Home Theater Source Component Options

Home Theater Source Component Options

This article is part of Audio Advice's Home Theater Design Series, which covers virtually everything about designing a home theater. Today, we are talking about the different home theater source component options available to playback movies, TV series, sports, and more in your home theater system. We’ll break down the different options you have and give you some tips on which ones might be the best for you. You might even be surprised to find that old-style Blu-ray players still make a lot of sense in a great home theater.

In addition to our world-class home theater design tool, we've given you everything you need to begin your home theater journey in our Home Theater Central.

Streaming Service Playback Options

The most common home theater source component for most people today is streaming. Your choice here will be something like an Apple TV 4K, a Roku device, an Amazon Fire device, a computer, or an Nvidia streaming device, just to name a few. With that said, any home theater should have a streaming player, and we recommend getting the most recent 4K model available to be sure you have the latest tech and can stream at the highest quality possible. There are many options out there, but we will discuss some of the most popular and most powerful options currently on the market.

If you are using a smart TV, many of them have a host of built-in streaming services. These streamers allow us to “cut the cord” by using one of the network TV streaming services instead of adding an extra component like a cable box to your system.

Apple TV 4K

When it comes to streaming devices, it seems they are constantly being updated every few years and are only getting better and better. And honestly, it’s hard for us to pinpoint the exact one that will be best for you, as they are all on a pretty even playing field. Our best advice is to get the one that best suits your ecosystem. If you are an Apple family, an Apple TV 4K is probably going to be a better choice. This will include AirPlay, so you can cast audio or videos directly to your screen with your iPhone with ease. In addition, when you search on an Apple TV, if your iPhone is on the same WiFi network, a notification will pop up and allow you to type the search on your phone or even use your phone as the remote or search with Siri. You can also pair up your Apple AirPods via Bluetooth to easily listen to your TV late at night and not disturb your partner. Plus, the latest Apple TV is by far the snappiest and fastest streaming device we have tested. It has great features and like most Apple products, everything just works correctly the first time. It has everything you need to get the best streaming experience, including Dolby Vision/Atmos, HDR10+, and for an extra $20, you can get a version with an ethernet port for a more stable experience, which we recommend.

Roku Ultra

A Roku Ultra is also a very popular option as it includes 4K, HDR10+, Dolby Vision, and Dolby Atmos and has a very user-friendly interface. Their universal search is well done, and you can even control everything with Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa or just say “Hey Roku” to the remote and give it a command. The remote has a headphone jack for plugging in your headphones for late-night listening and four buttons that you can customize for quick access to your favorite apps. We are also happy to see the latest version has a rechargeable remote and a great phone app to use as a remote as well. Overall, everything on the latest Roku Ultra is lightning fast as apps open quickly, and the interface experience is a pleasure to use.

Amazon Fire TV Cube

There are many options for Amazon Fire TV sticks, and their best-performing one is the Amazon Fire TV Cube, which is twice as fast as their best Fire Stick option. The Fire Stick 4K is still a great option for a very affordable streamer for an office or bedroom. But for your theater or media room, stepping up to the Cube will be a better choice. The small cube acts as an Alexa device in your home but is also a streaming device that can connect to your system. You can easily just talk to the device by using Alexa and tell it to do pretty much anything you want if you don’t want to use the included remote. One thing to keep in mind is if you plan on putting this device in an equipment rack away from your setup, you will have to use the remote to use Alexa and press the Alexa button when you want to speak. So the idea of having another Alexa device that is always at the ready doesn’t work if this device will not be out in the open in your room. It supports 4K, Dolby Vision/Atmos, HDR, and can connect to some echo devices to use as speakers. However, we recommend getting dedicated speakers and not using Echo devices as your speakers. Overall, the Fire TV Cube is a fast and capable streaming device, but unless you have it out in your room and really want to take advantage of having an additional Alexa device, you may want to consider other options.

