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CNET's sweet spot home theater

CNET's sweet spot home theater is our roundup of products that deliver that perfect mix of design, features, performance, and, most importantly, value.

Matthew Moskovciak Senior Associate Editor / Reviews - Home theater
Covering home audio and video, Matthew Moskovciak helps CNET readers find the best sights and sounds for their home theaters. E-mail Matthew or follow him on Twitter @cnetmoskovciak.
Matthew Moskovciak
6 min read

Somewhere between entry-level and high-end is the sweet spot for buying home theater components. You don't want to go so cheap that you end up being unhappy with the purchase, but you also don't want pay for bogus features or performance gains that have diminishing returns.

CNET's sweet spot home theater is our roundup of products that deliver that perfect mix of design, features, performance, and, most importantly, value. We already have separate lists for the best home audio and home video products, but consider this to be a single-page cheat sheet of the home theater we'd put together if we had to start from scratch.

Sweet spot 5.1 speaker system: Energy Take Classic 5.1

Sarah Tew/CNET

Skip the sound bars and the home-theater-in-a-box systems. They're decent options if you're on a tight budget, but the real sweet spot is a true 5.1 speaker system, which can be less expensive than you might think.

The Energy Take Classic 5.1 ($400 street price) is our Editors' Choice and the hands-down best overall speaker system we tested in this price range.

While most budget speaker systems we've reviewed have trade-offs, the Energy is seemingly without compromise, with excellent sound quality, a compact and elegant design, and a $400 street price. It's one of the best home theater values we've ever seen and it's an investment likely to last you at least 10 years--much longer than your average gadget purchase.

Read the full review: Energy Take Classic 5.1

Alternatives: If you've got the space and don't mind its mediocre style, Pioneer's SP-PK21BS ($400) offers even better sound quality for the price. If you're just not willing to put up with a 5.1 speaker system at all, we'd recommend the Sony HT-CT150 ($300) sound bar for small rooms and the Harman Kardon SB 16 ($600) for larger rooms.

Sweet spot Blu-ray player (and game console): Sony PS3 Slim

While the PS3 Slim ($300) is no longer the best Blu-ray player available, it is the single best home video device you can own. For $300, you get a Blu-ray player, a high-def gaming machine, and a capable media streamer. Now that the PS3 supports Netflix, Hulu Plus, Vudu, MLB.TV, and Sony's own Qriosity services, it can easily serve as your digital media hub, although we do miss Amazon Instant support.

There's one catch, though. To really make the PS3 feel like a part of your home theater (rather than a more gaming-centric device), you need to buy the Logitech Harmony Adapter for PS3 ($40). Once you set it up, you'll be able to browse the PS3 with a universal remote, without having to fumble between a remote and the controller.

Read the full review: Sony PS3 Slim
Read the full review: Logitech Harmony Adapter for PS3

Alternatives: If you don't care at all about gaming, the sweet spot standalone Blu-ray player is the Panasonic DMP-BDT210 ($180). On the other hand, if you're really into online multiplayer gaming (and don't care about Blu-ray), you'll want to go with the Xbox 360 Slim ($300).

Sweet spot AV receiver: Denon AVR-1912

We're generally not sold on the idea of AV receivers as media streamers, but our one exception is AirPlay. If you have an AirPlay-capable iOS device (iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad), a receiver with built-in AirPlay is a convenience worth paying for and Denon's AVR-1912 ($550) is the best AirPlay-enabled receiver we've tested.

Aside from AirPlay, we also think it's the best-sounding midrange AV receiver, and its six HDMI inputs should be enough for nearly every home theater. At $550, it's definitely on the pricey side, but we think the Denon is a worthwhile investment.

Read the full review: Denon AVR-1912

Alternatives: We haven't tested the Onkyo TX-NR509 yet, but its $280 price at Amazon make it an almost irresistible budget alternative. And if you want AirPlay, you can get a $100 Apple TV and still save money over the Denon.

Sweet spot universal remote: Logitech Harmony 650

Some people can't get over the idea of spending $60 on a remote, but we think it's one of the best buys you can make.

The Logitech Harmony 650 ($60) eliminates multiple remote juggling, and its excellent activity-based buttons replace memorizing which input your components are connected to with simple commands like "Watch TV." The Logitech Harmony 650's only slight catch is that its limited to controlling five devices total.

Read the full review: Logitech Harmony 650

Alternatives: Check out the rest of Logitech's Harmony remotes if you think you may eventually exceed the Harmony 650's five-device limit. The Harmony 700 ($100) adds built-in rechargeable batteries and can control six devices. If you have a really complex home theater, consider stepping up to the Harmony One ($160). That's a lot of money to spend on a remote, but it's one of the best universal remotes we've ever tested.

Sweet spot cabling: Monoprice

We've said it before and we'll say it again: buy cheap HDMI cables online instead of the expensive cables sold in major retailers.

There are several excellent options for getting cheap cables online, but we've had nothing but excellent experiences with Monoprice. For this sweet spot home theater, you'll need a few HDMI cables and some speaker cabling. (Cable lengths will depend on your home theater configuration.)

Sweet spot home theater cost: $1,400

If you add up all the sweet spot components, including the PS3 adapter and a $50 allotment for cabling, the grand total comes to $1,400.

That's definitely a lot of money, but you're also getting a ton of value. You could just as easily spend that much on just a 5.1 speaker system; our reference home theater speaker system, the Aperion Intimus 4T Hybrid SD, costs over $1,500 on its own.

What's missing?

To keep the scope of this feature limited, we left a few things out that you'll need to put together a home theater.

HDTV: Buying an HDTV requires a whole separate guide and its likely to cost as much as our entire Sweet Spot home theater. But if you're wondering, CNET HDTV reviewer David Katzmaier says the Panasonic TC-P55ST30 ($1,385) would be his Sweet Spot pick. (Yes, the 55-incher. We've never heard anyone complain about buying an HDTV that's too big.)

Cable/satellite DVR: Five years ago, we'd push people to pay extra and spring for a TiVo, but those days are over. Between cable/satellite DVRs getting better and TiVo stagnating, paying the extra for TiVo isn't in the sweet spot anymore, unless your cable provider's DVR is terrible. We can't make a straightforward recommendation here since everyone's cable company offers different options. And even though some people can do without cable/satellite TV completely, we still think most people should stick with cable/satellite for now.

Streaming video box: We were right on the cusp of including the Roku XDS ($100), which earned our Editors' Choice award, on the list. We left it off since we think most buyers can get by with just the PS3's streaming-media content, but it's definitely a solid add-on, especially if you want to get Amazon Instant. (Roku also recently announced updated models, which we'll be reviewing soon.)

Streaming-music solution: Digital music enthusiasts may be wondering why we left out a dedicated digital audio streamer like Sonos or Squeezebox. Though we like both the Sonos and Squeezebox systems, they're not quite as necessary as the other components we listed. Most people can get their digital audio fix via the PS3's built-in DLNA capabilities or using AirPlay on the Denon AVR-1912.

Make your own Sweet spot home theater

We're sure that not everyone will agree with these picks, but you can make your own Sweet Spot using CNET's lists feature, like I did here. Just go to a product page and click the "add to my list" link located above the pricing information on the right side of the page.

Share your own Sweet spot lists in the comments.