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The case against HTiB

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#1 of 16 OFFLINE   Joseph DeMartino

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Posted December 30 2007 - 04:52 AM

A lot of people who new to hi-def and to home theater are tempted to buy so-called "Home Theater in-a-box" (HTiB) systems - inexpensive surround sound system, usually with a receiver or dvd/receiver combo and 6 speakers. These systems are compact, and promise easy set-up and low cost for those "testing the HT waters." Certainly they can look less intimidating than a receiver with more switches, dials, lights and inputs than the control panel of the space shuttle and that costs more without speakers or a DVD player than the "all in one" solution does. But a recent series of threads in this forum has shown that as soon as many users try to move beyond what is included in the HiTB, by adding a game console, or an HD DVR, for instance, they run smack up against the limits of the system they bought. HTiB systems typically cost anywhere from $300 to about $600 dollars. The most popular current versions are built around an integrated dvd player and surround sound receiver - both components in a single case. This does save needing to connect the DVD player to the receiver, but apart from that doesn't make things that much more convenient. To this is added anywhere from 3 to 6 speakers - 1 of which is a subwoofer. (Some powered, some passive.) Some 2.1 systems (like Denon's $700 MSRP offering) have sound processing circuitry to created "virtual" surround sound without the need for rear speakers. According to reviews the Denonn is an exception in pulling this off fairly well. Most HTiB systems are weakest in the sound department, mostly because they use very cheap speakers. Denon tried to get around this by using 3 good speakers and some audio wizardry instead of 6 cheaper speakers. The problem is that precisely because they are integrated systems, HTiBs tend to be deficient in inputs and outputs. Many discussed here have only one digital audio input or none at all. Many also lack an HDMI input or component inputs, thus making them useless as a/v switch devices. This is becoming an issue because more and more devices are coming on line that can deliver HD video and digital audio, and televisions have not kept up in the number of their own inputs. A/V receivers, on the other hand, have been adding all sorts of inputs that can the be translated to one or two connections to the TV. HTiB doesn't allow that. And forget about adding a second or third DVD player (Blu Ray, HD-DVD or a changer. I have two 400-disc Sony changers and a region-free single disc player on my system, along with an HD-DVR from the cable company.) One you go beyond the connections the HTiB allows, you're stuck. You can't even upgrade your DVD player or buy an A/V receiver and connect your HTiB to most of them. And the speakers either won't handle the additional power of a true A/V receiver or will sound so bad that they destroy the advantage of the upgrade. HTiBs can't be upgraded, by and large, they have to be replaced. Sure you can put 'em in a bedroom, try to sell 'em or give 'em away - but that's not what you bought them for. And if a new HT hobbyist reaches the point of needing to do that early on, how much did he really save by starting with an HTiB? I think a good start-up HT system should be built around a decent HT receiver (Denon has a non-HDMI 5.1 system with 3 component inputs and 2 digital inputs that retails for around $150) and a name-brand upconverting or at least progressive output DVD player for under $50. That's $200. Whatever your budget is you can spend the rest of it on the best set of matched speakers you can get for that price. (Check clearance sales, discontinued models and factory refurbs - these are usually just unused consumer returns anyway. Speakers don't have moving parts or complex electronics, so chances are one that was returned, even if it was repaired by having a driver replaced, is going to be a good buy.) Or save a little by going with a slightly cheaper receive and put more into the speakers. The point is you end up with a modular system that can be upgraded a piece at a time as your experience increases and funds become available, and which lets you add other devices without replacing the whole thing. Just my two cents after seeing a whole series of disappointed people who are finding their HTiBs will not let them get the most out of all their new toys. Regards, Joe P.S. One very common mistake that folks new to HT make is listening to the advice of clerks in Big Box stores like Best Buy and Circuit City - or worse, warehouses like Sam's Club and Costco. Except in Best Buy's high-end Magnolia showrooms (Magnolia was an independent dealer that BB acquired) these people get essentially no training and are prone to pulling answers out of their butts. One of them recently told an HTF member that he couldn't connect his PS2 to his HTiB with an optical audio cable because the PS2 had no digital optical outputs. I checked the PS2 user's manual on line and was able to tell the guy exactly where the opitcal output was.

#2 of 16 OFFLINE   954General



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Posted December 30 2007 - 12:57 PM

Weird, I thought I had a nice reply to this post....

