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Are home-theater-in-a-box systems yesterday's news?

HTIBs--with an amp, DVD player, five speakers, and a subwoofer--used to be really popular, but are sound bar speakers a better solution for most folks?

Vizio's terrific new 5.1 channel VHT510 sound bar system Vizio

The home-theater-in-a-box systems (HTIBs) I reviewed 10 years ago were pretty lame, but I've been amazed by the progress of these systems over the years. The best of the breed, like the Onkyo HT-S990THX and the Samsung HT-BD1250, produce astonishing sound quality for not a lot of money.

But the market appears to be moving away from HTIBs, as more and more of today's buyers are opting for easier-to-install sound bar speakers. I can understand why; HTIBs may be one-box solutions, but they still require extensive setup routines, and you have to run wires to five or more speakers and a subwoofer. With sound bars hookup just involves one or two signal-carrying wires (HDMI, a digital audio cable, or a pair of analog audio cables) and sometimes a wireless subwoofer.

So sound bars are much easier to set up than 5.1-channel HTIBs, but do they sound as good? Well, the short answer is, no way. First, there's no actual surround sound, so all the sound comes from the sound bar hunkered down under the display. Some sound bars employ virtual surround processing, but that mostly just spreads the soundstage across the front wall, and while it may provide an illusion of soundstage depth, room-filling surround sound isn't possible with most sound bar systems.

Yamaha's Digital Sound Projectors (sound bars) do a far better job in that regard, but even with these speakers the surround experience doesn't compare with five, six, or seven properly placed speakers in a home theater. If you want to experience home theater at its best, buy a decent receiver and the best speakers you can afford.

So while the sort of buyer that would have bought a HTIB is now more likely to buy a sound bar, some folks are still buying receivers, and picking out a speaker-subwoofer system for their home theaters. That approach yields much better sound quality, but it's a more expensive way to go. Denon, Onkyo, Pioneer, and Yamaha all offer 5.1-channel receivers for $300 or less. Speaker packages from Aperion, Definitive Technology, Klipsch, NHT, and Polk start around $900.

So while I'm not all that excited by sound bar performance in general, Vizio's new VHT510 ($370) is a real standout. First of all, it may be a sound bar, but it's also a true 5.1-channel system. The sound bar has the front left, center, and right channel speakers, and there are two wired surround speakers, plus a wireless subwoofer. It sounds exceptionally good for this kind of money, and a full CNET review will be posted soon. The VHT510 is a logical successor to the HTIB; yes, it has more wires, but it sounds better than any other sound bar in its price class.