To date, Onkyo has been the go-to manufacturer for component-based home-theater-in-a-box systems. For 2009, the company has introduced just two new products to the category: the $500 HT-S5200 and the $350 HT-S3200 (reviewed here). The entry-level HT-S3200 may lack some of the niceties we're used to in pricier home theater systems, but for the price, it's tough to find such a comparable, solidly performing system.
The HT-S3200 is a 5.1 surround-sound system with a completely black design. The speakers themselves have a polished plastic finish and carry some weight with them. The cloth grilles covering each are not removable.
The front left, right, and center speakers are the largest of the bunch, with the left and right standing almost 11 inches tall. The center channel is basically the same size, just lying on its side. The surround left and right speakers are a bit smaller, standing just 7 inches. Each speaker has a 3.25-inch driver and a 0.75-inch tweeter.
The box subwoofer comes in at 16.13 inches tall by 9.63 inches wide by 14.63 inches deep and features an 8-inch woofer. It's a passive design, so it doesn't require its own power connection.
The receiver is covered in a matte black that is sure to blend in with most entertainment centers. It's a bit large, measuring 5.88 inches by 17.13 inches by 14.5 inches and weighing almost 20 pounds. The front display is littered with shortcuts to each input source and some basic audio adjustments.
The included remote control is laid out very logically though we did get a bit frustrated having to continually hit "receiver" before sending the system commands. We wished the remote "remembered" which device it was controlling. As always, we'd recommend picking up a good universal remote instead.
The first thing we noticed about the HT-S3200's setup was that it's not automatic. While that's unusual, the HT-S3200's out-of-the-box sound was so good, the usual speaker volume-leveling requirements were not even necessary.
We adjusted the sonics manually and noted that the HT-S3200 lacks an onscreen display. Instead, the menus are available over the HT-R370 receiver's display, one line at a time. We felt no need to adjust the speaker or subwoofer volume levels, though we did input the speaker and subwoofer distances to the main listening position. This function sets minor delays that help improve surround imaging. It makes a small, but noticeable difference for listeners seated in the "sweet spot." Other listeners seated a few feet away from that main listening position probably will not hear a difference whether the delays are set or not.
If the HT-R370 receiver is used with speakers other than the ones included with the HT-S3200, we'd recommend performing the full manual setup. The entire process shouldn't take more than five minutes to perform.
The Onkyo HT-S3200 home theater system doesn't include a disc player, but that's almost the point: it's ideal for anyone who's already got a few video sources--say, a game console or standalone DVD or Blu-ray player. It has enough inputs to satisfy various devices and the system is mostly customizable so that you can assign inputs to work with your personal setup.
The receiver can accept up to three HDMI sources, though you'll only be able to pass the signal through the receiver. The HT-S3200 does not offer any sort of upscaling or converting, so you'll need to set your desired resolution on the source device. Annoyingly, the Onkyo doesn't pass audio through HDMI connections (which essentially defeats the purpose of a one-wire connection), so you'll need to separately wire your device into the corresponding audio interface. In that regard, the HT-S3200 has you covered with two optical inputs, one digital coaxial, and the option to use analog RCA inputs for any selected source.
Overall, you can hook up to three video devices (all of which can be HD) and up to three audio-only devices (if you include the front-loaded auxiliary input). There's also room here for two component sources as well. S-Video fans are out of luck--there isn't a single port for that interface.
Audio decoding is strictly limited to standard DVD modes (Dolby Digital, Dolby Pro Logic IIx, DTS, DTS 96/24, and DTS Neo:6. You don't get--nor would we expect at this price point--Blu-ray-centric Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio decoding.
All of the standard features are here, too, including an AM/FM radio with up to 30 presets. There's also a port for an iPod dock on the receiver's rear, but that must be purchased separately. However, it does come standard on the step-up HTiB, the HT-S5200. Alternately, you can plug a portable device (including an iPod) into the receiver's front-panel 3.5-millimeter line-in jack. There's a phono plug headphone jack for private listening as well.
