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Home-theater-in-a-box systems have been around forever, but the latest marketing angle is the "Blu-ray ready HTIB." The new phrase simply means that the system consists of a surround-sound-speaker system and an AV receiver, so you only need to add a Blu-ray player to complete your home theater. The Sony HT-SS360 is an entry-level Blu-ray-ready HTIB, complete with a decor-friendly (read: small) 5.1 speaker system and an AV receiver with three HDMI inputs. That's enough HDMI ports to handle most home theaters, but the HT-SS360 doesn't have any analog video ports, which is an annoyance for anyone with a Nintendo Wii, where you'll need to run its video output straight to your TV. In terms of sound quality, we felt like the HT-SS360 was up to the task on movies--especially considering its $350 list price--but like many HTIBs, it just didn't cut it for music. The HT-SS360 is a good value if you're looking for an all-in-one solution and you already have HDMI-compatible video devices (especially a PS3 or other Blu-ray player), but more discriminating listeners will have to spend more if they want a system that sounds good with music too.
The HT-SS360 is made up of four identical speakers, used for the front and surround speakers, plus a tiny center channel and a subwoofer. The front/surround speakers have plastic cabinets, which are typical at this price range, and each speaker houses a single 2.6-inch cone driver. The speakers themselves are very small, coming in at 4.1 inches wide by 6.5 inches high by 3.1 inches deep; nobody is going to mistake it for a real hi-fi system.
The center channel looks even smaller and at 15 inches wide by 2 inches high by 2.6 inches deep, it barely even seems like a real speaker. The subwoofer is passive (unpowered; no built-in amp), and it's the only sizable speaker of the bunch with a 6.4-inch driver and a moderate footprint (8.75 inches wide; 16.6 inches high; 12.9 inches deep.) Like many HTIBs, the included speakers use proprietary speaker jacks, so you can't swap in different speakers at a later time.
The speakers are powered by the slimline AV receiver. At only 2.6 inches high, it's much smaller than a standalone AV receiver and has an attractive silver finish that should fit most decors. There are virtually no controls on the front panel, save for the power button, input selector button, and large volume knob on the far right.
The included remote is the standard type that Sony includes with its HTIB units. It's an average remote at best, with a lot of small similar-size buttons. On the upside, the directional pad and volume fall naturally under your thumb. We also appreciated that when we hooked up the HT-SS360 to the Sony BDP-S360 Blu-ray player we were able to use the one remote to control the Blu-ray player without any extra tweaks.
The HT-SS360 includes an automatic speaker calibration system, which is a plus at this price. Even before we ran through the manual or autosetups the HT-SS360 sounded pretty good overall, but the subwoofer volume was too loud. Depending on your taste for bass, you might be able to forgo speaker setup. Since the sub doesn't have its own volume control, the only way to adjust the sub is in the manual speaker setup.
The HT-SS360's manual and autosetups are a bit trickier than average, mostly because the receiver lacks an onscreen menu display. The menus instead appear only on the receiver's smallish display. And since only one line of menu text appears at a time, the setup process may be a little confusing for first-time home theater buyers.
Before and after the HT-SS360 manual setup we felt the match up between the satellite speakers and subwoofer was less than ideal; the sub had a big, boomy sound, and the sats made very little bass on their own. In other words, it was easy to tell most of the bass was coming from the subwoofer, way over on the right side of the CNET listening room.
Next, we tackled the HT-SS360's DCAC (Digital Cinema Auto Calibration) system. The DCAC adjusts the volume level of each speaker and the subwoofer, and measures the distance between each speaker and the listening position.
At first we were a little confused as to where to plug-in the (supplied) AUTO CAL microphone. On most receivers the mic jack is located somewhere on the front panel, but the HT-SS360 it's located on the receiver's rear panel. After plugging in the mic it's just a matter of going through a couple of steps on the speaker setup menu. Once the Digital Cinema Auto Calibration is underway a series of test tones sequence through the speakers and subwoofer. All of the measurements are taken from just one mic position. Autosetup takes just a minute to complete, so it's a lot quicker than most systems.
The Digital Cinema Auto Calibration boosted the subwoofer volume again, so it was too loud for us. We went back to the manual setup and turned the sub volume down. It would be nice if Sony included a subwoofer volume adjustment on the remote, as it's common to make tweaks to the sub volume given the program material. Unlike Sony's more expensive DAV-HDX589W (which has a built-in DVD player), the HT-SS360 has bass and treble controls accessible with the remote.
The HT-SS360 is clearly designed to be used with newer, HDMI-friendly devices. The receiver has three HDMI inputs, which is one more than Panasonic's comparable SC-HT56 and should accommodate most home theater setups. On the other hand, there are no analog video inputs at all, so you can't use the HT-SS360 as your main video switching hub if you still have some analog video devices, like the ubiquitous Nintendo Wii.
Of course, you can still use analog video devices with the HT-SS360 if you connect the video cable directly to your TV and the audio cables to the HT-SS360. The HT-SS360 is equipped with three stereo analog audio inputs and three digital audio inputs (two optical and one coaxial.) In addition to standard audio ports, the HT-SS360 also features Sony's proprietary Digital Media Port, which is compatible with a variety of compatible accessories, such as the TDM-NC1 (a Wi-Fi music streamer), the TDM-BT1 (a Bluetooth adapter), and the TDM-IP50 (an iPod/iPhone dock). Even though the HT-SS360 is a relatively inexpensive system, we really would have liked to have seen it come with iPod connectivity without needing to buy an accessory.
Unlike some more expensive full-fledged AV receivers, the HT-SS360 doesn't have onboard decoding for the new high-resolution Blu-ray soundtrack formats, Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio. While that might have been an issue six months ago, it's less of an issue now that almost all new Blu-ray players have onboard decoding; you don't necessarily need a receiver with onboard decoding. The HT-SS360 does, however, have the standard assortment of Dolby and DTS sound decoding modes, including Dolby Digital, Dolby Pro Logic IIx, and DTS.
Like virtually all home theater systems, the HT-SS360 has both AM and FM tuners, and comes with the appropriate antennas. There's no built-in support for satellite radio or HD radio.
From the looks of it you might not expect the HT-SS360 to have what it takes to convey the visceral kicks of a film like "The Wrestler." It did. When Randy "The Ram" Robinson (Mickey Rourke) is in the ring the HT-SS360 had no trouble delivering the physical impact of the wrestlers' full-on body slams or when the men smash into the mat. The crowd's jeers and cheers erupting from the surround speakers put us in the midst of the action.
The HT-SS360 may be a lightweight package, but the sound packs a heavyweight wallop. But the oomph was delivered almost exclusively from the subwoofer; the little satellite speakers make almost no bass on their own. The supersvelte, two-inch-high center speaker weighs less than a pound (14 ounces), but it didn't sound small. Dialogue was nicely balanced.
Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds' acoustic guitars on their "Live at Radio City" concert Blu-ray sounded nice. Again, the subwoofer supplied the foundation for the sound, and the more we listened the more we became aware of the subwoofer. The quality of the HT-SS360's bass was less than optimum--it was thick and murky. When we played CDs, the sub's lack of clarity/definition was even more apparent.
Booker T. Jones' new funk CD, "Potato Hole," had a healthy low-bass kick, but the electric guitars and keyboards grew irritatingly harsh as we turned up the volume. The little speakers sounded awfully little, in stereo; the sound improved when we listened in Dolby Pro Logic II surround. Overall, we preferred the HT-SS360's sound on movies--the speakers and subwoofer's shortcomings were much more apparent on music.