#3 of 16 OFFLINE   ThomasC


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Posted December 30 2007 - 01:05 PM

Posted Image The employee is right, there's no optical output. Where the heck did you find an optical output on the Wii? There's a plug that kinda looks like an optical output, but that's the plug for the sensor bar.

#4 of 16 OFFLINE   Joseph DeMartino

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Posted December 30 2007 - 01:29 PM

Quite right. The post I had in mind concerned a PS2. I was writing from memory and got my game systems mixed up. Thanks for catching that - I have corrected my original post. Joe

#5 of 16 OFFLINE   JohnRice


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Posted December 30 2007 - 02:14 PM

This is a gallant effort Joe, but I fear it will change nothing. I'm sure you have also noticed that these people often have just bought a rather expensive, large HD monitor, then think $300 is more than enough for the entire audio system.

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#6 of 16 OFFLINE   mylan



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Posted December 30 2007 - 03:48 PM

Quite right, over on another forum, there was this guy who wanted to put his surround speakers in the air vents (in the floor) because he didn't want them to be seen. He was just about laughed out of the thread.
I have never figured out why so many people can live with a 60" display and then want small "cube" speakers of the Bose sort to complement that. I say go all the way or do not go at all.
B.T.W., nice post Joe Posted Image
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#7 of 16 OFFLINE   Al.Anderson



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Posted December 30 2007 - 11:15 PM

If by "cube" speakers you mean any satellites that depend on the subwoofer, I disagree. I have some H/Ks that sound great (5.1; 16x25 room). And Joe, we must have very different Costcos. For one, in 5 years of going to Costco I have never had an empolyee even come up to me to offer advice. (A big reason I shop there!) More importantly, my local Costco shows a lot of good systems; both HTIB and otherwise. And the few HTIB they have generally are advanced enough to make decent starter systems. I definately agree with the major point of the post though - if you're going to get a HTIB make sure it has adequate I/Os and nothing proprietary in the speaker connections. I've seen a lot of post where someone with a new HTIB was SOL when they tried to connect even one extra component.

#8 of 16 OFFLINE   Joseph DeMartino

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Posted December 31 2007 - 01:38 AM

I wasn't thinking about unsolicited advice from clerks but the kind of advice a confused, first-time HT buyer might get by asking a clerk for it. Posted Image

And it is true that there are decent HTiB systems available with adequate connections - but most of those cost about the same as a cheap system composed of separates (or even more) and don't give you the option of investing more in one part of the system than another for the initial purchase. (For basic viewing purposes most people will do fine with even a $25 DVD player as long as it has component outputs, which would leave them more to spend on speakers, for instance.) My point is that most new buyers don't have any idea what constitutes a reasonable number of each type of connector, so they're not in a position to choose among HTiBs on that basis. Buying a decent brand-name A/V receiver, on the other hand, makes it pretty much certain that between the TV itself and the receiver they'll have enough connectors to provide a good range of options. HTiBs typically leave people stuck even when they have connectors available because they are not the type needed. (Coax vs. optical digital audio, for instance.)



#9 of 16 OFFLINE   adauria



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Posted December 31 2007 - 02:01 AM

Interesting post, and you may have saved me from making a mistake. But be aware there are people who don't want to drop another grand or 2 after spending that much on a TV, who aren't audiophiles, and who don't have media rooms that make 5.1 or more surround systems practical. Your advice on getting started with a good receiver and a couple of speakers does make a lot of sense. It's hard for a newbie to know which receivers are good and which aren't, as well as what constitutes an appropriate number/type of outputs (be it on a HTiB or separate receiver). HTiB just simplifies that, though clearly at the expense of upgrade ability. I'd love to get more specific about my personal needs here, but I won't threadjack this post. Suffice to say, I think I will be looking for the separates at this point as I begin to build a simple HT around my new TV. -Andrew

#10 of 16 OFFLINE   Joseph DeMartino

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Posted December 31 2007 - 02:31 AM

Well, to give an example: here's a Polk Audio 5 piece HT speaker package (without subwoofer), probably a discontinued model, clearance priced at $180.00 including FedEx 3-Day shipping. And an Onkyo HT Receiver (no HDMI switching, but 3 component and 3 digital audio inputs) for $148, say $180 shipped. (I'm an Amzon Prime member, so for me shipping would be free.) Add a brand-name $100 subwoofer and you have a complete package with for about $460. Let's assume you don't have a DVD player and need to add one - your total goes to $485 to $510, about the cost of many HTiBs and you have better components and more options for the future. I'm sure I could mix and match other components to come up with cheaper variations that would still out-perform most HTiBs for the same money.



