There's no substitute for listening and watching equipment in action before buying. However, there's as much science as there is art to choosing a good home theater. Preparation and a few tricks will help you pick the best system for you.
There's a lot of pressure when a salesperson is hovering over you, waiting to see if you're going to buy a particular piece of equipment. In fact, this is the number-one reason people walk out of chain stores [Hack #3] or boutiques [Hack #4] with equipment they're ultimately not happy with. But this pressure is largely due to a lack of preparation and method. If you have specific criteria in mind and a particular method you always follow, you'll feel less pressure, have no trouble telling a salesperson "I'd like to take a little more time," and will usually be a lot happier with your purchase.
Auditioning speakers and audio components is a lot like critiquing food. Professional critics know that their taste buds become saturated after a few bites of something so they use a palate cleanser such as raspberry ice to reset their sense of taste between dishes. Although there isn't a raspberry ice for the ear, you can reset your hearing by not listening to loud music, bubbled up in your front seat, on the drive over. This will prevent you from building up any preconceptions or expectations about how something should sound.
One weekend I went to a chain store and listened to a system that failed to impress me. The following weekend I was back at the same store and I listened to the same system, and it sounded much better! I realized that on my second trip I took a car that had AM radio, so I listened to news on the way over, and probably had my window rolled down. The lower-quality sound in the car conditioned my ears so that the equipment in the demo room sounded better than I first thought. Some might think this means you would buy a system that isn't as good. On the contrary, loud music, especially when it's coming out of several speakers within a few feet of your ears, dulls your hearing. You lose a sense of dynamics, subtlety, and all the other intangibles that make good music "good." The system I didn't like at first was providing those nuances, but by the time I got to the store on my first trip, all I could hear were screaming guitar breaks. The second time, I noticed the sound had more texture, the dynamics were terrific, and the smallest background sounds were present. I missed all this the first time because of the loud music in my car.
In the same vein, be willing to take breaks between speaker auditions. Over time, sounds can begin to blur together; just like the food critic, your senses have been saturated. Take 15 or 20 minutes to walk around the store or stroll outside, or even consider coming back the next day when your ears have had a chance to relax. Taking time to make a good purchase is always a great idea.
No two people are completely the same, and this is certainly true when it comes to movies and music. When you're trying out home theater components, you'll often find that salespeople play the same disc (usually a DVD) over and over again. Although that might be their favorite movie, it's more often a disc that's perfectly suited to the system they are trying to sell (this is particularly true in larger chain stores). However, unless the disc being played is your favorite movie as well, you might not like the sound you get when you take those speakers home. Suddenly your favorites sound boomy or brittle. Instead of relying on the store to select auditioning material, bring your own.
It's important to bring material you like and are familiar with. You might even want to watch or listen to a disc a few times before going into the store, just to refresh your memory. When trying out speakers, you'll find that some speakers are laid-back and work great for classical or jazz and dialog-heavy movies. Other speakers are a bit harsher, forward, and in-your-face. These work great for rock, rap, and action movies. By bringing your own styles of music and movies, and your favorites within those styles, you're getting a great system for your particular tastes.
Boutique stores [Hack #4] actually expect you to bring your own media because they know it makes a difference. There is no reason you should not bring your own disks to a chain store as well. Some great demo DVDs are listed here, along with a good track to try out on each:
If you're a seasoned home theater guru, you might want to consider bringing a sound pressure level (SPL) meter [Hack #61] and some calibration DVDs [Hack #62] . Although your friends might laugh at you for this, a boutique salesperson will not mind in the least (and probably will appreciate how serious you are about making a good purchase).
Lots of stores, both chain and boutique, will have multiple speaker systems connected to a receiver or amplifier through a switch box. Refuse to make a decision based on these setups! Most of these switches have a 4-ohm resistor to prevent a receiver or amplifier from overdriving a speaker and potentially damaging it. This means that signal is getting filtered between the source and the speaker. Unless you plan to use the same switch box at home, you're not getting an accurate sonic picture. Insist that any speakers you listen to are connected directly to a receiver or amplifier.
The same principle is true for video devices. Just as a switch often is used to connect multiple speakers to the same receiver or amp, multiple display units (TVs, in particular) often are connected to the same DVD player. Again, you're not getting an accurate picture of what's going on. Even if the switch uses only component video for connectivity, there is still a tremendous variety in the available switches' qualities [Hack #59] . Again, a salesperson interested in your desires rather than making a buck won't mind taking the extra time to connect your sources directly to a display unit.
One of the biggest mistakes you can make in trying out several components is choosing them independently. This might sound strange; shouldn't you base your decision about a component on its own merits? However, components and speakers don't operate in a vacuum. A set of speakers might sound amazing with a high-end preamplifier and amp, but if you're using a receiver, those same speakers might not be as clear, or as focused.
It's great to narrow down your choices to a few specific pieces of gear. However, don't buy anything until you test everything together! I recommend taking down the brand of your existing components, as well as the model, and seeing if the store has the same models to test with. If you're auditioning equipment at a boutique, you even can bring in your existing components and try them out. Again, this takes a lot of extra time and effort. However, the end result is a system that sounds like what you expect, and that's worth some additional work.
Even the best salesperson, in the smallest boutique, can't know everything about every model from every manufacturer. This is where manuals come in: you never should buy anything without taking a look at the owner's manual. Whether it's a television, speaker, or DVD player, the manual is going to tell you things a salesperson won't remember (or doesn't want you to know, in some cases). If a salesperson isn't willing to crack open a box and let you see a manual, politely tell him you're not interested in shopping at his store. Just be sure you're willing to back up this assertion, or you'll end up looking pretty foolish (and lose any ability to negotiate down the line).