Gateway's engineers seem to be on a steep learning curve. The company's latest entry in the HTIB sweepstakes, the KAS-303, is light years more evolved than the last two Gateway systems we tested, the KAS-103 and the . Indeed, the 303's home-theater prowess wowed us; it's the basis for our recommendation. But if you're going to play a lot of music on your HTIB, your $999 can buy you something better than this Gateway.
A separate receiver and DVD player are the 303's main components. Their champagne color won't be to everyone's liking, but the front panels' mirror finish adds a touch of class. Each unit stands just 3 inches tall and measures a mere 10 inches deep, so they'll comfortably fit in places that many HTIBs won't. For example, we're big fans of Pioneer's, but its 17-inch-deep DVD changer/receiver won't squeeze into many cabinets.
The 303's speakers come decked out in a black-ash finish. The five 5.75-inch-tall satellites have OmniMount-style brackets that fit the optional wall mounts ($35 per pair). The sats' sound is bolstered by a very special center speaker: the Ventriloquist. This big guy measures a stout 16.75 inches wide, 9 inches deep, and 5.25 inches high. And the substantial 41-pound sub is 18.5 inches high, 17 inches wide, and 14 inches deep.
Navigating the DVD player's onscreen setup menus wasn't as intuitive as we would have liked, so we needed a little guidance from the documentation. Unfortunately, the 303 comes with four user manuals, and they're hardly models of organization. Come on, Gateway--please give us just one coherently written manual for the entire system.
The receiver and the DVD player have their own remotes, but we mostly relied on the receiver's to command both units. The controls' ergonomics were not great, but we've seen a lot worse.
In this price range, we expect two-way satellites, but each of the 303's little sats makes do with a single 2.5-inch woofer and no tweeter. The Ventriloquist is this package's big attraction. It has three drivers: two 4-by-6-inch oval woofers, which produce the bass for all three front speakers, and a 2.5-inch midhigh driver. The sats and the Ventriloquist feature gold-plated, all-metal speaker-wire connectors and receive 100 watts apiece from the receiver's all-digital amplifier. The sub employs a 10-inch woofer and a built-in 150-watt amp.
The receiver offers almost every surround-processing permutation, including DTS ES, Dolby EX, and Dolby Pro Logic II.
Considering the receiver's limited back-panel real estate, its jack array is downright plentiful. Unfortunately, the cramped space resulted in inadequate labeling, so confusion is all too likely. Three sets of inputs and one output make up the A/V complement. For stereo audio, you get one in and one out. The unit accepts digital audio on three connections (one coaxial and two optical) and sends it on one (optical). And 7.1-channel inputs--rarely seen on mini home-theater receivers--accommodate an SACD/DVD-Audio player. The Gateway's DVD deck has the requisite composite, S-Video, and progressive component outputs.
The Winged Migration DVD is loaded with the sounds of birds in flight and cavorting on land. The range of squawks, chirps, and quacks is amazing, and the 303 unfurled the sappy New Age soundtrack with ease. The massive iceberg avalanches rumbled and quaked with a vengeance--we almost jumped out of our seats. The subwoofer speaks with enough authority to fill even 400-square-foot rooms with deep, deep bass.
Our audition was going so well that we decided to pummel the 303 with the Extreme edition of the Terminator 2 DVD, and the little kit took it in stride. Arnold's shenanigans and the resulting explosions sounded like they were coming from a much larger system. In this disc's commentary track, the voices of director James Cameron and screenwriter William Wisher are in the left and right channels, and the placement was a great test of the Ventriloquist's ability to "throw" midrange to the tiny left- and right-front satellites. The voices were far more full-bodied and natural than they are on most wee sats.
The 303 shines on DVDs, but its CD performance is merely decent. Stereo and even Dolby Pro Logic II came out like mono; much of the sound collapsed into the center speaker. The subwoofer's contributions were always stellar, but a nagging midbass hole between the satellites and the sub appeared on many CDs. To be fair, most HTIBs with tiny sats have that problem. And the Ventriloquist didn't add enough warmth. Finally, a minor annoyance presented itself when we fast-forwarded or reversed through CDs: we heard the same weird shriek of accelerated audio that you get with an old cassette tape.