How to upgrade your home cinema without spending a fortune

How to upgrade your home cinema without spending a fortune
(Image credit: Philips)

There are ways of upgrading your home cinema without breaking the bank. In fact, there are plenty of ways you can even do it for free. While replacing your current AV kit might be a lot of fun, it's possible to some significant performance bumps in picture and sound by working with the home cinema system that you already own, or perhaps with just a little accessorising.

We've started our home cinema upgrade suggestions with what you can do for free to get the most out of your current set-up before moving on to new purchases. Even at their most expensive, we've tried to keep suggestions reasonable, bar the odd splurge.

If you get through the list and there’s still nothing here for you, then it’s probably time to get a new TV, projector, AVR or speaker package after all. Take a look at one of these complete home cinema systems for some ideas.

1. Calibrate your TV or projector

How to upgrade your home cinema without spending a fortune

(Image credit: Future / Outlander, Amazon Prime)

Most TVs and projectors do not perform at their best straight out of the box and, if you haven't had much of a fiddle with your settings, then you really ought to. At the basic level, make sure your unit isn't set to the shop demo mode, then cycle through the picture presets to find the one that you like best. We'd also recommend switching off any ambient light detection modes for the best and most consistent experience.

After that, it's time to investigate some of the picture processing modes which can be positive but may also end up ruining the picture. Be mindful that the most dramatic differences can actually crush subtlety and detail. Read our guide on How to set up your TV and get the best picture for more specific information on picture settings.

Don't forget that TVs have sound settings too. These are usually less involved than picture settings, but they can be well worth exploring. Often, modes like Bass Boost and Dialogue Enhancement will have a price to pay in dynamics as well as balance and might better be left alone. If you really want more bass, perhaps buy a soundbar or a subwoofer (see below).

2. Rearrange your furniture

How to upgrade your home cinema without spending a fortune

(Image credit: Future)

There may be constraints, including objections from people you share a home with, but the more you can arrange your room to prioritise your AV equipment, the better the viewing experience you'll get.

There are some basic principles of TV positioning which you can follow and, if that involves buying a proper TV stand, then maybe it's time to invest.

Make sure your screen is at eye-level – even if it's wall-mounted. If you have to have it higher, then make sure you tilt it downwards so that it's square-on to your line of sight. While the top TVs have decent viewing angles, you're still only going to get the very best picture when you're right in the middle.

Viewing distance is, of course, important and it depends on the size of screen and the resolution, and try to avoid placing your TV right by a window where strong light could affect your appreciation of contrast. Again, read our how to set up your TV and get the best picture guide for more details on TV placement.

3. Move your speakers

How to upgrade your home cinema without spending a fortune

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Speaker positioning is crucial to experiencing the best of the soundtrack of your film or TV show. Delve into the ITU positioning diagrams online to see exactly how to set-up your speakers. This depends on how many channels you have, of course, but the guiding principles are easy enough.

Viewed in plan (ie. top-down) you should be able to draw a circle with your head at the centre and your speakers on the circumference. In other words, ideally, they should all be at the same distance from your ears.

In a 5.1 arrangement, the right and left front channels should be at 60 degrees from one another with the centre channel right in front in between them. The surrounds need to be not level but just behind at around 110 degrees round from the centre. For a 7.1ch system, that changes slightly, as per the diagram above.

4. Recalibrate your AVR

How to upgrade your home cinema without spending a fortune

(Image credit: Future)

Now that speaker placement is sorted, you need to make sure you've got the levels right. Your AVR should come with a calibration mode – this usually involves a microphone, which you then place in a few different positions. The AVR then sends out sounds to your speakers for the microphone to pick up. Every time you move your speakers or viewing position, you'll need to do this calibration again.

Based on that, your AVR will come up with a set of sound levels for each channel, though it's always worth doing a little fine-tuning by ear. There's more information on checking levels here.

5. Speaker stands

How to upgrade your home cinema without spending a fortune

(Image credit: Future)

If you've already managed to tack a pair of hi-fi speakers onto your TV, well done. Now you can take them off your bookshelf and mount them on a proper pair of stands.

Not only will stands keep them steady so they can do their job with greater precision, but they also allow you the flexibility to position yourself right in the sonic sweet spot.

A pair of Atacama Moseco 6 stands will do the trick, as will the slightly cheaper Soundstyle Z2, but even stands at half the price should offer a significant audio upgrade to anything more ad hoc.