NVIDIA Shield TV Pro

The Nvidia Shield TV Pro is the most expensive streaming device that we will mention here but also has some unique features that the other options don’t have. It comes with 4K HDR, Dolby Vision/Atmos, and includes a cool AI Upscaling powered by a very powerful processor inside. This allows it to upscale HD content to 4K in real time to make everything crisper and clearer. With an additional membership, you can play games from the cloud that will stream up to 4K 240fps, which is extremely impressive! It also includes two 3.0 USB ports for expanded storage and can act as a Plex Media Server. Overall, this device is very powerful and might be overkill for many unless they want to take advantage of the awesome gaming features or use it as a Plex server.

Other Considerations

There are plenty of other great streamers out there, such as Chromecast with Google TV or even a PS5 or Xbox gaming console. One final thing you may want to consider when making your pick is to think about what apps you use the most. All of the major streaming devices will have Netflix, Prime, Max, Hulu, etc. But they may not all have certain apps such as Twitch. For example, Apple TV 4K has an official Twitch app that works flawlessly. However, Roku does not support an official Twitch app, so you’re left using 3rd party apps that don’t work as well. So, if you’re into watching gaming streams or any other specific apps, it's worth checking out to see if your streaming device supports that.

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Check Your TV

If you plan to use your smart TV for streaming, make sure it supports the latest surround sound formats. Not all TVs do, especially the older ones. Even if you connect a Roku or Amazon stick to your TV capable of all the audio formats, you need to confirm the TV will output surround sound as that will be your limiting factor. If your TV is from a major brand and is 2020 or newer, you’re probably covered, but it is always a good idea to double-check.

The easiest way to check is to pull up your TV audio settings. Usually, there will be a TV audio output setting, and this is where you will find the surround sound formats if it has them.

Add Things Up

Streaming is fantastic for movies and TV series. It is easy to go a little overboard, though, and subscribe to more services than you need. With Netflix, Amazon, Max, Hulu, Disney+, and more offering a wealth of addictive content, you can quickly run up a pretty large monthly bill. Plus, we see more streaming services following in Netflix’s footsteps in cracking down on password sharing so be sure to subscribe to the correct plan that offers 4K content and multiple screens if you want to use your account in more than one place. Many times, there are awesome promotions and bundles going on for certain services, so it’s a good idea to do a quick search for those as well. And don’t make the mistake of turning on a free month to catch a particular series and forget to turn it off! 

We think it’s worth mentioning here that many of the streaming devices we mentioned earlier will have a universal search function built-in. This is a really great way to find the movie or shows you want to watch, but you do need to be careful as sometimes Apple TV, Roku, and even Google Smart TVs will bring you to their store to purchase or rent the movie even if it is available for free on a streaming service that you already subscribe to. During our testing, our Apple TV 4K would open most apps when we would use Siri to search for a specific movie before offering us to purchase it. However, there are times that movies that were available on Netflix or other locations that we had subscriptions to that Apple would only offer us the option to purchase or rent from them. The same thing happens with smart TVs with Google TV software and even on Roku. So just be sure to do a quick Google search to see if your movie or show is available on a service you already subscribe to before trusting the universal search features.

Most of these streaming services are now offering titles with Dolby Atmos movies and shows, too. Although they are constantly being updated, you can check out our video on how to access Dolby Atmos titles on most streaming platforms to learn more!

Live Sports

If you are a sports fan and want to stick with streaming, you may have to shell out a few more bucks to see all of your favorite teams. Just like streaming TV services, sports streaming is growing at a rapid pace, with new service providers popping up constantly. If you like baseball, MLB TV is a great app for streaming your favorite team. In addition, you can now subscribe to the Sunday Ticket to watch football on YouTube and watch multiple games at once. Plus, Hulu, Disney+, and ESPN have a bundle package that gives you ESPN+, which has a lot of live sports on it too. 

We suggest you do a careful analysis of the teams and types of sports you’d like to enjoy to try and keep your monthly bill from getting out of control.

Cable and Satellite TV

The legacy home theater source component that we are actually seeing less and less of in home theaters is a cable or satellite receiver. Both cable and satellite have been promising us more 4K content, but the streaming services are currently winning this battle by a mile. There is also far more content in the new Dolby Atmos audio surround sound format on streaming services.

