Leave it to Bose to buck the current fashion that calls for more and more speakers in home theaters. The signal processing built into the company's 3-2-1 Home Entertainment System gives the impression of surround sound from just two small satellites and a subwoofer. Although you won't mistake this pseudosurround for the full-fledged surround of a more complete home theater in a box (HTIB), you may be willing to accept the 3-2-1's sonic shortcomings because of its simplicity. Leave it to Bose to buck the current fashion that calls for more and more speakers in home theaters. The signal processing built into the company's 3-2-1 Home Entertainment System gives the impression of surround sound from just two small satellites and a subwoofer. Although you won't mistake this pseudosurround for the full-fledged surround of a more complete home theater in a box (HTIB), you may be willing to accept the 3-2-1's sonic shortcomings because of its simplicity.
Between the well-written manual and the setup poster showing how to connect the system's two small, 3.5-by-7.75-by-5.4-inch speakers, the Acoustimass subwoofer, and the combination DVD player and AM/FM tuner, the setup is a breeze. The DVD/tuner box is smaller than most DVD players. However, the 3-2-1 System employs a proprietary Y-cable to connect the speakers to the DVD/tuner, which may limit where you can place the speakers in your room. A 10-foot proprietary cable connects the DVD/tuner box to the subwoofer.
The DVD/tuner can decode Dolby Digital and DTS movies, as well as MP3 CDs. Bose is really promoting this system's simplicity, so it should come as no surprise that only basic connectivity options are built into the system. There's one composite and one S-Video input. If you have two devices that have only composite-video outputs, such as a VCR and a game console, you won't be able to connect both to the 3-2-1. To connect the system to your TV, there's a composite and an S-Video output. For a list price of $999, we expect component video outputs. But unless your TV is larger than 32 inches, you'll find the video performance acceptable. For audio connections, there's one optical digital audio input, as well as two coaxial digital audio inputs. We'd prefer to trade a couple of those digital audio inputs for more video inputs.
Bose doesn't claim that the 3-2-1 System is the equal of a full-blown six-speaker rig. But we have to give Bose credit for creating a big sound field out of such small speakers. As we watched the Fantasia 2000 and Jurassic Park III DVDs, we were enveloped by music and sound effects. However, accurate sound placement was another story. During the intro to the "Pomp and Circumstance" segment of Fantasia 2000, Mickey Mouse's voice should appear from all four corners of a room. Though the voice seemed to come from somewhere other than the front of the room when it was supposed to be behind us, we could never really figure out where it was coming from. Listening to surround-sound tests from the Video Essentials DVD, where both white noise and a human voice move in a 360-degree circle around the room, confirmed our initial perception that the 3-2-1 System's 3D sound imaging doesn't have the kind of precision needed to accurately pinpoint sounds.
With a list price that's close to a grand, the 3-2-1's sonics fell far short of our expectations. The midrange is lacking any sort of presence and is overwhelmed by highs and lows. The bass response didn't shake us up, either. When the T. rexes chased the humans in Jurassic Park III, we expected to feel, as well as hear, the deep rumbling of those giant carnivores. Not so. And as is often the case with HTIBs, the louder you get, the harsher and more metallic the sound becomes. As a result, this system is an option for only cozier rooms (those less than 400 square feet in size).
Sacrificing a degree of home-theater realism for simplicity and fewer speakers is a compromise that will appeal to many people. But at $999, the 3-2-1 System is overpriced. Many standard DVD players can generate moderately convincing two-channel surround-sound effects. You can save yourself a lot of money by picking up a DVD player with such a feature and playing it through your existing two-channel stereo.