Home-theater-in-a-box systems have been around forever, but the latest marketing angle is the "Blu-ray ready HTIB." The new phrase simply means that the system consists of a surround-sound-speaker system and an AV receiver, so you only need to add a Blu-ray player to complete your home theater. The Sony HT-SS360 is an entry-level Blu-ray-ready HTIB, complete with a decor-friendly (read: small) 5.1 speaker system and an AV receiver with three HDMI inputs. That's enough HDMI ports to handle most home theaters, but the HT-SS360 doesn't have any analog video ports, which is an annoyance for anyone with a Nintendo Wii, where you'll need to run its video output straight to your TV. In terms of sound quality, we felt like the HT-SS360 was up to the task on movies--especially considering its $350 list price--but like many HTIBs, it just didn't cut it for music. The HT-SS360 is a good value if you're looking for an all-in-one solution and you already have HDMI-compatible video devices (especially a PS3 or other Blu-ray player), but more discriminating listeners will have to spend more if they want a system that sounds good with music too.
The HT-SS360 is made up of four identical speakers, used for the front and surround speakers, plus a tiny center channel and a subwoofer. The front/surround speakers have plastic cabinets, which are typical at this price range, and each speaker houses a single 2.6-inch cone driver. The speakers themselves are very small, coming in at 4.1 inches wide by 6.5 inches high by 3.1 inches deep; nobody is going to mistake it for a real hi-fi system.
The center channel looks even smaller and at 15 inches wide by 2 inches high by 2.6 inches deep, it barely even seems like a real speaker. The subwoofer is passive (unpowered; no built-in amp), and it's the only sizable speaker of the bunch with a 6.4-inch driver and a moderate footprint (8.75 inches wide; 16.6 inches high; 12.9 inches deep.) Like many HTIBs, the included speakers use proprietary speaker jacks, so you can't swap in different speakers at a later time.
The speakers are powered by the slimline AV receiver. At only 2.6 inches high, it's much smaller than a standalone AV receiver and has an attractive silver finish that should fit most decors. There are virtually no controls on the front panel, save for the power button, input selector button, and large volume knob on the far right.
The included remote is the standard type that Sony includes with its HTIB units. It's an average remote at best, with a lot of small similar-size buttons. On the upside, the directional pad and volume fall naturally under your thumb. We also appreciated that when we hooked up the HT-SS360 to the Sony BDP-S360 Blu-ray player we were able to use the one remote to control the Blu-ray player without any extra tweaks.
The HT-SS360 includes an automatic speaker calibration system, which is a plus at this price. Even before we ran through the manual or autosetups the HT-SS360 sounded pretty good overall, but the subwoofer volume was too loud. Depending on your taste for bass, you might be able to forgo speaker setup. Since the sub doesn't have its own volume control, the only way to adjust the sub is in the manual speaker setup.
The HT-SS360's manual and autosetups are a bit trickier than average, mostly because the receiver lacks an onscreen menu display. The menus instead appear only on the receiver's smallish display. And since only one line of menu text appears at a time, the setup process may be a little confusing for first-time home theater buyers.
Before and after the HT-SS360 manual setup we felt the match up between the satellite speakers and subwoofer was less than ideal; the sub had a big, boomy sound, and the sats made very little bass on their own. In other words, it was easy to tell most of the bass was coming from the subwoofer, way over on the right side of the CNET listening room.