It’s your command center. Your sanctuary. Your high-tech entertainment pavilion serving audiophile-caliber music, 3D HDTV, and sundry other digital treats. It's your living room, and it demands the most maximum gear. In this article, we included only products that are currently for sale, and we personally tested every single piece of gear, picking only those products we could personally endorse. Indeed, this is no superficial gadget catalog that you’d find in your junk mail, and we’re not one of those websites that profiles something just because it looks cool. Our homes are becoming fully technologized, and we aim to reveal the very best of today’s domestic tech revolution.
Panasonic Viera TC-P50VT25 Plasma 3D HDTV
Should your next HDTV be LCD or plasma? Partisans in both camps will argue their choice is superior, but few dispute that when it comes to 3D, Panasonic’s 50-inch Viera TC-P50VT25 plasma display takes the prize. Whether you’re playing a 3D action game or watching Avatar on Blu-ray 3D, Panasonic’s flagship TV delivers a mind-blowing experience. The Viera also delivers a fabulous 2D experience, so you won’t regret buying it even if 3D becomes a forgotten historical footnote. You’ll get excellent color saturation, sublime definition in highlights and shadows, and superior black-level performance in both 2D and 3D. (Reviewed here)
The TV can also decode 1080p content that’s been encoded at 24 frames per second, eliminating 3:2 pulldown judder (visual artifacts that can make Hollywood movies and other 24fps content look jerky after being converted to the 60fps standard that most TV use). We auditioned a number of HDTVs for this article, and the Viera won hands-down. $1,900, www.panasonic.com
Kodak Pulse Digital Frame
If your hipster friends think digital picture frames are as cool as Thomas Kinkade prints, then they haven’t seen the Kodak Pulse. Old-school models had cheesy wooden frames and relied on USB keys for image transfer, but the Pulse has contemporary aesthetics and is plenty high-tech with a 10-inch, LED-backlit, touch-screen display and built-in Wi-Fi. The frame can download photo albums stored on Facebook accounts, and you can email images to the frame from a PC or smartphone. You can also upload images via a USB port or memory card reader. $200, www.kodak.com
Bomba Alarm Clock
Fact: Hardcore tech enthusiasts are suckers for exposed gears. Fact: Hardcore tech enthusiasts love analog notation. Fact: Hardcore tech enthusiasts simply can’t get enough Cold War–era, split-flap digital displays. The Bomba Alarm Clock, the design of a mysterious craftsman named Wil van den Bos, mashes together all these elements to create a stunning timepiece for the center of your digital den. Two dimmable blue LEDs light up for night-time viewing. And did we mention the gears are integral to operation, and never stop moving? $72, www.littleclockshop.com
Logitech Harmony 1100 Remote Control
Someday, we’ll have implants in our brains that will let us control our entertainment systems with our thoughts. In the meantime, we’ll use a universal remote like Logitech’s Harmony 1100. Plug the remote into your PC, then enter the make and model of all your equipment (TV, Blu-ray player, A/V receiver, etc.). Logitech’s software will automatically download exactly the right remote codes. An easy-to-use wizard then steps you through the process of creating macros for specific activities. Want to watch a Blu-ray movie? Press one button on the 3.5-inch color touch screen to turn on all your gear, set everything to the correct inputs and outputs, and start the show. It’s our highest-rated universal remote by far. $400, www.logitech.com
Davis Instruments Vantage Vue Wireless Weather Station
We don’t care if buying a weather center is a sign of old age. The Vantage Vue brings serious meteorological equipment into the home. We’ve tested various weather stations in the sub-$500 price range, and can tell you that this is the one to beat. Once you’re familiar with the intense interface, the Vantage Vue quickly provides a vast number of data points for rain, wind, barometric pressure, and more. We especially like the rapid frequency of its sensor updates, and how the console displays a running feed of interesting data, from daily highs and lows to alerts for meteor showers. The system’s outdoor weather sensors (not shown here) have a confidence-inspiring build quality, and are relatively compact. The console itself communicates with your sensors wirelessly, and runs on either batteries or AC. $395, www.vantagevue.com
Are you using a home theater PC instead of Blu-ray player? Then you’ll need a living room–appropriate alternative to that bulky wireless mouse and keyboard combo. The GlideTV Navigator fits in the palm of your hand and features an integrated touchpad for cursor control. There are dedicated buttons for your media player software, and a graphical user interface that provides one-click access to the most popular entertainment-streaming websites (e.g., Netflix and Pandora). GlideTV’s What’s On program guide lets you browse all the video content available on the Internet, and there’s an excellent on-screen keyboard too. $49, www.glidetv.com
Bowers & Wilkins CM-Series Speakers
We’ve listened to a lot of great speakers over the years, but nothing has ever left us as slack-jawed as the surround-sound system we built around B&W’s new CM-series speakers and spherical PV1 Pressure Vessel subwoofer. We put a pair of CM8 floor-standing speakers and a CM Centre up front, and assigned surround-sound duties to the company’s CM1 bookshelf speakers.
