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Home cinema systems: Are kits or components right for you?

Whether you want to buy a home theatre in a box or go the components route, you'll need to decide which way is best for you right from the start.

Home theatre systems can be a lot of fun but they can also be quite complex things and most cost a reasonable amount of money, so it's in your best interest to buy the right product from the start.

Getting the purchase right involves thinking about a few important issues first and getting the correct system to suit your budget.

Firstly, you must think about the room you want to place the system into. This is because its size, shape and construction all influence how well the system is going to work. The other thing you must think about is what level of performance you want. Some folks will be happy as long as they can make out the dialogue on their favourite movies, while others will want better than commercial cinema performance.

Panasonic home cinema
Take the room's size into consideration when planning a new home cinema. (Credit: Panasonic)

Today the market place is in two broad camps — home theatre in a box (HTIB) and separate components. Let's take a look at how to buy either type of system and clarify the strengths and weakness of each.

Whether you end up with a HTIB or components, you must think about your own situation and needs and listen to a variety of systems before spending your hard-earned cash. Like anything else, the more homework you do the less likely you are going to end up with an inappropriate product.

Home theatre in a box (HTIB)

Most people who choose a HTIB system over separate components do so because of simplicity and value for money. Many may not have been exposed to separates and are often not aware of the pros and cons of going for a home cinema package.

Pros

HTIB systems have several things going for them. Simplicity, compactness and ease of use are important assets. A system usually features one or two neat-looking slim components and there is no need to choose speakers, receivers and a DVD player, as the one manufacturer provides everything.

Sony Muteki
The is one such example of an HTIB. (Credit: Sony)

All-in-one systems are great for smaller rooms, so if you have a small living area or even a "games" room then a large 7.1 home theatre system may not only be impractical but also look ridiculous.

In most cases, speakers are either diminutive cubes or if you go slightly more upmarket, trendy super-slim towers. Cabling is included too and is often colour coded to ensure a near foolproof hook-up.

Low price is another draw card. With everything supplied, and often for prices a third of component packages, HTIB solutions are sometimes the only game in town. They range from under AU$300 to over AU$2000 — but at that price you're almost better off considering separate components.

Cons

With every HTIB, it's important to note that a degree of performance is sacrificed for the sake of competitive pricing and convenience.

It is not unreasonable to expect that the goal of any home theatre system is to sound like a theatre in your home. However, to do this requires good speakers and amplification — traditional weak points for HTIB systems.

Unfortunately, the cute plastic speakers that are commonly found in cheap HTIB systems are rarely able to deliver the goods. While budget gems such as the Sony Muteki systems and the Mark Levinson-tuned LG hi-fi exist, many other systems use poor quality materials that won't stand up to high volume levels.

Good low frequency performance is also hard to achieve on a tight budget, so carefully check out how the system fares in this area. Due to pricing considerations, the amplifiers that power these speakers are also generally of a lesser quality than found in separate components and most are unable to power anything but small rooms with a high, clean cinema volume level.

Listen carefully to the system in the store in the manner that you would at home and keep in mind the size of your room — bigger rooms need more power to fill with sound. Manufacturers are aware of the power limitations and can often tout very dubious power specifications for these systems. Study their specs closely. For example, continuous power figures with distortion levels of more than 1 per cent will actually sound distorted at the power levels quoted.

The other major disadvantage of HTIB systems is that most are not very flexible. They tend to have few connection options and you can't change or add speakers. The connection issues become important when owners try to add a DVD recorder or a games console only to find there is nowhere to connect them.

When choosing HTIB systems, of course listen to them carefully, but also think about what you may want to attach down the track. For those wanting to add more than one or two devices, separate components will be a better investment in the long run. It is for these reasons, aside from sound quality and power, that most enthusiasts end up with separate components — despite the greater cost and bulk.

Speakers first

Right out front it is best to admit that component systems are more expensive than HTIB's, more complex and generally bulkier too. However, these very real negatives are forgiven by enthusiasts because systems can sound as good as or even better than the local Cineplex.

5.1 speaker package
The B&W VM6 speaker system costs more than a HTIB but will also sound much better. (Credit: Bowers & Wilkins)

If performance is your most important criteria, the best way to buy a theatre system is to start at a hi-fi store that has a speaker selection room, and listen to different pairs of speakers at once. Always start the system buying process by listening to speakers first. There are far greater differences in sound between speakers than between receivers or any other component. Speakers vary widely in size, style and price, and you'll want to end up with the right speakers that you'll enjoy listening to and be happy to have sitting in your lounge room.

