If we didn't know the MSRP of the Onkyo SKS-HT540, we would have pegged it closer to $600. Music of all types sounded natural, so we could freely indulge without considering the system's rock-bottom price. Acoustic jazz sounded especially good, so we spent some time listening to Duke Ellington's big band swing CDs. The brass had just the right balance of presence and warmth. On Duke's smaller group sessions, you get to hear his piano more, and again, the Onkyo speakers nailed the instruments' scale and power.
Rock music via the Onkyos had plenty of kick, so Sonic Youth's new Rather Ripped CD could be enjoyed at high volume without strain. These speakers and subwoofer can easily fill even a large room--as big as 500 square feet--with sound for parties. Don't expect that sort of performance from minisatellite speakers and 6-inch subwoofers--they won't get remotely close to the SKS-HT540's big sound.
Action packed DVDs' chest-thumping dynamics were a treat. The speakers and subwoofer blend was exceptionally smooth--the system had the weighty impact that we associate with tower speakers. The center speaker treats dialogue well, sounding resolutely full-bodied and natural. The subwoofer's low bass and definition are decent, albeit no match for the better $500 subs we've tested.
Summing up: If you're on a budget and want the best bang for your home-theater buck, these Onkyo speakers are an easy recommendation. If you're looking for an all-in-one solution, consider the HT-S790, which includes a capable A/V receiver; if you already have a receiver, the speakers-only option of the SKS-HT540 is the way to go. The only real caveat is that they don't look as great as they sound; anyone more concerned with aesthetics may want to spend a bit more for the Onkyo SKS-HT240 speakers, which offer a more stylish design.