Right now, we’re spending more time at home than ever before, and many of us may be investing more in our home entertainment systems than we have in the past. If you’ve been considering upgrading to a better TV setup or snapping up a new smart speaker to help you control your connected home, now is definitely the time to do it.
Below, we’ll walk you through the best home theater gadgets for your money, whether that’s a new 4K TV or the best soundbar for upgrading your surround sound. We’ve also got recommendations for the best streaming device you should buy right now as well as ambiance lighting solutions that’ll make you feel like you’re inside the game or movie your watching. Read on for our Best of Gizmodo recommendations.
Our Pick: 65” Sony X900H 4K TV ($1,400)
Now, let me start by acknowledging that this TV is far pricier than some of the other televisions we discuss down below by about $400-$500 for the same 65” display size. That is a lot of extra cash to drop on a TV when you’re shopping in the sub-$2,000 category, particularly if you also plan to invest in equipment like a Dolby Atmos-capable soundbar or other surround sound gadgets. But having spent some time with all of them, Sony’s X900H gave me the best overall experience by a long shot—so much so, in fact, that I bought this TV for myself.
Sony’s X900H is one of just a couple of 2020 TVs that Sony said would be “ready” for the PS5 (but also the Xbox Series X) thanks to support for HDMI 2.1. In fact, there aren’t too many affordable TVs period this year that will have all of these features. Waiting for me was never a deal-breaker, as I had no plans of snapping up the PS5 straight out of the gate. What was more impressive to me was this TV’s easily tailored picture quality and cinema settings that transformed my living room into my own personal movie theater. Blacks were deep and haloing was minimal, contrast and brightness were superb, 4K video looked gorgeous, and its Android TV operating system really helped me pull the trigger on buying this display over a Vizio P-Series model or one of the TVs we discuss below. Even the TV speakers are pretty good, which is not always the case with thinner (and cheaper) TVs.
I know that a lot of folks argue that the native OS on a TV is sort of moot given the number of streaming devices available on the cheap, not to mention the fact that OSes can quickly lose software updates and app support. But I really wanted a TV that just worked. If gaming features or a native OS are less important to you than saving a couple hundred bucks, definitely shoot for one of the models we discuss below (or hold out for a good sale). But I’d buy this TV again in a heartbeat—discounted or not. I really do love it that much.
Also Consider: 65” TCL 6-Series 4K QLED ($900)
Looking at the two contenders for second place here, it was a very tight call between the 2020 TCL 6-Series and the Hisense H9G ($1,000 for the 65” display). (Vizio didn’t get us their TVs in time to be included in this guide, but we’ll be reviewing those down the line as well.) There are things I immediately liked better about the H9G; its remote is better, for one, and it runs on Android TV, which I much preferred to the Roku TV on the 6-Series. There’s a good chance that the Hisense will eventually get Google TV down the line, too, which has a fantastic user experience. Additionally, the H9G is far brighter, which might make it a better option for someone whose TV is situated in a sunny room.
But what I liked about the TCL 6-Series is that its picture was much easier to calibrate during setup with the TV’s presets. Getting the picture right on the 55” H9G I’ve been testing took far more tinkering in the TV’s settings, and I’m not sure that’s practical for folks who want their picture to look great straight out of the box with minimal effort. The TCL is also equipped with THX Certified Game Mode, which supports premium gaming features like ultra-low latency and variable refresh rate. But cinephiles will also appreciate the TV’s picture quality, which was stellar for the price.
Keep in mind that with either of these TVs, you absolutely will need a soundbar or sound solution of some kind—both sounded awful without one. But even the wee Roku Streambar helped to clean up the audio quite a bit. Just something to keep in mind if you’re shopping within a budget.
Our Pick: Sony HT-G700 ($600)
I was not a soundbar evangelist until a recent move, when I relocated from an entertainment setup in a quiet basement with great acoustics to a living room facing a street with heavy traffic. Add to that any amount of random ambient noise—box fans in the summer, a heavy rainstorm, dinner sizzling on the burner in the kitchen—and I find I constantly have to readjust the volume on TVs I test in my home. Since moving into this new space, getting a TV set up with a soundbar solution is the very first thing I do when I’m testing a new unit, and the soundbar I’ve got on my own TV has worked miracles for my home entertainment experience with just a bar and a subwoofer—no additional speakers needed.
When I asked Gizmodo’s resident soundbar wiz Victoria Song which soundbar she most enjoyed reviewing this year, her recommendation was actually the same soundbar I currently have connected to my own TV, the Sony HT-G700. Particularly for the TVs recommended in this guide, it might not make a ton of sense to drop upwards of a grand on a pricier soundbar like the Sonos Arc, which starts at $800. For the $600 you’ll drop on the Sony HT-G700, though, you’ll get both a soundbar as well as a subwoofer.
However, you won’t have the option to expand on that system down the line, which might be a dealbreaker for somebody looking to build up to truly immersive surround sound. If you’re okay with an entry-level Dolby Atmos soundbar and subwoofer duo and don’t plan to dump a ton of cash into upgrading your home entertainment in the future, though, this is the product to buy. I regularly joke this soundbar is one of my favorite pieces of technology in my home, and frankly, that’s god’s honest truth.
