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Cheapism: Best budget home-theater systems

A sound bar (shown here with a subwoofer) is a popular alternative to a full set of speakers.
A sound bar (shown here with a subwoofer) is a popular alternative to a full set of speakers.Today

By Kara Reinhardt,

A sound bar (shown here with a subwoofer) is a popular alternative to a full set of speakers.Today

Can’t make it to the Georgia Dome next weekend for the Final Four? A home theater may not replicate the experience of being in the arena, but it sure beats streaming the games on your work computer with earbuds (not that you’ve been doing that). Accumulating a full range of surround-sound speakers can easily cost more than tournament tickets and airfare to Atlanta. Even with a cheaper audio package, though, you’ll notice a marked improvement over your TV’s built-in speakers.

After comparing features and analyzing online reviews of home-theater systems, has highlighted these top picks under $400.

  • The Boston Acoustics TVee 26 (starting at $300) contains two speakers in a long, slim sound bar, an economical alternative to full surround sound. It comes from a brand dedicated to speakers and features a separate, wireless subwoofer. Reviewers note the clarity and strength of the sound and admire the system’s simplicity and value. (Where to buy)
  • The Zvox Z-Base 220 (starting at $200) packs three speakers and a subwoofer into a single wooden case, a design that yields better sound quality than plastic housing, according to one expert. The bass comes in for particular praise, as do features that make dialogue stand out and dampen the volume of commercials. (Where to buy)
  • The Panasonic SC-BTT195 (starting at $358) is what most consumers probably picture when they think of a home theater: a 5.1 speaker configuration, with five speakers and one subwoofer, plus a Blu-ray player. This type of complete package is becoming less common, as consumers opt for inexpensive audio-only packages (like the others on this list) and prefer to choose their own Blu-ray players. Reviewers say the included player, a 3-D model, provides excellent playback, and buyers appreciate the convenience of this “home theater in a box.” (Where to buy)
  • The Panasonic SC-HTB350 (starting at $198) is a classic 2.1 system with two speakers and a subwoofer, as well as a control unit. Experts commend the system’s flexibility: The speakers can be combined into a single sound-bar-like unit, or placed separately on either side of the TV. The subwoofer is wireless, so you can put it anywhere in the room without a cord to get in the way. Bluetooth support lets an MP3 player or smartphone feed music through the speakers wirelessly, where other systems rely on a 3.5mm jack or USB input. (Where to buy)

Dolby offers a helpful guide to speaker positioning, whether you have a 2.1, 5.1, or pricier 7.1 configuration. With a sound bar, setup is less complicated and there aren’t so many wires to wrangle. The unit simply sits directly above or below the TV. All-in-one systems such as the Zvox Z-Base 220 use technology intended to mimic a 5.1 surround-sound setup. Still, some reviewers emphasize that there’s no substitute for physical speakers. True surround-sound systems like the Panasonic SC-BTT195, with two front speakers, a center channel, and two rear speakers, promise a more immersive experience.

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