Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
Onkyo's HT-S760 package includes an accomplished 6.1-channel receiver and the best speaker system we've ever heard--at least in terms of sound per dollar. Yes, some small-speaker HTIBs are sleeker-looking, less expensive, or both, but they inevitably lack this kit's sonic gravitas. Their many failings typically include flabby bass, a constricted midrange, and harsh treble. The S760 suffers from none of these problems, and its $500 list price makes it a great overall value. Just don't expect to hide the speakers. Thanks to its unusually trim 14-inch depth, the S760's receiver will fit in places many full-size models won't. Setup hassles were minimal; the preset defaults vastly simplified most of the chores, and even before we'd dialed in the settings, the sound balance was pretty close to perfect.
If your ideal speakers are wee 5-inch-tall satellites, the S760's grown-up ensemble might seem a bit much. The main left and right units each stand 16.5 inches tall, the center is 15.25 inches wide, and each of the three surrounds is 10.5 inches tall. The subwoofer is miles ahead of the flimsy, plastic boxes packed with most HTIBs in this price class. This bad boy has a medium-density fiberboard cabinet; weighs 30 pounds; and measures 20.5 inches tall, 10.75 inches wide, and 15.5 inches deep. Its build quality is remarkable.
Please remember that the S760 is a 6.1-channel system. If you can't comfortably place the surround-back speaker at least two or three feet behind your couch, you might be better off with the Onkyo HT-S660, listed at $400. The S660 is much like the S760, with the identical sub but a 5.1-channel receiver and five slightly less impressive speakers.
The S760 is available in either black or silver. The remote is smallish and cheap-looking, with tiny, overcrowded buttons. But at least it's legible. An affordable satellite usually has a single 2- or 3-inch woofer, but the S760's main left and right sats each have dual 5.25-inch woofers and a 1-inch dome tweeter--a big step up. In the center, two 4-inch woofers flank a 1-inch tweeter. The three surrounds each use a pair of the same drivers found in the center. The sub employs a downward-firing 8-inch woofer and a 150-watt amplifier.
Along with a healthy power rating of 100 watts per channel, the receiver boasts a full complement of 6.1-channel processing modes, including Dolby EX and DTS ES. And only the very best HTIB receivers have more connectivity options. You get three component-video hookups: two inputs and one output. All the back-panel A/V connections--three ins and two outs--have S-Video. One coaxial and two optical jacks accept digital audio alongside inputs for 5.1 SACD/DVD-Audio. Front-panel A/V and digital ins complete the suite. The main speaker channels have heavy-duty binding posts; the others make do with spring-clip connectors.
The S760 doesn't include a DVD player, so if you need one, check out Onkyo's HT-S767C kit. It's the S760 with a progressive-scan five-disc carousel changer. Since that addition bumps up the price to $800, you could probably save some cash by mating the S760 with a separate DVD deck. Even in an ideal setting, a room no bigger than 250 square feet, systems with decorator-friendly 5-inch-tall sats usually can't generate the full sound we crave. The S760's generously sized speakers can easily fill a larger space, and they don't have to rely on the subwoofer, so it's free to handle just the lowest bass. One of the resulting advantages is placement flexibility; you don't have to keep the sub right next to the front speakers.
At its best, home-theater sound is all about a strong emotional connection. You want to feel the action on your DVDs. And the S760 delivers. On the Signs DVD, aliens attempt to break into Mel Gibson's isolated farmhouse, and Gibson takes his kids into the basement. We could sense the aliens' footsteps on the floor above. Later, the invaders bang on the doors, and the tension in our studio was so palpable that we actually jumped.
It's also crucial that dialogue have weight and presence. Mini speakers rarely succeed in this regard, but the S760's amply endowed center easily conveyed full-bodied male and female voices.
We next checked out the Band's concert DVD, The Last Waltz. On "The Weight," the Band is joined by a gospel group, the Staple Singers. Their soaring harmonies sounded first-rate, and the drums' dynamics, power, and impact were remarkably alive. We had to constantly remind ourselves that we were listening to a $500 receiver/speaker package! The S760 offers truly awesome performance for the price.