While critics reserve their greatest praise for home theater systems utilizing component-grade AV receivers, those built around Blu-ray Disc players/amplifiers remain popular with consumers. The best models deliver all of the features and performance of stand-alone Blu-ray players, along with solid sound quality that might not please the pickiest of listeners but is still noticeably better than anything you'll hear over the built-in speakers in almost all TVs.
The Samsung HT-E6730W (*Est. $900) is one intriguing option if for no other reason than it uses two vacuum tubes as part of the system's pre-amps, and shows those off in a window. It's an interesting juxtaposition of new technology and old that Samsung plays up, even enhancing the vacuum tube glow with well-placed orange LEDs, reports Home Theater Magazine. However, that review says audio plays just fine with the tubes removed, making one wonder just what they do in this HTIB in the first place.
Nonetheless, most reviewers say the HT-E6730W is an overall good performer for an all-in-one kit. Highs and midranges are a step above the competition, but the subwoofer doesn't perform well and doesn't mesh with the balance of the speakers, reports say. The system is packed with features, however, and the Blu-ray player/amplifier supports both 3D and a very robust streaming platform with Wi-Fi built in.
The Samsung is also an excellent video performer. The tall-boy front speakers fill the role of standard front surrounds and host a pair of height speakers used in the system's 3D Sound feature, although some users object to Samsung's marketing of this system as 7.1 channels. The inclusion of a wireless link between the front electronics and the rear surrounds cuts down on clutter and other wiring headaches. You certainly get a lot of bells and whistles for your money, but you could also spend less and put together a home theater system that sounds as good or better, experts say.
At the other end of the pricing spectrum is the 5.1-channel Panasonic SC-BTT195 (*Est. $350) . Sonically, it's almost the mirror image of the Samsung system but with strong low-frequency performance and good continuity as sounds move up in frequency. Although its sound quality at those mid and high ranges is lackluster, it's still much better than what you'll hear from the built-in sound of just about any TV. The Blu-ray player is a very good performer, with fast load times and solid signal processing. It also packs plenty of features, including 3D and Internet streaming.
What you won't find compared to the Samsung HT-E6730W is built-in Wi-Fi or a wireless link to the rear speakers, nor those nifty vacuum tubes. The SC-BTT195 is most at home in smaller listening spaces. Setup is easy, but some users complain of too-short pre-cut speaker wires. Still, for those who want a solid, entry-level home theater system that won't break the bank, the Panasonic SC-BTT195 seems to be a top choice.