6. Upgrade your speaker cable

How to upgrade your home cinema without spending a fortune

(Image credit: Future)

So often forgotten and such an easy improvement, great speaker cable can make a big difference to your home cinema sound. You may already have the best there is but, if not, it can be a relatively inexpensive upgrade.

The Audioquest Rocket 11 cables are a favourite, but if they are a bit steep, then try the Chord Company C-Screen at less than half the price.

7. Upgrade your HDMI cables

How to upgrade your home cinema without spending a fortune

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Some may doubt the difference that good digital cables can make, but we believe that if you spend a little, you will get much more. There's no need to go crazy – keep it below £50 at the most. Something like the Chord C-View HDMI cable does nicely, but as long as you upgrade beyond the HDMI cable that came free in the box with your AV equipment, you should see some benefits.

If you're not sure that HDMI cables will make any difference to your AV experience, then head down to your local AV specialist and see if they'll loan you one for a week. Many do. If you don't think it's worth it after spending seven days with a more expensive HDMI cable, then take it back and leave things there.

8. Buy a soundbar

How to upgrade your home cinema without spending a fortune

(Image credit: Future)

It's obvious, but still worth pointing out. The speaker cabinets of most TVs simply aren't big enough to offer much quality in the way of sound. Some sets have soundbars built-in, but they're in a minority. So, a hugely effective way to boost your enjoyment of TV and film is to buy a soundbar – even a modestly priced one, such as the JBL Bar Studio, can make a difference to dialogue and sound effects.

If you're happy to spend a little more, you can pick up something like the What Hi-Fi? Award-winning Sonos Beam which adds multi-room functionality as well as impressive surround sound. Slightly over budget but the next level up for sound is the Dali Katch One and, beyond that, the Sonos Arc. Read our buying guide to the best soundbars as well as our soundbars deals page.

9. Buy a subwoofer

How to upgrade your home cinema without spending a fortune

(Image credit: Future)

If an entire speaker package seems a bit of a stretch, just buy one piece of it. The addition of a subwoofer to your AV set-up will make a huge difference, given that flat-panel TV speakers struggle most with bass.

Check your current AV set-up for any kit with a sub-out connection. If you're out of luck, you'll need to find an AVR to plug it into.

If you already own a speaker package, then consider an upgrade to your subwoofer. Most speaker package manufacturers offer an upgraded version of the sub that came with the kit. The Q Acoustics QB12, for example, will bring a whole new level of punch to the Award-winning Q Acoustics 3050i and 3010i speaker packages.

10. Buy an AV receiver, or upgrade the one you have

How to upgrade your home cinema without spending a fortune

(Image credit: Future)

An AVR on its own won't do anything for your sound, but it opens up your TV to a whole new world of potential. Besides, you may find you have an old pair of hi-fi speakers somewhere in the house that you can plug in and make a front stereo pair – until you've saved up enough cash for a whole speaker package.

The second-hand market on places such as eBay and Facebook Marketplace is full of unwanted speakers that will sound a lot better than what's inside your TV. Just be sure to read our guide on How to buy second-hand hi-fi speakers.

There's no need to spend a huge amount on an excellent AVR. The Denon AVR-X2700H is superb. Another good, though a little pricier option is the Sonos Amp, but a good idea if you're already invested in Sonos.

If you already have an AVR, then it may be time for an upgrade. A step-up model should offer more channels and perhaps Dolby Atmos, both of which bring room for expansion. It will also sound better but be warned that you'll only be able to appreciate that difference if your speakers are equally matched in terms of price.

Again, to keep costs down, let the second-hand market be your friend – this time for selling your current AVR to fund the upgrade.

11. Add more speaker channels

How to upgrade your home cinema without spending a fortune

(Image credit: Future)

So, you've got 5.1 sorted. Fine, but how many channels can your AVR support? A set of standmounter rears can bump you up to a 7.1 and then you can add a second sub as well.

For some really interesting AV bang-for-buck, though, add the dimension of height with some Dolby Atmos speakers. Many home cinema speaker packages offer small and relatively inexpensive Atmos modules which will sit on top of the speakers that you already own and fire upwards. That's a great alternative to ripping holes in your ceiling for a custom install.

12. Buy a new speaker package

How to upgrade your home cinema without spending a fortune

(Image credit: Future)

If you don't have any speakers or are feeling flush, then you could just shell out on a home cinema speaker package. This will most likely blow our notional budget unless you trade-in or sell second-hand the speaker package you already own.

