Part 2 of 10: Social Media
My first stop on the quest to find the best home theater that $30,000 can buy was to crowdsource opinions from Facebook and Reddit. Social media circles naturally include people from both DIY and #proav camps, and some of the patterns I saw started to hint at a difference in opinion as to what "best" really means.
Not surprisingly, DIY enthusiasts leaned toward solutions that don't fit the bill for what integrators are providing to clients in the "custom" AV industry. Custom is an interesting idea in this context. In the industry we refer to the custom installation (and systems integration) of products that are fully supported by manufacturers, but I immediately found on social media popular opinions recommending that I build my own speakers. It's hard to get more custom than that.
I'd say you should consider DIY speakers to knock down cost. Like 3 of these. -psychojeremy
DIY speakers are not always the right choice, obviously. Not everybody has the time, skills, or desire. But in terms of sheer sound output we're talking easily 2-3x bang for the buck. -JohnBooty
Given some of the mesmerizing 2-channel demos I've had the opportunity to sit in on recently, I could also understand the following sentiment:
The way I know myself, I'd blow $30k on speakers alone. And then cry myself to sleep because nothing is powering them.
As Paul Overstreet famously penned, sometimes you say it best when you when you say nothing at all. Out of all the comments I got, I could only find one that directly spoke to the video side of building the best home theater. Maybe the takeaway is that there is less room for customization on the video side, therefore people just look for the best combination of brand preference and price when the time comes, rather than spend a lot of time in research mode. Price alone could also be a factor. Whereas price points (and margins) have fallen considerably across the video spectrum in the past 5 years (with ever increasing quality in both projectors and flat panels), great audio systems are still a lot like they were in the good old days.
I've always considered video enhancement to be mostly a gimmick. -psychojeremy
Our computers act as an extended limb for us in the tech world, and the AV industry won't be breaking ties anytime soon. Not once did I hear "I'd recommend a Blu-ray player and Kaleidescape." This one really speaks to the question of who this home theater is for. If you work in IT or are concerned with the latest video codecs and media software, it's quite likely that you will be happiest with a wireless mouse and keyboard in your theater console. Most AV pros shy away from computer-based solutions simply because of the question mark surrounding support.
When a client is paying for a turn-key theater system, the most important thing is that it works reliably and as expected. As most of us experience on at least a weekly basis, Windows and Mac OS require a good deal of maintenance.
Some software products (like Plex) provide great features and a slick user interface, but stir up the other big question of content ecosystem. In the DIY arena there are lots of ways (ranging from legal to illegal) people can build and maintain a media library. In the custom installation market products like AppleTV and Kaleidescape provide easy ways for clients to access legal downloads and streaming services, and a Blu-ray player ensures you have a system capable of playing a Redbox rental or disc a friend brought over for movie night.
I'd probably use a computer for functionality. -psychojeremy
AV sources are a complex issue. I'm technically inclined, so of course I think a home theater PC is the best option. It's harder to set up and maintain, but it beats the pants off of nearly any dedicated DVR, Blu-ray player, or steaming box I can think of. I can have my entire music and movie collection on there, a huge library of games I can play directly from, along with Netflix, and Amazon Instant Video. I can connect mics and do karaoke. I can have wireless game-pads connected and play emulators for tons of older systems. -cthulhubert
Several of the responses I have received so far from social media, manufacturers and integrators alike have pointed at the Harmony Elite as the best entry point for home theater control. For now this aspect has a resounding consensus.
You'll need a high end remote control. I really wish this segment wasn't so dominated by Logitech's Harmony devices, since they have some very annoying problems (notably: must have Internet connection and a Windows PC to set up). But there just doesn't seem to be much competition. Their flagship, the Harmony Elite is $350. -cthulhubert
Later in the series I am going to explore app-based control to see if there is another option for a high-end room.
Interconnects / Power Conditioning
I expected to hit a nerve here—mission accomplished. There is no question that over the course of time the advantages some manufacturers claim in these categories have been broadly labeled as "snake oil." Rather than being looked at as vital system components, I get the feeling they are perceived more under the umbrella of "accessories."
I'm looking forward to having manufacturers on the record later in the series to see where opinions differ, specifically inside of this budget.
Go cheap. Same reasoning as power conditioning - the benefits are tiny and you'll get literally 100x bang for your buck by spending this money elsewhere. Seriously your interconnect total should not exceed $250 and might even be less.
Speaker cable: the cheapest all-copper (not copper-clad aluminum) wire of a reasonable gauge you can find. $50 should get you a 100ft roll.
Rest of the interconnects: Monoprice, or equivalent. Especially for the digital interconnects like HDMI. For digital signals the cables will make zero difference and for analog signals the difference is almost infinitesimally small. -JohnBooty
And expensive speaker cable, interconnects, and power cables are all snake oil, right up there with mystic crystals you put on top of your DVD player. -cthulhubert
Leave this out. Surge protection only. Power conditioning would be debatable even in a $30,000 2-channel system intended strictly for music; leaving it out of a $30,000 home theater is a very easy choice. -JohnBooty
Most people overestimate the utility of power conditioning for home theater. Really, if ones power is bad enough to require conditioning, I'd say wait for the Tesla Powerwall, and tell the electrician installing it to put your home theater room on an independent inverter that only draws from the batteries. -cthulhubert
I expected that acoustic treatment would fall into the same category as interconnects and power conditioning, but I couldn't have been more wrong. I originally made a budget that excluded acoustic treatment, but quickly reincluded it when the community at large made it clear how important it was.
