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Home-theater-in-a box systems can deliver great sound

Consumer Reports News: September 10, 2012 04:38 PM

For most of us, home-theater-in-a-box systems—which package all or nearly all the components you'll need for a home-theater setup into a single package—are an easy and convenient way to add better sound to our TVs. But while convenience, and often price, are the key considerations with HTIBs, that doesn't mean you have to give up on great sound: In our most recent tests, we found two systems that delivered excellent overall sound quality, which should satisfy both movie fans and even the more finicky critical listeners who'll be using the system for music.

One of the two HTIBs is a fairly pricey 5.1-channel system from Bose ($1,800), which comes without a Blu-ray disc player. The other is a 7.1-channel system from Samsung with an integrated Blu-ray player that costs about $800, that while not inexpensive, is still less than half the price of the Bose.

Both systems offer sound that can rival separate components. Since the Bose doesn't have a built-in disc player and has very good source-switching capabilities, it's a good choice if you already have a video player or want to add one at a later date. The system comes with a main console with a good amount of inputs, five small satellite speaker arrays, and a powered subwoofer. It comes with a microphone and an automatic audio calibration system that will let you very effectively fine-tune the system to your room's acoustics.

For those wanting to add a Blu-ray player to the mix, the 7.1-channel HTIB from Samsung includes an integrated 3D-capable Blu-ray player that can play 3D Blu-ray discs and also pass through and switch 3D video signals, such as those from a cable or satellite set-top box, to a 3D TV. Other features include Internet access to streaming movies and TV shows from services such as Blockbuster, Hulu Plus, and Netflix, as well as Pandora Internet radio. It has built-in Wi-Fi for connecting to a home network, and comes with an iPod dock, and wireless amplifiers for the rear surround speakers. Unlike most 7.1-channel systems, it has only one pair of rear speakers, but uses an array of drivers in the floor-standing front speakers to create "height" channels.

If you don't require top-notch sound, you'll find a wider selection of choices, and lower prices, in the Ratings. For example, the least expensive system without a Blu-ray player that has very good sound—a Yamaha model—costs just $330. And a Samsung system with an integrated Blu-ray player and very good sound is $380.

If you're looking for something even simpler, less intrusive, and cheaper, consider a soundbar speaker system, which places all the a speakers in a single, narrow enclosure that sits below the TV. Many models come with a wireless subwoofer for improved bass. The least expensive model in our Ratings, from Vizio, costs just $165.

If you're looking to add better sound to to your TV, let us know the type of home-theater system—separate components, an HTIB, or a soundbar speaker—you're looking for, and why. And if you get one, let us know how you like it.

James K. Willcox

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