How to Shop for AV Gear That Will Outlive the Latest Trend – The New York Times

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Today’s consumer electronics landscape is littered with devices that seem built for obsolescence, from true wireless earbuds with tiny, irreplaceable batteries to smart speakers that can’t be updated with the latest features to TVs that lack support for the newest video and gaming technologies. This obsolescence carousel may be tolerable—perhaps even enjoyable—for the person who likes upgrading to the cutting edge of technology. But for those who’d rather put their dollars toward electronics that are designed to outlive the latest trends, whether for financial or environmental reasons (or both), we’re happy to report that plenty of great choices are still available. You just need to know where and how to look.

That’s where our expert AV team can help. Below are some tips from our senior staff writers on how to shop for longevity and keep your headphones, speakers, and TVs running strong for years to come.
The most economical approach to headphone shopping is always to adapt, upgrade, or repair the headphones and earbuds you already own … when that’s possible (and it isn’t always possible). Replacing worn-out earpads, cables, or earbud tips can improve comfort and performance, and it can extend the life of your headphones. If you suddenly find that your favorite wired earbuds are no longer compatible with your lifestyle (perhaps because you bought a smartphone that lacks a headphone jack), you can buy an inexpensive wireless headphone adapter, or, if your wired earbuds have a detachable cable, you might be able to add a true wireless adapter.
If it’s definitely time to buy something new, the first thing to consider is purchasing headphones that work with a cable—especially a pair that has replaceable cables and/or earpads, since those are the parts that are most likely to submit to wear and tear. This category includes passive, wired-only options such as the Final E4000 earbuds or the Sony MDR-7506 headphones, but many wireless over-ear headphones also come with an optional cable. Having the ability to change out a damaged cable or worn earpads means you can make your aging headphones like new for less than you’d spend on a brand-new pair.
Another thing to consider is your headphones’ battery life. The bigger the battery capacity when you buy, the longer any device will last. But batteries degrade—it’s just physics. Since replaceable batteries aren’t a common thing yet in headphones (except in Apple’s AirPods Max), the next-best thing is to look for headphones that have a long battery life. Over-ear wireless headphones tend to have more battery capacity and longevity than earbuds do. Additionally, if you get over-ear headphones that come with an optional cable, they can become wired headphones—instead of trash—when their battery no longer holds a charge.
If you prefer wireless earbuds, be aware that completely wireless models such as our favorite pair, the Jabra Elite 75t, may have less battery capacity than wireless earbuds that are tethered to each other by a cable, such as the highly affordable 1More Piston Fit BT. But either way, the batteries will eventually die, and they are difficult, if not impossible, to replace.
Wireless earbuds are great, but their small batteries have a limited lifespan. Are you willing to sacrifice longevity for convenience?
Generally speaking, the less advanced technology a speaker or other audio device incorporates, the longer you’ll be able to use it. If longevity is your top priority, the best audio system consists of passive speakers (those without built-in amplifiers) and a stereo receiver, integrated amplifier, or mini amplifier. Many speakers, amps, and audio receivers made 50 years ago are still in use and cherished by their owners because it usually takes decades for these devices to wear out—and when they do, they can almost always be repaired. On the other hand, home theater receivers, which tend to be packed with the very latest video and audio technologies, generally become technically obsolete in about five years, even though they should still perform their core task of driving a set of speakers for decades to come.
The Q Acoustics 3020i is our favorite pair of passive bookshelf speakers, while the Edifier S1000MKII is a great choice if you need a powered speaker set.
The Sony STR-DH190 stereo receiver is a great way to start an affordable traditional stereo system, especially if you’re into vinyl.
It’s more complicated with all-in-one speakers that have built-in amplifiers. Not only can they be much more complicated to repair than passive speakers, but also most of them source audio through some sort of advanced technology, such as HDMI, Wi-Fi, or Bluetooth. Because Bluetooth is an industry standard that has been around for more than two decades, the Bluetooth speaker you buy now is likely to continue working as technology advances. But if it’s a portable Bluetooth speaker, the battery’s run time may be cut in half (or more) after two or three years of use, and replacing the battery might be practically impossible or may cost almost as much as buying a new speaker. At that point, you can still run the speaker on its power cord or AC adapter, but it’s no longer portable.
Wi-Fi is also an industry standard, but the technologies that transmit sound through Wi-Fi are all proprietary, so there’s always a chance that the company offering the technology (such as Amazon, Google, or Sonos) could withdraw support for it, go out of business, be bought by another company, or colonize another planet and move its operations there. For example, last year Sonos announced that its products made before 2016 were not compatible with its latest control app, and using the legacy devices in conjunction with the new ones is clumsy at best. When you’re shopping for Wi-Fi–based tabletop and smart speakers, your safest bet is to get one that also includes Bluetooth support so it’ll continue to work no matter what happens with the proprietary Wi-Fi technology.
