With distances between relatives becoming further than ever and overhead baggage space a battleground in which there are no winners, it’s no wonder that so many of us turn to gift cards in lieu of large electronics around the holidays.
One or two may not get you that far, but load up on enough of these stocking stuffers and every aisle at your local electronics dealer will turn into a winter wonderland, full of potential presents for you to bring home and place in your burgeoning home entertainment center.
From TVs to soundbars, video game systems to UHD Blu-ray players, with everything on the table what’s one to buy when all the wrapping paper is shorn away? Here are a few ideas we’ve come up with to help you turn that plastic currency into great home cinema tech.
Of course, all this being said, if your budget is a little larger than the miniscule amounts below, don’t miss our guides to the best TV, best soundbar and best game consoles to outfit your home theater with the latest, greatest … and slightly more expensive tech.
Here’s what you could buy with a $25/£25 gift card
One might think that $25/£25 might not be enough to make a dent in your home theater setup - but unless you’re already outfitted with a killer setup replete with floorstanding speakers, a hefty AV receiver and massive flatscreen, this small chunk of change can go further than you think.
The Roku Express is perfect for folks who need a video streaming device for a second room in their house and aren’t put off by the fact that the Roku Express only outputs 1080p.
If you already own a higher-powered streaming device - like the new Apple TV 4K, Chromecast Ultra or Amazon Fire TV - then how about a Logitech Harmony Smart Control Universal Remote? Not only does it work with all of the aforementioned streaming devices (minus Chromecast, obviously) but it’s compatible with some 270,000 components - including most cable boxes, TVs and AV receivers. If you’re looking to cut the clutter in the new year, this is an excellent first step.
Here’s what you could buy with a $50/£50 gift card
See, $25 gets you farther than you thought. But let’s say you had double that amount - around $50/£50 - what should you spend your money on now?
For half that much, there are a number of great buys out there, like Google Home Mini, Chromecast, Creative Muvo 2C, Xbox Live Gold or a Spotify subscription, all of which can help take your home theater system to the next level.
The Google Home Mini is the perfect counterpart to the Amazon Echo Dot. Like the Chromecast Audio, the Home Mini turns any speaker into a smart speaker - but it also comes with a decent speaker and a smart assistant built right in.
If you’re a movie lover and you’re tech savvy enough to know how Google Cast works, the Chromecast and Chromecast Ultra (which are usually found for $35/ £30 and $69/£69, respectively) are awesome and cheap streaming devices that bring movies and shows from your phone or tablet to your TV for a pittance.
For the audiophile on the move, the Creative Muvo 2C is a great portable Bluetooth speaker that offers fantastic audio quality in a pint-sized package.
The last two recommendations in this price bracket are subscriptions - either a six-month subscription to Netflix or a six-month subscription to Spotify. Both ideas are similar in the sense that subscriptions snag you some content to watch on your new TVs or listen to on your AV equipment without being subjected to a barrage of advertisements.
Here’s what you could buy with a $100/£100 gift card
Subscription cards and miniature smart speakers are great, but if you want to make substantial changes to your home theater setup - the kind that will radically improve performance for years to come - you’re probably going to need at least $100/£100.
If you have that much plastic currency burning a hole in your pocket, here are four big-ticket purchases you could make that will radically enhance your audiovisual arsenal: the Roku Streaming Stick+, a pair of Edifier R1280T bookshelf speakers, the LG UP875 4K Blu-ray player and, last but not least, the TP-Link AC1750 Wi-Fi range extender.
Let’s start with the Roku Streaming Stick+, the all-new streaming device that crams 4K HDR-ready hardware into a streaming stick. While last year’s Streaming Stick had all the guts to do decent HD streaming, the Streaming Stick+ ups the resolution as well as the range (up to four times the distance) with the addition of the new external antenna.
While the Roku Streaming Stick+ is sure to take your system’s visual performance to the next level, the Edifier R1280T bookshelf speakers are the upgrade your audio system needs. These fantastic-sounding speakers are perfect for people looking to move away from their TV speakers without going in full-bore on a 5.1 surround system.
If you’re not quite ready to drop physical media once and for all, you should probably upgrade to a 4K Blu-ray player - trust us, your eyes will appreciate it. One of the best budget models on the market is the LG UP875. It offers 3D and 4K playback for just under $100 at Best Buy.
Nothing catching your eye? That's OK, but we’ve saved the best suggestion for last. If poor reception is a plague upon your streaming and gaming experience, you need a Wi-Fi Range Extender. After doing some research on the subject, the best one we found was the TP-Link AC1750. It extends both 2.4Ghz and 5.0Ghz Wi-Fi channels with more than enough juice to reach the furthest corners of your home. It’s available from most retailers for $89.
Making an audiovisual upgrade this holiday season that you want to share with me? Send me an email: Nick.Pino@Futurenet.com.
Sign up to receive daily breaking news, reviews, opinion, analysis, deals and more from the world of tech.
Nick Pino is Managing Editor, TV and AV for TechRadar's sister site, Tom's Guide. Previously, he was the Senior Editor of Home Entertainment at TechRadar, covering TVs, headphones, speakers, video games, VR and streaming devices. He's also written for GamesRadar+, Official Xbox Magazine, PC Gamer and other outlets over the last decade, and he has a degree in computer science he's not using if anyone wants it.