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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 (www.klipsch.com), Pinnacle (www.pinnaclespeakers.com) and Polk (www.polkaudio.com), 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.

In a large room, though, a 7.1 system lets you place two surrounds off to the side of your listening position, then add two more on the back wall, resulting in a richer, more encompassing sound. And with the rise of advanced audio formats on Blu-ray and HD DVD discs, we can expect to see more movies released with true 7.1 audio soundtracks.

Getting Hooked
The AV receiver in a home theater system is more than an audio device—it's also a traffic cop, controlling which signal from a variety of sources at your disposal gets through to the TV screen and speakers at any given time. Today the potential sources include cable or satellite TV receivers, disc players, game consoles, VCRs, camcorders and portable audio players.

As important as having enough plugs and jacks is having the right kind of plugs and jacks. Even if you haven't gone high-def yet, any home theater system you buy today should be high-def ready, which means it offers HDMI input and output jacks. HDMI is a single cable that carries both high-definition video and surround-sound audio from component to component, a much tidier solution than the rat's nest of cables used in previous generations of AV gear. A single HDMI output, from the receiver to the TV set, is ordinarily fine, but you want at least two HDMI inputs—figure a set-top box and a DVD or high-def disc player. A third HDMI input wouldn't be a bad option (for a game console, for example), but you'll need an accessory HDMI switcher to accomplish that feat with a home-theater-in-a-box setup, since triple HDMI inputs are a more rarefied equipment option.

Another popular entertainment resource today is your portable MP3 player, the pocket-size vault that carries all your favorite music. You can always plug the audio output into a receiver's auxiliary input jack but, if you're an iPod person (roughly 75 percent of the portable MP3 market), you have a more sophisticated option. Lots of standalone iPod docks on the market will cradle the iPod, connect to an audio input and use the TV screen to display a list of the songs on your device. Several HTIB manufacturers now offer similar iPod docks designed to work specifically with their receivers, either as optional accessories or standard equipment. The advantage? You can control the iPod with the same remote control used for the audio system, versus adding one more remote to the general living room clutter.

Fancy Features for the Common Man
Before undertaking this project, it had been about a year and a half since I'd agreed to piss off my wife and fill the living room with home-theater-in-a-box systems. I was surprised to discover that the boxes had enlarged in the interim—the biggest of this group, from Samsung, weighs in at a frightening 132 pounds in a single carton! My DHL guy and I agreed that it's definitely time for a new HTITB category—Home Theater in Two Boxes. Be that as it may, I was pleased to find that several heavyweight product features have also been widely adopted. Chief among these: automatic calibration. An automatic calibration system asks you to place a microphone in your favorite listening position in the room, bombards the mic with assorted beeps, boops and rumbles for a few minutes, then tunes the relative levels of the multiple speakers to achieve a pleasing balance. This used to be an expensive add-on, available only for high-end systems. Now it's commonly available on better HTIB units.

Support for high-definition content is now also an HTIB standard, along with receivers that can be easily upgraded to tune Sirius or XM broadcasts. XM offers a $60 portable mini-tuner that can be used in a compatible car audio unit or carried inside and inserted in a home dock, if your receiver supports one. On the Sirius side, there's no similar plug-and-play device, but you can buy a $50 home tuner that connects to Sirius-ready home audio systems.

If it's bragging rights you're after, a custom installer picking high-power, high-priced components is still your best bet. (Although Steinway & Sons, the piano people, has recently put the ultra-high-end Steinway Lyngdorf Model D Music System in one very easy-to-choose, if not easy-to-pay-for ($150,000) package, which includes all components as well as a visit from sound engineers to set it up.) But if serious sound quality at a reasonable price is your goal, these HTIB systems deliver.

Acoustic Research WHT6024
This AR system isn't a complete home theater system—it's a 5.1 speaker system, with five identical satellite speakers and a hefty subwoofer—but I've included it here as a surprisingly effective solution to that most profound surround-sound hurdle: wiring the rear speakers. The WHT6024 includes a small transmitter and a pair of speaker stands with a wireless receiver in each base. You connect the transmitter to the rear speaker jacks of your receiver, then plug the rear speakers into power outlets (OK, so there are some wires involved, but they don't stretch across prime living-room real estate.) The result? A full surround-sound system with minimal fuss and bother. In fact, the major source of fuss and bother proved to be assembling the !@#$%* speaker stands. Getting the two sections of the poorly designed stand pole to fit sturdily required a hidden masking tape kludge and every Anglo-Saxon swear word my mother never taught me. Finally, though, the system was set up, I hit play on the remoteÉand smiled. Most wireless speaker solutions suffer from hiss and interference generated by household electronics. With this one, despite the fact that my home is festooned with wireless networks and cordless phone systems, the rear speaker signal was crystal clear and, combined with rich, juicy bass from the sub, handled movie soundtracks and music playback with aplomb. What separates the Acoustic Research solution from the pack is an extra wireless information channel communicating between the transmitter and the speakers. When the system senses interference, the two sides of the wireless conversation agree to switch to a new frequency and sidestep the problem. Even after torture-testing the system with a microwave oven and a hair dryer—both nasty sources of interference—I heard nary a pop or sizzling sound. ($799, www.audiovox.com)