Speakers also vary greatly in terms of how much power they need. So you must pick your speakers first and do it on the basis of how they appeal to you and whether they are going to be able to thrive on the music and movies at the volume levels you like. Demo speakers with familiar music and listen to the main stereo pair. The specialist store salesperson should be able to help in this process.

Once you have picked your main speakers, be sure to stick with the same brand when matching the centre speaker. While it's best to have the rear speakers also match you do have a few more options. If the manufacturer of your centre and mains makes a pair of rear speakers that suit your needs — great. Though matching is not essential for the rears. The option you choose will more likely be driven by your room and space requirements. You can choose low profile on-wall, in-wall and in-ceiling speakers, or consider placing the rear speakers on a bookcase or on stands. You are really only limited by your dwelling and the ease (or difficulty) of running cables.

Once you have picked your five speakers you should purchase a subwoofer that is appropriate for your room size. The subwoofer plays a vital role in creating excitement and a sense of scale, so unless you have a very small room, steer clear of subwoofers under AU$700 as they don't play deep, loud or tightly enough.

Receiver second

Once you've picked speakers appropriate for your situation and know how hungry for power they are, your choice of amplifier becomes easier. But simply having enough juice to run your speakers is not the only thing you will be thinking about. Aficionados will want to audition similarly priced surround receivers, as sound quality differences do exist, but these differences are not as great as with speakers.

Pioneer receiver
The Pioneer VSX-1019AH is our current pick of the mid-range receivers. (Credit: Pioneer)

You must also think about how many sources you are going to hook up to the amplifier. Allow a bit of growing room for a new games console and PVR. Look at what sort of video switching exists, as this will be vital for owners of TVs with just one or two HDMI inputs but loads of video gear. Also check if the amp up-converts analog sources to digital to further minimise cabling hassles.

Another nice-to-have feature in amplifiers these days is an automated microphone-based set-up. This is great for getting your system delivering its full potential quickly.

And finally give some thought to the quality of the amplifier's remote control. Most surround receivers come with a form of universal remote control, but can it be seen in the dark? Does it have the ability to "learn" new devices to make it useful down the track, or is it restricted to only knowing the codes of the currently available devices?

Source components last

You probably already own a number of different source components, but if you're buying a new system it may be worthwhile considering upgrading them as well. DVD players, recorders and set-top boxes have the least noticeable differences between models and brands when it comes to sound quality, but more-so in video quality. These digital devices normally have their audio feeds converted to analog in your surround receiver rather than in the device itself.

Oppo BDP-83
Components such as the Oppo BDP-83 can still make a big difference for your home cinema experience. (Credit: Oppo)

Here you should examine equipment more on the basis of its feature sets and ease of use. Specification lists are pretty similar in this competitive market. Virtually all DVD players and recorders now come with progressive scan and can play a decent variety of recordable disc formats but only some are multi-zone (which means they can play discs from different regions).

If you are shopping for any of the above items, the things to look for are a healthy array of connections (including HDMI). For DVD recorders and set-top boxes, a built-in hard drive makes for truly useful digital storage and recording flexibility. Having twin tuners in your set-top box is also mighty handy for those arguments over what's on TV.

More resources

DIY: Surround sound buying guide
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What to look for in home theatre in a box
Our experts explain the specs that matter.

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DIY: 10 tips for better home theatre sound
We've assembled this checklist to help you quickly improve the sound of your home theatre system.

CNET.com.au's quick guide to surround sound formats
Everything you need to know about surround sound formats, explained by our experts — now including the upcoming Dolby Digital Plus and DTS HD formats.

Calibrate your surround sound
As no two home theatre rooms are exactly alike, setting up a system for optimal sound can be a real challenge. But now we're increasingly seeing clever automated audio calibration systems to help eliminate the hassle of an audio set-up routine.

Why HDMI? What you need to know before going digital
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Seven tips on buying a DVD recorder
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Big screen buyer's guide
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Plasma vs. LCD: Which is right for you?
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DIY: TV buying guide
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CNET.com.au's quick guide to buying a home theatre projector
Our quick guide helps you identify the key features that matter most when shopping for a projector.

CNET.com.au's quick guide to TV types
Read our guide to the pros and cons of new, high-tech TVs, and you'll feel a whole lot more confident when you hit your local electronics store.

CNET.com.au's quick guide to aspect ratio
We'll take you step by step through the common aspect-ratio problems — and their solutions — on both standard and wide-screen televisions.