Home Theater in a Box: Not Just for Newbies?
Are these all-in-one home theater systems finally shedding their "cheap" stigma?
Home Theater in a Box
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March 25, 2008 by Dennis P. Barker

When it comes to Consumer Electronics, there’s no denying high-definition is the hottest topic. It’s all very visually exciting, but what about the sound you might ask? It’s not surprising but once folks buy a new HDTV, or an upconverting DVD player, they finally start to think about audio! Unbelievable! What people need to remember is that audio is more than 50-percent of the experience. What? Without audio, movies like “Star Wars” or “Transformers” would sound pretty flat.

So, the first item that many people purchase after a new TV or DVD player would be a new audio system so they can finally experience true digital 5.1 surround sound. While some folks may go the route of buying a stand-alone A/V Receiver with separate speakers, other folks want something simpler and less intrusive. At the same time, they don’t want a lot of wires running all over floor or huge speakers that don’t fit into the decor of the room. What to do?

So, many people opt for a product fondly called the “Home Theater in a Box” (HTiB) because the entire audio system is packaged within one carton or box. Since their inception, however, they’ve changed quite a bit. Today, these pre-packaged systems can be just as good as separates with high-quality speaker drivers, and are now offered from quality audio companies. And, some HTiBs may also include a Blu-ray Disc player/changer. There are countless variations on a theme. Many systems come with sleek and futuristic speakers, or diminutive cube-like ones that easily blend in. Some systems can also be individual components packaged together, or designed to look like a long tubular speaker to complement that new flat-panel TV. With these beauties, everything – including electronics and drivers – are housed in one tubular container.

I’ve used this analogy before, but it’s a great one to embrace. In the beginning, there was the rack. No - not the instrument of torture found in the dungeon of a medieval castle, but a Rack System full of audio gear. It was this gigantic piece of furniture that housed your prized audio equipment with overly large speakers. If you remember way back in the day,” you measured the prowess of your system by the size of your speakers – the bigger, the better, and the taller. The system included an amplifier, tuner, turntable, equalizer, and tape deck, besides the speakers (usually of a three-way or four-way design). Later, systems added a CD Player/Changer and/or a DVD player/changer too. The bottom part of the rack would normally house storage for records (if you’re old enough to remember those large grooved vinyl discs), and later on tapes or CDs. The quality of the system would be judged on the amount of power (watts) that it produced. Upscale systems included a rack made of real wood.

Some “cheap” or inexpensive systems fused all of the products together, and others actually had separate components on each shelf of the rack. While Rack Systems are still available today from a few brands like JVC, they are clearly a dying breed category. As time went on, however, the Rack System evolved and was downsized, as cheaper models became known as Midi or Bookshelf System. The smallest ones became Mini Systems, and teeny tiniest ones became Ultra Minis or Micro or Executive Systems.

Today, the entire bundled system is now called a HTiB or Home Theater system. They take up very little shelf space, and are offered by virtually all A/V companies. In the end, all you need to do is just attach a TV, and you’re done. Depending on what you want to spend, there are systems in every price range. Clearly, more expensive brand/models offer more wattage of audio power and more analog/digital connections including HDMI.

Types of Systems
A HTiB provides the listener a simple and easy solution of stepping up to and simply creating a complete home entertainment system “on-the-spot.” Many of these systems now include either a single-play DVD player or DVD Changer (3 or 5-disc). These systems will also include an A/V Receiver with Dolby Digital/DTS surround processing, built-in amplification, video switching, five magnetically shielded speakers, a subwoofer (most), and color-coded speaker wire (Bose’s original idea). Some models feature sleek and stylish speakers designed to complement flat-panel TVs. Other systems may offer smaller cube-like speakers that blend into the background. And, some systems may also offer wireless solutions as well.

There are two versions of these systems. The first type is the separates approach, in which the DVD player or changer is a separate component part of the system. In fact, there can be up to four separate components making up this particular type of system including a separate AV Receiver, DVD Player, Tape Deck, etc. In other words, it’s a Home Theater System, which is truly a complete audio package by itself, and may even offer higher quality speakers. Most brands have systems that fit into this category. Prices for most Home Theater Systems can range from about $300+ to close to $3,500. Panasonic and Samsung now offer Home Theater Systems with integrated Blu-ray players.

On the other hand, many brands like JVC, Pioneer and Sony, for example, have created integrated “all-in-one” systems that house both the DVD Player and AV Receiver in the same cabinet – called a DVDReceiver—and outboard the amplification. Many feature silver or brushed aluminum center consoles that include a striking LCD display. Others may offer an Piano Black finish. They are sleek and futuristically styled, easily fit in most decors, and match flat-panel TV displays. With these products, the amplification for the entire system is normally placed within the subwoofer module so that the DVDReceiver Combo unit can be sleek and relatively small in size and footprint. Besides the subwoofer, many of these systems include either 5 cubes or satellite speakers, and offer wall brackets or speaker stands to complete the package. Some of these systems may also offer wireless rear speakers.

There is a relatively new category of HTiB, which is now available, and it is called a Soundbar. While I’ve placed it within the universe of the HTiB, it could also be considered a separate type of home audio system. The first ones that became available were offered by Boston Acoustics and Yamaha, who still produce them. Today, several manufacturers now offer this innovative type of product that places several speaker drivers and amplification into a long and somewhat narrow cabinet. It can also be tubular in shape. Soundbars can range from simply including the front left, front right and center channel speakers into one cabinet all the way up to a complete 5.1 surround system.  While some models only include speakers, other models also include amplification, video switching, or even a DVD player. The rise of the Sounbar can be directly related to the rise of flat-panel TVs.

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Dennis P. Barker - Contributing Writer
Dennis has been involved with Consumer Electronics forever it seems. His 25+-year career includes a 12-year tour of duty at Consumer Reports magazine, as well as stints as a product reviewer, market analyst, technical editor, and consultant for the electronics industry. He lives in Ossining, NY with his two children, one demanding cat and piles of A/V equipment.

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