Onkyo's home-theater-in-a-box systems (HTIBs) are exactly that: The company takes a receiver, a DVD player, and a surround speaker system, tosses them in a big box, then sells it at an attractive discounted price. But for those who don't need the complete package, the individual components are available a la carte. So, for instance, if you don't have a need to buy the complete $900 HT-S907 system, you can opt for the $400 TX-SR604 A/V receiver, the $190 DV-CP704 DVD changer, or the $350 SKS-HT740 7.1-channel speaker system (reviewed here).
Onkyo speakers are usually boxy and blandly styled--look at the 7.1-channel Onkyo SKS-HT540, for instance. That's why we were surprised to see that the SKS-HT740's are attractively curved, thin-profile designs, set off with high-gloss end caps and tasteful black cloth grilles. This system includes seven identical speakers that deliver a smoother surround imaging than the differently sized front, center, and surround speakers found in the HT540 package. They're 13.4 x 6.3 x 3.6 inches (HWD); the center channel speaker is identical to the others but is intended to be placed horizontally rather than vertically. It can be set in its cradle-stand, or like the others, wall mounted via keyhole slots. Since they're less than 4 inches deep, the speakers will look right at home next to a flat-panel TV. The speakers feature a pair of 3.1-inch woofers flanking a 1-inch dome tweeter. The spring clip speaker wire connectors accept stripped, bare wires.
The subwoofer's medium-density fiberboard cabinet feels nice and solid. (It is, in fact, the same sub that's packaged with the HT540 system.) It has a front-mounted 10-inch woofer powered with a 230-watt amplifier. The sub's port is located up front, just under the woofer, so the bass won't be unduly affected by corner placement. The rear panel houses a single RCA line-level input and a volume control. The 18.6 x 10.75 x 16.8 inches (HWD) sub is finished, wood-grain black vinyl with a black cloth grille. It weighs 25.4 pounds.
To test the SKS-HT740's ability to get down and boogie, we spun James Brown's Live from Montreux 1981 DVD. The Onkyo's steadfast lock on the jazz, funk, big band, and soul grooves never faltered, and the sub's definition was flab-free. The brass instruments' clear articulation was free of harshness. Brown's grunts and screams punctuated the music with a power that belies the speakers' wee dimensions. The seven satellites produced a seamless surround, effectively placing us inside the enthusiastic crowd.
The newly revised Apocalypse Now: The Complete Dossier DVD revealed the limitations of the satellite speakers when compared to larger speakers with larger woofers. The sound grew increasingly bright as the mayhem escalated, but the surreal music and effects filling our home theater in the sequence when the boat approaches the bridge were beautifully detailed. Playing at lower volume smoothed the sounds' rough edges--we then found the sound to be notably refined. CDs were also consistently listenable.
Yes, the Onkyo SKS-HT540 sounds a little better, but its speakers are a lot bigger and nowhere as attractive as the SKS-HT740's. That trade-off will make the HT740's the go-to choice for anyone looking for the best combination of style and sound quality in the sub-$400 price range.