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World's best (sounding) home theater in a box

Hint, it's not a Sony, Panasonic, Bose, Samsung, or even a Pioneer. Onkyo's HT-S9100THX is the king of HTiBs, and its large shipping box hints at why.

Expecting great sound from a home theater in a box (HTIB) is almost always an exercise in frustration.

Even the top-of-the-line HTIBs, such as Sony's ES BDV-IT1000ES ($2,000 MSRP) don't hold a candle to an equivalently priced separates-based system. It's not even close.

Sound, schmound. Given that HTIBs are sold as lifestyle products, it's more important for them to look good than sound good. Product designers are compelled to make speakers that look slick hugging the wall next to a flat-screen display. That's why we're so jazzed by Onkyo's HT-S9100THX HTIB ($1,099 MSRP). Sleek, it ain't, but it sure sounds like a separates-grade home theater system.


The HT-S9100THX's largish shipping box hints at the reasons why. It weighs a hefty 144 pounds. Inside, you'll find seven bookshelf two-way speakers, a full-size subwoofer, and a 7x 130-watt-per-channel receiver with 1080p-capable HDMI v.1.3 connectivity, and complete decoding for the latest lossless, high-resolution Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio surround formats. You get four--count 'em, four--HDMI inputs, same as Onkyo's TX-SR706 receiver ($899 MSRP).

The HT-S9100THX's receiver also features Audyssey's 2EQ automatic calibration to tailor the sound of the speakers and the 290-watt, 12-inch powered subwoofer, and compensate for your room's acoustic anomalies. The front three speakers feature a 1-inch soft-dome tweeter matched with dual 5-inch woofers; the four surround speakers use the same tweeter and a slightly smaller woofer. The 17.5 by 14.9 by 16.8 inch subwoofer weighs 34 pounds. Compared to the 6-inch plastic poser subs that come with so many HTIBs it's the 800-pound gorilla. You'll feel the difference.

True, the HT-S9100THX doesn't include a Blu-ray (or DVD) player, but you can pick up something decent like the CNET Editors' Choice-winning Panasonic DMP-BD35 Blu-ray player for around $300.

Most Sony, Panasonic, Samsung, etc HTIBs with wee satellite speakers and adorable little subs are intended to be used as complete systems, that is, you can't substitute their iffy plastic speakers with say a nice 5.1 speaker package from Polk or Klipsch. That's not the case here, so if down the road you want to swap out the Onkyo speakers or subwoofer, you can. Think of the HT-S9100THX as an upgradeable HTIB, but straight out of the box it's the best sounding HTIB we've heard in a long time. With a street price hovering around $1,000, the HT-S9100THX is a terrific value. A full CNET review is in the works.