What the best home theater system has

  • Good audio performance: Although all-in-one home theater systems often fail to sound as good as a quality audio system you assemble yourself out of separate components, most do a more than credible job -- especially with movies -- considering their cost.
  • Good video performance: If the HTIB includes a Blu-ray player, it should measure up well compared to stand-alone players in the same class. For systems without a Blu-ray player, they should be able to either pass through video signals unharmed or perform video processing without introducing undue artifacts.
  • Easy to use: Your home theater system will become the nerve center of your home theater setup, so things like a well laid-out remote and a user interface that's easy to master are critical to how likely you are to be satisfied with your HTIB.
  • Easy to set up: This is one reason that many people opt for all-in-one kits, so don't let things like obtuse manuals or too-short wires spoil the fun.

Know before you go

Is a home theater in a box right for you? Even the best all-in-one home theater kits represent a compromise over what you could assemble using discrete components, even if you purchase something in the same quality category. That could be problem if you're finicky about the system's sound quality. On the other hand, most HTIB systems perform well enough -- especially with movies -- to impress non-audiophiles.

Do you want five- or seven-channel surround sound? Five-channel surround is more common, although seven-channel surround helps place effects more accurately. While relatively few Blu-ray Discs and no TV broadcasts are encoded to support seven surround channels, many home theater receivers and HTIB systems have a signal processing mode that can recreate it. Traditionally, the extra two channels are placed in the rear of the listening room; some systems support two front "height" channels, with the speakers placed high in the front of the room.

Where will you put all those speakers? Depending on the type of home theater system you select, five to seven speakers plus a subwoofer have to fit into the decor of your listening room, and in relatively precise locations if you care about a convincing surround-sound effect. Some systems use small speakers that can effectively disappear in a room of average size. Other speakers are so large that their presence is hard to miss. If the aesthetics of speakers around the room won't fly and getting the most accurate surround sound isn't a must, consider an active sound bar instead. Several great performers are profiled in our report on sound bars.

Are upgrades on the menu? Home theater kits are built for simplicity, and some use proprietary cabling connectors that make hookup a snap. However, such proprietary connectors can make things more challenging should you want or need to upgrade or replace a component like the system's speakers sometime in the future. Other systems use standard connectors, rendering that issue moot, but they can be a bit harder to set up in the first place.

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