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The worst home theater in a box, ever

The evolution of home-theater-in-a-box design and performance has been remarkably consistent over the years. But in 2003 I tested the lamest, most pathetic sounding HTIB, the Gateway KAS-203.

What a mess!

The Gateway KAS-203 home-theater-in-a-box was an exercise in poor design.

I gave it a 5 rating, the lowest CNET score I've ever "awarded" any product I've reviewed. I'll get to the best HTIBs in the next Audiophiliac.

I liked the Euro style receiver/DVD player and the powered subwoofer, but as soon as I heard the KAS-203 it sounded so bad I thought it was broken. A second KAS-203 sounded identical to the first one, so I concluded the first KAS-203 was representative of what people were buying in stores.

On paper at least Gateway's KAS series home theater systems stood out in a field crowded with chintzy, plastic designs. The KAS speaker package featured a bevy of interesting ideas and a subwoofer designed by Hsu Research, a high-value company known for its exemplary subs. The receiver/DVD player boasted the build quality and looks of a serious component, but slipshod engineering and substandard quality control resulted in the most poorly executed $699 HTIB ever.

The sound of the four 5.75 inch tall sats were bolstered by a large center speaker, 16.75 inches wide, 9 deep, and 5.25 high. Rounding out the system was a 17 inch tall, 100 watt powered subwoofer. The entire sub/sat system came in a black ash finish, definitely a step up from the standard sliver plastic HTIB fare.

The receiver delivered 40 watts to each sat and the center channel speaker-and 70 watts to the subwoofer. That's more than a little weird because the KAS 203 came with a self-powered subwoofer, and had no use for the 70 watts. Which lead me to believe this system was cobbled together from various bits and pieces.

I eventually spoke with an engineer who admitted the primary source of the problems was a lack of bass management (the sats were getting too much bass). He claimed a software upgrade was in the works, but was unsure exactly when it would be available (that never happened). Great, but how a product as unfinished as this comes to market is beyond my understanding; apparently Gateway never evaluated production samples.

The KAS 203's sound was, well, lame. CDs were muffled and "boxy," as if the sound was struggling to escape from the speakers. Treble response was way down; they were some of the dullest speakers I've ever heard. Bass went fairly low, but it was uneven. Worse there was an irritating static sound lurking in the background of my CDs and DVDs; which was eerily reminiscent of the crackly sound of a worn LP.

The receiver's cooling fan was downright noisy, I could hear it blasting from across the room!

Gateway was somewhat ahead of the curve. Lots of companies distribute products they don't actually make, they slap their brand name on the thing and send them out to dealers. I have a sneaking feeling that more and more speakers sold by name brand companies are sourced from Asian manufacturers. That's not the same thing as having their designs produced abroad, no, they just sell speakers they had no input in designing. Happens with LCD panels, Blu-ray players, iPod docks, you name it.

What's the worst performing consumer electronics product you ever bought?