All five satellite speakers use aluminum dome tweeters and produce sensational highs that reveal subtle sound elements (in both music and movies) that we haven’t noticed in other speakers. The three-way floor-standing CM8s are relatively compact, so they won’t look out of place on either side of your flat-screen TV, but they produce a much bigger sound stage than you might expect. The CM1s produce a remarkable amount of bass for their size, rendering them far from the second-class status to which most surround channels are relegated. And the whole system looks as beautiful as it sounds. $5,450 (for our featured config), www.bowers-wilkins.com
Salamander Designs Synergy A/V Cabinet
This home theater enclosure is the next best thing to hiring a custom cabinetmaker. The magic lies in its modular, user-defined design: You start with a base unit and then add other components—sides, doors, drawers, pull-out trays, and more—to fit your specific needs. You’ll need to assemble the furniture yourself, but Salamander provides high-quality hardware and all the tools you’ll need.
We started with a single 41-inch-tall Synergy base in a cherry finish, added hardwood sides, a frosted-glass door, and heavy-duty casters. We also installed the optional extended back that features active cooling. This not only provides an additional 3.5 inches of space inside the rear of the cabinet, but also includes a pair of thermostatically controlled cooling fans that evacuate warm air at a rate of 20 cubic feet per minute. It’s simply the best commercially produced A/V cabinet we’ve seen. $1,205, www.salamanderdesigns.com
APC G50B-20A2 Power Filter
If you’re spending thousands of dollars on high-end A/V gear, it only makes sense to spend a few hundred more for a good power conditioner to protect it. APC’s rack-mount Power Filter is more than a glorified outlet strip. It suppresses power spikes and surges caused by lightning strikes and other disturbances, while isolated filter banks eliminate electromagnetic and RF interference that can degrade audio and video quality. The unit can also power-up connected components in sequence, preventing pops and clicks from damaging your speakers. And there’s even a handy pull-out rechargeable flashlight for those times when you need to change connections—or (God forbid) read a manual. $350, www.apc.com
Antec Veris A/V Cooler
When you stash this much high-powered gear in the confines of an entertainment system, it’s imperative that you ensure proper ventilation. The active cooling back on our Salamander cabinet will help a great deal, but Antec’s Veris A/V cooler will suck hot air directly out of your A/V receiver’s vents. Twin fans on the bottom of the Antec unit evacuate warm air at a rate of 5.5 cubic feet per minute on the slowest, quietest setting. Flip the front-panel switch to the higher speed, and the fans will pull air at a noisier 8.0CFM. The low-profile device can also serve as another shelf on which you can stack a component (the unit’s frame is constructed from carbon glass). In all, it’s a hardcore add-on for hardcore home theater geeks. $140, www.antec.com
Onkyo TX-NR1008 A/V Receiver
Few A/V receiver companies consistently deliver as much value for the dollar as Onkyo. The THX Select2 Plus–certified TX-NR1008 delivers exquisite sound from 9.2 channels, supports HDMI 1.4a for Blu-ray 3D support, and can be added to your Ethernet network. The receiver is DLNA-compliant and is capable of decoding just about any audio codec you might want to use, including FLAC and WMA Lossless. Onkyo provides plenty of inputs and outputs, including a phono input and multi-channel preamp outputs in case you decide to upgrade to a discrete amplifier down the road. The included MultiEQ speaker calibration system makes it a snap to obtain the best possible sound from your room. (Reviewed here) $1,400, www.onkyousa.com
AsRock Vision 3D 135B Home Theater PC
Most networked Blu-ray players can deliver media-streaming services like Netflix and Pandora as well as play Blu-ray movies, but none give you the freedom to go anywhere you want on the web. And why bother adding yet another box to your entertainment center to do this when a home-theater PC can do it all?
