When you're buying a home entertainment system, there's virtually no limit to how much you can spend. If you're feeling especially flush, there's an LG TV that you can drop $130,000 on, and you could easily spend the GDP of a small country on an audio system.
But for those of us not blessed with seven-figure bank balances, setting up a home entertainment system is all about finding an equilibrium between quality and price. Fortunately, it is possible to find some good performers without blowing your credit rating, but you'll need some expert guidance.
CHOICE's resident tech heads have highlighted five budget products that'll help you set up a basic home entertainment system for less than $1000 (plus ongoing subscription fees of up to $25/month for some streaming services). They also share their thoughts on what to consider when you're buying.
They may be cheap, but not all of these products are the best performers in their categories. To make sure you're buying the best for your budget, check our full reviews.
Ffalcon 32SF1 32-inch TV: $249
- We like: Very good EPG (electronic program guide); very good SmartTV functions; very good for sport.
- We don't like: Poor sound quality; narrow viewing angle; only has two HDMI ports; sound has no bass and is very flat, tinny and hollow.
When it comes to TVs, is bigger always better? Not necessarily. The right-TV size for your needs doesn't always mean buying the largest TV you can afford.
Our TV and audio expert Denis Gallagher says there are three things you need to consider when planning what size TV to buy: TV resolution (HD or 4K), the size of your room, and how close you like to sit to the TV.
If you're looking for a TV for a small apartment or bedroom, then 32–43 inches will be more than adequate. For the 32-inch Ffalcon television (yes, 'Ffalcon' is spelt correctly), the ideal viewing distance would be 1.3m or more.
Optimal viewing distance for HD TVs.
The Ffalcon range is part of TV manufacturer TCL's 'value' range, and at $249 is one of the cheapest TVs we've tested. It scores well across most metrics, but its poor sound quality really lets it down. We recommend you pair it with a soundbar if you want to get the most out of this TV (see below).
Bear in mind that the Ffalcon isn't a smart TV and doesn't have any streaming apps, so if you want to stream you'll need to attach a separate device.
To see how this stacks up against other models, read the full Ffalcon 32SF1 TV review.
Polk Signa S2 soundbar + sub: $399
- We like: Excellent stereo sound; very good multichannel sound.
- We don't like: No audio delay adjustment; no wall mounting hardware supplied; HDMI ports could be difficult to use with thicker cables.
If you're building a home entertainment system on a budget, a soundbar is a good way to go. It's a compact and cheaper alternative to a home theatre set-up for your TV. It'll never give you the same quality of sound as a full multi-speaker setup, but if you choose wisely you can get great results.
They're particularly suited to smaller spaces, which means they will pair well with the smaller TV mentioned above (and the Ffalcon needs all the help it can get in the sound department!).
This isn't the absolute cheapest soundbar on the market (we've tested ones as cheap as $80), but our experts say it's well worth the extra.
"If you spend a little more for this soundbar, you'll be rewarded with sound quality that would normally cost three times the price," says Denis. "Our listening panel was wowed by its stereo separation and overall performance."
If you spend a little more for this soundbar, you'll be rewarded with sound quality that would normally cost three times the priceDenis Gallagher, CHOICE TV and audio expert
There's plenty to consider when buying a soundbar, so if you need some help, check our soundbar buying guide. If the price is especially important to you, filter the results in our soundbars review to suit your budget.
Amazon Prime Video: $59/year (or $6.99/month)
- We like: It's cost-effective, especially if you buy the yearly subscription.
- We don't like: Categorisation and presentation of content could be better; voice search not enabled on the Android TV app we used; awkward skipping (rewind and fast forward); subtitles were buggy.
You can't get much cheaper than free, right? There are several free streaming services available from free-to-air channels: ABC iView, SBS On Demand, 10 Play, 7 Plus, 9 Now, and there's Plex, which isn't affiliated with a particular channel but is still free (although it has a paid 'premium' option as well).
Of these, our experts were most impressed by ABC iView, which scored well across all metrics, such as layout and stability, what to watch, sign-up and cancel, and playback control.
Our experts were most impressed by ABC iView, which scored well across all metrics
If you're willing to pay a bit more for your entertainment, the next cheapest option is Prime Video from Amazon. It's $6.99 a month, but it has a 30-day free trial period so you can check it out before handing over your cash.
If you decide to stick with it, it's a cost-effective subscription, especially if you buy the yearly subscription for $59.
To see how each service scores, check our movie/TV streaming services review.
Strong SRT 7014 PVR: $249
- We like: Excellent series recording; very good front panel display; good remote control; you can have three simultaneous recordings over two channel groups.
- We don't like: Recordings can only be scheduled with the EPG (electronic program guide); EPG recording is only borderline; does not group series recordings together; draws 19W in power in standby.
Remember watching videos on the VCR in the 1980s and 1990s? Personal video recorders (PVRs), aka digital video recorders (DVRs), are the modern equivalents. PVRs can record and store hundreds of hours of footage, alongside a host of multimedia functions.
If you're using a streaming service such as Netflix or Stan, you won't need a PVR. But if you also want to watch something that's only available on free-to-air TV but at a time that doesn't suit you, then a PVR is the device for you.
Some PVR products you may have heard of include Fetch TV and Foxtel IQ. We review these and others in our PVR and DVR review.
Sony MDR-ZX110NC on-ear noise-cancelling headphones: $79
- We like: Can be used to make phone calls; excellent passive noise reduction; foldable.
- We don't like: Very poor active noise cancelling; uncomfortable.
These headphones were excellent for listening with the noise-cancelling feature switched off, but they performed poorly in every other test: sound quality, comfort, durability and listening with noise cancelling. So although these may be a bargain, they're far from a good buy.
But you don't need to spend a fortune on headphones to get good sound quality: we recommend a pair of noise-cancelling headphones that retails for just $279, yet they outscored the Sony MDR-ZX110NCs on all tests, and our experts couldn't find anything bad to say about them.
Want to know which products get the CHOICE seal of approval? Check our noise-cancelling headphones review to compare products from Apple, Sennheiser, Bose, Bowers & Wilkins and more.
A games console can be a good all-in-one solution for a home entertainment system, as they also support streaming services and DVD/Bluray/4K playback as well as games.
We haven't tested all the most recent models, but you can read our reviews on these games consoles:
- Xbox One X
- Nintendo Switch
- PlayStation 4 Pro
- PS4 review
And our gaming guru Peter Zaluzny explains how to buy the best game console in our buying guide.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.