We don't have an inexpensive hobby. I don't need to tell you that; I'm sure many of you can relate when I say that, if not for my obsession with audio and video, I would probably be driving a much better car, perhaps living in a much nicer house to boot. Even though our passion for excellence can often leave our bank balances a little light, you don't necessarily have to take out a second mortgage just to dip your toes in the waters of AV enthusiasm or even give your existing system an upgrade. Whether you're just getting started and looking to build a good AV system on the cheap or you're an old married audio/videophile looking to get your regular kicks with a spouse-mandated AV allowance, there are oodles of great discs, downloads, devices, and doodads to be had for less than a hundred bucks. Here are a few of my favorites.
Seriously, when it comes to affordable AV, you kids today don't know how good you've got it. Back in my day, if you wanted a sound system and had less than $100 in your pocket to spend, you got a denim-covered turntable with a built-in monophonic paper cone and crappy ceramic cartridge that chewed up your records like plow pulled by a half-blind mule ... and you liked it. These days, you can get a halfway decent surround sound speaker system, complete with subwoofer, for less than 90 bucks. Will it blow your hair back and move you to tears with its stunning dynamics, flawless clarity, and unparalleled fidelity? Of course not. And the build quality of Monoprice's budget 5.1-Channel Home Theater Satellite Speaker & Subwoofer system is definitely more Playskool than Paradigm. Still, if you're stuck with a cheap powered soundbar - or worse yet, the tinny, tiny speakers built into your TV - this system should be one heck of a serious upgrade. Another bonus is that, unlike the speakers included with many home-theater-in-a-box systems, the Monoprice speakers sport pretty standard spring-loaded cable binding posts instead of proprietary (or integrated) speaker connections. This means that you can easily upgrade your system one or two pieces at a time, as your budget allows.
No matter which speakers you buy, though, the key to getting the most out of them is a matter of location and proper setup. With virtually every AV receiver and preamp on the market sporting some form of auto-calibration program, you might think that manually balancing your own speaker levels is a thing of the past. In most cases, you'd be wrong . . . at least if you want it done right. The only way to ensure that your surround channels aren't overpowering your LCRs (or vice versa) and that your satellite speakers are performing in harmony with your subwoofer (the latter, in particular, is a task that many auto-calibration programs fail at miserably) is to measure and adjust your speakers individually using a good SPL meter. There are tons of options on the market, including a few great smartphone apps, but the good old RadioShack 33-2050 Sound Level Meter or its replacement, the digital 330-2055, is the form factor most people think of when they think of such devices. Sadly, RadioShack no longer sells the 33-2050 nor the 330-2055, but both can be found on eBay for anywhere between 10 and 20 bucks.
3. Spears & Munsil High Definition Benchmark, 2nd Edition Blu-ray
Today's TVs are leaps and bounds above their counterparts from just 10 years ago in terms of color accuracy and overall image quality - so much so that, if you set your display to the Cinema or Movie mode and tweak the sharpness, brightness, and contrast, chances are pretty good that your new plasma, LED, or OLED will look a whole heck of a lot better than my first CRT HDTV, which cost me $4,500 to bring home and $350 to have professionally calibrated.
Don't get me wrong: I'm still a proponent of professional calibration, but a good, inexpensive calibration disc can be had for a lot less money and can get you 90 percent of the way there in terms of unlocking the full potential of your new TV in the meantime. And the one disc I rely on more than any other for DIY tweaking and occasional maintenance is Spears & Munsil HD Benchmark. Its calibration patterns are excellent, its evaluation screens allow you to quickly and easily see if something is wrong with your TV's (or receiver's, or Blu-ray player's) video processing, and the new 2nd Edition even includes stereoscopic test screens for 3D TVs, in addition to a much more intuitive interface.
4. Disney WOW Blu-ray Disc
Another calibration disc? Yep. As great as Spears & Munsil is, it's definitely a little advanced for the novice user; so, if you need a crash course in calibration, I think you'll find the Disney WOW disc's excellent tutorials to be indispensable. Don't assume, though, that Disney WOW is merely a remedial version of the Spears & Munsil disc. Both discs are absolutely essential tools in my collection. While I'm of the opinion that Spears & Munsil is better for advanced picture-control adjustments, Disney WOW's A/V Sync tool (which allows you to precisely dial in the lip-sync delay setting of your receiver or preamp) is without peer.
We don't live in an entirely disc-based AV world anymore; so, if you want the complete AV experience, you're going to need a good media streamer. There are tons of options in the hair-under-a-Benjamin price range, but if bang-for-the-buck is what you're looking for, few measure up to the Roku 3. It has the best selection of apps (including Amazon Instant Video), good support for local content playback (via its SD card and USB ports, as well as apps like Plex), and better integration with advanced control systems like Control4 than its closest competitor, the Apple TV.
Click on over to Page 2 for six more ways to stretch your AV buying budget . . .