What Can a Home Theater-In-A-Box Do for Me?

What a Home Theater-in-a-Box is and what it can do for you

Onkyo HT-S3900 Home-Theater-in-a-Box System
Onkyo HT-S3900 Home-Theater-in-a-Box System.

Image provided by Onkyo USA


You LOVE going to the movies, but don't always have the time to gather up the family and trek to the local cinema, or are able to shell out the money to pay for the tickets and the popcorn. Thus, you often resort to but watching them on TV, but that just doesn't quite cut it. The picture from streaming, DVD, or Blu-ray Disc may look good (especially Blu-ray), but the sound from those TV speakers is really bad.

Your neighbor has a huge TV, Blu-ray/DVD Player, Home Theater receiver, speakers, and a subwoofer that you can "feel" when you are trying to sleep. Your kids are begging you to put together a home theater system, but your partner says "no way" to remodeling the living room to accommodate "all that junk". So how can you:

  • Keep your movie-going costs down?
  • Improve your TV viewing experience?
  • Please the kids?
  • Satisfy your Partner?

The Home Theater-in-a-Box Solution

One solution to improve your TV sound is with a soundbar. Soundbars are very popular, they incorporate speakers, amplifiers, and connections arranged inside a bar-like cabinet that can be placed below or above a TV. They can improve TV sound, but they don't always deliver the room-filling surround sound experience you may desire. The better solution: A Home Theater-in-a-Box System.

Although on the same level as your neighbor's over-the-top setup, a home-theater-in-a-box system is a great way to get started, bridging that gap between a soundbar and a more complex option.

Benefits of a Home Theater-in-a-Box System

Home-theater-in-a-box systems are reasonably priced. They start as low as $200 but can go as high as $2,000. You will find these systems at most consumer electronics retailer and big-box stores such as Costco and Walmart, and, of course, from online outlets such as Amazon. Here is a rundown on what to expect in a home-theater-in-a-box package:

  • Home-theater-in-a-box systems contain most (or all) of the components needed, including all speakers, a surround sound receiver, and, in some cases, a Blu-ray/DVD/CD player,
  • Home-theater-in-a-box systems are compact. They are designed so they don't overwhelm a room. The central Blu-ray/DVD/Receiver units are sometimes not much larger than a DVD player, although some systems do include separate DVD player/Receiver components. However, in most cases, the speakers that are included are very compact. The five or seven satellite speakers provided are small enough to be mounted unobtrusively in room corners or shelves, but there are some that include thin profile floor standing speakers, referred to as "Tall Boy" speakers. Also, some home-theater-in-a-box systems may include wireless speakers (or wireless surround speakers). The included subwoofer is also usually compact and can be placed easily in a corner or next to a chair or table without attracting attention, except the deep bass sound it generates.
  • A home theater-in-box is easy to install and use; most all the connection cables are provided. All you need is a TV with AV inputs and audio outputs, a HiFi VCR (if you still have one!), and/or Blu-ray/DVD Player (if one is not supplied). No special skills are required, just the ability to read simple instructions and diagrams. Most systems come with a remote control.

Caution When Considering a Home Theater-in-a-Box System

  • Home-theater-in-a-box systems are generally not high-end. They have a tendency to cut corners on speaker construction and sound quality when compared to their separate unit cousins. However, with advances in speaker and subwoofer technology, some of these "budget" systems sound better than you might think.
  • Home-theater-in-a-box systems are designed to optimize sound for movies and TV more than for music listening. If you are a serious listener of music from CD or Vinyl, you might not be happy with the performance of most home-theater-in-box systems.
  • Many home-theater-in-a-box systems do not deliver the "clean" power that you might need for a larger room. The power specifications may indicate a large wattage output, but you must also consider what distortion levels are present at the system's rated power output. Some expensive home-theater-in-box systems may deliver better sound, even though they may have a lower power output than a "cheaper" system.

What Else To Look For

  • If you have other devices, such as a VCR, DVD/Blu-ray Disc player, video game console, digital cable/satellite, or a media streamer, make sure the system you get has enough auxiliary inputs (analog, digital, and HDMI) to plug everything in. Most systems allow the connection of at least one or two additional audio/video device(s).
  • Another feature you might find on a home-theater-in-a-box system is internet streaming, either from music-only services, or, if the system includes a Blu-ray Disc player, from video streaming services, such as Netflix. To support internet streaming features, such systems will include Ethernet and/or WiFi connection options so that your system can reach the internet.

The Bottom Line

Despite some drawbacks, at a price range from $200 to $2,000, there is a home-theater-in-a-box system available that will fill the basic needs for home theater and casual music listening for an apartment, meeting room or moderately-sized living room.

Our advice is to check out how the system sounds at a local dealer before making a decision. Also, make sure you can return the system in a reasonable time if it doesn't fit your listening needs once you try it out at home.

For a sampling of available home-theater-in-a-box systems, check out our periodically updated list of Best Home Theater Starter Kits.