Holidays 2006: The Season's Best Home-Theater-In-A-Box Systems

With all the talk about screen resolutions on HDTV sets, people tend to forget about the other important part of the high-def experience: 5.1-channel surround sound. So if you’ve got yourself a sweet plasma, LCD, projector, or rear-projection HDTV and you’re rocking the built-in speakers (though we know there are some good ones out there) you’re doing you and your loved ones a serious disservice by using them.

To help you out, ‘cause that’s how we do, we put together this run down of eight of our favorite home-theater-in-a-box systems (HTIB, pronounced “HTIB”). Are they as good as buying individual components to handle your media needs? No, probably not. True audiophiles and film freaks will probably want to go with individual specialized components, especially if you’re trying to fill a large room with mind-blowing, bone-rattling sound. Will they pump out satisfying surround sound for the average music-and-movie enthusiast? Absolutely.

To make things easier, we broke them down by a single, unique feature—be it price point, looks, size, or connections/options. They’ll all provide good sound for movies and music, but as always, some perform better than others. Also, we didn’t load this feature up with products that are so new you won’t be able to find a deal on them come next week when Black Friday rolls around.

The well-rounded one: Yamaha YHT-670
There always has to be that one system that does a little bit of everything at a decent price with no sacrifices in quality and sound. The Yamaha YHT-670 is it. The package includes a 5.1-channel speaker setup, but the receiver can handle an additional rear, center-channel speaker for 660 watts of 6.1 surround sound.

Along with having plenty of I/O options, though HDMI is unfortunately absent, the receiver is XM Ready and there’s an iPod dock available for a direct connection to your MP3 collection. Oh, and you get a five-disc DVD changer as well that’s compatible with DVD video, VCD, SVCD, Picture CD, Audio CD, MP3, JPEG, and WMA discs. $599

The budget one: Panasonic SC-HT940
A home theater system for less than $500 that’s actually worth buying? Yep, and a quick Internet search will net you one for as low as $350. The SC-HT940 features two wall-mountable tall-boy speakers, a center-channel, a subwoofer with a 6.75-inch speaker, and two rear satellites that can be connected wirelessly with Panasonic’s $100 SH-FX60 wireless radio receiver.

The five-disc DVD player/receiver combo is light on inputs and outputs, but does have an HDMI out that supports upconversion of 480p content to 1080i/720p. And while you shouldn’t expect super sound quality at this price, this set shouldn’t disappoint the average listener. $449

The high-end one: Onkyo HT-S990THX
If you’re looking for the best sound, stop here. The speakers are bigger than most satellites you’ll find in HTIB sets, but if you don’t care, neither do we. You don’t get a DVD player, but that just means Onkyo put the money towards better things.

For instance the 7.1-channel speakers and full THX processing capabilities (THX Cinema2, THX Music Mode, THX Games Mode). And while other receivers might not have the punch to support four surrounds, rear and front center channels, and a 12-inch cone subwoofer, this one does. Even at high volumes.

Connections are plentiful, but sadly HDMI is nowhere to be found. It is XM ready however, and can be used with an optional iPod dock. $1,099

The next-gen one: Samsung HT-TQ85
Samsung’s got a real winner with the HT-TQ85: Lots of features (XM ready, five-disc DVD changer, USB port for connecting an MP3 player), good looks, and, as far as we know, the only HTIB with HDMI output and input.

The HDMI output allows the DVD player to upscale standard DVDs to 1080i/720p and supports all manner of discs including DVD-Audio and DivX discs. The input means you can connect your PS3 or high-def cable box directly to the unit for single-cord throughput of video and audio. $699

The single-speaker one: SoundMatters FULLstageHD
There is a handful of good, single-speaker, virtual 5.1 surround sound units on the market, but SoundMatters’ is one of the smallest. The set combines the company’s MAINstage speaker/amplifier combined with its low-profile SUBstage 100 subwoofer.

It has two digital inputs (coaxial and optical), one analog stereo input, and one 3.5mm input jack for connecting an MP3 player or other audio device. The virtual surround works remarkably well, especially in a small room where the sound can accurately bounce off walls. But if you decide you want to add more of an actual surround sound, you can connect another MAINstage and SUBstage. $599

The tiny-but-full-featured one: Denon S-301
If you’re really tight on space and looking for a solid, if expensive, solution to most every media need, the Denon S-301 is what you want. The compact DVD player/receiver is combined with a sweet-sounding set of stereo speakers and a 7-inch subwoofer. You won’t get full surround sound, but it does a convincing job of creating virtual surround.

You can output video and audio via HDMI and the player will upconvert to HD resolutions. There is a nice selection of other I/O ports, including a USB connector for digital audio players and when used with an iPod, you can view your collection on screen, and control it with the included remote. $1,399

The sexy one: Philips HTS9800W/37
A setup that’ll make people ohh and ahh when they walk in the room, the Philips HTS9800W/37 combines unique design, a good feature set, and 6.1-channel Dolby Digital EX sound.

The speakers are wall-mountable and the rear speakers are wireless, so there’s fewer cables running across the room. You’ll find many of the same features as the other systems here (HDMI out with 1080i upscaling, support for multiple disc types including SACD), but they’re packed into a slim, streamlined component that can also be mounted to a wall. $799

The wireless one: Sony DAV-FX900W
Yes, we know there are other sets here with wireless rear speakers, but the Sony DAV-FX900W is the only one that doesn’t use radio signals to handle the task. Radio signals can pick up interference and potentially suffer from audio degradation. Not so with Sony’s Digital Infrared Audio Transmission (DIAT) technology.

DIAT uses infrared, and although the speakers rely on line-of-sight to work, signal integrity of HDTV and SACD audio remains intact. This HTIB doesn’t skimp in other areas either, and looks pretty great to boot. $899