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Home theater made simple

Home theater in a box (HTIB) systems simplify the task of setting up the audio components of a home theater by providing everything you need in one package. That includes an audio-video (AV) receiver and enough speakers to properly enjoy the surround sound that's part of most Blu-ray Discs and HDTV broadcasts. While some home theater systems replace the receiver with a high-definition Blu-ray player and integrated amplifier, a few budget models offer just a DVD player. Systems with no disc player at all range from bare-bones options that produce audio barely better than what you can get from a TV to high-end systems with component-class receivers that give owners the flexibility of adding a Blu-ray player of their choice.

The chief advantage of all-in-one home theater systems is simplicity, reducing the buying decisions needed to get a full-blown surround-sound system to one. In addition, they typically include color-coded connections that minimize the head-scratching when it comes to wiring all of the electronics and connecting it to your TV. Most all-in-one systems are inexpensive compared to the cost of assembling a similar solution from components, including five surround speakers, a subwoofer, an amplifier or receiver and a disc player.

While performance is good -- especially for watching movies -- an HTIB generally falls short of a system you put together yourself out of discrete components. Flexibility may be limited, particularly with lower-cost systems, because you can't upgrade or replace pieces if something fails. Additional inputs for cable or satellite TV boxes and game systems may also be inadequate. Finally, just like surround-sound systems you piece together on your own, finding a spot for all of the speakers can be a challenge in some rooms.

If you're looking for a simple solution that offers better sound and ambience than TV speakers, but not necessarily a convincing surround-sound field, a sound bar like those covered in our separate ConsumerSearch report might be more appropriate. If you want to research separate components, see our companion reports on home theater speakers and home theater receivers, as well as our Blu-ray players and DVD players reports.

To find the best home theater systems, we turn to reviews from top professionals and user insights gained from extended, real-world use. We evaluate systems on several criteria, including how well they perform, how easy they are to set up and use, their design aesthetics and how much bang they deliver for the buck.

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