AsRock’s 3D Vision mini PC is tiny and nearly silent, yet features Intel’s dual-core, 2.4GHz Core i3-370M mobile processor, 2GB of DDR3 memory, and an integrated Blu-ray drive. The 3D Vision uses Nvidia’s GeForce 425M graphics chip coupled to an HDMI 1.4a port, enabling Blu-ray 3D playback. The box comes with a relatively small 500GB hard drive, so you’ll want to add external storage. (Reviewed here) $850, www.asrock.com
Accell ProUltra Supreme HDMI Cable
Don’t buy outrageously overpriced cables, especially for digital connections such as HDMI. You’re just lining someone’s pockets. Insanely cheap cables are no bargain either—unless you don’t care about tangibly poor A/V performance. We say go for Accell’s cables, which are impeccably manufactured and reasonably priced. The company’s ProUltra Supreme HDMI cable is a case in point: It complies with the HDMI 1.4a standard that’s required for Blu-ray 3D, it’s rugged yet flexible, and the braided sleeve protects the wires inside. But what we really dig about this cable are the plugs that pivot and swivel 180 degrees to substantially reduce the amount of clearance needed between the back of our components and the cabinet. $28, www.accellcables.com
Dyson DC26 Multi Floor
Compared to other Dyson vacuums, the DC26 may have a small capacity and lesser suction power, but its mollusk-looking chassis is shockingly petite (perfect for storage in tight places) and just screams with high-tech aesthetics. This DC26 works for all floor types (we dig the telescoping handle that’s used in upright mode), and can also be used as an ultra-portable shop-vac to clean curtains, cupboards, and even dusty A/V cabinets—just attach one of the optional cleaning heads directly to the articulated tube. Like all Dysons, the DC26 never loses suction power and emptying the bin of dust, dirt, dead flies, and Doritos debris is dead-on easy. And the cord automatically retracts into the chassis with a button push. That so rocks. $399, www.dyson.com
Q: What’s the best way to stream music to every room in the house?
There was a time when configuring a whole-house audio system required a custom installer and tens of thousands of dollars. But thanks to wireless networking tech, you can now store music on a PC, NAS box, or server and distribute it all around your house for just a few hundred dollars per room. And it can sound stupendous.
The Logitech Squeezebox ecosystem (www.logitech.com) delivers one of the most affordable solutions, but these players rely on your Wi-Fi network and a computer to run the Squeezebox Server software. Each Squeezebox player can play different music, or you can link multiple players and have them play the same content (but you must be sitting in front of the PC to do this). Prices range from $300 for the Squeezebox Touch (plus the cost of powered speakers) to $180 for the Squeezebox Radio, which uses a less sophisticated DAC, but has an integrated speaker.
The Sonos Multi-Room Music System (www.sonos.com) comes much closer to what you’d get from a custom installer, but costs substantially more than the Logitech Squeezebox. Instead of relying on your wireless router, the Sonos system operates its own wireless mesh network. In a mesh network, each device acts as both a wireless client and a wireless access point, so data can cascade through each node until it reaches its intended destination. Since this network is dedicated exclusively to Sonos traffic, you can link two or more ZonePlayers ($350 to $500) and enjoy perfectly synchronized music in every room.
The wireless Sonos Controller 200 is very expensive at $350, but boasts a 3.5-inch color touch-screen LCD that makes the system ridiculously easy to use. If the remote is too rich for your tastes and you own an iPhone or iPad, you can download a free app that’s at least as good. There are free Mac and PC software controllers, too, but those tie you to a computer to control the system.
Although the Sonos system is essentially wireless, at least one ZonePlayer or ZoneBridge ($100) must be hardwired to your network. The ZoneBridge isn’t capable of playing music, but it enables you to place wireless ZonePlayers wherever you want (and you can deploy multiple ZoneBridges to fill coverage gaps in a larger home).
Move further upscale and you’ll encounter the Olive Music Server line-up ($1,000 to $5,000, www.olive.us). The Squeezebox and Sonos systems sound great, but Olive’s devices sound divine, with high-end DACs that deliver 24-bit resolution and 192kHz sampling rates. They’re absolutely gorgeous to look at, too.