The Philips HTS6500's compact design makes it a decent choice for small apartments and bedrooms, or any environment where you don't want to mount rear speakers and run the associated wires. The relatively small (4.8 by 12 by 3.8 inches each), magnetically shielded front speakers have integrated tabletop stands and are also supplied with wall-mounting brackets. Each satellite speaker incorporates three 3-inch drivers angled to help create the virtual surround-sound effect. The curvy, silver-and-black gloss passive subwoofer (14.6 by 8.6 by 18.5 inches) incorporates an 8-inch direct-firing driver and has a modern appearance that matches the other components. The speakers' and subwoofer's 16-foot, hard-wired proprietary cables are long enough to provide adequate installation flexibility.
Measuring in at 2.8 by 13.4 by 13 inches, the main head unit has a wedge-shaped, silver-and-black gloss front panel with a slick, slot-loading disc player. The integrated amplifier is said to deliver roughly 200 watts to each of the satellite speakers and 100 watts to the sub, enabling the system to play pretty loud. In addition to a basic backlit text display, the front panel hosts a large volume wheel and a full selection of playback controls. The HTS6500's onscreen menu system is well designed and makes it easy to navigate digital content. We like the remote control for its iPod-like white-and-gray styling and uncluttered button layout, but we wish it were backlit and could be programmed to operate other devices.
The Philips HTS6500 supports a decent assortment of digital file formats including MP3 and WMA audio files; MPEG-1, -2, and -4 and DivX video files; and JPEG image files. The disc player is compatible with DVD+R/RW, DVD-R/RW and CD-R/RW media, so it should play back just about any home-burned movies, music, and photos. Of course, the system offers the requisite Dolby Digital, Dolby Pro Logic II, and DTS surround decoding capabilities.
If you own a fairly new HDTV set, you'll appreciate the HTS6500's inclusion of an HDMI digital output. The device also has component, S-Video, and composite video outputs, so it will connect to any older TV as well. Unfortunately, it's completely devoid of video inputs. As a result, you'll have to separately connect any of your other A/V devices--VCR, cable/satellite box, video game console--directly to the TV, then switch the TV's input to change sources. That said, all-in-one home-theater systems that offer video inputs tend to be either larger, bulkier component-based systems, such as the Onkyo's HT-S580, or much more expensive than the Philips, such as the Bose Lifestyle 3-2-1 Series II, the Sony DAV-X1, or the Denon S-301. The HTS6500 does have a passable selection of audio-only inputs, including two stereo analog RCA ins and a coaxial digital audio jack. So if you can't use the Philips as a video switcher, you can at least use it to amplify the audio from any of the aforementioned devices.
The HTS6500 offers a couple of nice front-panel extras, including a USB port for connecting a flash drive or a memory card reader, and also a minijack audio input. We were easily able to view JPEGs and play video and audio files stored on a connected USB flash drive. The only snag we ran into was with large MPEG-2 files, which didn't play smoothly from the device. The minijack audio input worked as advertised--it'll stream audio from any iPod, MP3 player, or anything else with a standard headphone jack. Rounding out the HTS6500's feature list is an AM/FM tuner with 40 programmable presets.
After the straightforward setup, we auditioned the HTS6500 with both DVDs and CDs. The system sounds OK but doesn't offer much flexibility in terms of sound customization. Your options for tweaking the tone are pretty much limited to selecting a handful of preset DSP modes. There's no user-programmable EQ, for instance. Annoyingly, you can't independently adjust the subwoofer volume either.
With music and movies, the satellite speakers delivered middle-of-the-road performance without noticeably skewing any one part of the frequency spectrum. Dialog was clear despite the absence of a center-channel speaker. The system's SonoWave effect fell short of delivering a convincing surround-sound experience--these so-called virtual-surround setups always do--but the soundstage did sound wide and fairly enveloping. It occasionally seemed as if portions of the sound were coming from the sides of our listening position, although the effect was subtle, sporadic, and less localized than it would've been with dedicated surround speakers. The boomy and uncontrolled sounding sub is the weakest link. Explosions in action movies and the bass lines of songs lacked the definition and punch we appreciate.
On the video side, upconverted DVDs and high-resolution still images looked nice and sharp displayed on our HDTV. Firing up a photo slide show, then selecting its musical accompaniment was straightforward, and the resulting presentation played smoothly.
While the Philips HTS6500 won't win any awards for its sound quality, it's more than adequate for basic home-theater duties. No, it's not on the level of the aforementioned Sony DAV-X1 or the Denon S-301, but--significantly--the Philips costs much less. With a list price of just $400, the HTS6500 packs enough high-end features--HDMI output, DivX playback, USB connectivity--to outweigh its sonic limitations. If you're looking for a slick-looking 2-channel home-theater system for the den or the bedroom, this Philips model may just fit the bill.