Home Theater in a Box:
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.

This type of speaker is especially attractive for listeners who have purchased a flat-panel display as the Soundbar can easily sit under the display, or be placed on the wall. One company – Soundmatters, for example offers an entire line of Soundbars including their MAINstage Series, FULLstageHD Series, MAINstageHD Series, and their SLIMstage Series. The SLIMstage Series, which is an LCD-thin all-in-one 5.1 surround solution for flat-panels, is available in three versions: SLIMstage30, SLIMstage40, and their newest SLIMstage50 based on the size of your TV. TheSLIM50, which is priced at $1,099, is designed for displays 50-in. and above, and includes an active/passive 12-driver array. Soundmatters’ SLIMstage40 surround bar speaker includes a 170-watt amplifier, four satellite speakers and nine bass drivers—into a 39-inch-long bar. Proprietary digital signal processing simulates a 5.1-channel surround-sound experience that isn’t just for music. As an added bonus, there’s even a front-panel input for an iPod. It costs $899.

Altec Lansing, on the other hand, offers their own innovative version of the Soundbar with their Voice of the Theater Series. Utilizing new flat-panel speaker technology, this series is designed for listeners who don’t want wires or several speakers around their living/family room to achieve 5.1 surround sound solution. The PT8051 utilizes advanced 2.4 GHz wireless technology and custom-designed NXT Digital flat-panel drivers combine to deliver five full channels of surround sound of a total of 125-watts without wires connecting the front and rear speakers. It is priced at $999

Philips, the inventor of HTiB, has raised the bar – sort of speak – with their innovative HTS8100, which is priced at $799. This 1-piece system features AmbiSound along with Dolby Digital and DTS playback, AM/FM Tuner, Faroudja DCDi video processing, HDMI connectivity, and sufficient amplification along with numerous speaker drivers. A separate subwoofer is included to complete the package. It even allows iPOD connectivity along with a USB drive so that your favorite pictures can be displayed on your TV screen.

Denon is also offering their recently announced, DHT-FS3 Active Surround Sound System, which is a stylish solution for adding great surround sound to flat-panel TVs, using X-Space surround technology. The system features a 5-channel built-in amplifier (25W/channel) as well as a separate 50W amplifier for the subwoofer. A digital display is built into the bar unit, “disappearing” behind the grill until a button on the unit or remote control is pressed. The DHT-FS3 comes complete with a remote control, cable connectors, “feet” for shelf placement as well as a wall-mounting bracket, and is priced at $1,199.

The Marantz ES7001 (or SSX system) at $1,299 packs left, center, and right speakers, digital amplifiers, surround image processing with listening position optimization, all in one very stylish aluminum enclosure. It also features HDMI and optical digital inputs, a system wide programmable remote, and is wall-mountable. An optional SW7001 subwoofer is available for $199.

Not to be outdone, Polk Audio offers their unique SurrondBar360 DVD System for $1,199. The SurroundBar360 is a two-piece surround system that contains an integrated DVD/CD player, SDA signal-processing amplifier, AM/FM radio, and several analog, digital, USB, and video inputs. It also includes HDMI connectivity, and a Faroudja DCDi upconverting circuitry that helps improves composite and S-Video signals to 480p, 720p, or 1080i.

And, Boston Acoustics offers an inexpensive Sounbar solution. Their TVee Model Two is priced at $399.99. This simple TV accessory is designed to enhance the enjoyment of TV watching. The innovative system consists of a slim single “soundbar” that can be placed above or below a television, or easily mounted on the wall, along with a matching wireless woofer that can be placed anywhere in the room to deliver added dynamic bass response.

Other Systems
Some brands, e.g. Bose, for example, also offer downsized smaller packages such as their 3-2-1 Systems that include a DVDReceiver plus only two speakers and a subwoofer. Bose has designed their 3-2-1 System so that only includes three wires, two speakers and one connection to simulate 5.1 digital audio including Dolby Digital. The 3-2-1 System has been designed to give the listener the illusion of a much broader soundstage and rear speakers that seem to be just over your shoulder. They create a full aural soundstage making the sonic images appear to surround you using psycho-acoustic effects. The small central unit can sit atop your TV or in front of (as all of the amplification and drivers are housed in either one of the speakers or the subwoofer).

Bose has also realized that there is a high-end market for high-quality systems costing upwards of $3,500 or more. Bose has several Lifestyle systems (18, 28, 35, 38, & 48 with integrated DVD) that use their patented Acoustimas modules and jewel-cube speakers along with Dolby Digital and their proprietary VideoStage 5 processing. In fact, Bose’s VideoStage 5 processing can even turn old mono TV sound (from programs like I Love Lucy) into an aural experience that sounds pleasingly multi-dimensional in scope.

In its quest to provide all types of audio solution, Sony now offers their BRAVIA Theater System Television Stand. This unique base, which is designed for Sony’s BRAVIA TVs, features integrated speakers and amplification. The RHT-G800 is the perfect all-in-one solution for displaying your TV and enjoying dramatic surround sound. Sporting an all-in-one design, the RHT-G800 is a high-end, full-featured surround sound system offering 450W Total (5x50W + 200W Subwoofer). It includes multi-channel built-in surround speakers and twin subwoofers (6 Speaker Drivers (2 5/8-in.) Plus 2 Subwoofer Drivers (6 3/8-in.)), the fully integrated system uses S-Master digital amplification and S-Force Pro front surround technology to create sound effects from behind you with no external speakers required. The RHT-G800 also features HDMI pass-through and decodes linear PCM audio to work perfectly with Blu-ray Disc media and other HD Sources. It is priced at $999.

Originally, HTiB products were considered as the poor foster-child of the audio industry. Today, they are a stable product category fulfilling the needs of folks who don’t want separate audio products. These customers want high-quality audio, ease of installation, few wires, and possibly something to complement their new flat-panel TV. HTiBs can be purchased for as little as $299 for an inexpensive system of fair quality. I may even include an integrated DVD or Blu-ray player. As well, most speaker companies today have now packaged speakers of similar timbre and are balanced together into a 5-, 6-, or 7-speaker configuration (including powered subwoofer). Both TV and audio companies now offer the Home Theater Systems so that both audio and video products complement each other. Depending on your needs and desires, most of the higher-quality systems will cost you between $800 and $1,500 embracing better quality sound in a pleasingly styled package. Some also come wrapped in very attractive futuristic silver packaging and other in striking tubular enclosures to embrace the latest technological advances in audio and video.

Manufacturers of HTiB systems now include: Bose, Boston Acoustics, Denon, Infinity, JBL, JVC, Onkyo, Marantz, Panasonic, Pioneer, Philips, Polk, Sharp, Sherwood, Sony, Soundmatters, Soundvu Teac, and Yamaha.

Years ago, we always thought that “bigger was better.” Today, however, we are learning that “the best things come in smaller packages.” Many of these integrated Home Theater Systems prove just that. So, we can now fully believe that giant robots are walking the Earth today as in “Transformers,” and they can be heard right in your living room along with whizzing helicopters, twisters, space shuttles, or Cylon space craft crisscrossing back and forth the galaxy as in “Battlestar Galactica.” Now, for better or worse, we do live in an age that many of the best movies and TV shows are “out of this world” so isn’t it wonderful that there are audio systems out there that can accompany those breathtaking visuals.