HOME THEATER IN A BOX - AUDIO TIPS

Most HTIBs combine a 5.1-speaker package with an A/V receiver that has an integrated DVD player. The only missing piece is a TV. HTIB prices range from less than $300 to in excess of $3,000.

Cheap thrills

Upside: Affordable; compact; comparatively easy to set up. Downside: Won't rock the house; spotty build quality.

Budget-priced HTIBs almost always feature small speakers and subwoofers. Sound quality isn't always stellar, but some low-end HTIBs sound pretty decent.

Power ratings fall within the 25-to-50-watt-per-channel range. That's enough to fill a small room with sound; just don't expect massive loudness capability from a wee HTIB.

Polaroid DAV 3900 Surround formats are limited to basic Dolby Digital/Pro Logic II and DTS/DTS Neo:6, while connectivity options are typically restricted to just two or three A/V inputs. If you have an HD-ready TV and are looking for the best possible picture quality, make sure the DVD player has component/progressive video outputs.

Have a large collection of videotapes? A few HTIBs combine a receiver, a DVD player, and a VCR into a single component.

Upside: Elegant appearance; features galore; comparatively easy to set up. Downside: Still won't rock the house; limited bass output; sleek-looking electronics usually have limited connectivity options.

A number of manufacturers offer sleek HTIBs with petite satellites (5 inches tall or even smaller). At the other extreme, you can buy HTIBs with tall yet incredibly slender floor-standing speakers. Some HTIBs tuck their amplifiers inside the subwoofer, which allows the manufacturer to trim down the receiver/DVD player component to truly svelte sizes.

Single-play and DVD-changer models are available. Single-play models are the most compact and smoothest-running, and they tend to be the most reliable. The changers, which typically hold three to six discs, may be either single-tray-loading or carousel-style mechanisms. Tray changers can be almost as compact as the single-play models, though they're usually noisier and slower as they go about their disc-changing operations. Carousel models are faster and quieter, but the drawback is they grab a lot of shelf space; many are 17 inches wide and 15 to 18 inches deep.

Component packages

Upside: Solid build quality; features similar standalone components; generous connectivity. Downside: More involved setup; clunky component styling; speaker packages usually far below the quality (and price) of separate speakers.

Rather than combine the receiver and the DVD player in one compact unit, some manufacturers offer HTIBs built around separate components. This approach forfeits most of the space-saving allure of the classic HTIB, but there are performance advantages to the separates route.

Onkyo HT-S667C With component-based HTIBs, their larger size lets designers fit in more power and significantly greater connectivity options. Component systems provide inputs for a larger number of external sources, such as satellite, VCRs, and cassette decks, than one-piece HTIBs.

A few companies sell receiver/DVD player combos that don't come with speaker packages, which affords you the flexibility of selecting exactly the speakers that work for you.

Upside: Space-saving HTIB design still incorporates cutting-edge technology. Downside: Sometimes expensive--you might as well buy first-class separates.

The booming popularity of HTIBs shows no sign of abating, which explains why most cutting-edge trends eventually find their way to upmarket systems.

Niro Two6.1 home-theater system The latest development is DVD recorders. These HTIBs can record TV programs and dub recordings from a video camera onto DVD-R. More and more HTIBs now feature Super-Audio CD and/or DVD-Audio capability. Some high-end models, such as Niro's Two6.1 (pictured), dodge the "five speakers plus subwoofer" rule and create surround sound with fewer speakers. Some even use wireless rear speakers. Speaking of speakers, 6.1-channel HTIBs with Dolby EX/DTS ES processing are also available.

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