When Blu-ray HTIBs first hit the market, they really didn't make sense as a product type. They were slow, and the value just wasn't there, as it was easy to put together superior systems from separate components. One year later, everything has changed; there are several excellent HTIBs with integrated Blu-ray for not much more than a standalone Blu-ray player. The LG LHB953 is one of the better systems on the market, and a lot of that is due to its unparalleled streaming content options--Netflix, Pandora, YouTube, and CinemaNow augment its disc-playing capabilities. It also handles the basics with above-average finesse, with solid sound quality and excellent image quality on Blu-ray movies. Our complaints with the system were largely aesthetic; the speakers are a bit bigger than average and the main AV receiver/Blu-ray player lacks style, especially with its perpetually glowing volume knob. Also, the competing Samsung HT-BD1250 is a slightly better system, especially sonically, but its street price is about $70 more. If you can't swing the extra dough for the Samsung or don't need its perks, the LHB953 delivers much of the same performance and more streaming features for less.
The LHB953 is a 5.1 system; the included speaker package consists of four identical smallish speakers for the front/surround, a sizable center channel speaker and a subwoofer.
The four identical speakers have an odd shape. From the front, they have a slight bulge toward the middle, but from the side you can see there are some pretty radical curves. The speakers are also larger than competing systems, coming in at 9.5 inches tall. There's a built-in stand on the bottom of the speakers and, strangely, the speaker jacks are actually located inside the stand, underneath the speaker. There's a slot toward the back for the speaker wire and there's really no functional problem with the design, except it makes it a little hard to access the wires if you're moving the speakers.
The center channel is also larger than we expected, coming in at 13.8 inches wide, 4.1 inches high, and 3.7 inches deep. It will still fit comfortably under most TVs, but it doesn't quite "disappear" like the tiny center channel on Samsung's HT-BD1250. Although the speaker is quite wide, it appears to have just a single driver in the middle of the unit. The subwoofer is an average size for an HTIB (8.5 inches wide, 15.9 inches high, 14.2 inches deep).
LG certainly has some products that exude style, but the main AV receiver/Blu-ray player isn't one of them. We had it stacked up right next to the HT-BD1250's main unit and the Samsung was easily the more stylish component. The LHB953 has a more boxy shape and when you get up close, the front panel has a mix-and-match color scheme--some of it is glossy black, some glossy deep red, so it ends up looking like a car that had a door replaced that's just not quite the same color. (This doesn't show up well in photos, but it's obvious up close.)
The LHB953 does make up some points on usability, though. We loved the integrated iPod dock, which makes for less wire clutter than having a separate dock. The way it retracts is slick, too--just push it and it slides out automatically. We also appreciated the prominent volume knob--especially compared with the top-mounted disc on the HT-BD1250--but the bright blue light surrounding it is distracting. We also weren't crazy about the touch-sensitive controls--we prefer actual buttons--but at least they're located on the front of the unit so you can still stack other components on top of the LHB953.
At first glance, the included remote looks a little cluttered, but it's actually the best one out of the Blu-ray HTIBs we've tested this year. There's a large directional pad toward the top, surrounded by important buttons like disc menu and pop-up menu. Beneath it are the playback controls and farther down is a button rocker for volume control. We could have loved more separation between the buttons, but it gets most things right.
It's starting to look like a trend: The LG LHB953 is another one of those home-theater-in-a-box systems where speaker setup is completely manual. Instead of an automatic speaker calibration system, the LHB953's owner is left to handle that process on his own.
Don't get nervous; the setup is extremely easy via the LHB953's onscreen display: Press the "Home" button on the remote, click on the "Audio" icon, which brings you to "Speaker Setup." Then run test tones through all the speakers and subwoofer, next input the distances between the listening position and the five speakers and subwoofer.
No need to sweat the details, the LHB953's remote offers direct access to each speaker and the subwoofer's volume levels. We really liked that the LHB953 doesn't first require you to stop the movie or music to make those adjustments.
Because it was so easy we used that feature all the time; so if a movie's dialogue was hard to follow, it took just a few seconds to turn up the center channel speaker volume "on the fly." Same with the subwoofer or surround speakers, it was a pleasure to always get exactly the balance we wanted. Most Panasonic, Samsung, and Sony Blu-ray HTIBs bury those adjustments in their setup menus, so you have to restart the movie every time you need to make an adjustment.
The LHB953 sound can be also adjusted with its "Sound" button on the remote. Pressing the button toggles through options such as "Natural," "Bass Booster, "Drama," "Sports," "Concert," as well as Dolby Pro Logic II surround. The Sound mode options also include a "Bypass" setting, which is automatically selected when you're watching a Dolby or DTS encoded movie.
The LHB953's built-in Blu-ray player is nearly as featured as LG's standalone Blu-ray players. Like virtually all Blu-ray players this year, it's Profile 2.0 compliant and has onboard decoding for Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio. In addition to Blu-ray, the LHB953 has several streaming media services, including Netflix, Pandora, YouTube, and CinemaNow. (For a more in-depth look at these services, read our review of the LG BD390.)