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Onkyo HT-S790 review: Onkyo HT-S790

Onkyo HT-S790

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Steve Guttenberg
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Steve Guttenberg

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.

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7 min read

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.

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7.7

Onkyo HT-S790

The Good

The Onkyo HT-S790 is a home-theater-in-a-box system (HTIB) that combines seven large two-way, multidriver speakers; a 10-inch, 230-watt powered subwoofer; and a full-size A/V receiver that offers generous connectivity and ample power. It's also XM Satellite radio-ready with the latest XM HD Surround.

The Bad

The speakers and subwoofer might be too big for some buyers, and you'll need to supply the DVD player. The receiver lacks component video conversion and an onscreen menu. The optional XM antenna caused some background noise when connected.

The Bottom Line

If you put a higher value on sound quality than on trim dimensions, Onkyo's HT-S790 home-theater system is a slam-dunk choice.
Intro
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.

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.

Onkyo home-theater systems compared:

Model Quick take Included CD/DVD player? Price
Onkyo HT-S590 The HT-S590 is the entry-level home theater in a box in Onkyo's 2006 product line. It includes smaller 5.1-channel speakers than its 7.1-channel siblings. No
Onkyo HT-S680 A holdover from the 2005 product line, the HT-S680 is a 6.1-channel home-theater system. No
Onkyo HT-S790 It lacks the THX certification and the larger subwoofer and surround speakers of the step-up model, but the lower price of the HT-S790 7.1-channel system makes it an enticing option for value-oriented listeners. No
Onkyo HT-S990THX Onkyo's flagship home-theater system is the world's first to earn THX certification. No
Onkyo LS-V955 The black sheep of the Onkyo line, the LS-V955 is the only one with a built-in DVD player and a comparatively small and stylish form factor. Originally released in 2004, it remains in the current product line. Single-disc player built-in
The Onkyo HT-S790's big speakers and subwoofer delivered the goods, sounding more substantial than any $500--or $600--HTIB we can think of. The Onkyo's gravitas was immediately obvious when we played both CDs and DVDs. We showed the HT-S790 no mercy and pummeled it with the X-Live in Los Angeles concert DVD. The shows were shot in late 2004, and the legendary punk rockers were in fine form, sounding much like their younger selves. Billy Zoom's guitar flash had just the right amount of edge and true grit. The band's high-energy music wasn't reined in by the HT-S790, so we played the DVD nice and loud.

Our usual assortment of action-packed DVDs dramatically displayed the HT-S790's superiority over smaller HTIBs. The speakers and subwoofer blend was exceptionally smooth, so the sound had the rich balance and clarity that we associate with far more expensive separates-based systems. The center speaker treats dialogue well, sounding resolutely full bodied and natural. The subwoofer reached deep into the bass without losing definition.

Music performance was excellent on all counts. Kurt Weill's Suite from "The Three Penny Opera", performed by the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, was beautifully presented. The strings, woodwinds, and brass had the sort of purity that few HTIBs attain. We listened to the CD in both stereo and Dolby Pro Logic IIx surround, and in both cases, the sound had a well developed sense of depth and spatiality. Miles Davis's fusion classic Bitches Brew pulsed with assurance, the rolling bass lines and frenetic drumming didn't overtax the HT-S790's abilities.

XM Satellite Radio hookup is easy as can be--just plug in an XM Connect-and-Play or XM Pass antenna--and have your subscription up to date, of course. The HT-S790 can even decode the two XM channels that are currently encoded with HD Surround. There was just one problem: whenever we watched DVDs or listened to CDs, we heard a very low-level noise over the speakers that was audible only during quietest scenes. We eliminated the noise by disconnecting the XM antenna from the back of the receiver.

How does the Onkyo HT-S790 stack up to the competition? We compared it directly to its step-up model, the $1,000 Onkyo HT-S990THX.The HT-S990THX has a larger, nonported subwoofer and larger surround speakers, and its front speakers have better tweeters. The subwoofer played louder and went deeper, and the front speakers sounded a little more refined. Furthermore, the S990THX offers component video conversion, which isn't found on the S790. Does that add up to enough of a difference to justify the cost? Maybe--you'd have to spend a lot more on a speaker package that outdoes the HT-S990THX's. But considering you're getting the HT-S790 for half the price of its THX step-up, it's definitely a better value.

Summing up, the Onkyo HT-S790 is ideal for those buyers who put a higher priority on sound quality than getting the smallest possible HTIB. You can spend a lot more and wind up with a lot less.

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7.7

Onkyo HT-S790

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 7Performance 9
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