There is one use case for satellite TV if you are in an area with very limited internet speed. Your picture experience might be better with a satellite feed than with a very slow streaming service. Typically, if you can get cable service to your home, you can also get high-speed internet.

We’ve all probably had a cable box or satellite receiver, and if you have not cut the cord yet, you might be keeping one for local content and sports. If you have had yours for a while, be sure to call your provider to upgrade you to the newest model. Many times, people will stick with a very outdated cable or satellite box, just not knowing they could upgrade if they asked. It's usually free if you sign up for another year or two of service.

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Should You Get A Blu-ray Disc Player?

Many years ago, it was not possible to have a home theater without a DVD player, followed by Blu-ray players. With the advent of high-speed internet and a massive increase in streaming services, the physical disc is dying off. Many people think there is no need for a Blu-ray player in a home theater these days.

We would argue you are missing out on a better experience. Blu-ray players are not very expensive compared to the price of other home theater source components, and if you shop around, purchasing a physical disc, in many cases, actually costs less than buying it from a streaming service. With RedBox kiosks blanketing the countryside, it's actually even less expensive to rent a Blu-ray from RedBox (typically $2 for a Blu-ray) than it is to rent a movie from Apple, Vudu, Amazon, etc, as those are usually $4-$6. You just have to plan a little bit in advance to grab the disc on the way to the grocery store, but it is less expensive and higher quality than streaming.

Blu-ray Discs Offer Better Sound and Picture

One reason to go for a Blu-ray player is the sound. You’ll get full audio quality on a physical disc, which does not always happen with a streaming movie. Most streaming services will try to make the picture look the best and compromise the audio with lots of compression. Plus, almost any Blu-ray disc of a movie has the soundtrack done in either Dolby Digital, DTS, HD-Master Audio, Tru-HD, or Dolby Atmos, whereas many streaming services compromise the surround track. 

While you may not see the difference in picture on a smaller TV, if you have a large TV or projector, you should also notice better video quality using a physical Blu-ray disc. 

When you have the actual disc, you are assured of the best possible sound and image, and heck, it even costs less in most cases. Our advice is to include a Blu-ray player, and better yet, a 4K Ultra HD model, in your theater plans. And if you are adding a gaming console to your system, it’s probably going to have a Blu-ray drive anyway!

You probably spent a lot of time picking out your perfect home theater speaker system. Why not give it the chance to show itself off to you with a Blu-ray disc?

Imagine a Perfect Copy of the Movie

For the ultimate movie lover, in a high-performance home theater, an even better option is Kaleidescape. They have been around for decades and manufacture a hard drive system that allows you to legally download and own a bit-for-bit perfect copy of the movie.  It used to take over an hour to download a movie from Kaleidescape but their latest tech and faster speeds allow you to download one in as little as 8 minutes.

They have also added a rental option for much of their library as well, which is not that much more in cost than renting from one of the major streaming platforms.  

The bigger your screen size is and the better your home theater speaker system is, the more you will appreciate a Kaleidescape player. A spinning disc still has error correction as the laser reads the disc and puts all the bits back together. With a Kaleidescape download, you have every single detail of the movie, just like the content a real movie theater gets for playback. The sound and picture are even better than Blu-ray, and as your screen gets bigger, it's easier to see the difference. Plus, their user interface is second to none.

The price of entry for a Kaleidescape system is well into the four figures, but if you’ve got a video projector with a 140”+ screen and amazing surround speakers, you want the best home theater source component money can buy! You can learn more about Kaleidescape in our overview!

We’re Here to Help!

If you have further questions, contact our experts via chat, phone, or email. Or simply visit one of our world-class showrooms to experience speakers, projectors, TVs, and everything in between for yourself before you make a purchase! 

If you’re planning your home theater or media room, check out our Home Theater Design page, where we have everything Home Theater related, including our FREE Home Theater Design Tool.

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Home Theater Buying Guide

If you are in the market for a new home theater system or improving part (or all) of the one you already own, you’ve probably figured out that the options can be more confusing than advanced algebra! Explore our guide to understand the available options and how they might work or not work in your particular situation. If you need help customizing a solution for your space, reach out - we're happy to help!

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