To create the HTP-3600, Pioneer distilled all of the most essential home-theater-in-a-box (HTIB) features into one extraordinarily affordable package. You get a component-style receiver and a bona fide 5.1-speaker package that includes a tiny subwoofer, a center speaker, and two versatile 43-inch-tall front towers that can either stand alone or be broken down into a traditional front-and-rear configuration. The whole shebang retails for $425, and we've seen the HTP-3600 online going for around three bills--though unlike some all-in-one home-theater packages, it doesn't include a DVD player. The best news? The 3600's performance ranks near the top of its class, right up there with that of Panasonic's stellar $499 . The Panasonic's wireless-ready surround speakers and DVD changer might sway some buyers, but it's otherwise a tough call--they're both excellent values.
Editor's note: We have changed the rating in this review to reflect recent changes in our rating scale. Click here to find out more.At first glance, the Pioneer HTP-3600 looks like a 3.1 virtual-surround system, with two tall front tower speakers, a center-channel speaker, and a subwoofer. In fact, the towers are two-piece speakers--their removable top sections are the system's surround speakers. That means users have the flexibility to run the 3600 in a front-only virtual-surround configuration (with no wires running to the back of the room) or as a standard 5.1 system (with the smaller surrounds behind the listener). Each surround speaker can be mounted on a tower, head-on, or angled to bounce its sound off a sidewall. The stands' weighted circular bases and 43-inch-tall towers don't come preassembled, but that's a five-minute job requiring a Phillips-head screwdriver.
The HTP-3600's virtual sound won't duplicate the spaciousness of a genuine 5.1-speaker array--if that's what you want, go ahead and detach the surround speakers from the towers and run the wires to the back of your home theater. The 5-inch-tall surround speakers can then be wall mounted or placed on a shelf. Pioneer supplies bottom covers for the surrounds and caps for covering the naked tops of the towers, so they'll look spiffy in either configuration.
The ultracompact center speaker is 9.5 inches wide, so it's easy to place, though we noted it lacks any provisions for wall mounting. The diminutive subwoofer (just 7.5 inches wide, 14.25 inches high, and 12.8 inches deep) is a rather plain-looking box, but commendably made of wood, not plastic. At 11 pounds, it won't put your back out when you hoist it from the HTP-3600's shipping box.
The handsome receiver has the heft of a full-size unit: it's 16.5 inches wide, 6.25 inches high, and 15.7 inches deep, and it weighs 21 pounds. The entire system is finished in matte silver. The Pioneer HTP-3600's receiver pumps out 100 watts to each channel, including the subwoofer. Its surround-processing suite covers all the basics: Dolby Digital, Dolby Pro Logic II, and DTS 5.1. The sparse connectivity selection will be adequate for minimalist home theaters: you get two analog stereo inputs, one analog stereo output, three digital inputs (two coaxials and one optical digital input), and a headphone jack. Note that all connections are audio only, so your TV will have to handle the video-switching duties. The cheesy spring-clip-type speaker connectors are a reminder that this receiver is part of an HTIB system; bona fide receivers have sturdier binding posts.
Each of the system's tower speakers has a woofer and a tweeter, while the more minimalist center and the surrounds get by with just a woofer. The subwoofer has a rear-mounted 5.5-inch driver.
The HTP-3600 falls in the middle of Pioneer's 2005 HTIB lineup. The budget model, the HTP-2600, ships with small cube speakers in lieu of versatile towers. The pricier step-up HTP-4600, meanwhile, is nearly identical to the 3600 but includes a wireless rear-speaker module. A similar wireless option, the XW-HT1 ($199) transceiver accessory, can be added to either the 2600 or 3600 as well. We initially tested the Pioneer HTP3600 with the Phantom of the Opera DVD, and when the film's mighty organ thundered to life, we were immediately surprised. The orchestra's low strings had a vivid presence, and the chorus's swells were also impressive for a system of this caliber. Those skinny towers and that pint-size subwoofer are seamlessly matched; we credit their synergy for a large part of the system's bravado. The DVD's vigorous dynamics blossomed without harshness, and the subwoofer was a feisty performer in its own right--just don't expect it to fill large rooms at high volume levels.
Next, we experimented with the HTP-3600's versatile surround-speaker placement options. With the surround speakers mounted atop the towers, we didn't hear any sound effects coming from the room sides or the rear, but the sound was more spacious than straight stereo. Once we removed the surround speakers from the towers and faced them directly toward the sides of our couch as we would standard surround speakers, the sound opened up into a deep soundstage. We'd go for the latter placement scenario, but if you would rather not deal with crisscrossing your home theater with speaker wires, the HTP-3600's virtual-surround is a reasonable fallback strategy.
Once we changed over from stereo to the faux-surround of Dolby Pro Logic II, the Pioneer rendered John Coltrane's Ballads CD with a lot of soul. Even Derek and the Dominos' Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs CD didn't disappoint--don't worry, the skinny towers can rock and roll. Of course, as good as the HTP-3600 is, it's still no competition for a decent separates-based system. Pairing, for instance, the receiver with speaker package will deliver a richer and more powerful sound and give you significantly expanded connectivity options--but they're twice as expensive as the HTP-3600.