It is possible to buy a 5.1 speaker package within our budget if you go for the excellent and reasonably-priced Wharfedale DX-2 but, if you can make a bigger investment, something like the Dali Oberon 5 5.1 Speaker Package is a terrific option.

13. Go 4K Blu-ray

How to upgrade your home cinema without spending a fortune

(Image credit: Future)

It may not be as convenient as streaming, but the best quality films and TV shows are still those played from a disc. If you've shunned all spinning media than getting back involved is a two-stage process: stage one is to buy a 4K Blu-ray player; stage two is to get some 4K Blu-rays.

Five-star 4K Blu-ray players start relatively cheap, such as the Panasonic DP-UB150EB, and go all the way up to the budget-busting Panasonic DP-UB9000. If you've got the cash, then a good sweet spot is the Sony UBP-X700 or Panasonic DP-UB820EB.

Those 4K Blu-ray discs can be almost as big an expense over time, unless you're smart. Keep an eye on Amazon's 4K Blu-ray store for bargains and second-hand options at CEX and elsewhere.

Another great option for keeping costs down is 4K Blu-ray rental. Cinema Paradiso is a UK-based Blu-ray-by-post service. Subscription starts from £9.99 per month and there are currently over 500 4K titles in the library. In the US, Redbox is a good option.

Speaking of libraries, you may also find that your local neighbourhood library runs a cheap 4K Blu-ray rental service. Long live local libraries.

14. 4K media streamer

How to upgrade your home cinema without spending a fortune

(Image credit: Apple)

If returning to physical discs feels like a backward step, the next best 4K content option is a media streamer. Most TVs won't have all the 4K apps and services you need, and a media streamer is a cheap and easy fix.

The Amazon Fire TV 4K stick is a great budget buy and fills most of the 4K service gaps, including Apple TV and its huge library of 4K HDR films to enjoy.

For a more luxury option, go for the Apple TV 4K instead. It has voice control through Siri and guaranteed Dolby Atmos streams, when stated, on the iTunes store.

15. Big and dirty with a projector

How to upgrade your home cinema without spending a fortune

(Image credit: Future)

Sure, your TV might be 4K, but does it have a 300in screen? No, we didn't think so. That kind of scale is par for the home projector course.

A projector-based home cinema set-up is an expensive outlay if done properly, but if you just want to go big, then a projector and a good piece of wall will do. You can add the refinements of sound and a proper screen at a later date.

The best value options out there are the excellent Epson EH-TW7100 4K projector and the Epson EH-TW9400, however, both are well beyond our notional budget. If you need to keep costs down, you can always spend less on something like the Full HD Epson EH-TW650, though you may feel the need to upgrade fairly soon.

You can use a laptop, games console, disc player or any kind of HDMI streamer as a source. The only caveat is that you'll need to take your audio from the source too and not the projector.

Your other choice is to do things properly and buy an AVR and speaker package.

16. Big and clean with a projector screen

How to upgrade your home cinema without spending a fortune

(Image credit: Future)

If you already went big some time ago, then maybe it's time for a clean-up. A proper projector screen will make a huge difference to both the colour balance and the detail of the image.

Decent screens of 100in in size start at relatively little, but you can opt for fancy features like motorised roll-away or in-ceiling stowing for more. Be sure to read our guide on Everything you need to know about projector screens.

17. Buy a new TV

How to upgrade your home cinema without spending a fortune

(Image credit: Future)

If you've got this far and still have the funds and the desire to upgrade your AV experience, then perhaps it's time to buy a new TV after all. There are quality options at every price point and it really comes down to a decision on how much you'd like to spend.

Don't get too caught up in the debates about OLED vs LCD, simply read our TV best buy guides and a list of our TV Award-winners and you're sure to pick up something good. Happy viewing.


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Dan Sung

Dan is a staff writer at What Hi-Fi? and his job is with product reviews as well as news, feature and advice articles too. He works across both the hi-fi and AV parts of the site and magazine and has a particular interest in home cinema. Dan joined What Hi-Fi? in 2019 and has worked in tech journalism for over a decade, writing for Tech Digest, Pocket-lint, MSN Tech and Wareable as well as freelancing for T3, Metro and the Independent. Dan has a keen interest in playing and watching football. He has also written about it for the Observer and FourFourTwo and ghost authored John Toshack's autobiography, Toshack's Way.