Kenwood's smallest and least expensive home theater in a box is a near miss. You see, the HTB-205's A/V receiver and subwoofer are definite overachievers in the beer-budget category, but the sats just aren't up to snuff. We can't deny the potential of this entry-level kit, but if you have a few more dollars to rub together, we'd highly recommend an alternative, such as the Onkyo HT-S650. This home-theater package is a bit unbalanced. Yes, you get a solid subwoofer and a nicely appointed receiver--you must supply the DVD player--but the five flyweight satellites are the obvious weak links. Measuring just 6.25 inches tall, these speakers are small and easy to place, but the sub is a massive beast, measuring 12 by 13 by 18 inches. Then again, we can't argue with Kenwood's lowball pricing strategy since you can always upgrade to better satellites.
The compact receiver's faceplate is a model of organization and clean design. The 205's tiny remote isn't a deal breaker, but its rather cramped button layout tested our manual dexterity every time we did anything more taxing than adjusting the volume. Kenwood's 100-watt receiver supports Dolby Digital, DTS, and Dolby Pro Logic II formats; it's head and shoulders above the receivers that ship with many kits that cost twice as much as the 205. The imposing, 8-inch, passive subwoofer also shames a good number of its more costly kit competitors.
Connectivity options are a mixed bag. You get a generous selection of A/V jacks, including Super Audio CD/DVD-Audio 5.1 inputs and three digital-audio inputs. On the flip side, Kenwood nixes S-Video inputs.
Our praise for another receiver/speaker package, the aforementioned Onkyo HT-S650, comes with a few qualifications. The S650's speakers are a good deal larger and better-sounding than the 205's little darlings, and its powered sub is a knockout. The Onkyo's receiver is also excellent, so we'd recommend the S650 as a pricier alternative to the 205. The 205 initially set our heart aflutter when we hit chapter 2 of the Vanilla Sky DVD. Tom Cruise's mint 1967 Mustang GT emitted a healthy, deep growl courtesy of the 205's potent sub, and his all-too-close encounter with a Mack truck was loud enough to make us jump. But then we noticed that the dialogue sounded thin and hollow and that the Radiohead-infused score was harsh. The prime culprit: Uneven blend between the sats and the sub. However, that problem was partially ameliorated by moving the sub out of the corner position and closer to the sats. Even so, we experienced listener fatigue over the course of a two-hour movie. The receiver also had a bad habit of muting the sound for a second or two whenever we skipped ahead DVD chapters.
The subwoofer throbbed with distinction on our CDs, but we found the sound of music less than enjoyable at anything louder than background levels. Even with the sub's prodigious bottom-end support, the sats sounded undernourished and tinny. We could never forget that we were listening to a set of really small speakers.
Please understand, we're not totally disrespecting the HTB 205--it will be at its best in very small rooms of less than 200 square feet. We'd bet that a lot of 205 owners will use the Kenwood as is, but a sizable percentage will see it as something of a starter kit and will eventually buy a set of better-sounding satellites.