The satellites' speakers feature horn-loaded 0.75-inch aluminum tweeters and a 2.5-inch midrange/woofer. The center speaker is a larger version of the satellites and features dual 2.5-inch woofers and the same horn tweeter. The horn projects the sound forward, reducing the wall, floor, and ceiling reflections that you get with more typical dome tweeters, and that benefits the sats' imaging accuracy. The horn design also increases the speakers' efficiency, which means you need a less powerful amplifier to push the system louder.
The included wall-mount brackets can be positioned either 20 degrees left or right of center, so you can "aim" the speakers toward the listening position. The center-channel speaker can be wall-mounted or placed on a shelf.
The HD Theater 500's matte black, vinyl-covered, medium-density fiberboard subwoofer has an 8-inch fiber-composite woofer mounted on its bottom panel and a rear-mounted port. The built-in 100-watt amplifier's connectivity runs to stereo speaker- and line-level (RCA) inputs. The subwoofer looks huge compared with the miniature sats, but it's not that big for a subwoofer, measuring 13.9 inches tall, 12.5 inches wide, and 12.5 inches deep.
With speakers as small as these we always experiment with the subwoofer-to-speaker crossover settings. We started with a 120Hz setting on the Denon, but there was clearly a large gap in the system's bass response, so we tried 150Hz, and that was better, but still not right. The 200Hz setting was best, and we did the bulk of our listening tests with that setting. Of course, the exact setting will vary, depending on taste, room size, and acoustics. We did note that the sub's rear-mounted volume control is very sensitive, so even the smallest of adjustments produced large changes in bass output. It takes a light touch to get it just right.
The left and right speakers sound best when the tweeters are pointed directly at the main listening position, and with the speakers not spaced too far apart from each other (in the CNET listening room they were 6 feet from each other). Also, when using satellite speakers this small, it's important to place the subwoofer within 4 or 5 feet any of the three front speakers to ensure the best possible sound.
The HD Theater 500 did a good job of reproducing the "Tron: Legacy" Blu-ray's low throbbing bass that serves as a foundation for much of the film's action; dialogue was clear and surround effects created a tremendous sense of space. The "Black Hawk Down" Blu-ray's fierce battle scenes and explosions were more revealing of the HD Theater 500's dynamic-range limitations. The subwoofer did pretty well, but the satellites couldn't keep up. They sometimes distorted and the sound grew harsh, or the sound didn't get louder when the helicopter crashed. The little satellites crushed soft-to-loud dynamics when we played the movie fairly loudly. When we lowered the volume, the HD Theater 500 regained its composure.
We compared the HD Theater 500 directly with the competing Energy Take Classic system. The Energy system handled those dynamic assaults without strain, so we weren't as aware of the Energy's size limitations when the action heated up. When we played a less demanding movie like the "Across the Universe" Blu-ray, the performance differences between the Klipsch and Energy systems grew smaller. The Beatles songs that run through the film sounded amazing, and our favorite, "Let It Be," with its rousing gospel choir, sounded wonderful on both systems.
CD sound was less convincing with the HD Theater 500, especially when we played CDs in stereo. The satellites' small size was more evident, so we mostly listened to CDs in Dolby Pro Logic II surround, which filled out the sound a little. The high-resolution surround mix on R.E.M.'s "Green" DVD-A album never really jelled on the HD Theater 500. The front three speakers and surround speakers sounded too separate from each other, and the band's guitar, bass, and drums were a tad thin and lightweight. The drums' cymbals sounded coarse and tinny when we listened at even moderately loud volume.
The HD Theater 500 was a competent home theater performer and sounds best in small rooms at moderate volume levels. That said, the Energy Take Classic 5.1 was superior on all counts and we don't think its slightly larger speakers would impinge much more on your living room decor.