THE GREAT ELECTRONICS GIFT GUIDE

Hottest home entertainment gear

Is this the year for a smart TV, sound bar, or streaming media player? You have more options than ever before.

Published: October 2014

Shopping for home entertainment equipment

The holiday season is once again approaching: Time to start making those gift lists for all your friends and loved ones (oh, and maybe to think about presents you might want for yourself!). If anyone has been especially good this year (yes, including you), a TV, streaming media player, or other home entertainment device might be just the gift you need.

In our Great Electronics Gift Guide, we’ve gathered together more than 100 recommendations—from bargain to sweet spot to splurge—to help you choose. We’ve also included buying advice for consumers with specific needs—and their stories could match yours. Whatever you're looking for, we have ideas. Happy shopping!

Televisions

How to shop for TVs

The landscape of television technology has changed significantly. At this time last year, Ultra HD (UHD) sets, which have four times the resolution of 1080p TVs, were new to the market. And, boy, were they expensive—with big-brand models priced at $4,000 and up. Now, most major TV manufacturers have UHD sets in their high-end lineups, and very good performing models with updated features can be had at half that cost. Some of the Ultra HD TVs look different, too, with curved, superthin screens.

Other big changes are afoot. Plasma televisions, which used to dominate the top of our Ratings because of their deep black levels and wide viewing angles, have all but disappeared from stores. Meanwhile, a relatively new and expensive screen technology called organic light-emitting diode promises even better performance than plasma. OLED sets are a hot topic, but there are still very few on the market. Nonetheless, they are creeping down the price ladder toward affordability. LG now offers a 55-inch curved 1080p set for $3,500—its 65-inch OLED with Ultra HD resolution (an industry first) is still up in the stratosphere at $10,000.

We’re excited about the marriage of UHD and OLED technologies, but those sets will remain pricey for some time. So for the next few years, LCD TVs will be the go-to choice for most consumers. But don’t get tangled up in the confusing terminology. Most LCD televisions use an energy-efficient LED backlight, so manufacturers often tout them as “LED TVs.” The two technologies overlap, so all LED televisions are actually LCDs.

Smart TVs are more common than ever. Those Internet-connected sets can run apps and stream movies, TV shows, and music from services such as Amazon, Netflix, Pandora, and Spotify. They also tap into social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. A number of smart TVs have Web browsers, though we’ve found that browsing the Web on a TV is a pretty poor experience. More TV brands also offer “second screen” apps that allow you to use your smart phone or tablet to access Web content and then wirelessly “mirror” that content on your TV.

One thing that still seems to be a problem is wimpy sound. The stylish, skinny designs of many TVs mean there’s less room for adequate speakers. Some models buck that trend. The Sony Bravia XBR-X900B sets, for instance, have large speaker arrays flanking the screen, which provide top-notch sound quality. If the sound on your set is subpar, consider adding a sound-bar speaker; expect to pay $200 to $300 for a decent-sounding one.

Panasonic Viera TC-50AS530U

Bargain

Panasonic Viera TC-50AS530U, $600
This 50-inch 1080p LCD set has excellent picture quality. Each family member can customize a home screen with his or her favorite apps. A Swipe and Share app lets you share content with compatible mobile devices. Like all these budget picks, it has middling sound—but at these prices you can just buy a sound bar.

Also consider

Sony Bravia KDL-40W600B, $470
This 40-inch LCD TV has excellent picture quality and lifelike colors. It has four HDMI inputs, a lot for a set this size. You can turn on a scrolling Twitter feed relevant to a program you’re watching, or use Skype in split-screen mode to chat while watching a favorite program. A 48-inch sibling to this set offers comparable performance for $600.

LG 42LB5800, $450
This 42-inch 1080p TV has very good high-definition picture quality and color accuracy, plus a fairly wide viewing angle for an LCD set. It can run apps and stream online content, and it will recommend programs based on your viewing history.

Samsung UN28H4000, $200
Very good picture in a small size.

Samsung UN55H6400

Sweet spot

Samsung UN55H6400, $1,200
This nicely priced 55-inch 1080p TV has excellent picture quality and an impressive set of features. Its Clear Motion feature minimizes motion blur better than most LCD TVs we’ve tested. It responds to voice commands and suggests programs according to your viewing history.

Also consider

LG 55LB7200, $1,400
This 55-inch 1080p TV has excellent high-def picture quality and uses LG’s webOS smart TV platform, which organizes content in tiles across the bottom of the screen.Just point the Magic Remote to move an onscreen cursor, or use voice commands to change channels or browse the Web.

