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Editors' note: The rating of the Philips HTS8100 has been changed since publication to better reflect its value compared to competing home theater systems.
A lot of people love the idea of a home theater system until they realize they need to run wires all over the living room to make it work. Companies have tried to solve this problem with a variety of solutions--wireless rear speakers, virtual surround from less than six speakers--but there's no denying the appeal of recent single-speaker solutions for design-conscious buyers. The Philips HTS8100 SoundBar is one of the newest virtual surround systems with a single speaker plus a subwoofer, and it manages to stash one more trick up its sleeve: a built-in DVD player. In all, the HTS8100 comes through on most of its promises. It does a pretty good job of approximating the surround experience, we liked the styling, and it even impressed us with its video quality while upscaling DVDs. We had some minor gripes, namely that it lacks video inputs and doesn't sound great with music, but we're betting many style-first buyers are willing to live with those compromises. We can't say we're thrilled about the $800 list price, but it's available for less online, and it's competitively priced compared to many other high-style virtual surround systems, such as the Yamaha YSP-1100 and the JVC DD-3 Sophisti.
The Philips HTS8100's look is extremely stylish. The main unit consists of a long, thin speaker system--the SoundBar--that measures a svelte 5.75 inches high by 36.81 inches wide by 5.35 inches deep. For a system this thin, you might be surprised to find out there's a DVD player packed in there as well; with a tap of the open/close button, the black reflective panel in the middle slides back to reveal a vertically aligned DVD player. The SoundBar can either stand on a table or be mounted on the wall with the included bracket. All in all, it comes close to the ultimate in minimalist home theater--just one component under (or over) your TV that acts like your receiver, DVD player and surround-sound speaker system.
Of course, it's not quite that simple. The SoundBar unit must also connect to the included subwoofer, which definitely makes it harder to wall mount and still keep the wire concealed. The smallish sub measures in at 18.5 inches high by 11.61 inches wide by 11.61 inches deep and has a modern look at goes well with the aesthetic of the SoundBar.
Philips also includes an iPod dock in the package, and this connects to the main SoundBar using a proprietary connection. We love that Philips included the dock, but the extra wires and separate component does put a damper on the simple design. It would have been nice if Philips had designed the dock into either the SoundBar itself or the sub, but with a separate dock, you'll need to pull off some creative cable management to hide the additional wire.
The cool-looking remote features a glossy, black finish, which may look nice when you take it out of the box but quickly becomes a magnet for fingerprints. Button placement is fine for important buttons like volume, playback controls, and the main directional pad, which are clearly separated and easy to use by feel. On the other hand, the rest of the buttons are all the same height and directly adjacent, making them more difficult to differentiate.
Like just about every HTIB with a built-in DVD player, the HTS8100 comes with both standard Dolby and DTS surround-sound processing. Of course, the HTS8100 doesn't actually have six discrete speakers, so it uses its own processing to simulate the surround experience from one speaker.
The HTS8100's functionality isn't limited to just DVDs, though, as it can function like a mini-AV receiver for switching between additional audio inputs. The HTS8100's connectivity is limited to audio--there are two stereo analog RCA-style inputs on the subwoofer, two stereo analog inputs on the main unit (one RCA-style, one minijack), and one coaxial digital audio input on the subwoofer. You can still connect video components by running just the video cable(s) to your TV and the audio cables to the HTS8100, but you'll have to fumble between two remotes to get it all going. On the side of the SoundBar is a USB port, which can be used with JPEG, MP3, WMA, and DivX files.
For outputs, the highest quality connection on the HTS8100 is the HDMI output. It's capable of upscaling DVDs to resolutions as high as 1080p, but that doesn't mean it will make your DVDs look like high-def. Despite marketing claims, upscaling generally only yields slight increases in picture quality, and how much of an increase you'll experience is very much dependent on how good your TV is. This is because every HDTV already has upscaling processing built-in, so the increase in quality can only occur if the DVD player does a better job than you TV does--and we'll cover the HTS8100's performance later. If you don't have an HDMI input on your TV, there's also a component video output and a composite video output. The SoundBar's upscaling is only capable via HDMI.
As we mentioned before, there's an included iPod dock that connects to the main unit. As with almost any iPod dock, you're able to listen to and browse your music collection using the remote control and an onscreen interface that displays on your TV. There's also a video output on the dock, which you'll have to connect separately to your TV to view photos and videos from your iPod. It would have been nice if this separate connection wasn't needed, since the HTS8100 is already connected to your TV. Also note that when viewing photos and videos, you'll have to navigate using the iPod's screen rather than on the TV.
We started off our listening test of the HTS8100 with King Kong on DVD, and we definitely preferred to activate the multichannel Ambisound mode. While CGI Kong may have not always looked convincing, the HTS8100 did a pretty good job of approximating the surround experience. There were several instances where it seemed that sound was coming from the sides of room, such as when Kong is sprinting through the jungle or during the thrilling dinosaur stampede. Of course, it doesn't compare to a sound system with six separate speakers, but for those who put a premium on style and can't stand the wires of a full system, it should be an acceptable compromise.
For music, we preferred to leave the HTS8100 in stereo mode as opposed to multichannel. While multichannel mode may widen the soundstage a little, we found it thinned out the sound too much and ended up sounded unnatural. Listening to Kenny Burrell's Midnight Blue, we felt the HTS8100 fell a little short of delivering the sonics we expect from a home theater system. As we notched the volume up, it sounded like the HTS8100 started to struggle and the music would get a little harsh. On the other hand, we felt the subwoofer and main unit were nicely matched and did a decent job handling the acoustic bass on this album. When switched to Jeff Beck's Truth, we were impressed by the HTS8100's ability to create a pretty large soundstage from just the SoundBar, but the little system didn't quite have enough guts to keep up with the band's hard-rocking sound--cranking the volume up resulted in some boomy bass. In all, the HTS8100 will definitely suffice for casual music listeners--and it can sound pretty good on some songs--but more demanding music fans will still long for a bigger sound.
We started off our DVD image quality tests using Silicon Optix's HQV test suite. Overall, we were very impressed by the HTS8100's DVD performance, especially for an integrated unit (as opposed to a standalone DVD player). It aced the initial resolution test, demonstrating its ability to display the full detail of DVDs. The next two tests were also solid, as the HTS8100 was mostly jaggy-less while display a rotating white line, as well as three pivoting lines. The HTS8100 even passed the difficult 2:3 pull-down test, which means its video processing kicked into film mode in about a second, so there was no moirÃ© in the grandstands. It did struggle a little with horizontally scrolling text in 1080i mode, as the words left some slight trails behind them, but there was no sign of it in 1080p mode--so those with 1080p TVs would be wise to set the output resolution to 1080p.
We also took a look at some program material, and the HTS8100 continued to hold its own. It again proved its 2:3 pull-down prowess on the intro of Star Trek: Insurrection, as the hulls of the boats and railing of the bridge were rendered smoothly, without any jaggies. The HTS8100 also did a good job on intro of Seabiscuit, which is a very difficult sequence, as it successfully rendered the pans over the black and white photos without a problem. All in all, the HTS8100 delivers very good image quality, especially for a virtual surround/HTIB system.