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Just Add Television

We vote these home-theater systems the new speakers of the house.

These days, watching movies -- especially explosive action flicks like XXX or Die Another Day -- is just as much about the sound as it is the visuals. But the chest-rattling explosions of a megaplex turn positively wimpy when watching a film through your TV's dainty speakers.

With the arrival of inexpensive DVD players and multi-channel (surround sound) audio-video (A/V) receivers, consumers now have a practical way to re-create the movie-theater experience at home. Call it Vroom With a View.

But who has the patience to go shopping for all the different components? How do you know the receiver is a good match for the speakers? And all those cables and wires.... Isn't there a simpler way to set up a home- theater system?

There is. For as little as $500 -- TV not included -- you can get a surprisingly good home theater in a box (HTIB). HTIB systems typically include a surround-sound A/V receiver, five full-range speakers (front left, front right, front center, plus left and right surround), and a subwoofer for capturing every wall-shaking rumble. This is usually called a 5.1-channel sound system, with the subwoofer getting the fractional .1 designation. (All systems marked ''Dolby Digital'' are 5.1-channel systems.) Many of these HTIB systems also include a DVD player. Just add your TV and you've got a home theater!

Well, it's not quite that easy, since not all HTIB systems are created equal. So how do you pick the one that's right for you?

First, set a budget and stick to it. Generally -- but not always -- the more you spend, the better the system. Before you go shopping, take some time to get to know both your TV and the room in which you'll be setting up the home theater. For example, what kind of connectors does your TV have? If you've got one of the new digital TVs, you want to choose an HTIB system that has state-of-the-art digital optical audio and video outputs.

Speakers are the most important part of any HTIB system. Important, but not very decorative: Most will never be mistaken for objets d'art. And, with the exception of the subwoofer (a boxlike contraption that sits on the floor), you can't hide them and expect them to sound good. Small speakers -- some are not much larger than your fist -- are easier to camouflage, but most small speakers sound, well, small.

Even if you have to deal with an eyesore, you shouldn't forget all your senses. Although almost every HTIB system comes awash in confusing specifications and unintelligible phrases, the only reliable measurement of a system's performance is its sound. There's no substitute for listening to the system in the store. Bring along your favorite DVD movie and audio CD. If you burn your own MP3 discs, or have a DVD music video, bring those along, too. Don't be shy about cranking up the volume in the store. Does the subwoofer buzz at high volumes? Does the audio get distorted?

Another factor to consider is high-definition music. Two rival formats, Super Audio CD (SACD) and DVD-Audio (DVD-A), are battling to become the multichannel successors to today's audio CDs. (It's very much like the VCR battle in the 1970s between Sony's Betamax and the eventual winner, VHS.) SACD and DVD-A are both superior to CDs, but at this point nobody knows which format will prevail. If music is important to you, and you want to take advantage of all those speakers in your room -- and if you're in a gambling mood -- look for an HTIB system that supports either SACD or DVD-A. (None of the systems listed here have SACD or DVD-A capabilities.)

To make things simpler, we've chosen our favorite HTIB systems in three price ranges: indie (up to $500), big budget (up to $1,000), and Jerry Bruckheimer (up to $1,500). Remember, everyone's ears and listening preferences are different. However, these systems are good starting points for comparison shopping.

Beyond a budget of $1,500, I'd recommend working with hi-fi specialists to tailor a home-theater system to meet your personal listening tastes and habits.

Originally posted Feb 14, 2003 Published in issue #695 Feb 14, 2003 Order article reprints
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