Samsung UN60H6350, $1,300
This 60-inch LCD TV delivers excellent picture quality. Its 120Hz feature reduces motion blur during fast-moving scenes very well.

Sony Bravia KDL-50W800B, $1,000
This 50-inch LCD set delivers excellent high-def picture quality and offers access to online content. It also has screen mirroring, which lets you wirelessly send content from a smart phone or tablet to the TV.

Sony Bravia XBR-65X900B

Splurge

Sony Bravia XBR-65X900B, $3,800
There are dozens of TVs in our Ratings with excellent picture quality, but rarely do we hear great sound. The distinctive, wedge-shaped 65-inch Sony Ultra HD set wears its large, side-mounted speaker arrays proudly, delivering what may be the best TV sound we’ve heard. It has Sony’s smart-TV platform plus a Social Viewing feature with a scrolling Twitter feed.

Also consider

Samsung UN65HU9000, $4,300
A gently curved, 65-inch screen distinguishes this top-of-the-line UHD TV, which has loads of features, including the ability to divide the screen into four panels, each with its own live TV or Web content. All of the connections are made via a separate box containing the TV’s brain. You can replace it in the future to add new features and capabilities.

LG 65UB9500, $2,800
This 65-inch UHD TV has a wider viewing angle than most LCD sets. Like the other UHD TVs here, it has smart-TV features and, in addition, can also stream UHD (4K) videos from Netflix.

70-inch LG 70LB7100

A few more standouts

We combed our full Ratings of 170-plus sets to find TVs that illustrate a few extremes—the biggest, cheapest, and best sounding. Our selections are limited to models we’ve tested; we know there are bigger TVs out there, for example. Prices were as of mid-October and may have changed by the time you read this. For up-to-the-minute TV news and recommendations, go to ConsumerReports.org.

Biggest: 70-inch LG 70LB7100, $2,400, and Sharp Aquos LC-70SQ15U, $2,200
The LG has excellent picture quality; the Sharp model is very good. These may be too big for many living rooms but could look great in a home theater.

Cheapest: 24-inch LG 24LB4510, $150
Sure, it’s small, but the picture is excellent, and the price is right. Like most sets this size, it has sound that’s just OK.

Best sound: 55-inch Bose VideoWave II Entertainment ­System, $5,000
Only a few TVs in our Ratings of more than 170 models offer excellent sound, including this Bose and the Sony Bravia XBR-65X900B. The Bose has excellent picture quality but no Internet capability.

Which TVs score highest for reliability? Check our buying guide and Ratings for more information.

Velicia Hill, 44, Atlanta

What to buy for a mom and her son

Velicia says: “My TV is from the ’80s or ’90s, and my 14-year-old son tells me I should join the 21st century with a flat screen. The new TV will be in our family room, for when people come over to watch the Super Bowl or Beyoncé’s concerts. Anywhere between 32 and 40 inches would be good, and I’d love to spend under $500.”

Claudio Ciacci, TV tester, says: “Our top pick for Velicia is the LG 39LB5800, a slim, 39-inch LED-backlit set that will fit in her entertainment center. It’s selling for about $430, but it could cost less during the holidays. It has excellent picture quality, and LG has been a reliable brand. This set has LG’s smart-TV platform, with access to streaming shows. Finally, the audio is good, and that should make Velicia—and other Beyoncé fans—happy.”

Blu-ray players

How to shop for Blu-ray players

You might think a Blu-ray player is hopelessly out of date in an age when everyone wants to stream Netflix’s “House of Cards.” But modern Blu-ray players are arguably the most versatile devices you can add to your entertainment setup.

In addition to playing all kinds of discs, most models can stream content from online video services such as Netflix and music services such as Pandora, and Blu-ray players deliver better movie quality than streaming. Some can relay music, video, and photos from other devices on your home network to your TV, or mirror the screen of your mobile device on your TV.

Wi-Fi is standard on most players, and some have Web browsers. Well-equipped models go for as little as $75 or so, and fully loaded players are in the $150 range. You can expect excellent Blu-ray picture quality at all prices.

LG BP540

Bargain

LG BP540, $85
This lower-priced player does a great job at all of the basics, and it offers a good selection of streaming services and built-in Wi-Fi. It has an easy-to-use menu and speedy response, and it can play 3D discs.

