Inside the Box

Are home theaters in a box inexpensive or just plain cheap?

You’ve no doubt ogled the ads for a “Home Theater in a Box”—a DVD player, a surround-sound receiver, five small speakers, and a subwoofer, all in one carton for (the prices vary, but they’re equally improbable) $399, $299, even $199. One question pops to mind: Could this stuff be any good?

I decided to investigate. I checked out lots of “HTiBs” in stores, asked manufacturers to send me the most promising ones for evaluation, hooked them up (for the most part idiot-proof easy), let them warm up for a day or two, then watched and listened. The answer: No, they’re not any good, at least not the super-cheap box systems. You’re better off buying a stand-alone DVD player and hooking it up to your stereo or even to the audio-input plugs of your television. Any $100 name-brand DVD player is fine if you don’t have a digital television and thus don’t need progressive scanning.

But for a little more money—even an extra hundred dollars or two—you can buy a serious, quality home-theater system that comes packed in one box. I’m talking about HTiB systems that cost between $500 and $1,000, more than the ones in the ads, but just a few years ago you couldn’t buy any one of the components (the player, the receiver, or the surround speakers) anywhere near this cheap. And though prices have plummeted for all home-theater equipment, a halfway-decent system built around separately purchased components will cost you considerably more—well into four figures.

The fact that any box system looks and sounds at all good—and a few of them are quite good—came as a surprise. Most HTiBs combine a DVD player and a receiver into a single chassis. All the functions inside that chassis—the disc player, the audio-video controller, and the amplifier—work off the same integrated circuits and power supply. Better hi-fi and home-theater systems employ separate, dedicated circuits for each function, resulting in a clearer picture and cleaner sound. In addition, the speakers in an HTiB system tend to be, by necessity, small. Each of the five surround-sound speakers usually have just one “driver” (as opposed to a woofer for the lower frequencies and a tweeter for the higher ones), and the subwoofer is usually too lightweight to produce very deep or taut bass. Finally, the parts that go into an HTiB have to be very cheap, which usually means very bad.

But, apparently, not always. For a list price of just $499, there’s the Samsung HT-DM550. Samsung, once known only for schlock, has made a startling turn the past couple years, putting out a spate of high-tech products—PDAs, cell phones, LCD and plasma televisions, portable DVD players—that are both cheap and good. The HT-DM550 continues the trend. Speakers often sound like the material they’re encased in, and these have something of a thin, plastic sound, but they’re clear and fairly well-detailed, and the DVD picture is good. In a departure from most HTiBs, the speaker for the center channel is different from the others—wider, with two drivers instead of one, which makes dialogue more prominent and intelligible. The bass, while a bit threadbare, is at least more than a one-note thump.

For an extra $200, the Cambridge SoundWorks MegaTheater 505 is a substantial step up. One interesting feature: While many HTiBs put the DVD player, the amplifier, and the audio-video controls (the volume knob, function buttons, and assorted circuitry) in one chassis, this one removes the amp, which instead goes into the same cabinet as the subwoofer.This has a couple aesthetic advantages. Visually, you don’t have five strands of speaker cable snaking up to the back of your DVDplayer (which is probably going to be near the television and therefore within eye-range). Instead, you hook the cables up to the subwoofer, which should be placed off to the side on the floor. Sonically, it means dedicated circuitry for the amp, which means purer, more dynamic sound. The five smaller speakers are just OK, but the heft from the woofer makes them seem better than they are. (More expensive Cambridge HTiBs use bigger and better speakers.) And the picture quality is excellent. Plus, because Cambridge SoundWorks is mainly a mail-order business, there is a 45-day money-back guarantee.

My favorite of the lot is the Sharp SD-AT50DV at $799, an amazing bargain, given what it contains. The design is very, very cool. The DVD player and the AV controller are separate units, each about the size of a trade paperback. They can stand horizontally or, for convenient bookshelf placement, vertically. As with the Cambridge system, the amp is inside the subwoofer, but it’s a very high-speed digital amp with a refined degree of detail. The DVD player’s progressive-scan chips are manufactured by Faroudja, a high-end company that makes some of the world’s best. The picture is superb, and the sound is clean and clear. For an HTiB, it’s even not bad as a CD player. (Almost all cheap DVD players are lousy CD players.)

Finally, there’s the $999 Onkyo HT-S755DVC. It’s a stretch to call this a home theater in a box. Yes, it comes packed in a box, but it weighs 140 pounds, and it is not what anyone would call a compact system. The DVD player (a 5-disc changer) and the receiver are each enormous. The three front-speakers are full-size bookshelf speakers, 17 inches tall. Compared with the Sharp and the Cambridge SoundWorks systems, the Onkyo’s progressive-scan image is a bit soft, just as free of artifacts and as true in color but also a little less detailed (though the difference will be apparent, and even then subtle, only on high-definition televisions). The Onkyo makes its mark with its sound—rich, hefty, dynamic. It’s pretty good as a CD player, too. The speakers, compared with more expensive models, sound a bit muffled. But compared with any other HiTB package, they’re leagues ahead.

Despite the quality of these systems, there are still reasons to buy separate components. Panasonic, Sony, and Toshiba make excellent progressive-scan DVD players for under $300. Denon, Outlaw Audio, Arcam, and NAD make very good receivers for around $500. Definitive Technologies, Acoustic Research, Totem, PSB, Anthony Gallo Acoustics, and some other companies make superb mini-speakers for surround sound. Those products will give you wider dynamics, deeper bass, more sparkling treble, and a cleaner, more detailed sound. But this route will also cost you two or three times as much money, if not more.

Still, for those who can pay the toll, I’d recommend taking that route. For everyone else, these four HTiBs can be bought with the assurance that you’re not compromising very much. On any level, these things mark a consumer electronics triumph: For relatively little money, you can now bask in the illusion of having a movie theater in your home. And you can carry it home in a box.