Yamaha YSP-4000
A sound bar is a single unit that incorporates speakers, amplification and sophisticated processing systems to fool your ear into thinking rear speakers are present. These products usually rely on a science called psychoacoustics, a hit-and-miss affair. Used for years to mimic surround sound in headphones and speaker systems, the effect is pretty convincing for some people, doesn't work at all for others, and generally strikes me as better than nothing, but not by much. This hefty Yamaha sound bar, though, far exceeded my expectations by relying more on traditional acoustics than psychoacoustics. The 40-inch-wide system boasts an array of 40 individually controlled microdrivers that beam surround sound off the side and back walls of your room, like a bank shot in billiards, to reach your ears from the proper angle. The included automatic calibration system is crucial to making this work, and fortunately it's a simple process—took just three minutes and worked very well. Early on in the Blu-ray version of Ratatouille a drenching rain falls outside a French country house, and watching it at home the Yamaha placed me smack-dab in the middle of the downpour. Big, slam-bang action movie soundtracks didn't have the explosive oomph of a full-fledged 5.1 setup, even when the sound bar was paired with the optional YST-FSW150 subwoofer ($280), but the audio experience was still far more dramatic than any puny TV speakers, and the dialogue was pleasingly crisp and clear throughout.

The YSP-4000 includes a built-in FM tuner (but no AM) and supports the XM mini-tuner dock. I tried the optional iPod dock ($49.95) and found it worked fine, though the on-screen menu display lacked visual polish. It has two HDMI input jacks and one output, and the ability to upgrade any video input signal to 1080i high-def resolution is particularly welcome. ($1,800, www.yamaha.com)

Sony Bravia Theater Micro System DAV-IS10
Many flat-screen TV buyers feel the boxy look of traditional home theater speakers clashes with their slender video display. To deliver a suitably anorexic aesthetic for this design-centric buyer, Sony has pulled off an ingenious magic trick, shrinking the speakers down to golf-ball size. And I mean that literally—each front, center and surround speaker in this 5.1 system is a tiny two-ounce cube, roughly two inches a side, which sits easily in the palm of your hand. Yet when you fire up the system, the DAV-IS10 produces room-filling sound.

How did they pull off this intriguing effect? It's partly clever design in the little speakers themselves, and largely an unusual balancing act between speakers and subwoofer. Ordinarily, speakers handle the high-end and mid-range sounds in a home theater system, leaving the sub to focus exclusively on bass. In this case, though, the sub unit fills in some of that midrange too, enhancing the overall richness of the audio. This makes appropriate placement of the sub unit more important than with other systems. Bass is perceived without much sense of where it's coming from, so you can usually tuck a subwoofer pretty much anywhere in the room. In this case, the sub unit has to sit near the front, within a set distance from the satellites and preferably next to a wall, and not obstructed by furniture. Fortunately, the included automatic calibration system does a nice job of balancing the fine points once the basic layout is accomplished. And while the subwoofer may be more visible than in other layouts, the central receiver unit is an unusually compact 8 7/16- x 4 1/8- x 18 1/8-inch block that houses an AM/FM tuner and slot-loading, upscaling DVD player. There is one HDMI input and one output (which the built-in DVD player makes just acceptable), and an iPod dock comes bundled with the system. My only significant quibble with the sound was the center channel during movie playback—the diminutive speaker is very directional, which tends to pinpoint the dialogue too precisely instead of spreading it across the front of the TV image. Overall, though, Sony managed to pull off a difficult trick with style, and at a reasonable price. ($800, www.sonystyle.com)

