How to Build a Home Theater on the Cheap
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It’s easier than ever to build your own home theater! The challenge is to do it without breaking the bank. Surprisingly, a few simple tricks can make that happen.

Among the common mistakes in building a home theater is to under- or over-budget for the project. But by knowing which items you can skip, which you can repurpose, and which budget buys to look at, you can save a few bucks without compromising on the quality of your experience.

In this short guide, you’ll learn how to build a home theater on the cheap.

Don’t Buy Everything at Once!

how to make a cheap home theater

Before you start, this is the most important advice you will need. Given the way technology updates these days, you won’t find the cutting-edge, future-proof stuff in every category at the same time. So if you try and buy all the parts together, you’ll end up compromising, and maybe need an upgrade sooner than you thought.

Instead, buy the can’t-do-without components right now, and get cheaper variants for everything else—or skip them altogether. Even for those important components, do your research on how long they will last and spend accordingly.

We’ll advise you on some of these aspects in this article, but no matter what, don’t purchase everything at once. Stagger your purchases so that you can buy the most future-proof, best-value-for-money components at every stage.

Buy a Good TV and Forget About the Smart OS

Buy a cheap 4K HDR TV for a budget home theater

Ideally, you need a TV that supports both 4K and HDR. While it will be a smart TV, it’s fine if you don’t like the operating system or interface. You’ll be getting a Blu-ray player or some sort of media center anyway, which will do everything a smart TV does, and probably do it better.

Check out our recommendations for some of the best affordable 4K HDR TVs The Best Affordable 4K HDR Smart TVs You Can Buy The Best Affordable 4K HDR Smart TVs You Can Buy Those in the market for a new Smart TV have a tough choice to make. It's not a gadget that you upgrade often, so you want something future-proof. So, what do you get? Read More you can buy. The size is up to you, but for a home theater setup, you will largely be looking at at least 55 inches. Don’t worry about the distance as, in a home theater, the rule of thumb is to go as big as you can afford.

A Projector May Not Be Worth the Cost

Good Projectors cost more than good TVs for home theaters

Instead of TVs, you can also go with a projector, but that raises costs in the long run. Because a projector doesn’t have a backlight, you’ll need to spend on additional materials like blackout curtains and a projection screen like the Homegear 120HD.

Also, at the time of writing, good projectors with 4K resolution and HDR support are far more expensive than an equivalent-sized TV. And if you’re looking to buy a big television set anyway, any reason to buy a projector has been diminished anyway.

Homegear 110" HD Motorized 16:9 Projector Screen W/ Remote Control Homegear 110" HD Motorized 16:9 Projector Screen W/ Remote Control Buy Now On Amazon $124.99

Consider Repurposing an Old PC

The chances are you have an old PC or laptop lying around somewhere, or you know someone who does. You can use that to build a great media center PC. It will be the cheapest way to get a good home theater system.

Even if you have to add a few things, repurposing your old PC will be cheaper and make a more well-rounded media unit than any gadget you buy. Yep, even the Raspberry Pi. While we’re big fans, there are certain things the “Pi Home Theater” can’t do.

The flexibility that a proper computer gives you cannot be compared to what you’ll get with even something like a Roku or Chromecast Chromecast vs. Roku: Which One Is Best for You? Chromecast vs. Roku: Which One Is Best for You? There are many streaming media devices to choose between. In this article, we compare the heaviest hitters: Chromecast vs Roku. Read More . A PC can do all the tasks a streaming device can do, but it doesn’t work the other way around.

More importantly, a PC keeps your options open for the future. You could add a 4K Blu-ray drive, or a better audio card. You could upgrade the processor, or add a graphics card to make it into a gaming console, etc.

If you don’t have an old PC lying around, then get the Sony UBP-X700. It’s a fantastic 4K Blu-ray player, with support for all your favorite streaming services.

Sony UBP-X700 4K Ultra HD Blu-Ray Player Sony UBP-X700 4K Ultra HD Blu-Ray Player Buy Now On Amazon

Start With Cheap Speakers

Buy cheap speakers for a budget home theater

Don’t buy speakers with the “bigger is better” philosophy. Speakers are all about how you set them up, and the quality of the components they use.

You need to buy the right speakers for your room. If you have a small living room, a 9.1 channel setup is overkill. Depending on whether you’ll place satellite speakers at the back or the sides, you’ll need to choose speakers that offer good bipole or dipole output.

