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What to buy: Sound bar or home-theater-in-a-box system?

Sound bars take up less space and have fewer wires, but don't sound as good as home-theater-in-a-box systems, says the Audiophiliac.

Steve Guttenberg
Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
Steve Guttenberg
2 min read
Steve Guttenberg/CNET

So what's better: home-theater-in-a-box (HTiB) systems or sound bars? The latter are markedly better than they were just a few years ago, but the inherent design compromises of single-speaker systems have, so far, proved insurmountable. Sound bars can't fill a room as well as five speakers can.

It wasn't that long ago I was reviewing a bunch of HTiBs every year, but sound bars (and sound bases) now dominate the home-theater marketplace. I'm constantly amazed by how far 'bars and 'bases have come, wireless subwoofers are now de rigueur, and some of those little guys can really generate bass. The Yamaha YAS-203 is the best affordable 'bar I've heard this year.

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That's all well and good, but the limitations of a sound bar or base become instantly obvious when you compare even the best of them with a bona fide 5.1-channel home-theater system. Everything changes for the better, and not just the ability to truly fill a room with sound. Dialogue sounds better and more natural, intelligibility improves, dynamic range expands, and there's deeper, more articulate bass. If you watch a lot of action/special effects-driven movies, 5.1 systems have it all over sound bars; it's no contest. If you're more a fan of straight dramas, a good sound bar will suffice.

I'm primarily referring to separates-based 5.1-channel systems with an AV receiver, five speakers, and a subwoofer, but even an affordable HTiB can trump an upper-tier ( read: expensive) sound bar. Yes, these systems have more wires, require a more complicated setup, and you have to position the speakers with care around your room, but the difference in sound quality is, in my opinion, absolutely worth it.

HTIBs haven't yet gone the way of film cameras and fax machines, and Onkyo's HTiBs usually topped my best-of lists. The brand is still in the game, and its HT-S5700 or HT-S3700 systems will likely stomp all over equivalently priced 'bars and 'bases. (I'll try and get one of those Onkyo systems in for review.)

Or you might take an alternate route and assemble a low-budget home-theater system with an entry-level AV receiver, like the Denon AVR-S500BT , with Dayton B652/B452 speakers and a Dayton Sub-1000. The whole shebang would cost little more than a mid-line sound bar.

Question: Would you consider forgoing a sound bar for a 5.1-channel speaker/sub system? Share your thoughts in the Comments section.