By Kevin Hunt
The Hartford Courant
The home-theater-in-a-box, like the movies, often deals in altered reality. It promises a complete home theater - DVD player, receiver and speakers - in a single box at a single price, but the accent is on convenience, not performance.
In that single box, the buyer is more likely to find low power, high distortion and no-name, plasticized speakers that have a hard time distinguishing Donald Trump from Donald Duck. You call this home theater?
Here's a suggested $1,000 (street price) home theater - three brand names, three boxes - that no single-box system anywhere close to the price can match in quality, performance, features and upgrade potential.
Yamaha RX-V650 ($499 retail; $450 street): The audio-video receiver, a home theater's command center, handles all controls, processing and amplification. It's a big job that requires a big chassis, not a shared space with a DVD player in a pizza-box shell like the DVD receivers found in HTIB systems.
The Yamaha RX-V650 gets the call here because it's even easier to set up than the receiver in a one-box system.
To function properly, a home theater's speakers must have matched sound levels to ensure, for instance, that dialogue isn't obscured by special effects. If setting the time on a VCR is a challenge, you don't want to know what it takes to match speaker levels. (Hint: To get it right, start with test tones and a sound-level meter.) The RX-V650 does it automatically with the Yamaha Parametric Room Acoustic Optimizer, which, among other things, identifies the size of your speakers, sets speaker distance, matches volume levels and even makes sure your speakers are wired properly.
All you do is place a tiny microphone at your favorite seat, connect the mike to a mini-jack on the RX-V650 and then let it analyze test signals sent from the receiver. Now you'll have a properly balanced, expertly calibrated, system.
The RX-V650, of course, does much more. It's a 7.1-channel receiver that puts out 95 watts per channel. The 7.1 breaks down to seven speakers and a subwoofer, a limited-frequency channel that feeds the subwoofer designated as the lowly point-one.
For this system, we'll start with five speakers and a subwoofer. Later, we can add a rear-surround speaker or even two for DVDs with Dolby-EX or DTS-ES soundtracks. You won't find these multichannel formats on basic HTIB systems.
Athena Micra 6 Home Theater Speaker System ($550 retail; $500 street): A great little system with five silver satellite speakers the size of a Nerf football, a low-profile center-channel speaker and a subwoofer tower trimmed in black with an easy-access volume control on the front panel.
Like the Yamaha receiver, the Micra 6 has eliminated the most difficult setup adjustment. The subwoofer has a custom-tuned crossover circuit that extracts low-frequency sounds headed for the satellites and automatically delivers them to the sub. All you do is adjust the volume.
The speakers also have built-in swivel brackets, so they can be mounted easily on a wall and pivoted to the desired position.
Athena is part of Canadian speaker giant Audio Products International Corp., whose brands include Mirage, Energy and Sound Dynamics. API is one of the few manufacturers that haven't ignored the $500 home-theater speaker system. It makes the Micra 6 an easy choice.
Toshiba SD-3960 ($90 retail; $70 street): A home theater, despite its name, isn't just for movies. Music should sound just as good as a DVD's soundtrack. The new SD-3960 and its predecessor, the SD-3950, have lit up Internet audio forums with testimonials about their surprising sonic qualities. The SD-3950 is still around for less than $50, which would put this system under the prescribed $1,000.
But reward yourself for being such a smart shopper. Go for the SD-3960. Then ask the salesman if he can take a little more off the Yamaha or Athena.
And if you're still stuck on an HTIB, try one of these: the Cambridge SoundWorks MegaTheater 505 ($550) or the Samsung HT-SK6 Digital Home Theater system ($1,000), which matches Samsung electronics with the superb Klipsch Quintet II speaker system.
© 2004, The Hartford Courant
Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.