Most HTIBs come with five satellite speakers and a subwoofer, but over the past year or two, some models have reduced the speaker count down to three, two, or even one superspeaker, plus a sub. These virtual surround systems reduce the speaker clutter and wire tangles, but genuine five-speaker arrays still produce the best, most enveloping surround sound. With Pioneer's radically new HTZ-740DV ($800 list), you can go either way: get virtual surround from the tallboy speakers flanking a tiny center speaker or detach the skinny towers' top micro satellites and stick them in the back of your home theater to get bona fide 5.1 surround.
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 740DV's silvery 42-inch-tall towers don't look all that different than those from Samsung, Sony, Panasonic, or JVC. But closer inspection reveals a very significant departure: the Pioneer's towers are two-piece designs. Their top sections are, in fact, surround speakers. Leave them on the towers, and the receiver/DVD player's processing will create a virtual surround effect from the integrated tower-surround speaker array. The surround speaker can be mounted flush to the tower or angled to bounce sound off your sidewalls to create a more diffuse, enveloping surround effect.
So far, so good, but the resulting sound won't duplicate the spaciousness of a 5.1-speaker array. If that's what you want, detach the surround speakers from the towers and place them in the back or sides of your home theater. Pioneer supplies caps to cover the naked tops of the towers and bottom covers for the surrounds.
The ultracompact center speaker will look swell on top of your TV. And the remarkably slim 3.5-inch-wide subwoofer is roughly the size and shape of the receiver. The entire ensemble is finished in matte silver with chrome accents.
One small knock: The svelte receiver/DVD player's setup and menu navigation chores aren't as intuitive as those found on Pioneer's receivers and DVD players.The receiver dishes out 75 watts to each channel, including the subwoofer, and its processing suite includes Dolby Digital/Pro Logic II and DTS 5.1 surround. Disc compatibility runs from CD/CD-R, DVD (including home-burned -R/RW and +R/RW discs), and MP3/WMA CD-Rs. Those of you who own a Pioneer-branded flat-panel TV will be interested to hear that the 740DV includes SR+ control options that simplifies use with Pioneer plasma TVs.
While most of the competing models feature a multidisc changer, the HTZ-740DV is a single-disc model. Connectivity, meanwhile, is stripped down to the bare essentials: two stereo inputs, one stereo output, one optical digital input, and a headphone jack. We think $800 HTIBs should do better.
The tower speakers are two-way designs featuring a woofer and tweeter while the center and surrounds get by with just a woofer. The surround speakers' woofers are mounted on an angled baffle to project the sound up to enhance the surround effect. The subwoofer boasts a side-mounted 6.5-inch driver.
If you're enticed by the 740DV's flexible setup options, keep in mind that Pioneer is extending the design to its newer models, the DVD-less HTP-3600 and HTP-4600, available in April 2005 for $425 and $650, respectively. Similarly, the $499 Panasonic SC-HT930 is a 3.1-speaker design that interfaces with an optional wireless rear speaker package (sold separately).Music is the most revealing test of an HTIB's quality, so we started our auditions with Duke Ellington's classic Jazz Party CD. Alas, the 740DV's big towers didn't sound very big; they came across more like a set of 6-inch-tall satellites. The 740DV sounds tonally thin, with not much in the way of real treble sparkle. When we played the Doors' first CD, Jim Morrison's vocals sounded like they were coming out of a box. We gave the subwoofer a chance to strut its stuff on our Prince CDs, but the Purple One's funky bass was thick and lumpy. Full frontal blasts of heavy metal mayhem lacked the kick we got from Sony's DAV-FR9 Dream HTIB ($800). That Sony model is even prettier than the 740DV and offers a five-disc changer, four towers, and a powered subwoofer.
Things picked up when we popped on The Bourne Supremacy DVD, with the HTZ-740DV's surround sats still attached to the front towers. The soundstage was deeper and more expansive than it would be with regular tower speakers, but if you want true surround envelopment, take our advice and deploy the little sats in the back or sides of your room. The sound was more spacious and less boxed in. The nice thing is, you can have it your way: virtual surround or the real thing. In either case, the little center speaker belted out a rich sound, and the subwoofer didn't rein in the action. Once again, we felt the sound was lacking in detail overall, but it wasn't harsh or grating. Ultimately, the 740DV will do its best in fairly small home theaters--say, less than 300 square feet or so--where it will play loud enough to get a rise from your neighbors.