Buying a home entertainment system

Home entertainment systems have reached a peak in quality and affordability. So, asks Rod Easdown, what are you waiting for?

Back before the global financial crisis, real estate agents used to place a picture of an old man in their window with a caption explaining that this was the young man who waited for house prices to drop. I think of that sign every time I talk to someone who says now's not the time to buy a good home entertainment system.

The most common excuse people use to put off the purchase is that they're waiting for the technology to stabilise, or at least settle down. Once things have calmed and they know where they stand, they'll buy the gear.

It's never going to happen. Technology is moving faster every day because electronics are now so fast, so reliable and so cheap that the only real limitation is our ability to think up new applications for it. With electronics companies employing lots of people to think about what could be, those applications are coming thicker and faster every day. So if you're waiting for technology to stop, forget it.

Instead, think about the current technology. If it gets any better, will you care? Take a look at a good screen you can afford. How much better could that picture get? Do the same with a good audio system. Is it all you need? Do you need any features the equipment you're looking at doesn't have? Right now, for a bargain price you can have an exceptional system that provides picture and sound quality that only a few years ago was impossible at any price.

The second common excuse is price. A year from now, all that stuff will probably cost less. I can't argue with that. But there are two important points here. First, project yourself forward a year. You've spent yet one more year of your life with old, indifferent and frustrating equipment, all to save a couple of hundred bucks. And you'll probably still be worrying that another year hence, the equipment will be even cheaper again. So how long are you going to keep denying yourself something really special right there in your living room?

And cheaper isn't always better. Now that flat-screen technology is mature and economies of scale have peaked, the only way manufacturers can cut prices is by cutting corners. So while next year's screen may be cheaper, it won't necessarily be better. Pioneer had to pull out of the screen market simply because it wouldn't cut corners and, therefore, its screens became too expensive to be competitive. They were beautiful screens, though.

So while a no-name brand will probably always be cheaper, a more expensive screen from a big brand will almost certainly be better. It will probably last longer, too, and have a warranty that stands up.

Another great excuse used by the waverers is obsolescence. They're afraid that they'll buy a system today and tomorrow a whole new type of technology will be unveiled that changes everything. That's possible, too, but they can take comfort from what happens every time new technology is introduced. It starts off being so expensive they probably couldn't have afforded it anyway. For example, Australia's first plasma screen, a 106cm model that Philips unveiled in 1999, cost $29,999. The first DVD players came out a few years earlier and cost more than $1000. Sony's first 1GB memory stick, launched in 2003, cost $2099.

And then the technology itself has to evolve. Early MP3 players had enough memory for half an hour of music and current Blu-ray players still take forever to crank up and start playing.

Manufacturers and retailers like to reassure buyers they can get around this by "future-proofing" their equipment, a process that usually involves spending more money. After many years in this business, I think future-proofing is one of the industry's great myths.

While there are steps you can take to ensure the equipment you buy today will be compatible with the technology of tomorrow - lots of HDMI plugs is a start - in practice, future-proofing is something that even clever people from the major corporations can't pull off.

During the 1990s, I asked a man who worked for Microsoft how to future-proof a house, in light of all the integrated entertainment technology that was just over the horizon. He gave me a long lecture on ensuring there was plenty of room in the walls and ceiling for whatever cables would come along (no one had heard of HDMI in those days). He told me how to insert generous plastic pipes in the walls and ceilings for the cables and how to thread nylon cords through them to tie to the cables so they could be pulled through. And now everything is going wireless.

When new technology is introduced, its makers often go to extreme lengths to ensure you'll have to upgrade your equipment, usually with the stuff that manufacturer makes (or licenses to other makers), to integrate it. Look at Apple's proprietary 30-pin plug on the iPod and Amazon's special software for electronic books, which makes a Kindle e-reader an essential pick if you want to download books from the world's biggest supplier.

A few years ago, the video-recording debate was all about hard-drive recorders versus DVD recorders; now TVs record directly on to USB drives and you don't need a separate recorder.

