Top 10 Cheap or Free Home Theater Upgrades

You’ve got a mind-blowing picture, surround sound, and streaming content set up, but it wasn’t cheap. Heal your wallet with ten upgrades, fixes, and setup tips that take your system to 11 on the cheap.

Photo by chunkysalsa.

10. Hide away your discs in style

Not everybody wants their CD or DVD collection to be a proud, visible part of their living room. And a lot of people have had old-school, giant-box speakers shoved in their garages, or offered up constantly by parents, aunts, uncles, or anyone else with a formerly hi-fi system. One Instructables user put some old gear to good use by converting it to media cabinets made from broken speakers. If you’re still feeling like you’ve got too many DVDs to fit into any sized container, consider clearing out your DVD clutter.

9. Make your own speaker mounts

Once you start buying home theater components, the little high-margin items add up real quick, and speaker mounts are no different. For $2 in materials and an hour’s work, you can get your 5.1 components off the ground for better sound by hoisting them on your DIY speaker wall mounts. Because, seriously, you’re paying at least $20 for a set of brackets that don’t have to hold much, and doing it yourself also gives you more flexibility in placement and spacing.

8. Childproof your setup

This is definitely the cheapest hardware hack we whole-heartedly recommend. We know the smell of stretched plastic wrap and the thrill of getting your new gear set up, but the safety anchors that come with most every TV stand are definitely worth revisiting, or buying if you’ve already tossed them. Even if there are no tykes in the house, you never know who’s coming to visit, or which dark and tired night sends your screen crashing to its doom. Hit up the Wired How-To Wiki for more child-proofing suggestions.

7. Get the right antenna (or build your own)

You’ve probably seen more rabbit ears in electronics stores recently than since the Cosby Show was still airing (new episodes, at least). That’s because stores, and manufacturers, are anticipating a consumer scramble for antennas to pick up the the soon-to-be-all-digital signals. Before you join the herds, find the best antenna type for getting the strongest reception at your home with AntennaWeb, which gets down to street level to explain which direction and sizes you’ll need to grab your over-the-air channels. Looking for a weekend project? Try building your own antenna to feel like you’re truly getting something for nothing.

6. Calibrate your HD TV for free

You paid for those deep blacks, the contrast with real pop, and all those hundreds of vertical and horizontal pixels, but you might not be seeing them. You could pay a professional (or, uh, the Geek Squad) to swing by and stare at your set, but you may get better results by following Popular Mechanics’ step-by-step troubleshooting guide or by taking the New York Times’ advice with the DVD route. Many films come with a setup feature, and tinted glasses, dubbed the THX Optimizer—here’s the full list of discs—that can get your screen crisp and bright-looking with just a little eye-exam-style testing.

5. Create a multi-room wireless system for one-tenth the price

Controlling all the music playing across your house isn’t reserved for people living in the near-futuristic movies or those willing to shell out a grand or more for the Sonos Bundle or other one-brand solutions. If you’ve got a wireless router, and already own an iPhone or iPod touch, it’s just a (relatively) small purchase and some iTunes tweaking to turn your iPhone or iPod touch into a master music remote. Plus, you’re getting a lot more control over your tunes than you would with a single-provider setup, and you get control over your multi-room system from your computer as well. And there are a lot of good reasons to invest in an iPod touch, anyways.

4. Turn Your Xbox (or Wii) Into a Media Center

Anyone reading Lifehacker for a while would know we’re huge fans of the Xbox Media Center, a free, open-source project that turns your old, first-gen Xbox into a killer media center. That alone puts streaming music, downloaded videos, feed-fed media, and other goodies into your TV and speakers, and there’s always plenty of add-ons and goodies to grab. But what if—for the kids, for the fitness aspect, for just the bowling—you own a Wii? Using the free Orb streaming media server from a Windows PC, you can use your Wii as a media center, giving you access to video, music, pictures, and lots more. You can even go a step further and hack your Wii for homebrew applications and DVD playback. Just want some remote music playing? Use a similar browser-based tweak to streaming your iTunes library to your Wii.

3. Set up your optimal theater space

You want everyone in your viewing room to be able to see and hear the show, but you don’t want feet near heads, direct window glare, covered heating vents—sometimes, in other words, you need a plan. You could take one of our clever reader’s tips and template your furniture to get a clear-eyed look at what should go where. For those with better eyes for computer layouts than floor plans, try one of the Charles & Hudson blog’s 10 virtual room planning tools. If it’s all about the screen—and, let’s face it, it probably is—than make sure you’re getting the best viewing distance for your investment with CNET’s size/distance guide for HD TVs.

2. Skip the DVR fees, roll your own

All it takes is a sub-$100 TV tuner—in plug-in card or USB form—to turn pretty much any PC into a DVR box. Whether that’s a computer you’ve already got, or a new box you grab for that express purpose, it’s truly within anyone’s reach to build their own DVR. Which app you pick to record and manage your TV is up to you—but our readers, and editor, all prefer Windows’ built-in Media Center. It gets the job done, costs nothing (more than a Windows install, anyways), and looks pretty slick sliding around the biggest of screens.

1. Wire your living room over Wi-Fi (wherever your router is)

Most of us get our internet from a cable or DSL connection, and have to put our wireless routers wherever that pipeline happens to be hooked up. But what if you’ve got devices that want (or benefit from) a hard cable connection—Apple TVs, media center PCs, TiVos, certain Xbox models, and the like? Skip buying the proprietary, huge-margin Wi-Fi adaptors and wire your living room over a Wi-Fi bridge. A bridge is less than $100, but you can also turn a standard $50-ish Wi-Fi router into a bridge with the super-charged DD-WRT or Tomato firmware upgrades. Now you’ve brought the net into your living room without a 100-foot cable, and the world’s your broadband oyster. Just need a fix for your Xbox, old or new? Consider using your laptop as a free Xbox Wi-Fi adapter.

What’s the best thing you’ve done for your home theater with a cheap purchase, or at no cost at all? What makes your living room the ultimate viewing room (other than the 60″ plasma, of course)? Swap some shop talk in the comments.