Investing in a good flat-screen TV will do wonders for your eyes, but even the best built-in TV speakers and simulated surround sound will be disappointing to your ears in comparison to what's available from external speakers. If you're ready to take that step into home theatre but don't want to mortgage the house to do it, you'll want to look into a home theatre surround kit.
No need to assemble your own, however: integrated systems such as Yamaha's YHT-175 include everything you need to bring your sound to life. Actually a combination of the NS-P270 5.1 speaker package and the HTR-5930 amplifier, the YHT-175 includes a consumer-level amp, subwoofer and five speakers that deliver 100W peak power each for some good, clean 5.1 home theatre surround sound.
Because speakers are such a visible part of the home theatre, aesthetics are important, and here the YHT-175 doesn't disappoint. Silver is the colour throughout, with the front speakers small enough to tuck into your entertainment unit while still packing a punch. The subwoofer, also silver, can be tucked away into any convenient space with access to the floor but is attractive enough that it doesn't have to be hidden.
The two rear satellite speakers are a bit boxier, but are still small enough to sit unobtrusively on side tables or suspended on the wall. Their biggest shortcoming is the fact that the YHT-175 is a wired system, so you have to figure out where to put the long black speaker wires (included) that link the satellites to the main system.
Even in our relatively small test room, it was clear that the wires could have been a lot longer, since they were barely long enough to reach the far wall after being run around doorway skirtings. If ever there was a case for wireless surround speakers, this set makes it abundantly clear. If you're planning to run these wires behind your walls, make sure you BYO speaker cable.
The main amplifier is a little smaller than typical audio components, offering an attractive front panel display in a subdued orange colour. A series of buttons allows selection of audio inputs (the unit supports two sets of speakers) and sound modes, although most functions are managed using the unit's remote control.
This remote control is perhaps the package's only letdown: relatively small and wide, it is crammed with so many buttons that it is hard to find the volume buttons by touch alone; they're double-wide but the same thin width as the other buttons that surround them. Yamaha could definitely do better by reconsidering the size of the unit and giving more emphasis to commonly used buttons.
Like most comparable home theatre units available today, the YHT-175 includes just enough to suit your needs but none of the bells and whistles of a more expensive system.
The back bristles with ports aplenty, ranging from your usual assortment of audio inputs to digital audio coaxial and dual fibre-optic inputs, to composite video input and output jacks that let the unit function as a video mixing intermediary of sorts. The manual points out that this function can be used to combine audio feeds with video sources -- perfect for rave parties but hardly a make-or-break feature for most of us.
Audio processing is well specified: there's support for DTS, Dolby Digital and Dolby Pro Logic; and a 192-kHz/24-bit D/A converter to cope with any audio you're likely to throw at it. There's also a 'night mode' that temporarily filters out disruptive low-frequency sound so you can watch movies without waking the house. Yamaha's Virtual CINEMA DSP offers dedicated audio settings for music (Concert Hall and The Roxy Theatre), game and sports watching; and movies (Spacious and Dynamic modes).
The unit also includes technology to simulate surround sound from two-channel sources. This and the other audio modes worked fine in practice, but those looking to simulate a broader range of acoustic environments will find themselves tweaking the unit's many settings.
A front panel menu allows adjustment of each individual speaker's volume level, with preset test signals helping ensure that volume is consistent between the speakers no matter how they are placed. Delay between front and back speakers can be adjusted either manually or via a setting for small, medium and large rooms.
Because it's a full-featured amplifier, the unit also includes FM and AM radio reception with 40 presets and automatic tuning. The included remote offers universal control capabilities to run your other components, although given its cramped layout we'd recommend going the other way and teaching your TV remote to control the Yamaha unit.
Experiencing surround sound for the first time involves the same sort of revelation as seeing a large-screen flat panel for the first time, and the YHT-175 doesn't disappoint. Although the rear speakers seemed a bit quiet in the default setting, fiddling with the configuration options allowed us to equalise the volume between the speakers and deliver a full surround sound. Movies like Star Wars and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire -- which include all manner of swooping and panning characters that show the value of 3D sound -- gained a completely new aspect with the surround sound in place. Even movies without such action were significantly enhanced, since splitting up the 5 primary audio channels allowed individual elements of the sound to emerge from the muddy audio mix that is two-channel sound. Voices were clearer, music more dramatic and hidden background sounds took on a life of their own.
Response was clear throughout the audible frequency range, although high-frequency and subwoofer detail could be a little more pronounced. Overall, however, performance was good enough to appeal to most home theatre buyers -- and, if you don't mind dealing with wires, there is much to like about this bundle.