Finding the Right Type of HTIB System
What exactly is a Home Theater in a Box, or, as those of us who prefer to use acronyms rather than real words call it, an HTiB? Before you guffaw and wonder what kind of an idiot put this bit of advice together, give this question a chance to sink in. Now let's consider just how difficult a creature this HTiB thing is to pin down.
For starters, the term "Home Theater in a Box" is really a misnomer. The average HTiB almost never comes with a display device, and without a TV even the best package of speakers and amps is nothing more than a multichannel audio system. (That's not to say multichannel audio is a bad thing. It's just not home "theater" without video). Then there's the fact that not all HTiBs include a source component, such as a DVD player. If pressed, you could further make the case that the 5.1-channel speaker packages- five speakers and a subwoofer- sold by just about every known and less-well-known speaker company are, in their own way, also HTiBs – they just don't include amplification.
Let's press this issue a bit further. There are 2.1-channel speaker systems on the market that use two speakers and a subwoofer along with sophisticated signal processing to fool your ears into thinking you have something akin to a full-blown five-speaker setup. And then there are the single-speaker – or at least single-cabinet – systems that you can plop on a shelf or mount on a wall and give yourself a pseudo-surround experience.
Perhaps the best way to categorize something as an HTiB is the way it's sold. From a retailer's perspective, an HTiB probably is any type of home theater system that's sold as one SKU (short for Stock Keeping Unit, pronounced trippingly as "skew"). For the bean counters at the BBS (big box stores), HTiBs are a wonderful thing as they make it super-easy to keep track of inventory. For the salespeople, there's only one line item to key in or one UPC code to zap. Essentially, it's all about convenience for everyone from the manufacturer to the consumer.
So there we have it: one term, many confusing variations. Now sort these variables into some easy (or at least easier) to understand categories.
Discrete Component Systems
Some manufacturers repurpose standard-line components for sale in an HTiB. The simplest way of doing this is by placing a collection of the company's regular gear (in each one's individual box) in one large master box. In other words, you might find an AV receiver on the store shelf selling for $299 included in an HTiB that sells for $549. Depending on the price, the system may or may not include a source component. The benefit of a system like this is that the included AVR is a known quantity, one that's designed to work in a variety of situations with different types of speakers. It will usually offer the most opportunities for upgrading or expanding the system in the future.
Sometimes an HTiB will include separate components that are only available for sale in said package. This doesn't necessarily indicate that the components are lower in quality or capability. It does, however, mean you should look a little closer at things like amplifier power ratings as well as inputs and outputs.
Not all electronics manufacturers are also speaker manufacturers, though, so you can't assume that just because the system includes what appears to be a quality receiver that the speakers are of the same caliber. It's common for the speakers in an HTiB to be the weakest link in the performance chain. Still, you can pretty much bet that the speakers are the real deal and not something that relies on optimized equalization from the receiver to eke out sound that's at least listenable.
You might be getting a price break with this type of HTiB, but the real benefit is convenience since there's no need to spend time deciding which speakers/receiver/source component to buy. All that's required is one decision.
All-in-one Electronics plus Speakers
A more typical HTiB variation, especially in the lower price ranges, consists of a set of speakers matched with an all-in-one piece of electronics. In such cases, it's usually the AVR and a DVD player that are built into one chassis. It's definitely cheaper for the manufacturer to build a system this way (one external case instead of two, one power supply, etc.), so these systems are generally less expensive than their discrete counterparts. Another advantage of the all-in-one design is simplicity of hookup since there's at least one less component to connect. It's often easier to use, too, because the system's remote control can be designed around the functions of the combined electronics rather than being a traditional "universal" or "programmable" remote.
On the negative side, it's much harder to expand or upgrade a system like this. There may not be enough (or any) additional source inputs or switching capabilities. The built-in amplification may not be designed to handle a broad range of speaker impedances. Sometimes the manufacturer will push the limits of cost savings and putting all the amplification in the subwoofer – thereby cutting out one more power supply. In addition to almost totally eliminating the possibility of upgrading the system, it can also make it difficult to put the electronics and the speakers where you wish, due to the special wiring considerations of these systems.
There are systems that take the all-in-one concept a little further by reducing the number of speakers in the system from five to two (sometimes with or without a sub). Electronic processing is typically used to fool your ears into thinking the room is filled with speakers, even though it isn't. In addition to simplicity of set up, the main advantage of this type of system is that no rear speakers (or center channel) – and therefore no long runs of speaker wire – are required. The disadvantage, as you might expect, is that no amount of processing can replace the experience of having actual speakers in the room behind you.
These HTiBs might be upgradeable if they include the full slate of Dolby Digital and DTS processing circuitry as well as pre-outs for the center and rear channels. If that's the case, then a pair of rear speakers, a center channel, and a three-channel amp will step this one up to full 5.1-channel performance.
One-box, or single-cabinet, systems could be considered the ultimate HTiB since it's not only one box that the system comes in but the system itself is only one box. (Sometimes it's one master speaker/electronics unit with a subwoofer.) These systems are pretty much the ultimate in simplicity since they involve little more than plugging in a power cord and running an audio cable (either analog or digital) from the AV source component to the back of the master unit. More elaborate versions include the ability to connect and switch between two or more sources AV sources.
Ease of use, ease of installation, and the elimination of all speaker wires are the big benefits of single-cabinet-type HTiBs, but you have to be aware of the potential drawbacks. Obviously, these systems are not upgradeable. When you decide you want the full-blown 5.1 experience, you'll have to relegate this system to another room and start over. The performance, by the way, is often very room dependent. Some of these systems rely heavily on reflected sound and won't perform as well in rooms with lots of open space.
HTiB Speaker Packages
At this point, virtually any speaker company worth its salt has at least one 5.1-channel speaker package for sale. In a lot of cases, it's a combo made up of speakers out of the company's regular line. Since it's all together, it's easier to inventory, easier to ship, and easier to buy. Upgrade possibilities are usually wide open. Most speaker companies design packages with speakers that are specifically tailored to work together, especially in the case of matched satellites and subwoofers.
With flat-panel TVs being so popular, many speaker companies have come up with three-in-one, or even five-in-one, speakers. This type of speaker package differs from the single-cabinet HTiB in two ways. First, there are no electronics built-in and therefore a separate AVR is required. Second, the speakers housed within the main cabinet are discrete units. The benefit of the design is more cosmetic than anything else, and it's much easier to mount one long slender box than it is to set up three (or five) separate ones.
Boxing It Up
So if you keep in mind the only thing that's really unusual about an HTiB is the fact that it's packed in one box, it's not all that hard to understand the big HTiB picture. Once you take it out of the box, it's simply the audio portion of a home theater system. The big task is discovering which box contains the gear that's right for you.