Gift Guide: Back to School Gear 2017

Posted Mon Aug 14, 2017 at 01:18 PM PDT by
vizio d series

As summer vacation enters its last stretch, new and returning college students around the country are now preparing to head back to their "cozy" little dorm rooms. And for many gear-loving undergrads, this probably means saying goodbye to your parents' 65-inch TV and hello to a cracked 5-inch iPhone screen for all of your movie watching needs.

But, college life doesn't always have to mean giving up on a quality home theater experience. Sure, while most dorms might be stuck halfway between a claustrophobic apartment and a broom closet, there are still some very solid AV gear options out there that are perfect for students looking to conserve money and space -- all while still leaving just enough room in your budget for a text book or two. 

With that in mind, we've put together a buying guide filled with price and space conscious gear items that are an ideal fit for the university lifestyle. From compact TVs and sound bars to streaming sticks and wireless speakers, these are some of the best home theater products for any college dorm.

So, without further ado, here's HDD's 

BACK TO SCHOOL GEAR GUIDE 2017

Note: All prices below reflect current Amazon discounts and do not include taxes or shipping.

DISPLAYS


While a 75-inch Ultra HD TV with advanced HDR features or a 4K projector with a giant screen might be the best way to experience movies at home, fitting such a large display in a dorm would likely prove to be a bit challenging. Thankfully, a smaller sized TV doesn't always mean poor quality, and there are some very worthy budget friendly options out there with screen sizes under 50-inches and great cord-cutter friendly smart TV platforms. 

TCL 32S305 32-Inch 720p Roku Smart LED TV ($170) - Though it might be as basic as a TV gets when it comes to picture quality, this HDTV from TCL still provides decent performance for its price. With a direct-lit LED VA panel and Roku's robust smart TV platform, the unit features solid contrast and a great assortment of streaming apps without the need for an external player. And while it's only a 720p display, at just 32-inches, the benefits of a higher resolution would likely be hard to discern on a screen this size. All in all, an appealing choice for students on a tight budget.

VIZIO 43-inch D-Series Ultra HD TV ($420) - Stepping things up to Ultra HD, this entry-level 4K display from VIZIO boasts a 3840x2160p resolution panel, but lacks advanced next-gen features like HDR (high dynamic range) and wide color gamut support. With that said, D-Series models do include full-array local dimming with up to 12 zones for improved contrast. Likewise, the unit offers VIZIO's Internet Apps Plus Smart TV platform and, unlike the company's higher-end display series, the device features an integrated TV tuner.

Samsung UN40MU6300 40-Inch 4K Ultra HD TV ($498) - Offering 4K Ultra HD resolution and HDR10 support, the MU6300 series brings a more advanced level of picture quality to the under 50-inch screen class. Likewise, the unit boasts Samsung's Tizen smart TV platform and a direct-lit LED backlight with a surprisingly good native contrast ratio for a panel without local dimming. But while the set can display HDR content, it's nit performance is on the low-end (about 350), and the display does not support a wide color gamut.

Sony XBR43X800D 43-Inch 4K Ultra HD TV ($680) - Though a 2016 model, this Sony Ultra HD TV remains one of the best smaller-sized 4K displays on the market. With 4K resolution, HDR10 playback, and wide color gamut support, the set boasts most of the major next-gen picture quality features a user could want (minus Dolby Vision). The edge-lit backlight can lead to some clouding around the sides of the screen, but the VA panel still offers superior contrast over Sony's new 2017 model which uses an IPS screen. And with Sony's Android smart TV platform, cord-cutting students should find plenty of apps to enjoy in between cramming for finals.

SOUND BARS & SOUND STANDS


Ideally, dorms would be able to fit a full-fledged Dolby Atmos and DTS:X system, but the limited space students get is usually best reserved for items a bit more important to daily life... like a bed. With that in mind, a sound bar or sound stand is a great alternative to wimpy integrated TV speakers without costing too much money or taking up too much room. Some models even feature simulated surround sound modes, wireless subwoofers, and Bluetooth support.

VIZIO SB2820n-E0 Sound bar Home Speaker ($78) - This incredibly affordable 28" sound bar model might not include a subwoofer or advanced audio features, but it provides a simple, inexpensive 2-channel upgrade to shrill TV speakers. The unit is rated for 95 dB with less than 1% Total Harmonic Distortion and a frequency response of 70 Hz - 19 KHz, and offers Dolby Digital playback and DTS sound enhancement through a digital optical connection. And though HDMI and Wi-Fi are not included, the device does support Bluetooth streaming. 

