Monster in a Box

The other day Federal Express summoned me to the front of my building. What delight awaited? It was Onkyo's HT-S990THX. Some would call it the first THX-certified home theater in a box though the Onkyo and THX people prefer the term "integrated THX HT system." HTIB or not, all 143 pounds of it were literally in a box, one box, only 14 inches shorter (and five inches wider) than my refrigerator. My building has elevators, but there are five steps between the ground floor and the sidewalk. The FedEx guy and I stood on the curb staring at one another in dawning horror.

What memories this evoked for me—specifically the day when a surgeon made three incisions in my belly, inserted into one of them a video camera on a stick, and used the other two holes to install the piece of plastic mesh that now holds together my lower left abdomen. This is called laparoscopic surgery and it's rather miraculous. I went home later the same day. But I couldn't so much as open a window for weeks after the hernia operation. Simply standing or sitting up caused intense pain. Surprise!—that's what your abs are for. And yes, it was a piece of audio equipment that did me in.

We decided to make the Onkyo a three-man operation, reducing the weight per man to less than 50 pounds (incidentally, this is my oft-stated weight limit for all review samples). A doorman pulled the handtruck up the steps while the FedEx guy and I lifted and pushed from below. We all survived, but I endured a number of withering looks, and this packaging will buy golfing vacations in Scotland for many a hardworking sawbones.

Why ship seven speakers, a sub, and a receiver in one gut-ripping carton? Wouldn't it be safer to split them up? One reason, Onkyo replied, is that two boxes would cost more to ship (presumably not including the cost of surgery, missed work, and weeks upon weeks of excruciating pain). Also, dealers like the inventory simplicity of a single SKU (storekeeping unit to you non-retailers). The company added that another reviewer once delivered a "tongue-in-cheek rebuke" for shipping an HTIB in two boxes—proof if any were needed that critics can be criminally stupid.

Sometimes a big box is unavoidable, especially when it contains a big object. A dealer selling giant plasmas or certain kinds of high-end gear (or refrigerators, for that matter) can handle predictable big-freakin'-box related problems with suitable manpower. But the power of surprise can turn a large carton into a serious hazard. A consumer who buys a mass-market compact system might reasonably expect the product to be easy to handle, whether in the parking lot of a chain retailer, or in the front yard of his house. If suddenly challenged, he might then do something impulsive. And regret it. How can anyone, in good conscience, allow such a thing to happen?

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