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A home theater in a box buyer's guide

HTIBs and packaged home theater audio systems come in a wide variety of sizes, types, and prices. Which one is right for you?

The best of today's home theater in a box systems are excellent, but how do you find the one that's right for you?

First, read my CNET reviews; they're loaded with information about how easy the HTIB is to use and how well it performs. It may be a dubious honor, but I probably hold the record for testing more HTIBs for magazines and Web sites than any other reviewer.

Most HTIBs come with Blu-ray or DVD players, receivers, and five or more speakers and a subwoofer. Right, HTIBs also come with lots of wires and setup chores, so they're almost as complex to install as separate receiver, player, and speaker-based home theater systems.

Onkyo's HT-S9100THX is the best-sounding HTIB on the planet. Onkyo

If that's more than you bargained for, maybe you should be looking for something simpler: a single-speaker surround system? That would eliminate most of the wiring and setup hassles. Check my CNET reviews to see if one is right for you.

For small bedrooms or dorm rooms, a budget HTIB or single-speaker surround system may be ideal. Family-size home theaters may require larger systems with larger speakers and powered subwoofers.

Connectivity varies a lot in this category, so don't assume all HTIBs have what you need. If you don't want to switch inputs on your TV every time you select a different video source, say from a game system to a Blu-ray player, make sure the HTIB has enough HDMI and other video inputs. Some HTIBs don't switch video at all. Some have USB inputs and iPod-docking capabilities.

HTIBs tend to sound best with movies; music comes in a distant second place. I always refer to HTIBs' performance with movies and music, so if you plan on listening to a lot of music over your new system, definitely look for that in the reviews. Don't assume the sound will be equally good for music and movies; it rarely is.

Sony's HT-CT100 sound bar is affordable and sounds great. Sony

Component-style HTIBs, like some models from Onkyo and Yamaha, for example, can be upgraded with better speakers and subs. If you think you might eventually want to improve the sound without ditching the HTIB altogether, don't buy one of those Sony or Panasonic HTIBs with skinny towers or teensy satellite speakers. Chances are, you'll be stuck with the speakers and sub that come with the system.

The best HTIBs sound decent enough, but if you're really into sound, consider buying a separate based system. Be prepared to invest at least $1,200; buy the right stuff and you can expect to get at least 10 years of use out of a great system.

Then again, a stereo home theater might be the way to go. These offer the best possible sound quality per dollar, and HT2.0 systems are a lot easier to set up and use than more conventional 5.1, 6.1, and 7.1 channel home theaters. A Denon DRA-397 stereo receiver ($399 MSRP) and a pair of Definitive Technology BP8B tower speakers ($998 MSRP) would be a great place to start.