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Good speakers and the components for a home-theater system cost less than ever. But selecting separate components can be time-consuming, and connecting them can be a challenge. You can avoid some hass...

Good speakers and the components for a home-theater system cost less than ever. But selecting separate components can be time-consuming, and connecting them can be a challenge. You can avoid some hassle by buying an all-in-one "home theater in a box" system that combines a receiver with a set of matched speakers, wiring, and often a DVD player. Unless you're a serious music listener, you're likely to find the sound quality to be just fine.


Home theater packages include a receiver that can decode digital-audio soundtracks and six to eight compact speakers--two front, one center, two to four surround speakers for the rear, and a subwoofer--that have been matched for sound. You get all the cables and wiring you need, usually color-coded or labeled for easy setup.

Most systems include a progressive-scan DVD player, either built into the receiver or a separate component, and a powered subwoofer. Some bundle in a VCR as well. Price range: $200 to $1, 000 for typical systems, and $2, 000 or more for systems aimed at audiophiles. Panasonic and Sony are among the best-selling brands in the market.


The receivers in home-theater-in-a-box systems tend to be on the simple side. They usually include both Dolby Digital and DTS decoders for handling the surround sound track when playing a DVD. Controls should be easy to use. Look for a front panel with displays and controls grouped by function and labeled clearly. An onscreen display lets you control the receiver via a television screen.

Switched AC outlets let you plug in other components and turn on the whole system with one button. The receivers have about 20 or more presets you can use for AM and FM stations. Most receivers also offer a sleep timer, which turns them on or off at a preset time. Remote controls are most useful when they have clear labels and different-shaped and color-coded buttons grouped by function. A universal remote can control a number of devices.

A component-video output on the receiver that can connect to the TV allows for better picture quality if you choose to switch video signals through your receiver; however, not many receivers have such an output. Instead, most have S-video output, which is a tad below a component connection but better than a composite-video or RF (antenna) connection.

Look also for an S-video input, which lets you pipe signals from an external DVD player, digital camcorder, or certain cable or satellite boxes through the system. Any player that you might want to connect will need the same digital-audio connections, either optical or coaxial, as those of the included receiver. And if you want to make occasional connections at the front--perhaps for a camcorder or an MP3 player--you'll need front-panel inputs.

DSP (for digital signal processor) modes use digital circuitry to duplicate the sound measurements of, say, a concert hall. Each mode represents a different listening environment. A bass-boost switch amplifies the deepest sounds.

A subwoofer may be powered or unpowered. Either type will do the job, but a powered subwoofer often provides more control over bass.

An integrated DVD player, available with some models, typically has fewer features than does a stand-alone DVD player. Features to expect are track programmability (more useful for playing CDs than DVDs), track repeat, and disc repeat. If you want more features, a stand-alone DVD player may be the wiser choice.


Decide whether you want a DVD player. If not, you may save money by buying a system without one. If you want a DVD in the bundle, consider whether you need a multidisc model that will provide uninterrupted play of music CDs and DVD movies, or if a single-disc player will do. All the DVD-equipped systems we tested have a progressive-scan player. These offer regular DVD picture quality when used with a conventional TV but can deliver a smoother image when paired with a TV capable of displaying high-definition (HD) or enhanced-definition (ED) signals. Some bundled DVD players offer support for multichannel DVD-Audio and SACD music discs, although not in their original, high-resolution format.

Do you want a separate DVD player or one integrated with the receiver? Systems that integrate the DVD player and the receiver in one box tend to offer a bit less functionality and fewer connections than those that have two separate components. Integrated units are somewhat simpler to set up, but they tend to be bulkier and may not allow you to connect video devices other than a TV to the receiver. Other devices, such as a digital-video recorder, would have to be hooked up directly to the TV.

Make sure there are enough inputs. You may want to route video as well as audio signals through your home-theater receiver so you can easily switch among sources such as a VCR, cable or satellite box, and digital video recorder. Before buying, consider which devices you'll want to channel through the home-theater unit, and which ones you can hook up directly to the TV, and make sure you have enough of the appropriate inputs and outputs.

Each type of connection is capable of conveying a different level of video quality. If you'll be connecting a DVD player to your TV through the receiver, look for a model with S-video, component-video, or HDMI connections, which should give you better picture quality than a composite-video hookup.

With audio inputs, you'll need a digital-audio input for relaying undecoded digital audio from your DVD player, digital-cable box, or satellite receiver. Make sure the input on the home-theater system matches the output on the other device. Some of these units have an optical digital-audio output, while others have a coaxial digital-audio output. (An HDMI connection carries the audio along with video in one cable).

If you want to connect a turntable, see if the one you have requires a special phono input, which is hard to come by. Look for a front video input on the receiver if you want to make occasional connections, perhaps for a camcorder or a game system, and your TV doesn't have accessible front-panel inputs.

Get features that suit your needs. With any system, you can be assured of basics such as AM/FM tunes, Dolby Digital and DTS surround-sound support, and enough speakers for at least a 5.1 surround setup. Some systems now include an integrated XM satellite-radio tuner or a USB port for connecting an iPod or other portable music player so you can listen to your music through the sound system.

Extras such as switched AC outlets are less common than on component receivers, so make sure a system has what you want. An onscreen display is handy for setting up and adjusting various functions using the TV screen rather than a small display on the console. Among our tested systems, only those with a DVD player integrated with the receiver have an onscreen display.

A few models offer newer Dolby and DTS surround formats that process 6.1 or 7.1 channels, which support an additional one or two rear-surround speakers, respectively. Those formats still aren't widely used in movies but could become more common in the future.

Also consider the warranty. You may get 24-month coverage, rather than 12 months, on some models.

Copyright 2002-2006 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc.

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