It might sound like a lot of jargon, but the bottom line is, you need to buy what’s right for you, which is not necessarily the swanky 7.1 Bose speaker setup you saw at your friend’s place.

A home theater system defaults to a 5.1 setup (i.e., five satellite speakers and one subwoofer). Before you purchase anything, figure out where you will place each speaker, how the wiring will work, and other details. Once you have done that, buy the Monoprice 108247 Surround Sound System.

If you’re building a new home theater and want to keep the cost low, this is a smart purchase. Remember, you can always upgrade the speakers later.

Monoprice 108247 5.1-Channel Home Theater Speaker System, Six Monoprice 108247 5.1-Channel Home Theater Speaker System, Six Buy Now On Amazon $96.66

Universal Remote: Old Androids and Cheap Options

Get a cheap universal remote or turn an old Android phone into one

With every HTPC, you will need a good remote control to manage all the different devices hooked up to it. This calls for a universal remote. The best is the Logitech Harmony 650, but if you’d like to save a few bucks, you have a few other options.

Logitech Harmony 650 Infrared All in One Remote Control Logitech Harmony 650 Infrared All in One Remote Control Buy Now On Amazon $53.99

If you have an old Android smartphone or tablet, you can turn it into a remote controller for your PC. There are plenty of apps on the Play Store that make make it a breeze to set up all the gadgets on your Android device. The only problem would be if your Android doesn’t have an infrared (IR) blaster.

Instead of repurposing your Android, you could also buy a cheap universal remote for just a few dollars.

It’s Not Just About the Tech

The tech stuff is only one part of your home theater experience. You’ll also need a nice cabinet to put your gadgets, a good sofa or recliner to watch in peace, and maybe a mini fridge for a cold brew. All those costs add up, so don’t forget about them.

The good news is that this is one area where you’ll find a lot of freebies or sales. Check for local estate sale listings, garage sales, and online person-to-person marketplaces. You’ll often find items in good condition for a low price.

You will also save major bucks if you regularly check the Craigslist Free Stuff section for your area.

The Only Place to Splurge: Receiver

Yamaha RX-V485 is the best budget AV receiver

The receiver is the most underappreciated and most important part of your home theater. In this one aspect, while you can save some money, we would advise against it.

Think of the receiver like the processor of a PC, the engine or a car, or the patty of a burger. If you get this wrong, the whole thing is ruined. If you get it right, other compromises are bearable.

For most people, the best budget receiver is the Yamaha RX-V485.

Yamaha RX-V485BL 5.1-Channel 4K Ultra HD AV Receiver with MusicCast - Black Yamaha RX-V485BL 5.1-Channel 4K Ultra HD AV Receiver with MusicCast - Black Buy Now On Amazon $349.99

Take Your Home Media Center to the Next Level

In our opinion, the screen, the receiver, the media player or PC, the speakers, and the universal remote controller are the must-haves in any home theater setup. But hey, that’s just what we unanimously agree on. Some of us say that a home theater is incomplete without a good recliner or sofa, others reckon it’s not a home theater if it doesn’t support 3D.

While your initial cost will be relatively cheap, keep upgrading the room in small bits and pieces over time. Before you know it, you might even get the IMAX experience in your living room How to Get the IMAX Experience in Your Living Room (On a Budget) How to Get the IMAX Experience in Your Living Room (On a Budget) Why do people still go to movie theaters? Some argue it's for innovations like IMAX, but this is a moot point when you can get the IMAX experience at home on a budget. Read More .

Image Credit: Breadmaker/Shutterstock

Explore more about: Buying Tips, DIY Project Tutorials, Hardware Tips, Home Theater, Save Money, Smart TV.

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  1. James Bruce
    December 15, 2018 at 8:42 am

    Have to disagree with you on this one: a short throw projector is the best bit of consumer tech I ever bought. Nothing like an actual home cinema experience in front of my WALL SIZED screen. I'd rather watch a grainy HD movie on that than a 4k anything (assuming you can even find 4k content) on a tiny 40 inch TV. It's all about the immersion, baby!

    But I will concede defeat on the 3D thing. Haven't used that feature in years :)

  2. Jules
    March 19, 2017 at 2:04 pm

    I wonder: why a "receiver"? When was the last time you actually listened to AM/FM radio through your media center setup? A decent integrated amplifier is a much better investment for most people.

    • likefunbutnot
      December 17, 2018 at 3:16 pm

      In common parlance, an integrated amplifier is an Audio/Video Receiver. It's not just AM/FM but the junction box for all your in and output.