#11 of 16 OFFLINE   TK2K



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Posted December 31 2007 - 03:57 AM

hows the Onkyo HT-SR750?? I was considering that because it seems more professional then the ones sony spits out, what do you guys think? its just such a good price

#12 of 16 OFFLINE   gene c

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Posted December 31 2007 - 12:07 PM

Looking at their web site, the receiver looks to be a decent stand-alone piece with at least the basics, including HDMI pass-thru. The main weakness is the speakers. I even think the subs are decent for what they are but many seem to disagree. Most Onkyo systems, as well as those from Denon, H/K, etc. really aren't true htib's but receiver/speaker packages (some include a separate dvd player) that can be ugraded or expanded on. To a point. As Joe is trying point out, you can often do better for not much more money by piecing together a separate system.
"Everyday room": Panasonic 58" Plasma, Dish HD DVR, Pioneer Elite vsx-23, BDP-23 BR, dv58avi universal dvd player, Paradigm Studio 20 V1, CC-450, Dayton HSU-10 subwoofer.

"Movie/Music room": Toshiba 65" DLP, Dish HD receiver, Marantz 7005, CC-4003, BD-7006, Polk LSI25's-LSi7's-LSiC, 2 original Dayton 10" "Mighty-Mites" subwoofers. (subject to change without notice).
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#13 of 16 OFFLINE   JustinCleveland



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Posted January 01 2008 - 03:31 AM

I will respond, however. For the person who is looking to create a home theater, who wants to upgrade, then yes they should go with components. But not everyone wants that. The HTiB doesn't have the best audio quality, and is very limited, but it is compact. My first apartment was tiny, and I was lucky to find a good HTiB that gave me surround sound but didn't take up a lot of space. My girlfriend's family wanted surround sound but didn't want a lot of complications (i.e. more than one remote) so I gave them the HTiB when I built my first full HT 6 years ago. By your rationale, nobody should own a small TV. Except that not everyone can afford a 50", has room for a 50", or wants a 50". That's why there is a variety.

#14 of 16 OFFLINE   zpdrummer



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Posted January 01 2008 - 11:41 AM

true, i do agree with justincleveland ^^ up there but some people dont need the amazing sound. I mean believe me i know all kinds of people with hd sets and blue ray surround or whatver, but they have no idea what it means, they say things, like well the picture looks amazing, it sounds good, those are the people who need the box sets. the ones who still want an expercience and have no knowledge of what all these terms mean. they dont want all the do dads and extras of the high end sets. i could go one, but ill stop,bnot that the post isn't true for people like us, you know on forums asking questions, trying to optimize our set ups. for us that is true but not for the whole world:-)

#15 of 16 OFFLINE   kperkins1982



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Posted January 08 2008 - 04:15 AM

you know, I totally agree with all you guys. I just went to my brothers house to watch a movie on his awesome new tv. It is better than my plasma in multiple ways but I wasn't really enveloped in the movie because of the lack of quality surround sound. IMO audio is more important to the experience than the video past a certain point.

#16 of 16 OFFLINE   Joseph DeMartino

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Posted January 12 2008 - 03:07 AM

Nonsense. Nothing I wrote above suggests the "everyone" should own a big expensive sound system regardless of their needs. I'm suggesting that people be aware of the limitations of many HTiBs and research their options. Your post rests on the assumption that all HTiBs save space, which clearly isn't true. Some of them require just as much room as traditional components, and the only real "savings" in the "complicated connections" area they offer is that you don't have to connect the DVD player to the receiver. Besides, I wasn't addressing buyers with space problems, but buyers looking to save money. My point was that if you shop carefully you can often get an full-featured collection of separate HT components (even one with compact components and smaller speakers if that's important to you) for about the same was what you'd spend on an HTiB that won't let you add a single additional component. To use your analogy, I'm not suggesting the everyone buy a 50" television. I'm just suggesting that if you're going to buy a 27" or 32" television you should go for the best set for your money, one that has the right kind and right numbers of connectors that won't paint you into a corner when you want to upgrade later. I'm suggesting that buy an HDTV or HD-ready set rather than an EDTV (assuming you can afford one) because in the long run HD is a better investment and will extend the life of your purchase. Regards, Joe

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