Onkyo is one of the few home-theater-in-a-box (HTIB) manufacturers that offers a wide range of models without DVD players--which is a great way to go for buyers who already own a decent player. The HT-S790 ($500) is a good example of Onkyo's DVD-free systems. Its component-grade 7.1-channel A/V receiver is more powerful than typical HTIB fare, and the quality of its larger than average eight-piece speaker/subwoofer package stands head and shoulders above that of the competition's. The Onkyo's size and quality advantages are tough to beat, so the HT-S790 soundly trounces the best of Sony's and Panasonic's trendily slim and trim sets--although it'll look considerably less sexy in your living room, if that's a concern. The Onkyo HT-S790 is also XM Satellite radio ready, with compatibility with the latest XM advance, HD Surround sound. The Onkyo HT-S790 is available in silver or black. The system includes a 7.1-channel A/V receiver that bears more than a passing resemblance to Onkyo's current generation of separate receivers. It's a far cry from the sleek plastic receivers that come with most home-theater-in-a-box systems (HTIBs)--which means it's comparatively larger and less attractive but offers more power and a wider variety of jacks and connections. The receiver measures 17 inches wide, 6 high, 14.75 deep, and weighs 21.2 pounds. Its partially backlit remote earns high marks for its layout and ease of use. Thanks to the receiver's informative front-panel display, setup chores were painless, despite the lack of onscreen menus.
The three front speakers' rounded, metallic-front baffles are hidden behind curved grilles. Instead of flimsy, plastic speakers, the HT-S790's speakers feature wood construction. The front-left, -right and -center speakers measure 17.1 inches high by 6.25 wide, and they're nearly 8 inches deep. The four wall-mountable surround speakers are 10.5 inches tall, 6.8 wide, and 4 deep. If you don't want or need to run all four surround speakers, go ahead and stick with standard 5.1-channel surround--you could hook up the remaining two speakers to the receiver's B speaker outputs and put them in another room. The 25.4 pound subwoofer is far better built than the subs that come with most HTIBs and is 18.6 inches tall, 10.75 wide, and 17.75 deep. All of the speakers and the subwoofer are fitted with cloth grilles--black or silver, depending on which color system you choose--but only the three front speakers' grilles are removable, revealing a grayish silver on both models. The Onkyo HT-S790 package includes the A/V receiver and an 8-piece speaker set, along with the necessary cabling to connect it all together. Onkyo doesn't include a DVD player, but--since you already have one anyway--you're not paying extra for something you don't need. The receiver delivers 110 watts per channel and uses 192KHz/24-bit digital-to-analog converters to handle surround processing for Dolby Digital, Dolby EX, Pro Logic IIx, DTS, DTS-ES, DTS Neo:6, DTS 96/24, and Neural, which is used to decode XM HD Surround channels. The bass and treble controls--often curiously omitted from HTIB controls--are conveniently located on the receiver's front panel.
Connectivity options are above average compared to similarly priced all-in-one home-theater systems. There are three A/V inputs, each of which can accept composite, S-Video, or component-video connections; a fourth composite-only A/V input is located on the front panel. We don't expect to see HDMI switching on a system in this price range, but the dearth of component video conversion was something of a disappointment. That means you'll have to run separate composite, S-video, and component video cables to your monitor in order to see the corresponding video sources using those respective connections.
The receiver has four digital audio inputs (one coaxial and three opticals), but no digital outputs. Compatibility with Blu-ray, HD-DVD, or SACD/DVD-Audio players is assured, thanks to the inclusion of 7.1-channel analog inputs. High-quality speaker binding posts are provided for all seven amplifier channels, as well as spring clip connectors for the B stereo speakers.
There are also a couple of specialty connections. The RI (Remote Interactive) jack can be used with the Onkyo DS-A1 ($100) iPod docking unit. XM Satellite Radio hookup is easy as can be--just plug in an XM Connect-and-Play or an XM Pass antenna--and keep your monthly XM subscription up to date, of course. The HT-S990THX even includes Neural Surround processing, which is extremely effective in providing a surround-sound experience on the two XM channels that are currently encoded with HD Surround.
The HT-S790's front-left and -right and center speakers feature a pair of 5-inch woofers and a 1-inch dome tweeter; most HTIBs speakers typically make do with a single 3-inch woofer--and some lack tweeters altogether. The four surround speakers use a 3.1-inch woofer and a 0.75-inch ceramic-dome tweeter. The one budget-imposed limitation we noted was that the speakers rely on spring clip wire connectors, instead of higher-quality binding posts--but that's true of almost all HTIB speakers.
The vast majority of HTIBs that cost about the same as--or even more than--the HT-S790 have 6- or 7-inch subwoofers, but the HT-S790's sub boasts a 10-inch woofer that's powered with a 230-watt amplifier. The sub's port is located up front, just beneath the woofer, so it won't be adversely affected by corner placement. The sub's single RCA line-level input is your only connection option, but that's always our first choice for subwoofer hookup.
Overall, the Onkyo HT-S790 offers quite a lot of home-audio punch for money. Stepping up Onkyo's line will get you the HT-S990THX, which, as you can guess from the name, offers THX certification and a larger subwoofer--but costs twice as much as the S790. Further down the line are the HT-S680 and the HT-S590, which are more affordable 6.1 and 5.1 systems, respectively. If you're already happy with your A/V receiver but you're looking for a great deal on surround speakers, the S790's speakers are sold separately as the SKS-HT540 ($300). Conversely, because the receiver and speakers included with the HT-S790 use standard connectors, you can always upgrade either part of the system down the road.