Also consider

Panasonic DMP-BD91, $80
This CR Best Buy provides first-rate performance, with a good selection of streaming services.

Samsung BD-H6500

Splurge

Samsung BD-H6500, $150
The BD-H6500 can play 3D discs, upconvert 1080p video to 4K, browse the Web, and access streaming video services. It works with a USB keyboard and mouse, and can send content from a tablet, computer, or smart phone to a TV.

Also consider

Sony BDP-S6200, $180
This 3D-capable model can upconvert 1080p video to 4K. It has a browser and a good lineup of streaming services. It can play SACD high-resolution audio discs.

Which Blu-ray players score highest for reliability? Check our buying guide and Ratings for more information.

Wireless speakers

How to shop for wireless speakers

With most music now stored on laptops, tablets, and smart phones or streamed from online sources, wireless speakers are almost a necessity. Beyond that, they’ve become a useful alternative to a conventional home stereo.

There are two basic types. Wi-Fi speakers connect to a home network and can stream music to multiple rooms. Bluetooth speakers, which have a shorter range, let you listen to music from a mobile device in the same room. They’re easy to ­connect—sometimes just by tapping NFC tags—and many have rechargeable batteries, so you don’t have to stay near an electrical outlet. Because the speakers come in many sizes, make sure that a model you’re considering has enough power to fill your room with sound.

TDK Life on Record

Bargain

TDK Life on Record Wireless Weatherproof Speaker A33, $130
With a rugged, weather-resistant exterior, this speaker thrives outdoors. It has good sound quality and is one of the better portable Bluetooth models we’ve tested. (You can connect non-Bluetooth devices via an analog-audio input.) A USB port lets you recharge a smart phone, and the built-in microphone enables hands-free Bluetooth chats.

Also consider

Edifier Luna Eclipse, $165
Combining style with very good sound quality, the Bluetooth-compatible Luna Eclipse has separate left and right speakers, helping it create an effective stereo sound pattern.

iHome iBT44, $180
Expect good sound from this Bluetooth speaker with retro boombox styling. It’s easy to use, and it has a built-in FM tuner and a slot for storing a portable music player.

Sonos Play:1

Sweet spot

Sonos Play:1, $200
The Play:1 Wi-Fi speaker makes the usually high-priced Sonos experience more affordable. It’s a mono model that packs very good sound into a small enclosure. You can add another Play:1 to form an even better-sounding stereo pair. It can access streaming music services, such as Pandora and Spotify. There’s no remote; you control the Play:1 with a mobile device using a Sonos app. Step up to the $300 Play:3 to get stereo sound in a single speaker.

Also consider

Edifier E30 Spinnaker, $280
This pair of horn-shaped Bluetooth speakers delivers very good sound in a distinctive package for critical music listeners and movie viewers.
 

This cylindrical Bluetooth speaker delivers good sound quality. It has an analog audio input for connecting non-Bluetooth devices.

Sony SRS-X9

Splurge

Sony SRS-X9, $700
This top-rated model is among the best-sounding speakers we’ve tested. With a piano-black finish and a glass top with touch-sensitive buttons, it has an understated, classic look. The speaker can connect to a home network via Wi-Fi or DLNA, use Bluetooth with tablets and smart phones, and work through Apple AirPlay to play music from an iPhone or iPad, or a computer running iTunes. An Ethernet jack allows wired hookups, and its USB ports support high-resolution music files.

Also consider

Libratone Zipp, $400
The cylindrical, sweater-wearing Zipp Wi-Fi/AirPlay speaker delivers the best sound we’ve heard from a portable model.

Klipsch KMC 3, $400
Think Bluetooth speakers sound wimpy? This one brings the bass. It has an analog minijack for non-Bluetooth devices and a remote control.

Which wireless speakers score highest? Check our buying guide and Ratings for more information.

Liana Flikier, 21, Barrington, R.I.

What to buy for an apartment newbie

Liana says: “I’d like a good way to play music through my phone so I can listen with other people. It has to be loud enough for a get-together where people are talking and small enough to carry around my apartment or to a friend’s house. I can spend about $150.”

Maurice Wynn, audio tester, says: “Liana has two good options. The TDK Life on Record (A33), $130, and iHome iBT44, $180, are wireless portable speakers that will connect to her phone via Bluetooth. Both can provide good sound quality that’s fine for casual listening. The TDK is more compact and has a built-in rechargeable battery. The iHome can play louder without strain. It uses six D-cell batteries, in keeping with its retro boombox styling.”

