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.
It's an old story, but it seems as if every year, Onkyo's speaker packages keep getting better. Take the SKS-HT530: this eight-piece, 7.1-channel system features a trio of woofer-tweeter-woofer, bookshelf-size speakers to cover the front left-center-right channels; four smaller--but still impressive--surround speakers; and a 230-watt, 10-inch subwoofer. With a list price of $300--and available online for much less--the Onkyo SKS-HT530 is an awesome value.
The HT530 system is little changed from last year's model, the Onkyo SKS-HT520--which means Onkyo was smart enough to follow the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" school of product design. The front-left and -right and center speakers are full-size models; they're 17.1 inches by 6.25 inches, and 8 inches deep. The 5-inch woofers and the 1-inch dome tweeter are mounted in raised silver plastic housings that add a bit of style to the otherwise stark look of the speakers. The four wall-mountable surround speakers are 11 inches tall but just 4 inches deep, and each employs a 3.2-inch woofer and a 0.75-inch tweeter. All of the speakers' wood cabinets feel considerably more robust than typical plastic speakers that come packed with most home-theater-in-a-box (HTIB) systems. The build quality of the 30-pound subwoofer, which measures 20.3 inches tall, 10.25 wide, and 16.25 deep, is comparable with that of some of the $200-to-$300 subs we've tested. It's powered by a 230-watt amplifier and features a 10-inch woofer.
We fired up a variety of DVDs to run the Onkyo SKS-HT530 package through its paces. The fierce naval battle scene that opens the Master and Commander DVD taxes any speaker system, but the SKS-HT530 never flinched from its duties. The rolling thunder of the distant blasts was impressive in its own right, and when the cannonballs connected with the ships, the crashing, wood-shattering sounds erupted with ferocious impact. The SKS-HT530 reproduced each footstep of the sailors' footfalls on the wooden deck with startling accuracy. We have never heard better fidelity from such an affordable 7.1-speaker package.
Peter Gabriel's Play DVD video collection features his classics newly remixed to 5.1 surround, and "Games Without Frontiers" is a knockout. The surround sound seamlessly filled our large home theater. The little surround speakers sure didn't sound tiny when the bass moved to the rear, and the subwoofer delivered the goods. Most affordable subs or complete 7.1-speaker packages fall far short of the SKS-HT530's accomplishments.
We next tried an unplugged Jason Mraz tune, "The Boy's Gone," and couldn't help but be impressed by the Onkyo SKS-HT530's clear sound. Mraz's voice and guitar had a full-bodied presence we don't expect from affordable speaker packages. However, Nirvana's Nevermind CD wasn't as satisfying, mostly because when we punched up the volume, the satellites' sound was strained to the limit. But the subwoofer didn't mind, and it coasted through the abuse in style.
Anyone looking at the SKS-HT530 who doesn't already have an A/V receiver should check out the Onkyo HT-S780 home-theater system, which pairs the HT530 speakers with a capable Onkyo receiver for less than $500. A couple of hundred dollars more will buy you the Onlyo HT-S787C system, which bundles the S780 with a six-disc CD/DVD changer.
We're gung-ho about the sound, but the Onlyo SKS-HT530 won't likely make a dent on the sales of the better speaker packages on the market. Tripling your budget with an Atlantic Technology or Aperion Audio speaker system will buy a far more natural sound, dialogue will sound less like sound emanating from a box, and the subwoofer will dredge up deeper bass with superior pitch definition. But for less than 300 bucks, the Onkyo SKS-HT530 is unbeatable.