Pioneer's HTP-3800 home theater in a box (HTIB) lists for just $299, but its beautifully finished tower speakers were designed to visually complement Pioneer's gorgeous PureVision plasma TVs. The system includes an A/V receiver, small center and surround speakers, and a nonpowered subwoofer, but no DVD player; the system is ideal for buyers who already own a decent player. The Pioneer's sound quality is a mixed bag: it plays loud enough to fill moderately large rooms, but the subwoofer's volume level needs constant adjustment. Given that the HTP-3800's sound never rises above merely acceptable, you'd be better off with one of the better high-style or full-size alternatives available--even if it costs a bit more. The Pioneer HTP-3800's A/V receiver looks and feels very similar to the company's entry-level receiver, the VSX-516. That might be a mixed blessing for some buyers since it's bigger (it measures 6.25 inches high by 16.5 wide by 13.75 deep) and bulkier (a healthy 19 pounds) than the low-profile receiver/DVD players that come with many lifestyle home-theater systems, such as Pioneer's own HTZ-360DV. The receiver's size advantages provide for a superior layout of knobs and buttons compared to many more stylish competitors.
The HTP-3800 receiver's "user's manual" is a single sheet of paper, and its overly condensed user and setup information may make for a slightly more difficult setup for home-theater newbies. Lacking onscreen menus means you'll have to use the receiver's front-panel display for system setup. Thankfully, we found the menus' navigation mostly intuitive. But the overly small remote control was another story: it crams in far too many poorly labeled buttons, and the awkward layout didn't help things.
If you've spent big bucks on a flat-screen TV, such as one of Pioneer's sleek high-gloss black sets, the complementary styling of the HTP-3800's jet-black tower speakers will be especially welcome. The two 43.25-inch-tall wood cabinet speakers put to shame the ubiquitous sliver plastic--or, in some cases, metal--towers from Sony and Panasonic. The only catch here is that the Pioneer speakers must be mounted on the supplied circular wooden bases with the supplied wood screws; it would have been nice if Pioneer included provisions for wall-mounting the towers on either side of the TV. Since that's not an option, please be aware that the speakers' rear panels are unfinished, so you'll probably want to place them close to a wall.
Curiously, the HTP-3800's center-channel and surround speakers' silver-plastic construction doesn't visually match the high-gloss black towers. The center speaker is 10.5 inches wide and 3.75 high; the surround speakers are a mere 5.5 inches tall and come with matching L wall brackets. The silver subwoofer is constructed from medium-density fiberboard (MDF) and measures a compact 7.5 by 14.75 by 12.5 inches. The Pioneer HTP-3800 package includes the A/V receiver and a six-piece speaker set, along with the necessary cabling to connect it all together. Pioneer doesn't include a DVD player, but since you likely already have one anyway, you're not paying extra for something you don't need. For the receiver's power ratings, Pioneer used Federal Trade Commission (FTC) ratings, which are far more stringent than the overly hyped megawattage that many manufacturers advertise. The resulting numbers--100 watts for each of the five speaker channels and the subwoofer--would be exceptionally powerful for a $300 HTIB, but then we noted that the 100-watt rating for the speakers are quoted from 200Hz to 20KHz, which eliminates all the power-hungry bass frequencies (20Hz to 200Hz). The bottom line: the HTP-3800's power is no better or worse than average. All of the standard Dolby and DTS surround modes are included, along with the ability to decode WMA 9 audio streams--which is, admittedly, of little use.