Sound Opinions: Today’s Best Home-Theater Audio Systems

The number of sources of digital media is on the rise. So manufacturers of home-theater audio equipment have introduced audio-video receivers and home-theater-in-a-box systems that now can handle content that’s streamed from online sources. Nevertheless, prices are similar to those of 2 years ago.

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The future of the home theater is up in the air—as opposed to being on the disc—as streaming and digital downloads move into the mainstream. The trend away from physical media, such as DVDs, shows no sign of stopping.

That means that an increasing number of audio-video receivers (AVRs) and home-theater-in-a-box systems (HTiBs) handle not only your music and movies through your Blu-ray Disc players and cable boxes, but also content that’s streamed from online sources via a set-top box or over your home-computer network.

Today’s AVRs and HTiBs also have intuitive on-screen interfaces, built-in applications and more High Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI) inputs, all of which make setting up your home-theater audio system more of a snap than ever before.

GET CONNECTED. A study from market-research company IHS predicted that in 2012, more people would watch movies that are streamed from online sources than they would from DVDs and Blu-ray discs. IHS predicts 3.4 billion online views for 2012 versus 2.4 billion videodisc views. Meanwhile, Nielsen SoundScan reports that digital album sales increased 13.8 percent in the first half of 2012 from the same period in 2011, and digital files now account for 38 percent of total album sales. It’s no surprise to us that industry observers believe that the trend toward streaming content will continue to expand.

Consequently, manufacturers have introduced more AVRs that have network connectivity. Fortunately, prices have dropped on these connected AVRs. Two years ago, only a handful of AVRs could access digital sources, such as Internet radio or files that were stored on your computer via a home-network connection, and those models cost at least $1,000.

Models that have an Ethernet connection to the Internet now are widespread; you can get that capability in at least 40 models that start at about $400. Further, we found at least 17 models that have Wi-Fi connectivity that’s built in or available through an adapter that costs $25–$150. Models that require an adapter start at $400; models that have built-in Wi-Fi connectivity start at $500.

But before you plunk down anything for a streaming-capable AVR or HTiB, you should consider what you want to stream and the capabilities of your home network. To stream video files so you get a clear picture that doesn’t pause or stutter, you need high-speed broadband Internet access. (Bandwidth isn’t an issue for streaming audio; audio typically streams at 128–256 kilobits per second; which all home network services exceed.)

For 720p video, you should plan to have Internet access of at least 6 megabits per second (Mbps) for a seamless viewing experience. The cost for this ranges from $20 to $40 per month, depending on where you live. Streaming Blu-ray quality 1080p files require higher speeds of at least 10 Mbps, which typically tacks an additional $10–$20 onto your monthly service charge.

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Unfortunately, today’s connected AVRs have only audio-streaming capability through Internet radio stations. That means that you still need an Internet-connected “smart” Blu-ray player or a streaming video set-top box (STB) to stream video to your home theater. A few HTiBs now include streaming STBs or “smart” Blu-ray players that can deliver streaming video (as well as audio) via preloaded service apps. Some HTiBs also pull content from a computer that’s on your home-computer network.

Streaming capability, which wasn’t around 2 years ago, can be found on at least 20 HTiB models, which start at $300. (Subscription services cost about $8 per month.) But HTiBs typically don’t have an Ethernet connection. The few models that we found that have an Ethernet connection start at $350.

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