Thinking Inside of the Box

I?ve just nailed Eudora?s send button with a click, sending a ganged review of home-theater-in-a-box systems to my editor at a major men?s magazine. In the normal course of things I don?t go out of my way looking for excuses to review these things?let alone review a whole bunch of them at once. But the muse beckoned, strongly backed up by the state of my checking account, and soon my wisdom will hit newsstands on beautifully designed pages scented with men?s cologne.

Why wouldn?t a tech critic who specializes in home theater want to review HTiBs? Look at this way. Any literary critic worth his salt would want to review the latest from Neal Stephenson?whose three-volume Baroque Cycle I strongly recommend to anyone interested in the history of technology and some ripping yawns?as opposed to some first-time novel from a well-meaning English professor. A rap or rock critic will be more interested in the latest chart toppers than The Best of Cher. Movie buffs have better things to chatter about than the Olsen Twins. Oenophiles avoid jug wine. Food critics don?t spend much time at Burger King.

I care enough about home theater to want my readers to buy the best stuff they can get their hands on. In the real world, where none of us have the kind of folding money we dream of, that might mean a $500 receiver and an above-average sat/sub set, and I review these things with a passion, in addition to pricier products.

However, when I contemplate the HTiB category, a red flag looms. You can scale down the home theater experience only so much before the whole thing just becomes a waste of money. I don?t want my readers buying junk, seeing and hearing it for what it is, then losing interest in home theater altogether.

Here are the cons. Most HTiB systems include a DVD-receiver and powered sub?although if all 5.1 channels of amplification reside in the sub, as often happens, it?s really more of a DVD-preamp-surround-processor and sub-amp-module. Anyway, DVD drives have moving parts and die faster than other parts of the system. When the drive goes, that?s it?your system?s dead.

When you?re fitting that system into your living room you may be in for another rude awakening. You might decide to run longer speaker cables than the ones supplied?match the gauge number and you?re good to go. However it?s more than likely that the interface between DVD-preamp-surround-processor and sub-amp-module is a proprietary ribbon cable that can?t be lengthened, shortened, or replaced. Oh, your dog chewed it? Too bad, so sad?your system?s dead.

Now you understand one of the chief advantages of buying a real component system. Even if the components are cheap, they can be replaced. The upgrade path is a wide open road. There?s always hope.

No matter where in an HTiB system the amps are located, they?re likely to be underpowered. You get what you pay for. And it?s hard to build high-quality power-sucking amps into a compact system. As a result, most HTiBs can?t deliver a Lord of the Rings battle scene unless you turn them up to somewhere between 75 and 95 percent of their total volume capability. This leaves little headroom and the result is clipping and distortion. You may be able to crank it as loud as you need, but ow, ow, ow!

Got a rack full of legacy components? You may be able to plug some of them in, but not all.

How will the DVDs look on your new HDTV? Not very good?all the systems I tested flunked the American-flag test pattern that I use to spot jagged edges on rapidly moving diagonals. Anyone sophisticated enough to know what progressive scanning is (an advanced form of video processing) will find it often present but just as often lacking.

Want to hear high-resolution audio software in the DVD-Audio and SACD formats? A few HTiBs have this capability, but most don?t, so you?ll be listening to compressed alternate soundtracks (with DVD-Audio discs) or the CD layer (with SACDs). Rare is the compact system with speakers, sub, and amps that can do justice to these formats at their full resolution.

It?s not impossible for some appealing elements to find their way into an HTiB. One system I reviewed?I can?t be too specific without giving away my client?s editorial plans?included British NXT-licensed flat-panel speakers. They looked and sounded great. Unfortunately the sub that went with them did not. I had two systems with both DVD-Audio and SACD capability, and one even came with good speakers, but neither came with both good speakers and a good sub.

The one system that pleased me in every way that mattered?and there was one?cost $1799. For that you can buy separate components with the same performance and the possibility of upgrading. In other words, HTiBs can excel, but only if you?re willing to pay the price. The ?champagne performance on a beer budget? product so many consumers dream of is simply a mirage.

That?s what draws the line in the cultural divide that separates good home theater products from bad ones. Good products cost more?and that does include a higher profit margin?but they give you more longterm satisfaction for your money. The really good stuff tends to be sold in independent specialty stores, where knowledgable people talk to you and let you listen to things under controlled conditions before you buy.

There is one area, however, where HTiBs consistently beat component systems, and that?s in ease of use. They are easier to hook up. Because they have fewer adjustment options, they are easier to set up?though of course that?s a double-edged sword.

One pleasant surprise was that all the systems I reviewed sent their menus through the component video output. A lot of stand-alone receivers don?t do this, so even if you?re using the high-quality component video pathway to hook up all your components, you still need to run an S-video or composite video cable to the TV just to see the receiver menu. HTiBs can do this and regular receivers can?t? Shame!

Even so, it was a relief to send the last HTiB home and go back to my reference system, which by the way includes Paradigm Studio/20 speakers, Paradigm and Pinnacle subs, a Rotel RSX-1065 receiver, an Integra DPS-8.3 universal disc player, a Scientific-Atlanta HD cable box, and an LG HD-LCD projector.

Virtually no clipping or distortion. Silky smooth midrange, high-frequency extension. No male voices booming out of a so-called subwoofer?s six-inch driver. Deep bass. Dynamics. Imaging, soundstage, suspension of disbelief.

Home at last.

Mark Fleischmann is the author of Practical Home Theater (www.quietriverpress.com).

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.

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