Streaming media players

How to shop for streaming media players

With online services such as Amazon, Hulu Plus, and Netflix, you can watch an entire season of a TV series in a few days or sample a new program every night. All you need is a smart TV or an Internet-connected device that can feed video to your set.

A streaming media player is a simple, inexpensive way to transform almost any TV into a media-streaming machine. Most of the players we’ve tested are small set-top boxes that connect to a TV via an HDMI input and to a home network via Wi-Fi. There are a few stick-style players that slip into a TV’s HDMI slot. Most media players are $35 to $100 or so. Apple and Roku players are by far the best sellers, though the $35 Google Chromecast is gaining ground.

Before you buy, make sure that a player you’re considering supports the video and music services you’d like to use. Most ­models work with Netflix, but they might not carry other streaming services, such as HBO Go and Vudu. Some models can also stream content from other devices on your home network or even mirror the ­display from a compatible tablet, smart phone, or computer.

Wi-Fi connectivity is handy, but wired connections tend to be more robust, so look for a player with an Ethernet jack if your TV is near your modem or router. If you have an older TV without HDMI, get a model with analog video connections.

Google Chromecast

Bargain

Google Chromecast, $35
The claim to fame for this tiny, affordable device is its ability to cast content from a computer’s Chrome browser to a TV. Chromecast can also mirror content from an Android phone or tablet. It has added more content in the past year, including direct support for Google Play (Google Music, Google Video), HBO Go, Hulu Plus, Netflix, and YouTube. It still lacks Amazon, however. Chromecast plugs into a TV’s HDMI input and gets power from the set’s USB port or a wall outlet.

Roku 2

 

 

Sweet spot

Roku 2, $70
This has a lot of what the pricier Roku 3 offers, including dual-band Wi-Fi and a remote with a headphone jack. It lacks a motion-sensing remote, a faster processor, and an Ethernet jack. Another option: the Roku Streaming Stick, $50, which plugs into a TV’s HDMI input. All three of these Rokus can cast personal media from a phone or tablet to a TV using the Roku app. The Streaming Stick and Roku 3 can also cast directly from the Netflix and YouTube apps and mirror the screen of an Android or Windows mobile device.

 

 

Roku 3

Splurge

Roku 3, $100
The Roku 3 is the top all-around player, with an easy-to-use interface, fast operation, and the most content of any tested player: Amazon Instant Video/Prime, HBO Go, Hulu Plus, Netflix, Vudu, and more. It has dual-band Wi-Fi for more reliable wireless connections and an Ethernet jack. It can cast personal media, Netflix and YouTube videos, and mirror the screen from a phone or tablet to a TV. Its remote has a headphone jack for private listening and a motion sensor that is used for gaming.

Fire TV
Photo: Sam Kaplan

For Amazon fans

Amazon fireTV, $100
One of streaming media’s newest contenders, the fireTV brings very fast operation and voice search to the party. It’s the first media player that’s a credible game platform, though you’ll need the optional $40 game controller. It’s no surprise that fireTV is optimized for Amazon’s video services, but it also supports Netflix and several others. Voice search is nice, but in our tests of paid services it worked only with Amazon and Hulu Plus. Parents may like the parental controls and kids’ area.

Apple TV

For Apple devotees

Apple TV, $100
This is the must-have streaming media player for Apple fans who have lots of content on iTunes, on a Mac computer, or in Apple’s iCloud. The Apple TV has the company’s super-friendly interface, and it integrates seamlessly with iTunes video and music libraries, as well as Apple’s iCloud storage service. The device supports AirPlay mirroring, which displays whatever is on the screen of a Mac computer, iPad, iPhone, or iPod Touch on the television. The biggest drawback to Apple TV: It lacks Amazon and Vudu.

Which streaming media players score highest? Check our buying guide and Ratings for more information.

Blake Woolsey, Live Oak, Fla.

What to buy for a cable cutter

Blake says: “I want a media streamer for our second TV. Since cutting cable and going with an antenna, we mainly watch network TV, and we stream Netflix and Hulu Plus using a PS4 gaming console. I watch whatever sports I can using the antenna, but football is critical, so I get NFL Mobile Premium on my phone, through Verizon. (I’m a 49ers fan.)”

