Onkyo HT-S9400THX Home Theater in a Box Page 2

Audyssey's 2EQ auto calibration and room EQ makes setup as simple as following the onscreen prompts. You are instructed to place the supplied mic at up to three different locations in your room, then the software calculates speaker distances, levels, and room equalization, providing optimum sound for all three positions. It's also possible to manually tweak these parameters from their calculated values.

Onkyo is one of my favorite companies because it tends to be very consistent with the quality of its products. Moreover, its HTiBs have been considered best in class, so I was certain I would love the HT-S94000THX. If we were only looking at this system from a price versus features perspective, I don't think there is any doubt this would be yet another notch on Onkyo's belt. And if we were evaluating it just as an HTiB, again, I think it would rise to the top. However, at $1,100, Onkyo is encroaching on competitive price points with individual AVRs and speaker packages, so my evaluation had to be much broader, looking beyond typical HTiB performance.

In my initial setup, I used the Audyssey 2EQ to calibrate the system and set room EQ, but after some listening, I dialed back the low end a bit to increase articulation (dialog was difficult to understand regardless of volume), and I cut the upper registers to tame some harshness that became more evident with increased volume.

Low bass was not very tight or precise. Sound from the subwoofer was more of rumble than a distinct tone. In action sequences, such as those found in the latest Star Trek movie, bass was plenty loud but lacked that precision impact when accentuating the action.

At moderate listening volumes, performance was much better than when I tried to crank it. HTiBs are not well known for performing well at high volumes, as they usually don't have enough power to sustain such volumes without exhibiting various deficiencies. However, the HT-S94000THX includes a fully functional, 130-watt-per-channel AVR, so I was expecting more, though I'm sure the problem is with the speakers, not the AVR.

On a more positive note, the surround soundfield was convincing and accurate. Movement from channel to channel was smooth and didn't exhibit any fluctuations in timbre. However, the soundfield was fairly restricted, resting squarely within the borders of the speaker array. It didn't project further out into the room to create a more immersive soundstage.

Another item for the plus column is the Qdeo video processor's performance. It passed every one of our tests with flying colors, including some that some far more expensive AVRs have failed. See the Video Test Bench for more on this.

As I sit here writing my opinion of this product , I am reminded of the axiom, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." In this case, modify it to say, "Performance is in the ear of the listener." After years of listening to these types of products, I have developed an ear for the small yet perceptible subtleties in audio performance. I was concerned that I might be exhibiting some audio snobbery in my evaluation, and I shouldn't assume I hear things more acutely than other people. Still, I have to divulge exactly what I personally experienced.

If the HT-S94000THX were a few hundred dollars less with the exact same components, I might be more inclined to forgive some of it's performance deficiencies, since any serious alternatives would be severely limited, if even available.

Granted, $1,100 isn't a boatload of money, but it's not chump change either, and at that price, you have some other options. While the HT-S94000THX may well be the best in it's class, it's not the best you can get for the money. Onkyo still wins with the TX-NR609 AVR, which is one of our favorites here at Home Theater magazine. At $599, it's one of the best AVRs in its class, plus it offers one more HDMI input compared to the HT-R990. You can pair it with the top-rated $528 Pioneer SP BS41 5.1 speaker system (reviewed here) for essentially the same price as the HT-S9400THX, and an extra $150 gets you a 7.1 system.

In the final analysis, the real problem with this system is the speakers. As I mentioned previously, they are inexpensively made, and their light weight suggests there isn't much to them. While they use high-quality drivers, that makes little difference if those drivers are placed in imperfect enclosures.

Onkyo has set the bar high with their previous HTiB systems, and I'm not sure what happened with this flagship model. I suspect the company wanted to hit a certain price point with the world's only THX-certified HTiB. The fallacy here is that THX certification trumps everything else, but in my opinion, it doesn't. THX certification means the system meets the minimum requirements for that certification (THX offers several certification levels depending on the product category), leaving lots of room for speakers, THX-certified or not, to far exceed those requirements.

From the specs and features alone, the HT-S94000THX looks like a clear winner, and the HT-R990 is as good as anything in Onkyo's regular lineup. Regrettably though, I couldn't give it our coveted Top Pick status because ultimately its audio performance was only passable, not stellar.

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