Onkyo HT-SP908
This Onkyo system is a perfect example of the home-theater-in-a-box concept done right. You get everything you need—from a state-of-the-art receiver to seven substantial speakers plus a powerful subwoofer, upscaling DVD player and iPod dock—right down to the color-coded speaker-connecting wires, in one, albeit bulky, box, at a retail price well below $1,000. (It lists for more, but at this writing, Amazon's price is $750, with free shipping.) Unlike most stand-alone AV receivers, this system supports the latest HDMI 1.3a connectors, which not only handle current Blu-ray and HD DVD formats, but are ready for enhanced video technologies as they are released. The latest uncompressed audio standards from Dolby and DTS are also fully supported, another rarity even in high-priced gear. The automatic calibration technology is a premium Audyssey-branded system, you get a pair of HDMI inputs, and there's support for both Sirius and XM add-on tuners. You can even pump audio into a second room, if you like. Of course, all these cool features would be for naught if the sound didn't measure up—but it most certainly does, providing a balance of warmth and accuracy that rivals my far more expensive home theater setup at all but wall-rattling volumes. ($1,099, www.onkyousa.com)

Samsung HT-BD2
If you're ready to choose sides in the ongoing Blu-ray/HD DVD high-def disc-format war, this combination of an elegantly curved, piano-black receiver with built-in Blu-ray disc player, four impressive tower speakers plus two bookshelf-size rear surrounds and an effective subwoofer could be just the (movie) ticket. There is a significant "but" in all this, but let's start with the good stuff. Blu-ray movie playback (and DVDs, too, for that matter) looks and sounds great. Watching the Blu-ray version of Pixar's Oscar-nominated short, Lifted, a slapstick alien-abduction adventure, proved the dynamic range of the audio system, with lush swelling orchestral passages contrasting perfectly with the squeaky chair wheels and barking dog that sell the film's gags. Samsung merits special praise for providing an exemplary center channel speaker, a key component (it handles the lion's share of movie dialogue) too often shortchanged in wimpy HTIB systems.

Then where's the rub? The lack of an iPod dock, AM radio, satellite radio and auto calibration are all shortcomings, but it's the inadequate connectivity for outside sources, particularly cable or satellite set-top boxes, that really bugs me. With no jacks for incoming video at all, you can't use the HT-BD2 to switch between feeds to your TV. There are audio inputs (one standard analog, two digital optical connectors), but you have to connect the video from your set-top box, game console or whatever to multiple inputs on your TV (assuming it has them) and switch the audio and video components separately— a significant flaw in a system this expensive. That said, what the HT-BD2 does, it does very well indeed. ($1,499, www.samsungusa.com)

Bose Lifestyle 48
For the past few years, Bose has attracted attention mostly for table radios, noise-cancelling headphones and pricey iPod docks, but the company's roots lie in strikingly small high-performance speakers paired with innovative bass reproduction technologies. In the top-of-the-line home theater system tested here, the four cube speakers are just 4.5 inches tall, but maintain a pleasingly full audio range when paired with their big brother, the 26-pound Acoustimass bass module. Audio snobs get cranky when I say nice things about Bose home theater, but I think it's a great choice for the right customer. You should value convenience and elegant, compact design to be a happy Bose owner. With artists ranging from Joni Mitchell to R.E.M. to Bruce Springsteen, the musical reproduction is a nicely balanced combination of precision and power, but if you want to listen to heavy metal cranked to ear-bleeding levels, this isn't the system for you.

Unlike most home theater systems, I preferred music to movie soundtracks on the Bose. It handled the atmospheric party scene in Mission: Impossible III just fine, but missile- firing action scenes lacked the firepower of a system with larger speakers. The compact media center, the brains of the operation, is an appealingly sleek, low-rise device with an AM/FM tuner, built-in DVD player and a hard disk drive that sets this system apart, with the capacity for 340 hours of music ripped from your CD collection. In true Bose fashion, moving your music collection into the system is a breeze. No computer needed, thanks—the Lifestyle 48 will identify the disc, label the tracks and record the tunes. I also experimented with the system's multi-room capabilities by adding the RoomMate-powered speaker system and Personal Music Center II wireless controller package ($499), along with the Bose AL8 wireless audio link ($399) for communicating with the Lifestyle 48. It took no messy configuration at all to make the system work flawlessly—plug it in, turn it on and enjoy the music, with complete system control even from another room (thanks to the radio frequency remote, which travels through walls).

Oh, there is one more characteristic of a Bose home theater customer that bears noting—it helps to have money. Here again, my audiophile friends will grouse that a well-versed expert can buy sonically superior components for the same price, and I don't disagree. But ease of use, elegant, unobtrusive design and pleasing musical reproduction are the core Bose promises, and on those they deliver handsomely. ($3,999, www.bose.com)

Steve Morgenstern is a contributing editor who writes frequently on technological subjects for Cigar Aficionado.

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