The HT-S3200 can also make use of a B speaker system, a pair of speakers that can be placed outside of the main listening room--perfect for playing music at a party.
The Onkyo HT-S3200 definitely qualifies as a budget-priced HTiB, which have a tendency to sound pretty weak with music. This was not the case with the HT-S3200. For starters, Warren Zevon's remastered first, self-titled CD sounded glorious. Zevon's rockers and ballads had full tonality without a hint of strain when played at a fairly loud volume. Classical music also sounded very warm and natural. Clearly, the HT-S3200 severely trumps your average budget HTiB when it comes to CD music playback.
"The Prestige" Blu-ray established that the HT-S3200 home theater's prowess was on par with its musical talents. Lavishly set in a nineteenth century London theater, the film looks and sounds amazing. When a trick during a magic show goes dangerously awry, the curtain goes up and reveals that a bound woman submerged in a large water tank is drowning. Harry Cutter (Michael Caine) steps forward wielding an ax and attempts to smash the glass and rescue the woman. The HT-S3200's small speakers and midsize subwoofer let us feel every smashing blow of the ax, and when the glass finally shatters, the speakers reproduced the sound of gushing water as it poured out of the tank. The hushed theater crowd's gasps and murmurs filled the rear of the CNET listening room. Dialog quality and naturalness were well above average. The little satellite speakers produced a big, room-filling sound.
The "Carlos Santana Plays Blues at Montreux, 2004" DVD demonstrated the subwoofer's power and glory. While we're hearing more and more HTiB subs that reach deep into the bass, most sound muddy and ill defined. This HT-S3200's clean bass was distinctly better and still managed to go plenty low. Santana's gutsy rhythm section fully exercised the subwoofer, but when we pushed the volume up too far, the cymbals and drums took on a harsh edge.
The HT-S3200's receiver is the first we've tested that includes Audyssey EQ and Audyssey Dynamic Volume without an auto-setup option. The Audyssey EQ settings are preprogrammed into the receiver to improve the sound of the HT-S3200's speakers. We're not so sure about that, but the speakers were fuller and richer sounding with Audyssey EQ turned on. This is mostly a preferential detail, so try it, you may like it. Audyssey Volume is offered with three levels of dynamic range compression: light, medium, and heavy. This feature is designed to minimize movies' soft-to-loud volume changes.
The Audyssey Volume works, but also seems to muffle the detail of the sound, so we preferred "light" setting. Better yet, we preferred turning the Audyssey Volume off and just listening at very quiet levels to simulate late night listening.
Onkyo's top-of-the-line HT-S9100THX is the best sounding HTiB we've heard to date. Even though it goes for roughly three times the price of the HT-S3200 does, they're both cut from the same sonic mold. Both avoid the bane of HTiBs: a subpar subwoofer. Both systems have a dynamic ease that eludes most HTiBs with pint-size satellite speakers and baby subwoofers.
To finish up, we disconnected the HT-S3200's satellite speakers and hooked up our Aperion 4T tower speakers and listened to CDs. The clarity, detail, bass oomph (with no subwoofer playing), and treble delicacy were all significantly improved. Rest assured, future upgrades to the HT-S3200's sound are possible with better speakers. Just be aware that since the receiver doesn't have an RCA subwoofer output jack--it can't be used with subwoofers that only have RCA inputs (many powered subs have speaker-level inputs, which is what you would need to use a powered sub with the HT-R370).
It's going to be tough to beat the HT-S3200's price at $350 and still offer the great sound and feature-set the system is able to offer. Onkyo has a step-up model, the HT-S5200, which beefs up the overall power, includes more inputs, and adds two additional speakers (7.1 setup, instead of the S3200's 5.1). It also throws in an iPod dock (which will also work with the HT-S3200, though it must be purchased separately) all for about $500.
If you want to stay in the same price range as the HT-S3200, you may want to check out the Sony HT-SS360, it is available for closer to $300. While the feature-set is comparable with the HT-S3200, we found that it didn't perform nearly as well as the Onkyo when it came to playing music.