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Sound in a Box

We've got you surrounded with home-theater-in-a-box systems that deliver one-stop-shopping convenience without sacrificing first-class audio.
Steve Morgenstern
From the Print Edition:
Armand Assante, Mar/Apr 2008

I always liked Garanimals, that line of children's clothing introduced in the early '70s that made it possible for any style-challenged kid to dress himself. Each top and bottom was tagged with an animal character, so if you combined a shirt with a lion tag and a pair of pants with a lion tag, your outfit was guaranteed to match. This appealed to little boys who wanted to avoid having Mom send them back to change before going out to Grandma's house. Of course, one day you grew out of Garanimals and had to learn to match big boy pants and shirts—and even ties and jackets—on your own. What's that got to do with home theater in a box (HTIB)? The same level of convenience: a not too tech-savvy consumer can buy his audio system in one package without having to know anything about how many watts per channel the amplifier puts out or which speaker has a sweeter tweeter . What HTIB doesn't offer is much snob appeal to anyone with pretensions toward audiophilia. Choosing this all-in-one purchase path, with its bargain-basement mentality, has typically delivered so-so sound and no testosterone rush whatsoever.

Until recently, that is.

A growing number of HTIB makers are creating more sophisticated systems that deliver fine audio performance either as your frontline audio player or as a supplement to a bigger system. They also offer many useful new options, strategies for controlling your audio/video/gaming matrix and stylish packages.

That wasn't always the case with the HTIB segment, which for years adhered to the philosophy that if you shove five speakers, a subwoofer and some kind of receiver in a box, the suckers will beat a path to your door. Plenty of lowball systems remain on the market, of course—I found one for $89 on sale at my local drugstore—but now you'll also find an array of high-quality choices, at a variety of prices, all sharing a few key benefits. You get everything you need to set up the system yourself—audio components, remote control, wires and instructions. More important, someone who knows a lot more about audio than you do has taken the time to combine pieces that work well together. The front speakers are well balanced with the surround speakers and with the subwoofer. The receiver/amplifier has enough juice to power the speakers at appropriate levels. And often, by selecting a package deal instead of cherry-picking individual components, you wind up getting more for your money.

Even if you invested big bucks in a knock-'em-dead home audio system for your home theater or living room, you could still be a prime candidate for an HTIB system elsewhere in the house. If you or someone you love is a video-game fan, for example, you can't beat the dramatic oomph that surround sound adds to an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 game (not to mention the tactical advantage of hearing the axe-wielding Destroyer of Souls creeping up from behind and to the left). Given the number of hours I spend in my home office, I've installed a set of surround-sound speakers there too. There's nothing better than the Diana Krall—Live in Paris DVD to keep me company when I'm stuck at my desk paying bills or cranking out turgid prose.

Start from Scratch or Add On?
Moving to surround sound may not require a full HTIB system at all. Odds are, if you bought a receiver in the past decade, it can handle five speakers and a subwoofer, even if you're only using two speakers now. Plenty of expertly preconfigured surround speaker systems are available. I've always been impressed with the mid-priced offerings from Klipsch (, Pinnacle ( and Polk (, all of which have suggested speaker combinations on their Web sites. For this roundup I reviewed a system from Acoustic Research, not usually a grand-slam speaker maker, to try out its wireless rear speaker technology. Nothing ticks off wives and girlfriends like visible speaker wires snaked around baseboards and door frames to support a surround-sound system. Wireless is a solution worth considering. A one-piece sound bar with simulated surround sound (see the Yamaha YSP-4000 on page 144) is another.

Even in the true HTIB category the range of equipment varies from system to system. Speakers, subwoofer and receiver are always included, but some systems include a DVD player, while others leave that component to you. Even if you already own a DVD player, consider switching to an up-scaling version, included in better HTIB systems, if you have a high-definition TV. An upscaling DVD player increases the resolution of a standard DVD picture to match high-def TV standards. No, the result isn't as tack-sharp as a true high-def source like a Blu-ray or HD DVD disc, but it's noticeably better than DVD video without up-scaling. You'll also find a review here of the first HTIB system with a high-def disc player instead of a standard DVD—the Samsung HT-BD2 equipped with Blu-ray.

If you do want a system with a DVD player, there's another decision point. Some HTIB systems incorporate the DVD player and receiver into a single unit, while others provide separate components. The all-in-one solution is compact, neat and requires fewer wires, while the separate-DVD solution makes the player easy to replace if something goes wrong, or to upgrade (to high-def, for example) in the future.

How Many Speakers?
Your basic home theater configuration is called a 5.1 system, consisting of five speakers—three in the front (left, right and center) plus left and right speakers in the rear—with a separate subwoofer (the ".1") to deliver booming bass. On the high-end audio side of life, 7.1 systems have grown in popularity, adding two additional rear surround channels, and 7.1 systems now exist for HTIB systems as well. Are they worth the extra money and wiring hassle?

Whether or not the distinction is mission critical largely depends on your room. Unless you're in a very large listening space, installing two additional speakers in the back won't noticeably enhance your movie-watching experience. Not only will the sound sources be too close together to deliver much sonic separation, but the number of discs that come with seven truly separate audio streams is limited. Ordinarily, when you choose 7.1-channel playback, the receiver creates the extra surround channels from the DVD's 5.1-channel soundtrack, using complex mathematical formulae that don't really create much distinction between 5.1 and 7.1.

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