Cheap HDTV and home theater tricks

Entertainment doesn't have to be expensive, even with a large HDTV and great content.

Why spend $60 a pop taking the family to the cineplex when you can turn your home into a kick-ass theater? Granted, the couch may not seem like such a cheap alternative when you add up amenities like HDTVs, Blu-ray players, and cable service. But believe it or not, there is such a thing as a thrifty home theater. Here's how to build it.

Use a projector to get a big picture without a big HDTV: Where sports, movies, console games, and Lost are concerned, bigger is always better. Alas, LCD and plasma TVs currently top out at around 65 inches (you call that big?) and sell for at least US$4000. So what would you say to a screen that's nearly five times larger but only half the price?

I'm talking about an HD projector like the Epson PowerLite Home Cinema 1080 Projector, which can create a 1080p image up to 300 inches diagonally (assuming you have a 25-foot wall available). It works with all the usual sources--cable, Xbox, Blu-ray player, and so on--and costs around $2000. Sure, you need a reasonably dark room to enjoy it, but you'll definitely score bragging rights with the neighbors--and save money in the process. Estimated savings: $2000.

Get a big HDTV for a small(er) price: Overall, HDTV prices haven't dropped much in the past six months. All the more reason to shop online for the best possible deal on the model you want. I priced a 46-inch Sony Bravia KDL-46W4100 at a brick-and-mortar Best Buy and came away with sticker shock: Literally one penny short of $2000, not including sales tax. But Amazon had the same set for just $1594, shipping included. And at PC Connection, the price was $100 less than Amazon's: $1494, again with free shipping.

I also priced the Samsung LN46A650, another 46-inch LCD, and although the price difference in this case wasn't nearly as steep ($1545 at Best Buy, $1487 at Amazon), the latter's freedom from sales tax again made this a no-brainer. It's worth paying extra only if you insist on having a storefront at your disposal in case something goes wrong. (Of course, with big-box storefronts like Circuit City closing up shop, even that isn't a sure thing.) Estimated savings: As much as $500 on a 46-inch LCD.

Cut your costs on overpriced cables: Welcome to the scam of the century. Browse the aisles of your local electronics store and you'll likely find a Nyko HDMI Cable for PlayStation 3 selling for $60, a NexxTech Ultimate HDMI to HDMI Cable for $70, and/or a Monster Cable 700hd High Speed HDMI Cable for a whopping $95. And they're not even jewel-encrusted!

They are, however, very overpriced. At MonoPrice.com, a 6-foot HDMI cable sells for $10. At Meritline.com, you can buy a pair of them for--are you sitting down?--$11, shipped. Okay, yeah, but you get what you pay for, and if these no-brand cables cost that much less, they must be shoddy and unreliable, producing a poor-quality picture. Right?

Wrong. PC World's tests and my own hands-on experience show that $10 HDMI cables work just as well as their $100 counterparts--particularly at the 6-foot length used in most home-theater setups. Bottom line: Don't buy over-packaged, overpriced cables from retail stores. Ever. Estimated savings: $50 on a 6-foot cable.

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Rick Broida

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