I think acoustic treatment is more important than power conditioning. -psychojeremy
$30k and no budget for acoustics is absurd. -Steven Smith via Facebook
If a person is going to spend $30k+, an acoustic treatment plan of the owner's room should absolutely come first. -Warren Ang via Facebook
An untreated room is going to have huge peaks and valleys (+/- 10db, maybe more) all over the place and bass in particular will be a mess. A $500 pair of speakers in a good room can easily sound better than a $20K pair of speakers in a terrible room. Acoustic treatment doesn't have to be expensive. I've ordered a few things from FoamByMail and they're pretty affordable. For example, these corner bass traps. Additionally, their products are available in a lot of different colors.
There are lots of recipes for other DIY treatments around the web. At the simplest, cheapest end of the spectrum, you could mount pyramid or egg crate foam to a board, optionally wrap it in fabric, and mount it on the wall for about $10 per panel. DIY bass traps are affordable too - far less than $100 per unit. -JohnBooty
Video Total: $10,300
- Projector: Sony 4k. This projector is 4k, and one of the cheapest 4k projectors available. = $10,000. If I'm spending $30 grand, I'm getting 4k.
- Projector Screen: 120" Silver Ticket Acoustically Transparent. = $300. Gotta save money somewhere, and as much as I'd really like 130", the price goes way up after this size.
Audio Total: $18,550
- Receiver: Arcam AVR-550. = $3,400. Can handle Dolby Atmos, and it has Dirac Live.
- Additional Amplifier: 2 Behringer A500. = $400. These will power the in-ceiling speakers very easily.
- Speakers: 7 KEF Ci3160RL. = $8,050. I'm going in-wall here. I know sound is better with regular speakers, but In my dream theater, they're going to be in-wall. These will certainly sound fairly good anyways....
- In-Ceiling Speakers: 4 KEF Ci200RR. = $3,200. These match the KEF regular speakers.
- Subwoofers: 2 PowerSoundAudio S3600i. = $3,500. Even if my room is huge, these will melt my face off.
- Total: $28,850 is what we totaled when we added in item costs. $31,000 is what he totaled. A bit over budget, but if I'm spending $30k, I can afford to spend $31k. If I were to upgrade at all from this, it would go toward a better projector screen, maybe doing wall-to-wall like another poster said.
- Extras: I already own a solid HTPC which will see use, and I'd need some cables, a projector mount, furniture, lighting, a controller, and acoustic treatment.
- In my "real" money-no-object theater, everything would be made by Steinway-Lyngdorf, and the equipment sans projector would cost somewhere in the realm of $80k...
Video Total: $9,000
- Projector: Sony vplvw350es = $8k
- Projector Screen: 150 inch projector screen = $1k
Audio Total: $17,000
- Speakers: 3 intrusive 1899 speaker kits = $3k
- Speaker Kit: 4 fusion 12 kits = $1,500
- Subwoofers: 2x 18" Aurasound subwoofer horns = $2,500
- Preamp: A marantz or Rotel processor preamp = $4k
- Amplifier: 2x emotiva xpa-2 and 5x emotiva xpa-1 = $6k
- Total: $26,000
Video Total: $9,786
- Projector: Sony VPL 350ES = $8k (because 4k)
- Projector Screen: Stewart Cima Studiotek 130" = $1,786 at B&H
Audio Total: $19,295
- Speakers: JTR 212HTR x 5 = $11,495
- Subwoofers: Seaton F18 + slave = $3,300
- Amplifier: Emotiva XPR-5 = $2k (not sure if still avail, but 400wpc x 5 of badassery)
- Processor: Emotiva XMC-1 = $2,500 (diraclive and all the goodies)
Interconnects Total: $1,000
- Throw in another $1k for Monoprice and/or Mogami cables, done! = $1k
- Total: $30,081
- This would be an AMAZING sounding 5-channel setup. Would you really miss the extra 2ch for 7.1? Edit: hm, forgot about source. PS3 or PS4 will do for all blu-ray duties!
So far, the most popular options would be to build your own speakers, buy a Sony projector, use a rack-mountable computer as the source, buy the Harmony Elite remote control, go cheap on interconnects, and never underestimate the power of good acoustic treatment. People who made complete budgets consistently spent almost twice as much on audio than on video. The community at large seems to support the belief that audio is more important than video.
Next up, we'll hear from dealers across America on how they would build a theater for a client that had a budget of $30,000 excluding tax and installation. Tweet or email me at email@example.com to share your thoughts!
Check back for Part 3, where dealers and manufacturers will give us their insight!