Home Theater in a (Pandora's) Box

Posted by Tom Hannaher , Sunday, April 12, 2009

When surround sound systems really started to take off in the early 1990s, they were often pretty complicated, patched-together affairs -- a Dolby(R) Pro Logic receiver, ramshackle combinations of different-sized bookshelf speakers, and a powered subwoofer hidden off in the corner. As laser disc players and DVD players replaced VCRs, and Dolby Digital replaced Pro Logic, center channel speakers were added.

For the average consumer, things were getting pretty complicated. Hooking up a decent system could take hours -- if not a whole day -- if you hadn't done it before. So the folks at Sony(R) came up with a brilliant idea: package an amp, tuner and DVD player all in one slim console, then bundle it with five little speakers and a compact powered subwoofer. Put the whole works in a big cardboard box. Then all we've got to do is come up with a name for it.....Home Theater In A Box!

HTIBs were wildly popular because they were affordable, reasonably small, and a LOT easier to hook up than a component home theater system. But most of them had a problem. Cheap, crappy-sounding speakers. The scary part was these speakers didn't look cheap. They looked cool and sexy, with silvery curves. Simple, cheap and visually-seducing -- what a combination.

But the fact is that then, and now, many HTIBs sound like you're listening to five really loud, really tinny TV speakers and a boomy subwoofer that just sits and thumps away the same 70Hz note, no matter what signal is sent to it. It's hard to blame the manufacturers for designing them this way. Today's consumer tends to shop with a checklist, not a pair of ears, while pushing his cart down the aisle. (It still amazes me that the store I started out in, with McIntosh amps, AR and Advent speakers, Revox tape decks and Thorens turntables evolved into a giant supermarket where people push shopping carts.) The customer tends to shop for features.... upscaling DVD player....100 watt amplifier....three HDMI inputs....sub-$500 price -- OK, I'll buy it. Even if he wanted to listen, he couldn't really give it a good test in a 60,000 square foot store. The point is that customers aren't demanding, or even asking for, good quality speakers. And they aren't getting them. They're getting lightweight, flexy-plastic cabinets with painfully-cheap speaker drivers.

And to rub salt in the wound, that DVD player that's built into your system -- well good luck on its technology staying current for more than nine months.

Call me a Luddite, but I think everybody should buy good old fashioned wood-cabinet speakers with high-quality speakers, voiced by someone who knows what they're doing. They might cost a little more. And they might not look like they belong on a space ship. But you'd be amazed how good your music, your movies, even your sitcoms can sound. And a good speaker system will last a good 10-20 years. Amortize your investment and it will cost you a couple bucks a month to get good sound.


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