A set of powered bookshelf speakers or computer speakers may include wireless technologies, but such speakers also include analog (and sometimes digital) audio inputs, so you should be able to use them with any old or new audio source. You can easily add wireless functionality to an older pair of powered speakers with a wireless adapter such as a Bluetooth receiver or an Amazon Echo Dot.
Soundbars are perhaps the toughest challenge in audio when it comes to longevity, because most now rely on the always-evolving but not well-policed HDMI standard for connection to a TV. If you buy a TV and a soundbar now, both could easily last a decade or more—but if you get a new TV five or 10 years down the road, your old soundbar may not work reliably with the new TV’s HDMI jacks. But as long as you buy a soundbar that also has digital and/or analog audio-only inputs, it should keep working for as long as TVs still have audio-only output jacks, which is likely to be so for a long time to come. It won’t be as convenient to use, but it’ll work.
Even though the major TV manufacturers usually introduce new models every year, the TV you buy now should work for years to come, though it may not support every hot, new technology that crops up.
When it comes to longevity, we don’t worry about the lifespan of a TV bought today, as you’ll likely want to upgrade before lifespan issues even become a concern. OLED TVs do have a more limited lifespan than LCD TVs because their organic material loses brightness over time—but that takes around 30,000 hours, or three hours of TV watching per day for 27 years.
If you’re trying to make the most of your money when shopping for a TV, it doesn’t make sense to pay for a top-of-the-line model in most cases. Yes, paying more can buy access to cutting-edge technologies. When a new feature is released for TVs, it often spends a year or two exclusively in the top-tier models before trickling down to the midrange models. Over the past few years, for example, we have seen this happen with full-array local-dimming backlights in LCD TVs, once a high-end feature that you can now find in $600 TVs, as well as with 4K and high dynamic range (HDR) video and most recently with HDMI 2.1 gaming features. However, not only does it cost a lot to buy into these features first, but also the earliest versions of these features may be less refined than what mainstream models will offer a couple of years down the road, after those early issues have been worked out.
Choosing a midrange TV instead gives you most of the performance of a high-end model at a significant cost savings. If you buy a midrange LCD TV right now, you might be giving up 8K resolution or some extra brightness for HDR highlights, but most of the time the images on the two TVs would look almost identical. After a few years of seeing relatively quick advances in HDR and HDMI technology, this year we’ve seen only minor improvements, so the high-end sets aren’t offering features that are essential for them to be future-proof.
Sometimes TVs don’t ship with certain features enabled, but you can add them later through firmware updates. For example, different companies have added support for the Dolby Vision high dynamic range format and HDMI 2.1 gaming features after shipping their TVs. They also add support for new and updated streaming services over time, but you’ll need to keep your TV’s firmware updated to take advantage of these additions. If you’ve connected your TV to the internet, these updates may happen automatically; otherwise you’ll have to check your TV manufacturer’s website for new firmware and use a USB drive to manually install it.
Among projectors, some of the essential technologies used in TVs aren’t nearly as important or impactful. For example, 4K resolution is important if you want a screen that’s larger than 90 inches or so, but a 4K projector often commands a notably higher price compared with a good budget 1080p projector. We think HDR support is even less important with a projector, as we find that it doesn’t make much of a difference until you’re spending thousands of dollars on a high-end 4K model.
If you want the largest image for your dollar—without it being too dim—bulb-based projectors offer more light output compared with their LED- or laser-based competition. Bulbs start to dim over time and can cost $150 or more to replace, but they typically last for thousands of hours before they get too dim. You can prolong their lifespan by running your projector in low-lamp mode at night, which also gives you deeper black levels for a better image. LED projectors never need to have their light source replaced, and they last around 20,000 hours before dying. They also power on and off faster than a bulb-based projector and in some cases provide wider color gamuts, but they are best for screen sizes closer to that of a large TV (55 to 75 inches) since their overall brightness is lower.
We also recommend that you look for projectors that have zoom and lens-shifting features so it’s easier to set them up in more locations. A projector that has limited setup tools may work fine in your current apartment or house but might not work in a new environment where the room layout is different. These convenient setup tools make the projector more flexible to install in a variety of rooms, and they let you better adapt the image size to what your viewing situation calls for, in case you move a projector around for watching different things.
For media streamers, we don’t recommend spending more than the cost of our current picks, each of which is around $50, unless you absolutely need a specific feature that’s offered on higher-end models, such as an Ethernet port for a more reliable network connection. As streaming services and user interfaces become more feature-rich and demanding, you may find it necessary to upgrade to a more powerful streamer in a few years. Roku, Google, Apple, and Amazon have all done a good job of keeping their devices up to date for a long time, but eventually these things do slow down, no matter which version you buy. Because of this, and because new features such as updated Wi-Fi standards will come out, we don’t recommend the more expensive streaming device models.
We hope you found the above tips helpful. If you have any other questions about AV gear longevity and how to make most of your money when you’re shopping in these categories, let us know in the comments.
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