use with your universal remote. 

Finishing Up 
All that's needed now is a quality HDMI cable, subwoofer cable (WireWorld Luna $37 1m) and a surge/conditioning strip to protect your investment. If you account for all recommended product, the entire system will run $2255.00. If you already own some system products, or have equivalent electronics/accessories, the cost goes down even more. Either way, it's an affordable option and I hope this gives your eye and ears something to enjoy.