Home-theater-in-a-box (HTIB) systems have a reputation problem. Though they offer convenience in spades, their audio quality has historically been a huge let-down. Combine that with the growing popularity of sound bars and dropping prices of A/V receivers, Blu-ray players and compact speaker systems, and you might get to thinking the HTIB is on its deathbed. But Samsung has other ideas.
Earlier this year, Samsung introduced a line of premium audio products featuring vacuum tubes in the pre-amp stage, including the excellent DA-E750 speaker dock and two HTIB systems which, in addition to vacuum tubes, feature upgraded speakers, wireless surround speaker transmission, Smart Blu-ray disc players and reportedly powerful digital amps. The $600 HT-E6500W, reviewed here, sits just below the top-of-the-line HT-E6730W, which adds more capable main speakers, a beefed-up subwoofer and the ability to expand to 7.1 channels. Still, the HT-E6500W appears to be a big step up from the HTIB’s of yesteryear. The question is, does this flashy single-box solution offer compelling performance improvements or is Samsung’s efforts just smoke and mirrors?
Out of the box
Samsung packages this system well, especially considering the number of parts involved. Each glossy black speaker is wrapped in a protective film, and further cloaked in foam sheets. The speakers are especially light, which caused initial concern since lightweight, plastic speaker cabinets rarely sound good. However, when we gave the speakers a rap with our knuckles, we were surprised to find the cabinets sounded relatively inert.
The subwoofer on the other hand, is made of thin plywood and failed our knock test miserably. In our experience, such construction usually yields a pretty poor-sounding sub.
The combined Blu-ray player and amp is a bit chunkier than your average Blu-ray player since it must accommodate so many components inside. With that said, it is quite a bit smaller than we’re used to seeing from HTIB systems – we can thank digital amplifier technology for that. The main box’s chassis is all glossy black plastic with a smoked glass display window and a separate smoked-glass display bay for the system’s two vacuum tubes, which can be seen glowing from the top and front of the unit when powered on.
Included with this system are a wireless surround signal transmitter and a receiver for the surround speakers. The wireless surround receiver is much larger than we expected — roughly the size of a thick book — and, because it has a little base-plate for a stand, it has to be set upright. We have a feeling this could cause some installation hassles in some situations.
The speaker wires included with the HT-E6500W are par for the HTIB course: tiny, extremely long (13 feet) and terminated on one side with proprietary plastic connectors. That means there’s no easily replacing the wire with a higher gauge, and if something happens to the plastic connector, you’re out of luck. Why can’t these systems just use little spring-clips on the back of the amp as well as the speaker?
Along with the aforementioned pieces, we also found an iPhone docking cradle, remote control, batteries, set-up microphone, and a microfiber cleaning cloth (to help remove fingerprints from that glossy black plastic).
Features and design
In an apparent attempt to make a more capable, musical speaker, Samsung has gone with a three-way, “half-tallboy” design for the front left and right speakers. Each contains a 0.75-inch silk dome tweeter and two 2.75-inch fiberglass mid-woofers with phase plugs. One of the two mid-woofers handles the midrange, while the other handles lower midbass frequencies.
The slim center channel uses the same 0.75-inch tweeter as the main speakers, but steps down the size of the mid-woofers to 2 inches. The surround speakers are roughly half the height of the front left and right speakers, and use a single 2.75-inch full-range driver. The subwoofer is passive (meaning the amp that drives it is built into the receiver) and uses a 5.25-inch woofer.
The Blu-ray player/receiver packs an interesting feature set. Inputs include two HDMI connections, a digital optical audio (Toslink) input, and one stereo pair of analog RCA plugs. Outputs include one HDMI and one composite video connection.
In addition to its built-in 3D Blu-ray player, this system offers a version of Samsung’s Smart Hub interface, which provides access to Netflix, Hulu Plus, Vudu, Pandora, CinemaNow, Vimeo, YouTube and pages upon pages of Samsung’s own apps. There’s also a Web browser built in, though it’s not very convenient to use. The HT-E6500W’s graphic user interface (GUI) is remarkably simple and intuitive. The home screen provides quick access to both physical media and network content and navigating it is a snap.
Samsung wisely includes a setup wizard in the HT-E6500W that covers the basics, including an automatic speaker calibration system which sets speaker level and speaker distance. The routine takes about three minutes and takes some hassle out of the setup process.
The remote that comes with the HT-E6500W is well conceived, and for the most part, thoughtfully laid out. A big Netflix hotkey takes residence in the center of the remote, while much smaller hotkeys for Pandora and the Smart Hub are inconveniently hidden at the bottom. Audio control is limited to general volume surround mode selection and subwoofer level. Individual channel level control is only available through the system’s setup menu. There’s no QWERTY keyboard on this remote, but a virtual keyboard does exist in Samsung’s free remote app for iOS and Android devices.
Power ratings for this system seem wildly exaggerated, with a total system power claim of 1,000 watts. That would be 165 watts to the front left and right and surround speakers and 170 watts going to both the subwoofer and center channel. We have serious doubts that this system has usable power anywhere near those claims and besides, we don’t think the included speakers would know what to do with 165 watts of peak power if they got it anyway.
It only took us about 15 minutes to get the HT-E6500W set up. While we aren’t fans of the little plastic connectors on the speaker wires, we must admit they simplify the connection process and help eliminate confusion over which speaker wire should go to which speaker.
Since each speaker is sealed and provides a keyhole mount on the back, they can be wall mounted if desired. We tested the system both with the speakers placed on an entertainment cabinet and shelves around our room as well as on the wall. We found the difference in sound quality between the two arrangements to be negligible.