Fluance AB40 Soundbase ($250) - If you'd prefer to slide your sound system directly under your TV, this Fluance sound stand model provides very solid audio quality and surprisingly robust bass without the need for a separate subwoofer. It lacks advanced features and adjustment options, but the simple plug-and-play nature of the unit should mesh well with a casual dorm setting. With that said, some modern TV stand designs with feet on each side (like the aforementioned VIZIO and TCL sets) probably won't be able to rest on a soundbase like this. Full review here!

Yamaha YAS-207BL Sound Bar with Wireless Subwoofer ($300) - Yamaha's latest sound bar model is one of the first products on the market with DTS Virtual:X support (via firmware update). The new simulated surround sound tech is capable of virtualizing audio in multiple dimensions, including height, without upward-firing drivers. In addition, the unit offers a slim design, a wireless subwoofer, and advanced video pass-through support for 4K HDR sources, making it a great match for students who want a budget-friendly, compact system without missing out on next-gen features. Full review coming soon! 

WIRELESS SPEAKERS


While sound bars and sound stands make great space-saving home theater solutions, many college students are just looking for a compact solution to play all their Spotify playlists. Thankfully, there's quite a few well-performing Wi-Fi and Bluetooth speakers on the market with support for numerous apps. Likewise, some models even offer battery-powered modes, letting students bring the party out to the quad for outdoor listening.

Yamaha MusicCast WX-010 Wireless Speaker ($180) - This compact 25 watt wireless speaker features a two-way design, a 3-1/2" woofer, 1" tweeter, and two passive radiators. In addition, the device uses Yamaha's MusicCast multi-room audio platform with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and AirPlay support, offering a wide-array of music streaming options. Likewise, users can even link two speakers together for left/right stereo playback. Full review here!

RIVA Arena Wireless Speaker ($249) - Suitable for both in-dorm use and portable, outdoor playback thanks to an optional 20+ hour battery pack, this is a very versatile wireless speaker with Wi-Fi, hi-res audio, and Bluetooth support. The unit features full-range custom ADX drivers with 3 passive radiators to create up to 101dB, along with RIVA's patented Trillium audio tech which up-mixes a traditional two channel stereo signal into a true left, center, right experience.  

STREAMING DONGLES


Most displays on the market now use integrated smart TV platforms with access to many popular streaming apps, but it's still possible that some college students might be stuck inheriting an old "dumb" TV. And since it's unlikely you're going to want to pay for cable, the best solution for any cord-cutting undergrad is a dedicated streaming dongle. Able to turn any HDMI equipped set into a genuine smart TV, compact media sticks offer robust app support without breaking the bank or taking up any valuable space.

Amazon Fire TV Stick ($40) - Amazon's compact streaming stick offers access to over 15,000 apps, games, and Alexa skills including Netflix, Hulu, HBO NOW, YouTube, Amazon Video, NBC, WatchESPN, Disney, and more. Likewise, the device includes the Alexa Voice Remote, allowing users to control functions through voice commands. With that said, unlike more expensive full-fledged set-top boxes, the Fire TV Stick does include 4K playback.

Roku Streaming Stick ($40) - Roku's latest streaming stick provides access to 450,000+ movies and TV episodes across 4,500+ paid or free channels with a powerful quad-core processor. Voice control is also offered through the mobile app (but not the included remote). Like the Fire TV Stick, however, the device only supports up to 1080p playback. 

Google Chromecast Ultra ($69) - This puck-shaped dongle plugs into a display's HDMI port, allowing users to cast all of their favorite content from thousands of apps to their TVs using a separate smartphone, tablet, or laptop. In addition, unlike the other players on this list, the Chromecast Ultra supports 4K, HDR (high dynamic range) and Dolby Vision content, offering playback support for videos with higher resolution, expanded colors, and enhanced contrast.  


So, there you have it. Those are our top gear suggestions for new and returning college students living the dorm lifestyle. For now, what do you think about our suggestions? Will you be picking up any of these products for your college dorm? Do you have any back to school gear suggestions of your own? Let us know in the forums!

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