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Home theaters in a box are all the rage
Gary Krakow

Home theater has become big business. An industry which was once focused on just left and right channels is now also pushing center and rear speakers, amplifiers and accessories for the complete movie surround-sound experience.
You can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on your home theater audio system, including all the electronics, wires and remote controls. And that's before you get to such high-priced extras such as leather "stadium" chairs with armrest cup holders for drinks.
These high-ticket items may sound terrific. Actually, for some of the price tags I've seen they better sound terrific. But you don't really have to spend tens of thousands to bring surround sound into your home. Most people don't.
That's why the fastest growing segment of the home audio industry is what's known as home theater in a box, or HTIBs. Their popularity is easy to understand: For somewhere between $200 and $500 you get a system which is easy to set up and sounds pretty darned good. Spend some more money and you get a system that sounds even better.
A home theater in a box consists of a multi-channel audio receiver, a DVD player (sometimes these first two items are housed in one enclosure), left and right speakers, a center channel speaker, left and right rear "surround" speakers and a subwoofer. A system containing 5 speakers and a subwoofer is called a 5.1 channel system. The "point one" is the subwoofer. Add a center channel rear speaker and the system now has 6.1 channels. There are even 7.1 channel systems for those who need a speaker every few feet or so.
One-channel systems
Some systems claim they can create surround sound from one box and a subwoofer. However, they're mainly aimed at people more interested in not having a bunch of speakers taking up space in their living room than in outstanding sound quality.
Some of these systems are inexpensive and sound that way. Some are on the expensive side and are grossly overpriced.
Overall, most one-channel surround sound systems sound like a single channel of garbage - with some bass.
An exception to that rule comes from Niro, the latest company from electronics guru Niro Nakamichi (formerly of the firm with his name). I've written about their early 1.1 channel systems - one of which still amazes friends when I turn it on. Their new stuff is even better. No, you don't get real rear surround sound effects, but you do hear some things coming from left, right front and back.
Multi-channel units
When it comes to affordable, good-sounding multi-channel units you thankfully have a lot of choices. Many are made by companies you've heard of - companies who've made their name creating beautiful music systems for decades: Sony, Panasonic, Pioneer, Kenwood, Onkyo, Samsung, Aiwa, Sharp and Yamaha to name a few.
Basically, you can't go very wrong by starting your search with any one of these brands. You should look for a system that provides all the bells and whistles you need. The separate pieces should not dominate the room in which it will be installed. You should like the way it sounds and most of all - it should be priced correctly for your budget.
What models would I suggest looking for? Sony's HT-5800DP home theater in a box system has a 5-disk DVD changer, a 5.1 channel receiver, 4 small speakers for corners, a center channel speaker and a subwoofer, all for around $399.