Rome was not built in a day and neither are good Home Theater and Audio Systems. Hopefully this article will save you time, money and aggravation.
This is how I put together my Home Theater and Audio Sound System and you might want to use this as a general guide in terms of what I learned through trial and error. The first part of this article is general buying tips. The rest of the article is arranged in alphabetical order by topics beginning with Audio / Video Receivers and ending with Tweaks. Since you can scroll down in order to find DVD players come after CD players, etc. As previously mentioned, this article is intended as a general guide written in layman's terms not technical terms trying to summarize Home Theater and Home Audio basics. Onwards and upwards.
Buying Used or Refurbished Items
My rule of thumb with buying something used online is: 1.Make sure it comes with the original manual and remote control, which will make reselling it, should you chose to do so, easier. 2. Make sure it is described as in very good or better condition from a seller in the US (or the country you stay in). 3. Pass on any item which the seller has described previous problems with., 4. Do not buy anything listed "As Is" or "No Returns" as it basically says your stuck with this once you pay for it even if its DOA. 5. Only buy from someone with a lot of feedback which positive percent is 95% or better. As a rule I will not buy from anyone with feedback of 10 or less, if you're putting up $ 200 or more, I'll increase that to 20. Even if you do pass up some legitimate people in the process with that rule , the chances are good that the item will show up again within the next 2 months or so from a seller with feedback of 20 or better. What I'm saying is, do not rush things when you do not have to. Also pay by paypal only. This way if there is a problem, paypal will help resolve it and / or get your money back.
What Not to Buy Used or Refurbished :
Do not buy a used or refurbished TV under any circumstances. You are asking for trouble if you do.
Do not buy a used or refurbished DVD player, Universal player or DVD recorder under any circumstances. These are made with a limited life in mind.
How to decide what to buy
If you've heard or seen any system personally that you liked, I would go by that first to decide what to buy. What I would not do is go to a store & make your decision based on what you hear or see there. In many cases for instance, the HDTV's are not actually showing HD shows in the store because they're not receiving HD signals or the sound system is giving lousy sound because of bad acoustics, bad ambience and improperly set controls which the salesman is pretending to not notice. Should you ignore all that, let the buyer beware, at least bring a CD and / or DVD of your choice to sample their system, not the stores generic ones.
I would go to Forum sites and see which components or system, are constantly being reviewed and then read Online Reviews and information from the Manufacturer and base your decision on that. Likewise use the forums to ask about a specific product.
Audio / Video (A / V) Receiver
Most of the basic features on 7.1 or 5.1 A / V receivers are similar, no matter how old the receiver is. Before I go on, you can get 5.1 sound (5 speakers and a sub) on a 7.1 receiver and most of the receivers in the last 5 years or so are 7.1. You can get very good used receivers online for, 40 to 70% off the listed retail price when that receiver was new, complete with a remote and manual. Again, research any receiver, from a friend's opinion, a forum, manufacturer information & online reviews. I myself got a Denon A / V 3801 Receiver which I love for around $ 380 including shipping that came with the Remote and Manual. As I had a Universal Remote and knew I was going to keep this receiver, I sold the remote for around $ 35 online, so all I spent was $ 345. This receiver cost over $ 1100 when it was new. On a lot of these receivers, you are just paying for extra bells and whistles, which if you do not need, can save you on money. For instance, many of the newer receivers come with built in EQ / DB systems, that will automatically set up the receivers & these cost a lot more then systems which you have to do this manually. Note, I listen to CDs on the Denon's All Natural 5.1 Stereo Sound which plays CDs from all 5 speakers and my subwoofer without reprocessing the sound. To me this gives my sound much more depth. Other people do not like to listen to CDs that way.
You will need good cables to get a good sound and picture: These cables include: Fiber Optic Cables to get 5.1 sound from your HD Receiver / DVR and DVD players. You will also need Analog RCA Cables to get good sound from your CD or Universal Player. You will need 2 sets of Component Cable to connect your DVD player to your TV and HD Receiver / DVR to your TV. Finally you will need a subwoofer cable and speaker wire.
If you get your HD service from a Cable or Satellite Company, usually they give you free component cables. Do not use these as they're not all that great on the average and buy better component cables. Cables are not built the same and will produce different results, contrary to general opinion. I use standard Monster component cables, Monster Standard THX Subwoofer cable, glass optic cable which gives a more upfront revealing sound in my opinion for my DVR / Receiver & standard optical cable for my DVD player, speaker wire, and believe it or not, 2 cheap pairs of Acoustic research analog cables which I find the most neutral and least likely to reveal a recordings weaknesses!
This is the component I have upgraded and changed the most as believe it or not, the sound differs very between players. As mentioned above, unless CD sound is not that important to you, do not use a DVD player to plays CDs.