Also Consider: Roku Smart Soundbar (starting at $180)
If it’s a soundbar that you can add to over time that appeals to you, the Roku Smart Soundbar is probably one of your best options for the money. The smart soundbar comes with a built-in Roku player that supports 4K, HDR, as well as Dolby Audio, so you’re effectively getting a premium streaming device as well as a four-driver soundbar for less than $200. But where you’re really going to benefit is from the ability to affordably level up your surround sound over time.
The Roku Wireless Subwoofer will run you $180 when you’re ready for it and sounds pretty good for the money, though the trade-off here for a cheaper soundbar is that you don’t get support for Dolby Atmos. Roku TV Wireless Speakers, meanwhile, are compatible with any TV when paired with the Roku Smart Soundbar and will run you $200 for the pair. Roku said that these surround sound-improving devices aren’t typically bundled, but they are discounted throughout the year—meaning if you don’t mind waiting a bit, you’ll likely be able to score either at a discount.
Our Pick: Logitech Harmony Companion ($150)
Many of us live in a remote hell of our own making. Depending on how expansive your entertainment setup is, you may have separate remotes for your TV, soundbar, streaming device, consoles, and god knows whatever else you use to boost the experience of your home theater. If this sounds like you, you might consider using a multimedia remote in place of the three (or six) you have taking up space on your coffee table.
The Harmony Companion works with most major devices—no IR blaster on the device itself required. That means it works with Alexa gadgets, the Apple TV, Sonos, Roku, Hue, and even Microsoft and Sony consoles. Basically, this is the one remote you’ll need for all of your smart home devices, whether that be your front door’s smart lock, your home’s lighting and temperature, or your entertainment hub in the living room. I know $150 sounds like a lot for a universal remote, but the Gizmodo staffers who’ve used it swear by it over pricey competitors like Caavo and Savant.
Our Pick: Nest Audio ($100)
There are so, so many Bluetooth speakers on the market these days, and you can usually find a decent speaker for less than $150. But finding a speaker that not only provides incredible sound but comes equipped with a decent virtual assistant—especially on a budget—is a little harder to pull off.
Nest Audio manages to do this with aplomb, and Gizmodo recently dubbed this smart home speaker the very best you can currently get for $100. It also isn’t heinous or gaudy, which may be appreciated by anyone who wants their smart speaker to camouflage itself easily among the rest of their home decor. The Nest Audio can also be configured as a stereo pair if you have two of them, and in a future update, you’ll even be able to use the Nest Audio as home theater speakers when connected to a Chromecast with Google TV (which is our current favorite affordable streaming device). That means in the right setup, the Nest Audio could pull double duty as both your music and TV speakers. And given that Siri is still a damn mess, the Google Assistant integration will probably give you a far less-frustrating experience in terms of the speaker’s actual “smarts.”
Our Pick: Philips Hue Sync Box ($230)
We admit this is more of a luxury pick, but if you want to juice up your home theater with adaptive bias lighting, you may want to consider syncing your TV with Philips Hue’s Play HDMI Sync Box that will turn your living room into an immersive sea of colors. (Though be aware that it’ll cost ya, as you’ll need to purchase the Hue Sync Box for $230 before pairing it with some Hue lights, which are sold separately.)
If getting a light strip or some ambiance bulbs is level 1 in the world of smart lights, the Philips Hue Sync Box is probably more like level 8. Based on my colleague Sam Rutherford’s experience—he uses the Sync Box to turn his living room into an ethereal light bath synced to whatever is playing on his screen—getting the settings just right will take some tinkering. Its four HDMI ports also limit the number of devices you can feed directly into the box itself without the help of an AV receiver. But if you’re an RGB lighting junkie, this tiny light maestro might be just the home entertainment gadget you’ve been looking for, and it’s much more flexible than competitors like the $150 Dreamscreen.
Also Consider: Hue White and Color Ambiance ($90)
A couple of months back, I finally took the leap into the dreamy world of dimmable and color-changing light bulbs. Prior to this, I didn’t really have a lot of need for them. I was still commuting into an office most days, and I started my workday day a little later than I do now. But given that I now fully work from home and often wake up before the sun rises, the blinding light of a pair of exposed bulbs in my office was too much to bear. I originally opted for a set of Hue Filament Edison bulbs that cost about $28 a pop, but I’ve since upgraded to Philips Hue with Bluetooth bulbs for both white and color, and buddy, this has been a legitimate ambiance-changer. My space is peaceful, my mood is lifted, my eyes do not ache from the previous unadjustable bulbs I used to have in here, and I can safely say I’m now a color-bulb convert.
Our Pick: Chromecast with Google TV ($50)
This year brought us a new Chromecast with Google TV, which is basically a new skin for the Android TV operating system. But this new Chromecast also gave us a remote and a buffet of premium streaming features, making this little dongle one of the best streaming devices you can buy right now—on the cheap, no less!
What you’ll get with this device is this: Chromecast capabilities, 4K, Dolby Vision, HDR 10, and HDR10+ as well as Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital Plus, and Dolby Atmos with HDMI passthrough. Google Assistant is a capable navigation helper, and finding content from your various apps is a breeze from the “For You” tab. I’ll say that even as a longtime Apple TV user, I much preferred this experience to Apple’s. And at $50, you’ll get with this device what you’ll pay as much as $200 for with other devices. Chromecast does lack support for Apple TV, but this may not be as much of an issue for folks whose TVs support AirPlay 2.