Christopher Andrade, streaming media tester, says: “If Blake simply wanted to watch Netflix shows, almost any streaming media player would do. But he’s paying to watch NFL games—and I hate to think of him in a Patrick Willis jersey on Sundays, huddled over a 5-inch screen. The solution is the Google Chromecast, $35, which can ­mirror a phone display or Chrome Web browser on a TV.”  

Sound bars

How to shop for sound bars

Many new TVs are enviably sleek, but the drawback to ever-slimmer sets is mediocre sound. You could remedy that with a pricey surround-sound system or a home theater in a box, but there’s a simpler solution: a sound bar speaker.

Sound bars are long, narrow speaker enclosures that you can place above or below a TV on a stand or wall mount. Many have a separate wireless subwoofer for bass. Prices range from less than $200 to more than $1,000.

Note that many sound bars support Bluetooth, which enables you to use them as speakers for mobile devices. The ability to easily play music from your phone or tablet extends the value of a sound bar investment.

Vizio S3821W

Bargain

Vizio S3821W, $160
Recommended for 40- to 46-inch TVs, this 40-inch-long sound bar will please your ears and your wallet with its very good sound and low price. It comes with a separate wireless subwoofer and uses Bluetooth to stream music from a phone or tablet.

Also consider

Sharp HT-SB602, $400
It provides very good sound and fits best with TVs 60 inches or larger. The piano-black enclosure and matching wireless subwoofer make an attractive pair. The speaker has built-in Bluetooth with NFC for easy pairing, and two HDMI inputs.

Sonos Playbar

Sweet spot

Sonos Playbar, $700
In addition to adding oomph to a TV’s sound, this Wi-Fi sound bar can be teamed up with other Sonos speakers to form a multichannel surround-sound system in one room or become part of a multiroom system. You can stream audio from other devices or from Internet-based music services. An app turns a phone or tablet into a remote.

Also consider

Atlantic Technology H-PAS PowerBar PB-235, $600
This 2.1-channel-ready sound bar delivers very good audio with a clean, open sound. It has an output for a subwoofer, which isn’t included.

Samsung HW-F850

Splurge

Samsung HW-F850, $1,000
Capable of very good sound, Samsung’s 2.1-channel model has glowing vacuum tubes visible in a small window. It can be placed flat on a table or mounted upright on a wall; a sensor detects its orientation and adjusts the output and display. It has Bluetooth, NFC, and one HDMI input.

Also consider

Sony HT-ST7, $1,150
This elegant sound bar contains a 7-channel speaker array and has a wireless subwoofer. It has Bluetooth, NFC, and three HDMI inputs, so you can switch sources. It can decode 7.1-channel audio.

Which sound bars score highest for reliability? Check our buying guide and Ratings for more information.

How to get the most from your TV

1. Get the seating distance right

How far back you push the couch depends on how big a TV you purchase. You want to be close enough to see fine detail but not so close that you can make out the pixels. For a 1080p set, your seating distance should be about three times the screen height (or about 1.5 to 2 times the screen’s diagonal). So for a 50-inch set, you should sit anywhere from about 6 to 8 feet from the screen. An Ultra HD TV, with four times the number of pixels of a 1080p set, lets you cut that distance almost in half. So you can splurge on a bigger screen without having to sit farther away.
 

2. Tweak the settings

A TV’s out-of-the-box settings rarely yield the best picture. Dig into the picture-mode settings and switch to “cinema,” “movie,” “pro,” or “standard” (names vary by brand). As you change modes, the brightness, color, sharpness, and other attributes will adjust automatically.

If none of those presets please you, try fine-tuning the settings individually. Start with brightness and contrast. Play a DVD or DVR recording and freeze on an image with people and a mix of dark and light areas. Then adjust the two settings until shadow detail in both dark and bright areas is visible. Next, set the color temperature to “warm” or “low.” After that, adjust the tint/hue and color settings until skin tones look natural.

We also recommend turning down—or turning off—features such as sharpness (which can create halos around people and objects if set too high), power-saving controls (which can rob a TV of its brightness), and digital-noise reduction, or DNR, which can smooth out detail and texture. If you’re unhappy with the changes you made, don’t panic. You can always press “reset” or “default” to restore the factory settings, then start over.

3. Upgrade the sound

This one’s easy. If your skinny TV’s puny speakers don’t fill your room with sound, get a sound bar. The long, thin speaker enclosures can be mounted on the wall or placed on a shelf above or below the TV. Many sound bars come with separate, wireless subwoofers that can be placed out of sight.

Editor's Note:

This article also appeared in the December 2014 issue of Consumer Reports magazine



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