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Take a gander at Samsung's radical HT-DB660TH--this isn't your father's home theater in a box. The "form follows function" main speakers actually handle the front and rear audio channels by radiating sound in multiple directions: straight ahead like standard satellites and to the sides to create a surround effect. So, instead of the usual five speakers, you get just three, and they're all up front. But the trick sats aren't the only big attraction. The system's receiver/DVD changer offers automatic setup and calibration. This Samsung, which is listed at $699, certainly has a wow factor, but while that looks good on paper, the HTIB's sound quality left us wanting more.
The DB660 promises wraparound surround sound without rear speakers. To accomplish that ambitious goal, Samsung designed radical-looking front units. They're 12 inches wide and 7.5 inches high and deep, and wings sprout from their backsides to spray the surround channels' sound out to the sides. The center and the sub are more conventionally shaped. All of the speakers feature a high-gloss, silver finish worthy of a pricier system.
Our main listening room is pretty large, so the side walls were too far away to reflect surround effects. We were able to hear them after we'd moved our testing into a smaller space, where the system worked fairly well, but we had to spend some time experimenting with speaker placement.
The user manual's illustrations depict the left and right speakers on the floor and the center on top of the TV, but that placement scenario resulted in muffled sound (duh!). The booklet never refers to the DB660's included all-metal stands, which you can adjust to raise the speakers 24 to 42 inches off the floor. Unfortunately, while the stands' individual parts are solidly constructed, they don't fit together at all well. Worse yet, each speaker ends up dangling from a single small screw--maybe the engineering crew took a lunch break and forgot to complete the design. The system sounded best when we set the stands at their lowest position.
On a positive note, the large receiver/DVD changer feels solid; its aluminum-clad faceplate and its tasteful styling stand in sharp contrast to the more garish look of many packages. The receiver's automatic setup and calibration work well. After you've plugged in the supplied microphone and pressed a button, the DB660 takes over and adjusts the volume levels of the satellites and the subwoofer--pretty neat, especially considering that this is only the second HTIB with automatic setup we've seen. The first was the $3,000 Bose Lifestyle 35.
The big remote has relatively few buttons, so it's unusually easy to fathom. A lot of the less-used keys hide stealthily under a slide-down cover.
When it comes to the front/surround speakers, Samsung is mum about the number of drivers, their sizes, and their types, and the nonremovable perforated-metal grilles thwarted our attempts to investigate. The subwoofer's driver size isn't specified, either, but the center sports twin 3-inch woofers flanking a 0.75-inch dome tweeter.
The receiver pumps out 80 watts to each channel and 100 watts to the sub. The standard surround formats are onboard: Dolby Digital and DTS for DVDs, and Dolby Pro Logic II for expanding stereo material across all five channels. You get progressive-scan component-video inputs and outputs, composite and S-Video outs, and two composite-video ins. For audio, there are two sets of stereo inputs and one optical digital in. Those connectivity options aren't stellar, but they're adequate for a fairly basic home theater.
For our home-theater test, we were off to the races with the Seabiscuit DVD. The sound was warmly balanced and fairly detailed, dialogue came across as present and natural, and the horses' thundering gallop added to the excitement. The modified speakers easily projected a large soundstage, though we might quibble that the roar of the crowd was too muted for our tastes. Unfortunately, the movie's loudest sections made the speakers buzz and rattle, and the DB660 ran out of steam on DVDs driven by big special effects. It drained the thrill from Matrix Reloaded and 2 Fast 2 Furious. The 80-watt-per-channel rating appears optimistic.
And CDs didn't fare as well as DVDs, especially when we switched from stereo to surround. The change thinned out the tonal balance of the music and the surround effects, making them echo hollowly. The subwoofer reached down fairly deep, but it couldn't blend seamlessly with the satellites; we were always aware of the sound coming from the sub--not a good thing.
For a quick comparison test, we hooked up Denon's $999 D-M71DVSXP, a nifty little stereo HTIB that employs Dolby's new Virtual Speaker processing to synthesize surround effects from a pair of mini satellites. The DB660's surround was more spacious and enveloping, but the Denon's greater detail and tighter, deeper bass impact won us over. These systems are very different, but both reduce the clutter and the complexity of multichannel surround sound by ditching the usual array of five speakers and a sub.