If you're looking to get a sound system to complement a new flat-panel TV, a home-theater-in-the-box (HTIB) system is an easy solution. These systems typically contain everything you need—a receiver, and five or seven speakers, plus a subwoofer—in a single package. Many systems now include an integrated Blu-ray player, although models with standard DVD players remain popular.
HTIB systems are typically simple to set up, with color-coded cables for easy connections, and they come with sonically matched speakers, taking the guesswork out of trying to timbre-match speakers for tonal consistency. While some of the less expensive HTIBs remain fairly basic systems, we're seeing more models with extra features, such as the ability to stream movies from Amazon Video On Demand or Netflix, automatic calibration for speaker set-up, or the option of using wireless rear speakers or subwoofers.
Some models come with, or can accept, iPod docks, enabling you to route music stored in iTunes through the system.
There are several types of HTIB systems. Our latest home theater Ratings (available to subscribers) contain models that come with a Blu-ray player, some with a standard DVD player, and others that have no video disc player at all. In addition, we reviewed four "soundbar" systems, which generally consist of a long, slender bar, which can sit above or below a TV, that houses the speakers and electronics, plus a subwoofer. One of the soundbars in our HTIB Ratings has a built-in Blu-ray player, while another has a DVD player.
In our latest HTIB Ratings, you'll see that prices can vary wildly. The lowest-priced model in our Ratings, an RCA system with a DVD player, costs just $160, while the priciest (and highest-rated) model, a 7.1-channel system from Onkyo that has no video disc player, costs $800.
Perhaps the best news for prospective buyers is that there are now several models in our Ratings with very good sound-quality scores, a marked difference from our previous Ratings. And many models with built-in Blu-ray or DVD players scored well in our video tests. So check out our HTIB Ratings to make sure you get a system that will satisfy all your needs.
—James K. Willcox