Once you accept that future-proofing only works up to a point, the whole thing becomes pretty simple. If your equipment performs well enough to give you a charge right now, the chances are it will keep on doing so for many years, even though all the buzz will be about stuff that's newer and sexier. Buy well now and you'll still be enjoying the quality and performance benefits a decade or more from now.

If we haven't managed to convince you that it's time to sink some serious dollars into a home entertainment system yet, let us present the most compelling reason of the lot. Right now, the balance between price and quality is probably as good as it's ever going to be. Buy wisely and you'll get a system that will keep on delivering first-class results long after you've forgotten how much you paid for it.

But do buy wisely. There's plenty of junk around and most of it is down in the bargain basement. This is true of screens, disc players, sound equipment and even cables. If the equipment you're looking at is a brand you've never heard of, be careful.

If the strange brand is irresistible, at least go with an established retailer. Generally the big-name retailers only handle brands they trust and when those brands are new, they have usually checked out the importers to satisfy themselves that they have the wherewithal to back their products.

Internet television

If it's been a while since you've bought a telly, prepare yourself for some radical changes. Modern televisions are about lots more than receiving television stations and watching DVDs. Take a look at Sony's Internet Video.

It connects you with internet-based television channels that appear identical to conventional broadcast and cable channels, plus they run catch-up programs (such as the ABC's iView), cooking, games, sports, podcasts and documentaries. The difference from broadcast and cable is that the program you want is streamed to your television when you want it.

It connects through your home-computer network, either wired or wireless, and you'll need a high-speed internet connection. Once connected, selecting a channel and a program is just a matter of running through the options with the remote. And, by the way, your computer doesn't have to be turned on.

This is not just the province of expensive equipment. Manufacturers such as Sony include the technology with the great bulk of their televisions and Blu-ray disc players. The cheapest Sony Blu-ray with it costs $229, the cheapest television (an 81cm LCD) is $1099.

Other television manufacturers execute the same idea in different ways, so services and programming vary between brands. You'll only get certain programming by buying a certain brand of television and some also provide internet-video phone calls and uploading to sites such as YouTube.

All of which adds yet one more step in the process of selecting a new television. More is coming. In the US, televisions are now on sale with access to Google. They can navigate websites using Google's browser, Chrome, and trawl internet television guides to find favourite programs. To do this the remote control has grown to accommodate a full keyboard and users are able to watch television and surf the net simultaneously. Plenty of televisions also have inbuilt video recording that transfers to USB drives or SD cards. It's a highly convenient feature that rules out the need for a separate video recorder.

They can also play music and show videos and still photographs stored on USBs or SD cards. Traditionally, Australians have liked a separation between their televisions and their computers so the theory is that such features will appeal mainly to younger people who have grown up with the internet.

Yet downloading movies and television programs on demand is now so easy even adults can do it.

Flat is fantastic

Two interesting points that at first seem to be at odds — we're using televisions more than we ever have but we're watching less broadcast. Part of this is down to the internet and the popularity of DVDs and Blu-rays. But we also now have more televisions in our houses than ever before, so television is no longer just a lounge room thing.

The reason is purely physical — flat-panel televisions fit in places the old cathode ray tube numbers would never go, such as bedside tables, kitchen benches and wherever there's some spare wall space. Or indeed ceiling space, given certain bedrooms we've inspected.

With the advent of LCD screens, we're now offered small flat-panel televisions as well as large. And with whole-of-home sound systems, we can watch little TVs without enduring the tinny sound so many of them serve up.

It has made television an extremely flexible medium in the home and Australians are exploiting it to the max.

It used to be that we bought about a million televisions a year but during the past couple of years, we've been buying 2 million to 2.5 million annually.

A few tips:

  • Televisions in the bedroom should be either at the end of the bed or above it, if you like lying back. Putting them to one side can bring neck strain.
  • In the kitchen, work out your sight lines carefully because these are busy places. Make sure the screen is big enough to be able to read text — handy in cooking programs. And ensure the screen is protected from spills.
  • Wall-mounting is the best way to go in a games room. Put the screen out of the way of activity.
  • If you're doubling the television as a computer screen in the office, make sure it's fully compatible. And if using a computer screen as a television, ensure it is fast enough to handle rapid movement. A response time of six milliseconds or faster is suggested.