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Onkyo HT-S790 review: Onkyo HT-S790

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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