I've personally found that many vintage CD players which you can find online generally give fantastic sound and are reliably cheap. I had a Pioneer Elite 59 CD player for many years that one could get between $ 150- $ 250, that produced great rock sound.
I've found buying a CD player is a total trial and error proposition. Depending on the audio equipment on hand, the person and the music they like, one man's Heaven is another man's hell. Many people, myself included, have bought CD players based on great forum comments and / or reviews only to be disappointed when they actually listened to them and then resold them the next day or week online at a loss.
My current CD player is a Jolida JD-100A Tube CD player, which I love. I got it used for about $ 350 less then I would pay retail for. Tube CD player's sounds change very depending on which tubes one uses. Again, this is a trial and error preference. I currently am using 2 ECC83 12Xa7 Tubes.
I have a Harmon Kardon 31 DVD player which I bought online for about $ 50 less then the retail price, when it first came out. I chose this model because of the reviews I found online which raved about its great sound & excellent picture.
I do not use my DVD player to play CDs because in my personal opinion and those of many other people, CD players produce better audio sound. So if the sound of a CD is important to you, buy a CD player separately and ignore the company BS line that there is little sound difference between playing CDs on DVD players instead of CD players.
There are 3 types of DVD recorders: Internal computer DVD recorders, external computer DVD Recorders and Stand Alone DVD Recorders that you can record TV Shows on. The main difference between the stand alone DVD recorders and the computer Internal and external recorders are those that stand alone DVD Recorders can not as far as I know record 5.1 sound while internal and external computer DVD recorders can. While stand alone and external computer DVD recorders are reliably cheap, they usually do not last more than a couple of years before their lasers break down. The good news is, they're relatively cheap to just buy a new one. My internal computer DVD Recorders have never broken down. You do need software to record DVD's on your computer and a lot of these players come with it. I use Nero which I love and which is also good for burning CDs as well. One important thing to know is that most commercial DVDs are encrypted as to prevent DVD copying using standard commercial software.
HD DVR / TIVO
My HD DVR is provided for a rental of about $ 10 a month from my HD service. I am very happy with my set but I really am not qualified to make any recommendations on these.
I have 2 widescreen HDTV's which I love, a Panasonic 34 "set and a Mitsubishi 48" set, both of which I bought new. I would not recommend buying an HDTV set used. I also would take an extended warranty for the maximum length so you do not have to worry if something breaks down. I made my purchase decision on these sets based on what I read online in forums and reviews as well as manufacturer information. You usually can get great discounted prices both from retail discount electronic chains as well as online discount electronic companies including extended warranties.
I did not realize in my wildest dreams these actually existed and worked until I did a Google search and wound up at a forum where people all raved about the relatively expensive, Pioneer SE-DIR800C HDPH Dolby Digital 5.1 Wireless Headphones, which I got new for $ 300 online $ 100 less the retail price. These headphones are my Holy Grail, I do not know how Pioneer does it, but they produce incredible 5.1 sound and I'm not aware I'm listening through headphones! These are furthermore, wireless and work terrific, I've never experienced any static noise or interference. To me these headphones are in a class by themselves with no peer. I use them for TV and DVD by Connecting my receivers optic digital out to the Pioneer's Wireless Station's Optic Input. My best electronics purchase ever.
MP3 / IPOD Headphones
For some reason, most of the free headphones supplied with Ipods / MP3 players, suck. Meaning, they are uncomfortable or lack something in sound or both. For myself, I found I could not tolerate earbuds, headphones which like hearing devices get attached to the inside of your ear. I wound up buying at a great online price, a new set of over your head, Koss Porta Pro headphones which were super light and comfortable, stayed over my ears and had good though not great sound, for about $ 15 less then I would have to pay, retail. Again, I bought these based on forums, reviews and company information.
Sorry I'm not going to be much help here, as I only use my MP3 player for jogging and working out and as such I use a Creative Zen Nano 512 Plus as its super small and light and has great sound.
I use my 5.1 speaker system for DVD, TV and listening to CDs. I feel my system, which is an Orb Audio Mod 1 5.1 speaker set-up (5 speakers & a subwoofer) bought new, has great sound for all of these. Other people prefer to use 5.1 speakers only for DVD & TV and listen to CDs on different speakers. I discovered Orb based on finding an incredible amount of positive reviews on them in forums and based my buying decision solely on that.
Tweaks and Accessories
This is another hit or miss proposition. I bought online a new Musical Fidelity X-10 V3 Tube Buffer for $ 250 and it improved my CD player sound when connected to both my current, Jolida JD-100A (Tube) CD player and my previous Pioneer Elite PD-59 . I purchased the X-10 V3, Tube again from forums and reviews as well as company information.