      There is a case to be made for separate components for those willing to keep up with new standards as they're released, but most non-enthusiasts aren't even going to try to stay up to date. 5.1 sounds great.

      Speaking to the general theme of the article: Spend to get good left and right front speakers. Those guys will get used the most and will make music AND video content sound better.

  3. Chris
    July 21, 2016 at 8:44 pm

    I built my HTPC for $245 ($300 including the PS4 controller and a copy of Windows 7 Pro). This also includes a Blu Ray writer. The case itself has two USB 3.0 ports up front with audio out and mic in jacks. Included 300W PSU which has proven itself over the last few months. My motherboard adds two USB 2.0 and 2 USB 3.0 ports. The motherboard (ASRock H110m-itx/ac) included a Bluetooth and WiFi card, which works well. I can pair my PS4 controller with it without needing a Bluetooth dongle eating up a USB port. I loaded it with 8GBs of RAM which is more than it really needs currently but the upgrade from 4 to 8 was so cheap I figured why the hell not. For the CPU I have a Skylake Pentium G4400. This is a dual core 3.30GHz processor with a low TDP. It's super cheap and more than capable for video streaming and playback. It even handles DVD and Blu-ray ray ripping and compressing fairly well. I run it to my 39" Samsung "smart" TV via HDMI which have some basic Logitech speakers and a subwoofer connected to them. I run an Ethernet cable to it for a consistent and reliable Internet connection. I installed Win 7 Pro 64b on it and then took advantage of the free Windows 10 upgrade, so it's currently running Windows 10 Pro 64bit and is happy as a clam (maybe that's just me!). I went this route primarily because I wanted to mess with DDR4 RAM and the new Skylake processor. I use a 120GB cheap ADATA SSD as my boot drive, so the machine is pretty snappy and offers fast boot times. I have a 320GB 2.5" 7200 rpm drive as my media drive where I have most of my movies, shows and music stored. Eventually I'll upgrade this to a larger drive as prices start to come down (the 320GB 7200 drive was a left over part from a dead laptop, came in handy!). All I need is a decent receiver! I'm thinking of adding an IR port to it, I've seen interfaces on eBay that will allow you to power on the computer with an IR remote, you just need to route the power button's wiring through he IR device and then to the motherboard. Doesn't seem difficult, just an extra step. I would disagree with using an old system, unless cheapest possible HTPC is your end goal. I had an old HP Elite SFF that was great and did everything I wanted it to, but it was clunky to use. It needed a basic GPU for HDMI out, and video streaming was choppy. The processor was less as efficient; it costs less per 24 period to run the HTPC I built as the processor is more power efficient.

    4k displays are not worth it! Before you can even think about buying a 4K display you need to consider the lack of 4K content! Sure YouTube supports it, but there aren't many people uploading 4K content. Another thing to consider, especially if you're repurposing an old desktop or laptop, is you won't be able to output a 4K signal with a regular HDMI port. You need a computer or GPU with an HDMI 2.0 port, and an HDMI 2.0 cable in order to output 4K signal. Most modern GPUs will support this, but it's just really not practical. Not even the new game consoles output 4K content. The only people really taking advantage of or even using 4K are gamers with expensive custom rigs. Wait a few years until 4K more or less becomes the HD standard. At that point you'll be able to pick up a super cheap 4K display along with any necessary HDMI 4K complaint cables without it costing you an arm and a leg. At that point HDMI 2.0 ports will probably be standard, so you won't have to worry about compatibility, and there will most likely be a significant amount of 4K content out there to enjoy. For now, 1080p HD is more than enough and still very enjoyable. I also have a custom built desktop for gaming and I use 1080p monitors. I typically play 1080p@60fps and it looks beautiful.

    I stream my games from my desktop to my HTPC with Steam in-house streaming. With the PS4 controller this works amazingly well.

  4. FaaastCash
    July 19, 2016 at 12:41 pm

    Skipping smart TV and not buying everything at once will really help to get a home theater under budget.

  5. rk
    July 18, 2016 at 6:29 pm

    Nothing shown in those pretty pics look cheap lol!

  6. Jonathan
    July 14, 2016 at 8:48 pm

    The advice to buy cheap speakers is utter nonsense. Speakers are the components that can make the biggest difference in sound. If you're trying to build a good-sounding system on the cheap, the correct advice is to buy good or great speakers when they are cheap; not to actually buy cheap speakers. First listen to some, read some reviews, and then find some you like. Then look to see if you can find them on sale or on clearance. If you put in a little effort you'll find a great bargain, sometimes 60 - 70% off.

