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Onkyo HT-S990THX review: Onkyo HT-S990THX

Onkyo HT-S990THX

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.
Steve Guttenberg
7 min read

Editors' Note: As of November 2008, this product has been replaced by the Onkyo HT-S9100THX.


Onkyo HT-S990THX

The Good

The Onkyo HT-S990THX is the world's first THX-certified home-theater-in-a-box system. The package combines seven large two-way, multidriver speakers; a 12-inch, 230-watt powered subwoofer; and a full-size A/V receiver that offers generous connectivity, component video conversion, and ample power. It's also XM Satellite radio-ready with the latest XM HD Surround.

The Bad

Despite the expense of this package, it lacks niceties such as an included DVD player (you have to supply your own), onscreen menus, and HDMI connections. The optional XM antenna caused some background noise when connected. And while the speakers and subwoofer produce great sound, these big and bulky speakers aren't going to win any beauty contests.

The Bottom Line

The sound quality of the Onkyo HT-S990THX is among the best you'll get from a home-theater-in-a-box system, but the lack of HDMI video is a disappointment.

Onkyo and THX get a little touchy when reviewers describe the HT-S990THX as a home theater in a box (HTIB), so we won't do that. It's an "integrated home-theater system" featuring a 7.1-channel A/V receiver and an amply proportioned satellite/subwoofer speaker system that dwarfs the models that come with most HTIBs. It's also the first such product to be certified by THX, a provider of technologies and quality-assurance standards for the professional and consumer entertainment industries. Not surprisingly, the sonic performance of the $1,100 Onkyo HT-S990THX lived up to our high expectations. Only the system's lack of HDMI connectivity tempered our enthusiasm.
Editor's note: The original version of this review incorrectly stated that the HT-S990THX does not offers component video conversion capability. The system does offer component video conversion, and the review and the rating have been corrected to reflect that. The Onkyo HT-S990THX comes packed in one large and extremely heavy box. Its 143.5-pound heft attests to the system's build-quality--it's about as far from those chintzy, plastic all-in-one systems as you can get. You might need the help of a muscular friend when it comes time to unbox this system.

The HT-S990THX features a 7.1-channel A/V receiver that bears more than a passing resemblance to Onkyo's current-generation separate receivers. It's 17 inches wide, 6 high, and 14.75 deep, and it weighs 21.2 pounds. The receiver's partially backlit remote earns high marks for its layout and ease of use. The receiver lacks onscreen menus, but we didn't have any problem negotiating system setup via the receiver's display. Onkyo packs a THX Ultimate Demo Disc with the system, which might be of some limited help during setup, but you can use its high-impact movie clips to show off the HT-S990THX's home-theater prowess to your friends.

The speakers are finished in black ash, with gently rounded, metallic-silver front baffles. The nicely finished wood cabinets feel considerably more robust than the lightweight plastic speakers that come with most HTIBs. The left-, right-, and center-front speakers are full-size bookshelf designs measuring 17.1 inches high by 6.25 wide by nearly 8 inches deep. The four wall-mountable surround speakers are 10.8 inches tall, 7.8 wide, and 6.6 deep--we think they're better built than most front speakers that you'll find on lesser HTIBs. 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 then hook up the extra speakers to the receiver's B-speaker outputs and put them in another room. The 34.2-pound subwoofer rounds out the speaker set. It's 17.1 inches tall, almost 15 wide, and 16.8 deep, and it matches the satellite speakers' cosmetics. A lot of home-theater-in-a-box (HTIB) manufacturers can't resist the temptation and splash 1,000 watts in bold typeface across the side of their HTIB shipping boxes--it's just that those power boasts are almost always pure hype. In the case of the Onkyo HT-S990THX--with THX certification backing up the receiver's 110-watt-per-channel rating--we believe the numbers. The receiver uses 192 kHz/24-bit digital-to-analog converters to handle surround processing options for Dolby Digital, Dolby EX, Pro Logic IIx, DTS, DTS-ES, DTS Neo:6, DTS 96/24, Neural (used to decode XM HD Surround channels), THX Cinema2, THX Music, and THX Games.

