Home Theater in a Box

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What Works for You

Different HTiB units suit different rooms--and different personal preferences. Here are some things to think about before you buy.

Features: The two most important factors in the home theater experience remain unchanged: audio and video. Most units come with Dolby Digital and 5.1 speakers for theaterlike sound. Most also offer progressive-scan video output for an even crisper and more color-accurate picture (you will need a TV that supports this output, though).

Less-common features that may appeal to you include an integrated VCR, such as the one in Toshiba's SD-V55HT home theater, and a network connection, such as the one in Gateway's KAS-303.

Power vs. sensitivity: Manufacturers love to boast about the power, or wattage, that a unit can put out. But don't ignore speaker sensitivity. The higher the speaker's sensitivity, the more it can do with the signal sent to it. For example, a speaker with 91-decibel sensitivity can sound just as loud with a 50-watt amplifier as a speaker with 88-dB sensitivity sounds when paired with a 100-watt amp.

Space: The size of your room should help determine the kind of system you buy. If you plan to set up your HTiB in a small bedroom, you won't need very much power from the amplifier to fill it, and the speakers must be sufficiently small to fit inside it. On the other hand, a large media room will need a powerful amplifier capable of producing sound at high volume without distorting it, and speakers that can handle the output, such as those in Onkyo's HT-S777C or Gateway's KAS-303 kit. Component size matters, too. Philips's slim and sleek LX3750 takes up a minimal amount of shelf space, compared with the Onkyo HTiB's bulky separate components.

Port report: Toshiba's $299 SD-V55HT (top) comes with relatively few inputs and outputs, making it a poor choice for future expansion, while Onkyo's HT-S777C offers a generous helping of ports.
Port report: Toshiba's $299 SD-V55HT (top) comes with relatively few inputs and outputs, making it a poor choice for future expansion, while Onkyo's HT-S777C offers a generous helping of ports.
Expandability: Think about the future. You may want to add a recordable DVD drive, an HDTV receiver, or another high-tech home theater device to the system over the course of the next few years. If that kind of flexibility is important to you, look on the back panel for additional inputs. Onkyo's HT-S777C supplies numerous video-out and -in connections, whereas Toshiba's SD-V55HT provides relatively few ports.

Making a connection: The speaker wires that come with the Philips LX3750 have large plastic terminals that are exceptionally easy to hook up.
Making a connection: The speaker wires that come with the Philips LX3750 have large plastic terminals that are exceptionally easy to hook up.
At the very least, you'll want one additional digital audio input for a device such as a digital-cable box, and probably a few analog RCA jacks for handling older equipment like your VCR. Certain vendors support easier hookups than others do: The wires accompanying Philips's LX3750 has large plastic terminals for easy connections to its ports.

On-screen display: All home theater systems require some tweaking to achieve optimum sound quality in your room. Check the on-screen display to ensure that it makes sense to you. For example, you're going to have to adjust the volume of each speaker to create the right balance of sound, based on how far the speaker is from where you sit.

Toshiba's OSD is remarkably easy and flexible to use, and it has an attractive visual display. In contrast, the Panasonic display offers limited flexibility: You have to adjust the center, right-front, and left-front speakers separately, rather than as a group.

Style: A home theater is difficult to hide, so make sure that you like the way it looks. I loved the rounded edges and cylindrical speakers of Philips's LX3750, which would have gone smashingly with my contemporary decor, while the Gateway KAS-303 system's champagne exterior radiated opulence and luxury.

One final tip: Keep the receipt. You won't know how an HTiB works in your room until you try it out there. Make sure you can return it if it doesn't fit or sound right.

Chart: Home Theater Sets: Convenient, Feature Rich

Freelance writer Michael Gowan covers music, technology, and consumer electronics for various publications.

This story, "Home Theater in a Box" was originally published by PCWorld.

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