  7. John
    July 8, 2016 at 6:07 pm

    I went a somewhat different route. I started off with our existing Smart TV (all that was available when we purchased it) and a Roku. I added a home-built i3 based Windows PC with a couple of external multi-TB drives slung off it.

    The PC runs SABnzbd, Sickbeard and Plex Media Server. The motherboard I got has an integral HDMI port so I use the TV as the monitor. I run all my video through the Roku via channels for Plex, NetFlix, Amazon, etc. I've got my DVD/Blu Ray library ripped to the external hard drives and organized in Plex. All in all, the whole thing runs pretty smooth.

    And just so I don't have to worry about ripping all of my DVDs and Blu Rays again I've got the whole thing backed up to the cloud (thank you, CrashPlan).

    For the future...

    1. When my existing HD flat screen dies I'll replace it with a non-smart TV. Whether it's 1080p or 4K will depend on cost, standards, available content, etc at that time.

    2. Eventually I'd like to replace my external hard drives with a small RAID or NAS box for faster drive access. I've found that my system gets I/O bound on occasion even though I'm using USB 3 drives.

    3. When my Roku dies I might not replace it and just drive the TV directly from the media server. Then again, the Roku allows me to feed video over my household network so if I ever do a media closet instead of having the server in the cabinet below the main TV I'd probably keep the Roku. Also, multiple Roku's can all feed off the same media server so I can add more TVs without great additional expense. And Roku just released their first 4K capable box if I decide to go that route.

    4. I don't have external speakers since the ones in our TV work quite well enough for our purposes. If we move and end up with a bigger TV room I'll probably get a sound bar or reciever/speaker setup depending on the room.

  8. WhoCares
    July 7, 2016 at 8:52 pm

    Boy! Is guy is WAY off........

    Try this out......

    I got a Great Use Projector . it cost $2,000 when it came out..... I got it for $150. EBay.
    And someone had really taken care of it....And it works great....

    Got a great Use Laser disc player on EBay also. $50.00
    Got a VCR for $10.00 Got new Blu-Ray player $100 WalMart.
    Did very little work on the nice white wall. Put a border around it...
    And now have a 8Ft wide. X 4 Ft high screen.. get a sound system you like.
    I also have Netflix & Amazon hooked up to it......
    I stopped going to the theater. Got my own at home...Under $ 850.
    Just do some good looking around, and a little work...

  9. Anonymous
    July 5, 2016 at 1:54 pm

    1. Don't use an OLD PC. Use one new enough to support contemporary graphics tech. This can be a Pentium CPU, so long as it's within the most recent couple generations of integrated GPU. You want something that supports H.265 Codecs and something that isn't going to use crap-tons of power. T-series Skylake CPUs are truly ideal for this, if you have the cash for one. Failing that, at least get a something with a quiet fan and a fanless discrete GPU. You don't want a device that's going to struggle to play back highly compressed formats.An entry-level Intel NUC is great.

    2. 4k is absolutely affordable, even on a budget. There are $600 4k TVs from respected manufacturers. Content is out there and more is coming. Youtube has 4k content. So do Vimeo, Netflix and Amazon. More is coming. 4k TVs have other tech that make pictures better, especially if you're looking at a TV that supports HDR contrast options.

    3. Ignore Smart TV functions. Don't buy a TV to be Smart. Buy a TV to be a dumb display. Don't even give the TV an IP on your home LAN. If you're not going to use a PC for media center functionality, get a good Set Top Box. Good options should at least support Kodi and/or Plex for local content selection and have access to Netflix, Amazon and Youtube. I like the Shield X1 and the FireTV box for these purposes.

    4. If you're going to buy a receiver, get a decent center channel speaker. Please. Most of the sound you listen to will come out of the center channel. Subs are great for annoying your neighbors and they sure do sound cool when you're watching Star Wars, but something that's way, way cooler is when you can actually hear all the spoken dialog in all the comedies and romances and tense dramas you're watching.

    5. On a related note: sound bars mostly suck. Yamaha sound projectors are a bit different because they're actually something different from crappy left/right + center speaker in one package. Please don't be tempted by a sound bar. It is antithetical to a home theater experience.

    6. You don't have to buy a speaker for every place your receiver supports having one. Stereo is a fine start. So is stereo + center. 5 or 7 or 9 speakers are really hard to set up in a lot of living spaces unless you've arranged the room for it in the first place.