2014 Holiday Buyers Guide
By Chris Heinonen on
At Reference Home Theater we don’t do end-of-year awards. We think they’re frankly silly and often useless. There isn’t often a single “Best” product for a category, but instead a best solution for a problem. We also don’t pretend that we tried every single TV on the market this year, or every single speaker, so why give out an award we aren’t sure of? It also leads to awards being given out in categories where only a couple of products were reviewed that year. Also just because a product came out last year doesn’t mean the new product is better, so why award it just for being new?
However, we have done enough hands-on time to be able to recommend products from this year that we would buy. Almost all of these have been reviewed by us, for Reference Home Theater or other publications we write for, but sometimes we also rely on experts that we know and trust. If we don’t cover a category, it is because we don’t know it well enough to be able to recommend anything there, but we are certain another site like The Wirecutter can.
Good: Vizio E320i-B2. The Vizio E320i-B2 has what most people are looking for in a small TV. It has a very good picture, a good selection of streaming apps, and is very affordable. It will very capably fill the role of a secondary or even primary TV. $250 from Amazon.
Splurge: The Samsung UN32H5500 steps up to 1080p resolution from the 720p on the Vizio and adds more apps, a much faster app interface, and more inputs. If you want an improved user experience, or will be using it as a PC monitor as well, you may want to step up to the Samsung. $350 from Amazon.
Big Screen TV
Good: Vizio E-series. Available in a large number of sizes, the E-series Vizio offers full-array local dimming for a superior picture, streaming apps, and a very affordable price. The image is very good for the price, easily competing with sets costing 2-3x as much for the same size. $650 for a 55” at Amazon.
Splurge: The Samsung F8500 is the last great plasma. They are already starting to sell out in larger sizes as Samsung is ending production now. It offers better black levels than the Vizio, superior motion resolution with less blurring, and better viewing angles. It is also the best plasma ever made for bright rooms with very good light output. Hurry to get one, they might already be gone as this goes up. $1,000 for 51” at Amazon.
Ultimate: LG 55EC9300 OLED. The LG 55EC9300 OLED does have a curve that is annoying but the image is jaw-dropping. No display can produce the blacks that OLED can, and no OLED is nearly as affordable as the LG. It is only 1080p and not a 4K set, but the OLED will look better than any 4K set because of the OLED technology. It looks stunning with the picture on or off. $3,500 at Amazon.
Good: BenQ HT1075. The BenQ HT1075 offers a very sharp picture, accurate colors, and the ability to throw a huge image into a compact projector that will satisfy almost everyone. It even has very low lag so you can play games on it. $850 at Amazon.
Splurge: Sony VPL-HW40ES. Sony took their amazing VPL-HW55ES projector, dropped some of the least-needed features, and cut the list price by $1,500. The VPL-HW40ES is a dead silent, very bright projector that puts out an incredible image. It is the projector that finally dethrones Epson from the value throne for home theater projectors. $2,150 from Amazon.
Ultimate: JVC DLA-X700R. It is expensive, but it is the best projector I reviewed this past year. Stunning black levels, a dynamic iris that is virtually invisible in use, accurate colors, and an advanced e-Shift that makes pixels impossible to see. If we could put a single projector into our home theaters, it would be the JVC DLA-X700R. $7,200 from Amazon.
Good: Sennheiser Momentum. These are a stylish alternative to other mainstream headphone options like Beats. Those looking for more clarity and detail in their music rather than over the top bass will enjoy the Momentum’s presentation which is more balanced than many other headphones. Quality Sennheiser sound on a budget. $200 from Amazon.
Splurge: HiFiMan HE-400i. The most affordable planar magnetic headphone on the market, the HE-400i is incredibly comfortable and produces wonderful sound. The HE-400i lacks a tiny bit of the clarity of the HE-560 but costs almost half as much and performs better without a headphone amp. A lush, velvety sound that is pleasure to listen to. $500 from Amazon.
Ultimate: Oppo PM-2. The Oppo PM-2’s are not only a great value headphone, but a great headphone period. They can compete with planar magnetic headphones costing hundreds of dollars more with their dynamics and clarity. Slightly warm with an enormous sound stage, while sensitive enough to play directly from your smartphone or laptop. $700 from Oppo.
Good: Vizio S4221W-C4. The Vizio was the best sound bar for the money last year, and it still is this year. Every time we compare it to a new sound bar it still comes out on top for the price. Music sounds much better through it than every other bar, and it has all the inputs you need. There is no HDMI, but in all our experience you are much better off switching HDMI inputs in your TV and not your sound bar if you want everything to work right. $250 from Amazon.
Splurges: Sonos PLAYBAR. The Sonos PLAYBAR is input light, with only Optical and no Bluetooth or Airplay, but it offers features no other sound bar does. Very good sound quality and the ability to stream audio from all your favorite streaming services and your music library set it apart. The ability to add a subwoofer and surround speakers later for a true 5.1 system is a bonus as well. $700 from Amazon.
Vizio S5451W-C2. Made for larger TVs, but good enough to even work in a projection system the Vizio S5451W-C2 is an wonderful way to add 5.1 channel surround sound. It lacks the musical clarity that the smaller S4251W-B4 offers, but has better bass response and does very well with movies and TV. Now that the price has dropped 30% from the original MSRP is is even easier to recommend than before. $350 from Amazon.
