Ultracompact speaker systems may be all the rage, but the good ones always wind up costing a not so small bundle: $750 to $1,000. Why? Because it takes good engineers and fancy technology to eke out every last bit of sound from tiny speakers. But remove the size constraints, and it's a whole new ball game. Case in point: Onkyo's SKS-HT500 sub/sat system, which delivers excellent sound from midsized speakers for a remarkably low price.
The numeric rating for this product has been changed since the review's original publication. The reason for this is simply the general improvement of technology over time. In order to keep our ratings fair and accurate, it's sometimes necessary to downgrade the ratings of older products relative to those of newer products.
Sizing up the SKS-HT500
While most entry-level packages are built around tiny sats and laughably small subwoofers, the HT500 sports rather formidable components. The speakers have a simple if bulky look, with an attractive, black-oak, vinyl-veneer finish and contoured grilles that add a touch of class. The main left/right speakers stand 16.5 inches tall and have dual 5.25-inch woofers and a 1-inch dome tweeter. The more average-sized center speaker comes in at 15.25 inches wide and features a woofer/tweeter/woofer array (two 4-inch woofers and a 1-inch tweeter). The surround speakers, which use a pair of the same drivers found in the center speaker, are the smallest of the bunch at just 8.5 inches high.
Though the center and surround speakers have keyhole mounts, wall-mounting them will restrict airflow from the rear ports; these speakers will sound best with a little breathing room behind them. Rated at an easy-to-drive, 8-ohm impedance, the mighty HT500 ensemble won't tax low-powered receivers.
The subwoofer weighs an impressive 29 pounds and incorporates a downward-firing, 8-inch woofer and a 150-watt amplifier. Connectivity options are limited to just one line-level input. Therefore, this Onkyo must be coupled with a receiver that has a line-level subwoofer output (most A/V receivers are so equipped).
Better than good
Things immediately got interesting when we fired up our first test disc. To our pleasant surprise, the Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense DVD sounded huge, and Tina Weymouth's meaty bass lines were easily delineated from Chris Frantz's pounding drum kit. The HT500's sub/sat blend, midbass definition, and punch are very, very good--right up there with those of systems that go for more than double the price. The sub's low-frequency prowess is excellent, but it doesn't go as deep as most of the $400 subs that we've auditioned. That's fine with us; we'd rather give up some power to get a pitch-accurate bottom end.
The Onkyo ensemble has the guts to pummel your eardrums with special-effects extravaganzas without straining--we measured 100dB. There is no question that the HT500 set trumps every kit that we've heard featuring miniature speakers teamed up with a cute, little, combo receiver/DVD player. The HT500's sound quality and quantity are untouchable by any speaker set at or near its $300 price point.
Next, we throttled down the volume and listened to Rosanne Cash's 10 Song Demo CD and found that her vocals and guitar were rendered with appropriate delicacy and naturalness. We did notice one quirk: the left and right speakers have narrow vertical dispersion, so it's important to place their tweeters at the same height as seated listeners' ears. The speakers also sounded more open after we removed their grilles.
Onkyo teams the HT500 with a variety of systems. The $499 , for example, includes a HT-R500 100-watt-per-channel A/V receiver. Obviously, we're very happy with the HT500 and would love to see what Onkyo could deliver in a $500 speaker package. We say bring it on.