The receiver isn't sold separately, but it shares most of the features of the company's least expensive THX (Select2) receiver, the Onkyo TX-SR703 ($800). In terms of connectivity, however, the HT-S990THX's receiver was a mixed bag. 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. The HT-S990THX also offers component video conversion, which enables any analog video input (composite, S-video or component) to be transmitted via the component video outputs. That means you need to run just one set of component cables to your TV. But the HT-S990THX has no HDMI connections or switching capabilities. That's hardly a dealbreaker, but it is a disappointment given the Onkyo's cost.

On the audio front, the receiver has four digital audio inputs (one coaxial and three opticals), but, annoyingly, 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. Two analog audio-only inputs--one with a Tape Out loop for recorders--round out the standard connections. Speaker connections are high-quality binding posts for seven amplifier channels and 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 front-left, -right, and -center speakers each feature a pair of 5-inch woofers and a 1-inch dome tweeter, while the four surround speakers use a single 5.2-inch woofer and a 1-inch dome tweeter. Instead of the usual cheesy spring-clip wire connectors, the Onkyo speakers are all fitted with sturdy binding posts. The subwoofer sports a 12-inch woofer and a 230-watt amplifier. The sub's single RCA line-level input is your only connection option, but line-level is always our first choice for subwoofer hookup.

As with all but one of Onkyo's home-theater systems--the older Onkyo LV-S955--the HT-S990THX package doesn't include a DVD player; you'll need to supply your own.

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
We started our auditions with a brief encounter with the THX Ultimate Demo Disc that comes packed with the Onkyo HT-S990THX, and the room-shaking THX promo immediately proved the system's stamina. Clearly, we weren't dealing with a run-of-the-mill home-theater system. Later on, even the most violent of Uma Thurman's athletic workouts in the first Kill Bill DVD--from the resounding thuds of body slams to crunching bones and blood gushing sword plays--didn't faze the HT-S990THX one bit. Power was, for once, never an issue. Dialog sounded full and natural; wrap-around surround effects were seamlessly holographic.

Turning from movies to surround music, the Blue Man Group's Complex Rock Tour Live DVD packed a visceral wallop. We could play the system loud enough to fill a fairly large home theater with sound. Or to put it another way, the Onkyo system was on a par with an Onkyo receiver paired with a decent-quality speaker package, such as one that would sell for $600 or $700.

CDs sounded a little bright, so we used the receiver's bass and treble controls to balance the sound to our liking--and it's again worth noting that most HTIBs lack that fine tuning ability. Hard rock bouts were pretty convincing, even when we cranked up the volume on The Raconteurs' Broken Boy Soldiers, the HT-S990THX didn't let us down.

We were happy with the XM radio's sound, and the HD Surround Radio, currently available on two of XM's music channels, worked extremely well, providing truly excellent separation between channels. There was just one problem: whenever we were 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-S990THX stack up to the competition? Or, more specifically, is the HT-S990THX worth the price premium vs. the non-THX competition? We compared the HT-S990THX directly to its step-down model, the $500 Onkyo HT-S790.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. Does that add up to enough of a difference to justify the cost? Maybe--because you'd have to spend a lot more on a speaker package that outdoes the HT-S990THX's. But the HT-S790 is definitely a better value, that's for sure.

Then we turned to the Sony DAV-FX900W ($900) Dream HTIB. The Sony trumps the Onkyo in terms of style and features, including HDMI output from its built-in DVD changer, but the HT-S990THX came out way ahead on home-theater and musical prowess. The Onkyo plays louder with far lower distortion, so you hear dramatically better clarity and detail resolution; the subwoofer is more powerful--the Sony sounds muddy by comparison. But it's not a fair fight: the Onkyo's performance advantages of power, larger and better speakers, and subwoofer are hard to top. Size still has its advantages after all.


Onkyo HT-S990THX

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 7Performance 9