Ultimate: Paradigm Soundscape. It is an expensive sound bar but it sounds fantastic. Bass extends down to 40Hz without an external subwoofer and vocals are crystal-clear thanks to individual tweeters and a dedicated center channel. A wireless subwoofer transmitter makes it easy to add a sub later if you want deep bass as well. $1,500 from Amazon.
Receivers and Preamps
Good: Yamaha RX-V477. It doesn’t have all the bells & whistles of the higher-end receivers but it provides better sound quality than other receivers for its price. The amplifier section, probably the most important component, is better than the competition allowing you to use almost any speaker you want with it. It has some streaming features and plenty of inputs as well. $350 from Amazon.
Splurges: Yamaha RX-A1040. The RX-A1040 has a more powerful amplifier than the RX-V477, adds analog to HDMI conversion, better streaming features with Spotify Connect and AirPlay, and more inputs and outputs. The DAC is very good for the price, giving you better quality from your digital audio sources. $1,100 from Amazon.
Emotiva XSP-1. If you only listen to stereo music, or listen to a lot of analog sources in your home theater system, the Emotiva XSP-1 is a powerhouse. It offers two-channel performance equal to products costing thousands of dollars more. Analog bass management, a home theater bypass mode, and balanced to unbalanced conversion makes it a fit into any system. $2,000 home theater preamps cannot hold a candle so the XSP-1 when it comes to stereo analog quality. $1,000 from Amazon.
Ultimate: Yamaha CX-A5000. This preamp uses high-quality DACs from ESS that produce extra detail compared to everything else we have heard in the price range. SACD and Blu-ray discs have extra clarity that is easy to hear. The updated YPAO room correction performs better than YPAO has in the past, and balanced and unbalanced connections let it work with any amplifier you pair it with. $2,500 from Amazon.
Good: Audio Technica AT-LP120-USB. For $250 you get a turntable with everything you need including a cartridge and preamp. Setup is easy and you get a turntable that sounds very good for the money. If you’re getting started in vinyl, or just getting back into it, there isn’t a better place to start. $250 from Amazon.
Splurge: Pro-ject Debut Carbon. It sounds better than the Audio Technica and can be upgraded with a better platter, external speed control, and a better cartridge. It isn’t as easy to setup and use as the Audio Technica, but it does sound better than the AT-LP120-USB. $400 from Amazon.
Splurge: Oppo BDP-103D. The Oppo not only plays every disc you throw at it, but with Darbee processing it can offer a pop that no other Blu-ray player can. Beyond that, it will handle video processing on up to two external sources, letting you make your cable box or media streamer look even better. For pure video quality, there isn’t a Blu-ray player on the market that looks any better than this. $600 from Amazon.
Ultimate: Kaleidescape Cinema One. $4,000 put the Kaleidescape out-of-reach for most, but it is a tremendous product. You can store your DVD and Blu-ray content on it, and download true Blu-ray quality movies to it. No, it doesn’t offer a better image than the Oppo, but it offers a better experience. It is a very expensive unit, but after using one you really want to keep it because it is such a nice user experience. $4,000 from Amazon.
Roku 3. Over a year old, but still the best media streamer on the market. Unlike options from Apple, Google and Amazon, Roku doesn’t force a certain content provider onto you. It can play back everything from Google and Amazon, as well as Netflix, Vudu, and even local media using Plex. The Roku Stick offers the same content, but the slower response time is not worth the savings. $85 from Amazon.
OmniMount PJT40. Over the past two years we’ve installed this ceiling mount multiple times in different houses and mounted countless projectors to it. Installing the mount, attaching a projector, and getting it perfectly level is simple. It costs more than other mounts, and hangs a bit lower, but it offers more flexibility and that is welcome. $110 from Amazon.
Blu-ray: Frozen, Gravity, Captain America: Winter Soldier and Pacific Rim can all easily find their way into a reference disc rotation. For us, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug takes the cake for 2014. I know Jackson’s current Hobbit trilogy has some on edge for length, but we find the series thus far fantastic. Perhaps because we are able to watch in the comfort of our home, and in at least two sittings – but count us as one eagerly waiting the final chapter…as soon as it comes out on Blu-ray. The Blu-ray for H:DoS is stunning. Brilliant and nuanced picture, engaging sound – it represents the pinnacle of what the Blu-ray form is capable of.
Digital Audio: Beck’s Sea Change came out over a decade ago and its SACD set the bar for surround sound audio demos for years. The Blu-ray Pure Audio disc keeps the same audio quality, but you don’t have to resort to using Ebay to track down a collectible copy. The stereo and surround sound mixes show off everything your system is capable of. $27 from Amazon.
Vinyl: The Beatles Mono reissues and Led Zeppelin reissues. Yes, original copies in mint or near mint condition might be better. If you want to save yourself hours of time in tracking those down, and lots of money as well, the reissues sound incredible and you can go pick them up today. The Beatles have gone all analog for the production chain making them the best versions of these albums you can get today. Led Zeppelin has gone out and put together incredible deluxe editions of their albums, including 24/96 high-resolution downloads you can get for them as well. They music isn’t new but it’s never gone out of style. From $20 at Amazon.