What Is a Home-Theater-in-a-Box System?

An easy way to get started with home theater

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 perhaps you're not able to shell out the money to pay for tickets and popcorn. So you resort to watching movies on TV, but that doesn't quite cut it. The picture from streaming, DVD, or Blu-ray Disc may look good (especially Blu-ray), but the sound from your TV is probably just meh.

One solution for improving TV audio is to install a soundbar. Soundbars incorporate speakers, amplifiers, and connections arranged inside a bar-like cabinet that can be placed below or above a TV. They are also easy to set up. They can improve TV sound, but they don't always deliver the room-filling surround sound experience you may desire.

A better, step-up, but still simple solution might be a home-theater-in-a-box system. A home-theater-in-a-box system can bridge the gap between a soundbar and a high-end option.

In Europe and some other regions, these systems are often referred to as home cinema kits. Some may also refer to them as home theater starter kits, although that is not a standardized label manufacturers or retailers use.

Onkyo HT-S3910 HTIB Front and Rear Views
Onkyo USA

Home-Theater-in-a-Box: Pros and Cons

What We Like
  • Pre-packaged system that provides everything you need to get started. 

  • Reasonably priced.

  • A step up in sound quality from most soundbars. 

What We Don't Like
  • Not the best speakers.

  • Not as good for music-only listening.

  • Power ratings may be deceptive. 

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

Here is a rundown on what to expect in a home-theater-in-a-box package:

What's included: Home-theater-in-a-box systems contain most (or all) of the components needed to upgrade the sound on your entertainment system, including all speakers, a surround sound receiver, and, in some cases, a Blu-ray/DVD/CD player. Some may also include music and video streaming capability.

Compact: Home-theater-in-a-box systems are compact. They are designed not to overwhelm a room. The central receiver units are sometimes not much larger than a DVD player, although some systems do include separate Blu-ray/DVD player/receiver components.

Speakers: In most cases, the speakers that are included are very compact. Five or seven satellite surround sound speakers may be provided but are small enough to be mounted unobtrusively in room corners or shelves. Still, some include thin profile floor standing speakers. Some systems may also provide vertically firing speakers for Dolby Atmos.

Surround sound: Surround sound decoding and processing is provided for several formats, some systems even include Dolby Atmos or DTS:X.

Wireless options: Some home-theater-in-a-box systems may include wireless speakers (or wireless surround speakers). A subwoofer is also included, but is usually compact and can be placed in a corner or next to a chair or table without attracting attention, except for the deep bass sound it generates.

Easy to set up: A home theater-in-box is easy to set up and use; most, if not all of 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), or a Blu-ray/DVD player (if one is not supplied). No special skills are required to connect and set up the system, just the ability to read simple instructions and diagrams. Most systems come with a remote control that assists in setup and continued operation.

Price: 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 retailers and big-box stores such as Best Buy, Costco, and Walmart, and online outlets such as Amazon.

Home-Theater-in-a-Box System Cautions

Home-theater-in-a-box systems have a lot of benefits, but there are some things to be cautious about.

Not high-end: Home-theater-in-a-box systems are generally not high-end. They tend 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.

Movies vs. music: 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 of these systems.

Power: Many home-theater-in-a-box systems don't 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.

Other Considerations

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 devices.

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 or Wi-Fi connection options so that your system can reach the internet.

The Final Verdict

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.

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.

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