The home-theater-in-a-box (HTIB) market is extremely competitive, so Sony wisely endowed its affordable HT-DDW840 kit with more than just the essentials. You get adorable little high-performance satellites mated with a potent subwoofer and a powerful, feature-laden A/V receiver--all for an online price of around $320. If you already have a DVD player and just need the audio gear, this tidy system will make sweet sounds in everything from cozy bedrooms to smaller home theaters.
From the looks of this HTIB, we'd guess that Sony's renowned stylists were on vacation when the STR-K840P receiver was conceived; it has an old-school aesthetic and is cluttered with button and controls. On the plus side, this trim component measures just 17 inches wide by 11.75 deep.
Speaking of size, the five naked, black-plastic sats are truly tiny. These single-driver, tweeterless speakers stand just 5.5 inches tall, and the slim, one-way center unit is as cute as they come. The sub grabs a minimal amount of floor space but packs a healthy, 100-watt amp and an 8-inch woofer. Sony claims that you can place the sub anywhere, but we achieved the best sound only when it was in close proximity to the front sats; separate the speakers by more than a few feet, and the sats' midrange radically thins out. This speaker package is used throughout Sony's home-theater lineup, but the DDW840 is the least expensive model of the bunch. Although the DDW840 lacks a DVD player, its receiver has a good assortment of extras, producing 100 watts per channel and featuring discrete output transistors for optimum sound quality. Beyond the standard Dolby Digital, Dolby Pro Logic II, and DTS processing, Sony includes a selection of proprietary cinema and music surround modes.
The receiver's video-switching capabilities are limited to its composite connections, which might present a minor hassle if you're using more than one S-Video- or component-video-equipped source. Yes, you can still hook components directly to your TV, but whenever you change inputs, from, say, satellite to DVD, you'll have switch inputs on the TV and the receiver.
Otherwise, analog- and digital-audio connectivity options are more than adequate for use with small systems. In addition, you get 5.1-analog inputs for use with Super Audio CD- and DVD-Audio-capable players.
Don't despair if you need a DVD player as well; Sony offers more kits than you can shake a remote at. Its $399 HT-1700D utilizes the same speaker package along with a similar though slightly less powerful receiver but packs a single-disc DVD player. For couch potatoes who won't settle for anything less than a DVD-changer-equipped system, we recommend checking out the $450 HT-5500D. Our go-to DVDs, Apocalypse Now Redux and Fight Club, sounded fine. Thanks to the DDW840's excellent sub/sat matching, both movies' hard-hitting dynamic ranges and bomb-blast assaults were competently handled, and we noted above-average loudness capabilities for a system of this size and price. Once we dimmed the lights, the little sats all but disappeared--we really couldn't tell where the sound was coming from. Dialogue is nicely balanced and remarkably full for a center speaker of such modest dimensions.
Linda Ronstadt's classic What's New has just been released as a multichannel DVD, and it sounded sweet on the DDW840. An orchestra backs Ronstadt, and at low to background levels, the audio was appropriately opulent and mellow. But once we nudged the volume a little louder, the sats' lack of refinement and rough treble response became increasingly obvious. The sub is especially nimble--equally adept with both music and movies. This Sony kit will do well in rooms that are 200 square feet or smaller.