Home Theater Just Got Cheap and Easy

Smaller systems provide lots of bang for the buck

It seems like only yesterday that home theaters were expensive indulgences just for movie moguls and wealthy audio enthusiasts. Anchored by a giant-screen TV and a laser-disk player, they almost demanded a separate room for housing esoteric amplifiers, projectors, video enhancers, and--especially--gargantuan speakers all around to mimic the experience of going to the movies.

No more. The astounding success of movies on DVD, with their crisp, digital pictures and surround soundtracks, is bringing home theater to the masses. And now, manufacturers have come up with inexpensive systems that combine six speakers and all the electronics you need to get started. The industry calls it "home theater in a box," and it's the fastest-growing consumer-electronics category this year. The only other component you need is a TV, and you probably already have that.

I recently set up four separate systems, ranging in price from $350 to $1,000, in my living room. I wanted not so much to review them--sound characteristics and quality are mostly a matter of individual preference--as to understand what you get for the money. My conclusion: Home theaters in a box are an incredible value.

Hundreds of these systems are on the market. Except for very low-end models, which cannot decode the Dolby Digital soundtrack that virtually all new DVDs are recorded in, they all come with five bookshelf speakers and a large subwoofer that sits on the floor to deliver the bass tones that are so important to movie special effects. The subwoofer is not an option. Because the main speakers are small, they cannot reproduce the critical bass frequencies.

The systems contain a relatively low-power AM/FM receiver for firing the speakers and feeding the video signal to the TV. Most also include a DVD player or five-disk changer, either as a separate component or, starting last year, built into the receiver. The DVD player adds only about $100 to the price. All of the new DVD players can handle CDs, including those that you've burned yourself, and most of them will play MP3 files as well.

The usual way to put together a home theater is to hook your DVD player to your home audio system. But chances are you'll need a new receiver that can switch video sources, can decode surround sound, and has enough speaker terminals. The appeal of the boxed systems is they're a snap to set up, and they take up very little space. Even enthusiasts with home theaters are buying them as a second system for a bedroom, say, or for teenagers who want surround sound for their video games.

I looked at systems from three of the top four manufacturers. Sony, with a third of the market, is the leader; I picked its $1,000 DAVC900. I also tried out Pioneer's $500 HTP-620DV, and Kenwood's $599 DVT-505. On the low end, I borrowed RCA's RT-DVD1, which retails for $350 to $400. You can get substantial discounts from Internet merchants, but beware. Shipping costs of $40 to $80 can eat up much of the savings.

You get pretty much what you pay for, but not in the way you might think. When I popped in Jurassic Park III, even the inexpensive RCA had more than enough power to bring the dueling dinosaurs uncomfortably alive in my modest-sized living room.

Where the differences show is in the accessories and the flexibility and features of the electronics. All of the systems come with speaker cables, for instance, but RCA and Kenwood provided cables so short that I couldn't get the separation between the front speakers that I wanted.

Another example: You'll need to place the speakers, front and rear, at more-or-less ear level. That means you'll need bookshelves, a home entertainment unit, or tables to raise them. You can also consider a system that includes speaker stands. You can always buy them separately, but then you have cords dangling from the speakers. The $1,000 Sony system comes with four three-foot-tall metal stands that are pre-wired for the speakers: The cable plugs into the base of the stand.

The options on the audio-video receiver are equally important. Besides Dolby Digital, there's a second surround-sound format called DTS, for Digital Theater System, that some experts consider superior. If you own DVDs encoded in DTS, you'll want to make sure the system can handle them. Only RCA's couldn't.

The best way to evaluate the receiver is to look at the connectors on the back. Generally, the more the better. All the systems come with a composite video output to connect to your TV. If a better picture on your TV matters, you should look for a round S-video connection or, better yet, a component video output, a grouping of three red, blue, and green plugs. (You'll have to buy the cables separately; make sure your TV can accept them.)

Even with the inexpensive systems, you'll be able to hook up a satellite or digital cable receiver and a VCR. If you want to add other audio components, such as CD players and cassette tape decks, make sure the system has enough input and output jacks. Pay particular attention to the number and type of digital audio connectors. Optical ones, which transmit the signals over fiber-optic cables, are the best. They look like little square jacks on the back of the unit, and are often protected with a plastic pin or cover that's stuck in the hole. You'll need the digital inputs to connect digital sources, such as CD and DVD players and digital satellite and cable set-top boxes. If you plan on recording to a CD or DVD burner, you'll need a digital output as well.

Take a good look at the remote control. I found that it's often the weakest part of the system. Are the buttons big enough? Are they laid out in an organized, easy-to-remember fashion? Remember, it's going to be dark in your home theater. Ironically, my favorite was the remote that came with cheapest system: RCA's had an hourglass shape that best fit my hand and big, clearly marked buttons. Compare that with Pioneer's maze of tiny, identically shaped buttons laid out as a grid.

When you get your system home, you'll find it's a breeze to set up. All the speaker cables are color-coded, and the quick-start guides are good enough that you probably won't even need to crack open the owner's manual. You should, though, particularly if your comfiest chair isn't the same distance away from all the speakers. You'll be able to tune each speaker's loudness and delay--the time it takes for the sound from each speaker to reach your ears--to fit your room's layout.

At some point, you may want to head back to the store for some minor tweaks. Your shopping list: a heftier grade of speaker cable, especially for the cheaper systems, and an S-video or component video cable for a better connection to the TV. And, oh yes, this time don't forget the popcorn.

By Larry Armstrong

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