As much we liked last year's slew of Blu-ray home-theater-in-a-box (HTIB) systems, they still involved some features compromises, such as missing built-in Wi-Fi and HDMI connectivity. This year, Blu-ray HTIBs are filling in a lot of those holes and Samsung's HT-C6500 ($550 street price) is one of the most fully featured we've seen, including built-in Wi-Fi, two HDMI inputs, and 1GB of onboard storage.
The HT-C6500 also has Samsung's expandable Apps platform, which includes streaming-media services such as Netflix, YouTube, Vudu, and Pandora. If only features mattered, the HT-C6500 would be less of a standout choice; for example, the LG LHB535 ($400 street price) includes much of the same functionality for $150 less. What puts the HT-C6500 over the top is its outstanding sound quality, coming much closer to the sound of a separates-based system than any other HTIB we've tested recently.
Most of our complaints come on the design side, such as the buttons on the top of the player, the need for a separate iPod dock dongle, rather than a dock integrated into the system, and a graphical user interface designed more for a standalone Blu-ray player. We also still have some concerns about Samsung's Blu-ray player reliability (last year's HT-BD1250 was not spared from reliability issues, according to user opinions), but we didn't run into any issues during our testing.
Those issues aside, its excellent mix of features and superior sonics make the HT-C6500 the best Blu-ray HTIB we've tested this year.
Every part of the HT-C6500 features Samsung's signature glossy black finish on its front-facing side. The speaker set is made up of two relatively large (for an HTIB) front speakers, small rear speakers, a sizable center channel, and a subwoofer. If you're looking for the fine craftsmanship you'll find on separate speakers, you won't find it in Samsung's plastic speaker cabinets, but that's no different from other affordable HTIBs.
The main unit houses both the amplification and the Blu-ray player, which is why it's larger (16.9 inches wide, 2.4 inches high, 13 inches deep) than any of Samsung's standalone Blu-ray players. The main unit also features a window on the top of the player that lets you see the spinning disc tray, like the standalone BD-C6900. There's a flip-down panel on the lower right that houses a USB port and the automatic speaker calibration mic port.
There are volume up/down buttons on the front, but unfortunately the rest of the front-panel controls are relegated to the top of the unit, making them inaccessible if you stack anything else on the HT-C6500. In all, as long as you like the glossy black look (and the inevitable fingerprints and dust that come along with it), the HT-C6500 is a slick-looking system.
Considering that the HT-C6500 includes a built-in Blu-ray player, its two HDMI inputs should be enough for many basic home theaters (for instance, you could connect an HD DVR and a PS3 or Xbox 360). If not, you'll be able to connect two additional devices--via an analog and optical input--bringing the total to four devices connected at once. The HT-C6500's feature set would seem more impressive if LG's entry-level LHB535 ($420 street price) didn't include the same connectivity, plus an additional optical input, allowing for five devices to be connected at once. Whether you need that much AV connectivity depends on your home theater setup, but it's always nice to have some room to expand later on.
Samsung has completely redesigned its user interface from last year, and we like the new look. It's visually appealing, with a wood-grain background and large icons for different media types (Internet@TV, music, video, photos). There are also five large icons at the top for popular streaming services (Rovi TV listings, Blockbuster, Netflix, Vudu, and Pandora), so you can quickly access them without jumping into the more involved Samsung Apps interface. Unfortunately you can't customize which icons show up at the top, so if you're not a fan of, say, Rovi TV listings, you can't replace that with Picasa.
As much as we liked the user interface for streaming functionality, we would have liked a more specialized interface for the HT-C6500, which is largely the same as Samsung's standalone Blu-ray players. There's not an easy visual way to select the different inputs available on the HT-C6500; the LG has a separate menu where you can browse your available options. It won't be a problem for tech-savvy users, but it makes it harder for non-techies to use.
If you want to dig deeper into Samsung's online offerings, you can access the Samsung Apps platform (aka, Internet@TV; Samsung uses the terms interchangeably). Here you can browse and download new apps, which are categorized into genres like video, game, sports, and lifestyle.
All of the current available apps are free, but Samsung said that premium apps will be available in the future. We haven't seen many new apps pop up since we've had the player, so it's tough to gauge how much additional functionality the platform will provide. We also would have liked to see the option to rate apps, which would make it easier to find quality programs.
Samsung has redesigned its standard remote this year, opting for a wider, flatter clicker that lacks much of the glossy finish that collected fingerprints on the old remotes. The new button layout is straightforward, with the most important buttons, like the playback and volume controls, falling easily under the thumb. Of course, with a system with this much functionality, there are a lot of competing interests for layout priority--the directional pad feels too far toward the bottom--but for the most part we had no major issues. The remote can also control a TV.