Although most enthusiasts shy away from "home theater in a box" systems because of their limited flexibility and modest power specs, there's no denying their popularity. People love the idea of being able to buy a simple speakers-plus-electronics package that provides everything they need to enjoy movies and music in surround sound. Hook the system up to your TV, and you're ready to roll. In fact, some one-box systems are so easy to set up that even dyed-in-the-wool A/V geeks use them as secondary systems in small rooms and recommend them to nongeek friends who want hassle-free home theater.
Having recently moved to a smaller house - and given up a state-of-the-art THX home theater in the process - I was interested in finding out if any of today's compact, self-contained systems could provide the intensity and excitement I've come to expect. Skipping over "starter" systems that sell for a few hundred bucks, I instead rounded up moderate-price packages from Kenwood/ Boston Acoustics, Onkyo, and Sony. The Kenwood/Boston and Sony systems list for $1,000, while the Onkyo rig goes for $1,300. I hooked up each system to my 42-inch widescreen high-definition TV (HDTV) and gave it a thorough workout using both music and movie DVDs as well as plain old stereo CDs. After all, a good surround setup should be able to hold its own with music, too.
Starting with movies, I chose the DVD of Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now Redux (Paramount Home Video) to see how close these systems could come to turning my cozy family room into a capacious theater. The disc includes footage missing from the original theatrical release in a remastered video transfer supervised by Coppola. It challenges a home theater system the way the Vietnam War challenged the film's protagonist, Captain Willard. Intense colors and fast action tested the mettle of the DVD players, while the equally spectacular soundtrack exercised the speakers with a broad palette of sounds ranging from choppers, bombs, and machine guns to Morrison, Jagger, and Wagner.
Before we get into my impressions of how well these systems performed, it's important to point out that all three of them offer features I wouldn't have expected given their size and price. For example, all provide component-video outputs, which will give you noticeably better DVD images than with S-video connections on large TVs equipped with matching inputs. All include digital audio inputs and outputs for adding such components as a CD recorder, digital satellite receiver, or cable box. And all perform full Dolby Digital and DTS decoding as well as providing several ambience modes that spruce up stereo program material for multichannel playback. The only thing missing from the boxes each of these systems came in was a TV and a set of component-video cables.
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