Sad but true: Great sound and home theater-in-a-box systems rarely go together.
HTIBs are the province of "good enough" performance and features, but I'm totally jazzed about these two exceptional models: Samsung's HT-BD1250 and Onkyo's HT-S9100THX.
Looking at the Samsung HT-BD1250 Blu-ray Home Theater System ($550 MSRP) it doesn't exactly stand out in a field of black plastic HTIBs. But once I listened to the thing I knew Samsung had a real winner.
The HT-BD1250 sounds great on music and movies, with remarkably good clarity, bass extension/definition, and low overall distortion. Even high-impact, special-effects driven flicks didn't betray the wee speakers and subwoofer weaknesses. Sure, play a Blu-ray really loud or try to fill a very large room and the HT-BD1250 will cry uncle. But in average size rooms, the HT-BD1250 should satisfy most home theater fans.
Rocking out with the Rolling Stones "Shine A Light" Blu-ray the band's punch and impact came through like gangbusters. The HT-BD1250 sounds noticeably less dynamically compressed than HTIBs with similarly sized speakers and subwoofers.
Few HTIBs of any size can sound credible with solo piano CDs, but the HT-BD1250 truly shined with Joel Fan's excellent "West of the Sun" release. The naturalness of piano tone was striking, and even the lower register keys had just the right weight. I credit that to the HT-BD1250's subwoofer, its refined sound perfectly matched the satellites. The sats kept up their part of the bargain, delivering effortless midrange and treble resolution.
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While the Onkyo HT-S9100THX ($1,099) is sold as a single box system, its performance is nearly on par with a component grade system of comparable value.
Even before you hear it you can see the HT-S9100THX doesn't have much in common with your typical sleek plastic HTIB. First, it's a 7.1 system with full-size, two-way speakers and a 290-watt, 12-inch subwoofer. The package also features a full-blown AV receiver (it's very similar to Onkyo's TX-SR606 receiver), with four HDMI inputs and onboard decoding for Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio.
If you have the space and demand outstanding sound quality, the Onkyo HT-S9100THX is about as good as it gets for an HTIB. It totally stomps the Samsung HT-BD1250, but the Onkyo is a lot bigger and more expensive.
I haven't always been happy with the "improvements" rendered by auto EQ systems, but in this case the Audyssey 2EQ very significantly enhanced the HT-S9100THX's sound.
The Pride and Glory Blu-ray quickly established the HT-S9100THX's home theater prowess. Edward Norton stars as Ray Tierney, a New York City police detective investigating the murder of four officers. It's a gritty urban drama, but the very first scene at a football game features a heavy surround mix that put me inside the game. The seven speakers together projected a huge sound field, so the crowd's cheers and screams were amazingly realistic. Later, when Norton's back on the street the din of sirens and traffic coming from all around added to the urgency of the film's story. If you have enough room to properly set up all seven speakers, go for it.
The HT-S9100THX's CD sound was also way above par. The orchestral score for the film Perfume was downright lush. The clarity of the strings was exceptional, and when the cellos and basses dig in, you feel it. Rock albums demonstrated the system's capability to play loud without strain, and not only was the subwoofer powerful, its definition was state of the art.
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