We could make this review really short by just listing the Onkyo SKS-HT510's vital statistics: you get a pair of full-size bookshelf speakers, a center-channel speaker, three smaller surrounds, and a 150-watt powered sub--all for a list price of $300. This is a 6.1-channel system; that is, it includes an extra surround to take advantage of the center-back channel found on newer receivers.
The left/right speakers are big, standing 16.5 inches tall. They each sport dual 5.25-inch woofers--a real rarity among budget speaker packages--and a 1-inch dome tweeter. The center speaker measures 15.25 inches wide; its two 4-inch woofers flank a 1-inch tweeter. Each 10.5-inch-tall surround uses a pair of the same drivers found in the center unit.
The 30-pound powered sub has a downward-firing 8-inch woofer and a 150-watt amplifier. Its connectivity is limited to just one line-level input, so you must hook it up to a receiver with a line-level subwoofer output; most A/V receivers are so equipped. The sturdy sats are finished in a black-oak, vinyl veneer and feature nonremovable contoured grilles. The build quality of the package as a whole is especially impressive, considering the price.
The wonderful Frida DVD fully exercised the Onkyo ensemble. Early in the film, Frida is in a bus accident, and the sounds of the collision and the following fantasy sequence swept us away. Dialogue was especially well served by the center speaker; male and female voices had just the right body and presence. Some center units that cost as much as this entire system couldn't keep up with the HT510's.
Testing was going so well that we decided to bring in the big guns: the depth-charge scene on the DVD of U-571, a World War II submarine drama. The surround effects of distant explosions and creaking metal have humbled many a puny package, but the HT510 never faltered. Just don't expect miracles; the system will perform best in rooms smaller than 400 square feet.
Holly Cole's jazzy Tom Waits tribute CD, Temptation, sounded absolutely fabulous. The stand-up bass had plenty of weight and force; the HT510's subwoofer delivered taut definition and lots of down-low power. All the drummer's little percussive accents and fills rang true over the main left/right speakers, and the system handled Cole's sexy vocals well even in stereo.
Overall, the HT510 offers great sound, but its large size will keep it from blending into a room. Naturally, it can't beat the more-expensive Polk RM6700 and NHT systems we've tested here at CNET, but the SKS-HT510 is the best we've heard in its price class. If you're looking for an even more affordable option, check out the Fluance AV-HTB, but be advised that it lacks a subwoofer.