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.
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 . . .
I considered including Google's little $35 dongle as a budget-conscious alternative to the Roku 3, but in truth it belongs in a category all its own. Unlike dedicated media streamers, the Chromecast uses your smartphone as a remote control to beam content directly from the cloud (or from your browser). At present the list of supported apps is a little light, including only Netflix, YouTube, HBO Go, Hulu Plus, Pandora, Google Play, and screen mirroring from Chrome. But that list continues to grow.
What makes the Chromecast such a winner is its simplicity and its more direct access to those apps. There's no complex UI to navigate. You don't have to deal with a separate remote control. So, if you want your streaming content right this very now and you don't want to spend more than the cost of a deluxe special-edition Blu-ray disc to get it, the Chromecast is hard to beat.
7. Transparent Performance HDMI Cables
The trolls are going to go crazy over this one but not all HDMI cables are created equally and Transparent makes about as good a cable as you can buy for $100 in the Transparent Performance HDMI cable. For some applications, you can use a cheap HDMI cable but if you are looking for reliability over a long runs, Transparent's heavy gauge wire, gold connectors and excellent shielding makes for a rock solid connection to and from your best sources and components. Transparent also offers about the most liberal upgrade program in the world of specialty AV in the event you get a case of "upgrade-itus" in the future. These entry level Transparent cables are also sold Internet-direct thus if you can't hear/see the difference - you can send them back... but you wont.
8. OmniMount OMF EZMount
If you're looking for a sure-fire way to class up your home entertainment system, mounting your TV is near the top of the list. For some reason, though, the idea seems daunting to a lot of people. The $40 OmniMount EZMount (more like $25 at checkout) is not only an affordable mounting solution, it's also an incredibly easy one, perfect for the first-time TV mounter. It comes with a noob-proof, three-step instruction manual and a simple locking mechanism (great for safety purposes, especially if you have any toddlers in the house), and the results are ultra low profile and simply sexy.
The EZMount isn't ideal for every TV, mind you; it's only rated for displays up to 46 inches and weighing no more than 40 pounds on drywall. Plus it doesn't swivel, tilt, or pan. But it's one of the few TV mounting solutions I've tried that will actually hold a TV of that size if you don't have studs to bolt into. (If you do have studs handy, it'll hold double that weight.)
9. AudioQuest DragonFly USB Digital to Analog Converter (Version 1.0)
AudioQuest recently released a new version of its lauded thumb-drive-sized DAC and headphone amplifier that promises superior circuitry in the analog output stage. Unfortunately it sells for $149, which puts it a little outside our range of "Under $100." So why include it in the list at all? Because there are still plenty of Version 1.0 DragonFly DACs on the market, and they're selling for a cool $99. What do you get for that $99? A pretty rocking D-to-A chip with 24-bit/96-kHz capabilities; separate clocks for 44.1-kHz and 48-kHz sample rates (and multiples thereof); and a 64-position, digitally controlled analog volume control. Not only will it completely kick the snot out of the performance of your computer's built-in headphone output, it also goes toe-to-toe with standalone digital-to-analog converters and headphone amps costing many multiples more.
10. JRiver Media Center 19 Software
Of course, to get the most out of any good DAC, you're going to need a better playback program than iTunes, which has a great interface and library management, to be sure, but doesn't support ASIO audio output, lacks support for an number of audiophile-preferred file formats, and overall is designed more for convenience and syncing than sound quality. There are a lot of audiophile alternatives, but for my 50 bucks, JRiver Media Center 19 is the best of the bunch. It does support ASIO (in addition to hardware direct WASAPI) and decodes virtually every audiophile format known to man, without the need for additional plug-ins. In addition to its audiophile cred, JRiver Media Center is also one heck of a video player as well, and its library management is almost - but not quite - on par with iTunes.
11. HDTracks Downloads
Once you've got your high-quality DAC and high-quality playback software, you're going to want some high-quality tunes to make the most of your hardware investment, and there are few places with a better selection of high-resolution, high-fidelity downloads than David and Norman Chesky's HDTracks.com. The important thing to note, though, is that - unlike 2L, Linn Records, and B&W Society of Sound- HDTracks isn't an audiophile label-specific outlet or a curated collection of only the most immaculate audiophile recordings. As such, it has perhaps the largest collection of 96/24 (and higher-resolution) digital offerings, but the site can only distribute what the record labels give them. I've found that oftentimes what the labels deliver is no better (sometimes worse) than the best CD release played back through a good DAC.
So how do you know whether the track you're interested in is worth the extra coin? (After all, albums available in 96/24 formats often run $18 when not on sale, and 192/24 downloads inch closer to $25.) It's been my experience that downloads from audiophile labels like 2L (Lindberg Lyd) and of course Chesky Records are pretty much always incredible. But what about the major label stuff? You could always scour the web for reviews on an album-by-album basis (Audiophile Review being a great place to start, obviously). But if an album you're interested in hasn't been widely reviewed yet, there's another good rule-of-thumb tool for figuring out if HDTracks was given a good master to work with: Dial your browser of choice to the online Dynamic Range Database and compare the various releases of the album in question. Dynamic range isn't the be-all-and-end-all of audio quality; but, if one release of an album has punch and headroom to spare and another has been brickwalled to FM radio levels, chances are good that the former will sound better to the most discerning ear, even if it's in a lower-resolution format.
If I had a $100 gift certificate for HDTracks right now (and didn't already own the downloads in question), I'd wait for one of the site's regular 10-percent-off sales and buy the 96/24 or 88/24 ALAC releases of Prince's Purple Rain (Rhino/Warner Bros.), Fleetwood Mac's Tusk (Rhino), Bob Marley & The Wailers' Legend (Island Records), Sly & The Family Stone's There's A Riot Goin' On (Epic/Legacy), Aretha Franklin's I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You (Rhino Atlantic), and Miles Davis's Kind of Blue (Columbia/Legacy), all of which represent a significant step up from their CD counterparts to my ears in terms of depth, clarity, spaciousness, and yes, more often than not, dynamic range.