Panasonic's SC-HT680 system
Panasonic's SC-HT680 system is very affordable at less than $250.
By Columnist
updated 9/21/2005 4:02:37 PM ET 2005-09-21T20:02:37

Home theater has become big business. An industry which was once focused on just left and right channels is now also pushing center and rear speakers, amplifiers and accessories for the complete movie surround-sound experience.

You can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on your home theater audio system, including all the electronics, wires and remote controls. And that's before you get to such high-priced extras such as leather "stadium" chairs with armrest cup holders for drinks.

These high-ticket items may sound terrific. Actually, for some of the price tags I’ve seen they better sound terrific. But you don’t really have to spend tens of thousands to bring surround sound into your home. Most people don’t.

That’s why the fastest growing segment of the home audio industry is what’s known as home theater in a box, or HTIBs. Their popularity is easy to understand: For somewhere between $200 and $500 you get a system which is easy to set up and sounds pretty darned good.  Spend some more money and you get a system that sounds even better.

A home theater in a box consists of a multi-channel audio receiver, a DVD player (sometimes these first two items are housed in one enclosure), left and right speakers, a center channel speaker, left and right rear “surround" speakers and a subwoofer. A system containing 5 speakers and a subwoofer is called a 5.1 channel system. The "point one" is the subwoofer. Add a center channel rear speaker and the system now has 6.1 channels. There are even 7.1 channel systems for those who need a speaker every few feet or so.

One-channel systems
Some systems claim they can create surround sound from one box and a subwoofer. However, they're mainly aimed at people more interested in not having a bunch of speakers taking up space in their living room than in outstanding sound quality.

Niro's 1.1 Pro is one of the few one-speaker home theater systems that sound great.

Some of these systems are inexpensive and sound that way. Some are on the expensive side and are grossly overpriced.

Overall, most one-channel surround sound systems sound like a single channel of garbage — with some bass.

An exception to that rule comes from Niro, the latest company from electronics guru Niro Nakamichi (formerly of the firm with his name).  I’ve written about their early 1.1 channel systems — one of which still amazes friends when I turn it on. Their new stuff is even better.  No, you don’t get real rear surround sound effects, but you do hear some things coming from left, right front and back.

Multi-channel units
When it comes to affordable, good-sounding multi-channel units you thankfully have a lot of choices. Many are made by companies you’ve heard of — companies who’ve made their name creating beautiful music systems for decades: Sony, Panasonic, Pioneer, Kenwood, Onkyo, Samsung, Aiwa, Sharp and Yamaha to name a few.

Basically, you can’t go very wrong by starting your search with any one of these brands. You should look for a system that provides all the bells and whistles you need. The separate pieces should not dominate the room in which it will be installed. You should like the way it sounds and most of all — it should be priced correctly for your budget.

What models would I suggest looking for? Sony’s HT-5800DP home theater in a box system has a 5-disk DVD changer, a 5.1 channel receiver, 4 small speakers for corners, a center channel speaker and a subwoofer, all for around $399.

Sony's top-of-the-line DAV-LF1
Sony's top-of-the-line DAV-LF1 features infrared audio transmission— - a fancy term for no speaker wires.

Sony also makes what they call the Platinum DVD Dream system, the DAV-LF1. It features infrared audio transmission (no tangled speaker wires snaking all over the place), a DVD player that also handles SACDs and fully digital amplifiers. Sony wants $2,000 for this baby.

Panasonic has a slew of models from the $249.95 SC-HT680 system with 5-disc DVD changer and tower front speakers (see the photo at the beginning of this story) to the very spiffy looking $999.95 SC-ST1 with what they call slim, tallboy speakers.

Home theater systems from Onkyo are always receiving lots of praise about the way they sound and look. Their HT-S787C is a 7.1-channel system with a 6-disk DVD changer and oodles of features. Typical prices at online stores run in the $600 range.

Onkyo's HT-S787C system
Onkyo's HT-S787C 7.1-channel system, with 6-disk DVD changer.

One last point: please go see these systems before you buy. They all look great on a Web page or catalog but you may think differently in person. You should also hear how they sound. They don’t all sound the same.

Finally, hooking up a home theater system takes awhile. I’m pretty good at these things and I have trouble with them. I think connecting all the parts of most multi-channel systems is overly complicated and very time consuming. For me, the idea of wireless speakers is a blessing. Something to think about when you’re choosing your system.

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