With the last holiday shopping weekend of 2009 upon us, it’s probably time to list my favorite home entertainment boxes of the year. This list is by no means exhaustive, these are just some of my faves – top picks, suitable for mainstream audiences and geeks alike. Keeping in mind, that for the second straight year, the Xbox 360 ($300) is still my #1 digital media powerhouse – the one box I cannot part with. Take my TiVo. Take my Roku. But you better come armed if you want this 360. Not only does it feature the best online gaming experience, it also boasts THE best Netflix instant streaming client – in addition to offering a variety of other media playback options.
In the video category, there are two standouts for those sticking with physical media – and a higher quality of HD. But the snappy LG BD 390 set-top box (<$300) and the redesigned PS3 gaming console ($300) are much more than capable Blu-ray players. Both offer a variety of connected services (and 802.11n), including Netflix instant streaming. Those who have current or potential gamers in the house should probably look to the PS3 (and budget another 20 bucks for a remote), while everyone else would be quite happy with the Vudu-streaming LG. If you’re less picky and/or on a tighter budget with a higher tolerance for networking pain, look to the Samsung BD-P1600 (~$150) for similar features.
I’ve been waiting a few years for Sonos to put out some sort of all-in-one connected music system, containing an amplifier, speakers, and the network brain which takes their solution to the next level. And they delivered impressively earlier this year with the Sonos S5 ($400). It’s not inexpensive (although competitive with higher-end iPhone speaker docks), but Sonos provides a sophisticated, elegant solution to pipe iTunes, Rhapsody, Pandora, Sirius, etc around the home — remotely controlled via an iPhone, iPod Touch, or their own controller. I’m no audiophile, but I will say my pair of evaluation units sound great and the volume can be cranked to painfully loud, although not distorted, levels. The S5 hardware blends well into most living spaces. As does the technology. Sit back, relax, and enjoy the music.
Multifunction Budget Boxes
Both the Roku ($100) and the WD TV HD (<$130) boxes offer compelling functionality at extremely reasonable prices, neverminding their uninspired, pedestrian physical appearance. The Roku efficiently provides cloud-based content (Netflix, Amazon VOD, Pandora, etc), while Western Digital’s box excels in delivering a wide variety of local home media. However, as we head into 2010 and as these product lines evolve, I expect to see quite a bit more overlap in functionality. And, at these prices, you could put one in each room.