The HT-E6500W’s auto calibration system was accurate in its judgment of speaker distances; however its individual channel level settings left something to be desired. Over the course of several attempts at running the routine, we found the subwoofer was consistently set too low by 2-3 db, the mains fluctuated within 1-2 db and the surrounds were consistently low by 2 db. In the end, we settled on a manual calibration of the levels using the built-in test tone generator and a handheld analog db meter.
Ease of use
The HT-E6500W is easily one of the most user-friendly systems we’ve evaluated. Not only is the GUI laid out very well, but navigation is super fast. Even loading up and pulling out of apps takes less time than we’re used to when dealing with expensive Smart TVs and high-end Blu-ray players. Speaking of apps, we liked the interface of just about all of them. It’s the little things – like the ability to fast forward and rewind Netflix content at three different speeds – that can make the difference.
We were especially pleased with the HT-E6500W’s iPhone interface. Accessing content on our iPhone using the system’s remote control was as fast and easy as it is on the iOS device itself. Album art is displayed prominently on the right side of the screen, while track navigation functions, including repeat and shuffle, are available at the bottom right.
Video output is also available while an iPod or iPhone is docked. However, video can only be viewed on-screen using the HT-E6500W’s composite video output which, of course, looks pretty lame on an HDTV.
We tested the HT-E6500W with several Blu-ray movie and music clips, a handful of CDs and some music and video files stored on our iPhone 4S. Our video monitor for this evaluation was a 37-inch Vizio LCD TV connected via HDMI and composite video. The speaker system was broken in for roughly 40 hours prior to critical listening.
We started out our listening session with some two-channel music. We dusted off a CD copy of Michael Bublés’ rather heavily produced 2005 album It’s Time, and jumped forward to the tenth track to check out Bublés treatment of the classic Motown tune, “How Sweet It Is.” This track is heavy on acoustic bass, with a closely-mic’d vocal that is set well in the front in the mix and underscored by a stellar big band. The song launches with a honky tonk-inspired solo electric guitar and slowly builds to include the entire band as Bublé makes his way through the lyrics.
We were immediately impressed by what we heard from the HT-E6500W system. Not only is it the most musical HTIB we’ve ever evaluated, it is a respectable audio system in general. As our first test track got underway, we were surprised to find that not only was the vocal full-bodied, but it possessed a life-like presence that we expect from much more elaborate systems. We heard good separation between instruments and, much to our delight, found the treble response clean and sparkling without going overboard.
But perhaps the biggest surprise was the subwoofer’s performance and the blend that was achieved between it and the front left and right satellites. Considering the subwoofer’s inexpensive construction, we anticipated some pretty muddy bass as the low frequencies. We did hear a little sympathetic cabinet resonance if we got up close and personal with the sub, but by and large, the subwoofer managed to sound musical and well integrated, if just a bit anemic in the extremely low bass region.
Further audition with music tracks repeatedly confirmed our first impressions. Diana Krall’s tell-tale voice was faithfully reproduced on her rendition of “Let’s Face the Music and Dance”, Earth Wind and Fire’s horn section was tight, brassy and full of texture on every track of the group’s “Live in Rio” recording and Jeff Beck’s mind-bending guitar work on “Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers” came across mostly uncolored and full of soul.
We then turned to some movie action to gauge the HT-E6500W’s performance reproducing dialog and explosive surround sound tracks. All of our movie selections were coded in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround, starting with Tron: Legacy. On this clip, we found the system’s surrounds were capable of some impressive output volume, though not quite as balanced a sound as the more capable front left and right speakers. On the whole the system was very dynamic, delivering high-energy scenes with big swings in volume with agility, clarity and punch.
Of course, the HT-E6500W is not without its shortcomings and the workout we gave it while watching movie selections managed to expose them. We first noticed how heavily the center channel relied on the subwoofer for lower midrange frequencies as we watched Tangled and listened closely to Zach Levi’s voice work as Flynn Rider. Though Levi’s voice is not deep by any stretch, it did drop to a point where sound had be deferred to the subwoofer. The center channel just doesn’t have the low-frequency chops to pull off the dialog information on its own, and its deferral to the subwoofer was pretty obvious. The effect was exacerbated when we popped in The Shawshank Redemption and taxed the system with reproducing Morgan Freeman’s voiceover work. It simply wasn’t realistic.
The subwoofer, while impressive considering its built-quality, has trouble getting down to the lowest octaves, an issue which we noticed more during music listening than movie watching, since it can rumble the room a bit and the visceral experience is fairly distracting.
The biggest problem we ran into with HT-E6500W came when we cranked the volume up to what we’d like to call “healthy” levels. When pushed hard, audio quality took a hit and became compressed, sometimes even shrill.
Samsung should be commended for raising the bar for HTIB systems. While the HT-E6500W can’t be considered a high-end audio system by audiophile standards, it does handily outperform most single-box solutions. If $600 seems a bit pricey for an HTIB, consider the fact that the system includes a Smart Blu-ray player worth at least $150 on its own, and pairs it with a capable, convenient audio solution with the ability to switch between two external HDMI sources. If you ask us, the HT-E6500W easily delivers $600 worth of sound, HD video and convenience in an attractive package – and we call that value.
- Impressive overall fidelity for an HTIB
- Quality music reproduction
- Includes iPod/iPhone docking cradle
- Wireless surround signal delivery
- Built-in Wi-Fi and network media access
- Audio compresses at high volumes
- Center channel leans heavily on subwoofer
- Wireless surround receiver is bulky
- Sub misses lowest octave