Excelling at being cheap.

One of the several local electronics stores within throwing distance from our studio is a chain called Fry's Electronics. It is a nerd's heaven, a kind of Best Buy, CompUSA, and a local computer repair shop all thrown in a Cuisinart. Every week, the much-heralded Fry's ad announces what loss leaders they will have on sale that week. This could be a $99 computer, a $20 hard drive, a $1,000 plasma, or really anything that they have only two of that they can sell quick and use to sucker people into coming to the store. Their regular sales can be pretty good, too. For example, this home-theater-in-a-box, complete with a subwoofer and a progressive-scan DVD player, was only $60. They also had an interlace-only model for $47, but I mean come on, this is a home-theater-in-a-box we're talking about here. Lets not be cheap.


The Sucker (Me)
I found the only one left in the store buried behind a stack of other HTIBs. I asked the salesman to write me up for it, and he denied they had one. "So, what's that?" I asked. "Oh," he said. As we braved our way through the stacks of higher-priced items (like a DVD box set and a toaster), he asked me what I would be using it for. I could tell by his voice that he wanted to talk me into something better. I replied, half joking, "I'm going to destroy it." He didn't get it. "Oh, so you're going to use it in a spare room?" "No," I responded. "I mean I'm going to blow it up." He nodded slowly. "So you want the extended warrantee with that?" he asked. I passed.

The Box
The HTD2204 comes in a colorful box. The unit itself isn't. It's the kind of semi-gloss silver that just screams Wal-Mart rollback. The DVD player sports a pop-top that usually opens on the second try and buttons that click like those on a clock radio. The hard power button sticks out from the front like a nubbin. There is no display. The back has component video, S-video, and two composite video outputs. Impressively, it also has a coaxial digital output. The 5.1-channel analog out sends CD audio and Dolby Digital 5.1 to the sub, where the amp resides. There is no DTS decoding. Because of the modular nature of this system, you can only put the DVD player in standby from the remote. You can only turn off the subwoofer/amp by a hard switch on its front.

Interestingly, the manual is better written than most of the top-tier brands' manuals. On the back, there was advertising for other GPX products, including embroidered GPX polo shirts. I ordered two.

Turns out I didn't need to blow it up, as the unit I bought didn't work. Returning things to Fry's is the kind of fun usually reserved for tax season and flights with small children. Color me impressed that they took it back with little struggle. Unfortunately, they didn't have any left. . .in the state. I had to order one from the Web. Due to looming deadlines, I had it overnighted. Cost of HTIB: $60. Cost of overnight shipping: $56.71. Oh, yeah.

Take Two
The second HTD2204 arrived on schedule, and I started everything over. When I hooked it up to our Leader LV5700A waveform monitor, I found that the composite output has a nearly flat frequency response. In other words, this DVD player—which has paint and plastic so thin you can see the laser through the closed cover—has better resolution than most "real" DVD players. The component output slightly boosts the high video frequencies, but still without noticeable rolloff. What I found really impressive is how interlaced the progressive-scan output was. In fact, it was completely interlaced. According to the manual, the component outputs are progressive all the time. It was time for a phone call. After a brief wait, an extremely friendly support person pointed out that there was a button on the remote to switch between progressive and interlaced. What can I say? I'm a rocket surgeon. So much for a well-written manual. In progressive mode, the DVD player does things to the video, the likes of which I have never seen. The highest frequencies are boosted to a level nearly 30 percent higher than the lowest frequencies. This I had to see.

I hooked up the DVD player to the $10,000 Sony VPL-VW100 projector I reviewed in this issue. I can say with strong certainty that this was the first (and last) time this has ever happened. The interlaced output looks OK, but the progressive-scan output has tremendous ringing. It's too bad, too, because it has extremely fast 3:2 pickup, and its video processing is just a tad below average. In other words, it's surprisingly decent, except for the brutal ringing along the edges.

The audio and speaker cables that are supplied in the box are color coded, as are all the inputs and outputs. I remember when this was a shock on high-end HTIBs. The HTD2204 has a simple and effective speaker-level adjustment, but there are no test tones. It also has two selectable stereo modes and a 5.1 mode that, with CDs, creates a five-channel-stereo effect.

Allegedly, the speakers are amplified. Listening to them does not prove this conclusively. Put a pair of headphones on a desk, and you can approximate this system's volume level and sound quality. At maximum volume, it is just below a comfortable listening level. You can turn up the subwoofer (or any other speaker) by reducing the level of the others, but then the system is really quiet. This is good, as the system isn't loud enough to be annoying. I can best describe the overall sound quality as nasally. It sounds as if someone arbitrarily removed such frequency ranges as "lower midrange," "treble," and "bass." What high end it has is bitey and peaky. Although marketing departments have led many to believe that ports mean big bass with just one 5.25-inch driver on the side, this isn't the case here. There is some bass, but not a lot, and it's not very deep. The satellites are matched, which is good. As quiet as they are, there is some distortion when movies really get going, implying that they need to be even quieter.

Most Joking Aside
In all, the HTD2204 does a great job mimicking an actual home theater system. In all honesty, though, I love this thing. Its terrible performance aside, if someone wants a home theater system and this is what they can afford, great. Any home theater is better than no home theater. Anyone who can afford better, should. For the price of three DVDs, though, you can get surround sound. How great is that? The beauty of this system is its ease of use (including helpful, friendly, and intelligible phone support) and upgradeability. There isn't one part of this system that is proprietary. The DVD player can be used on its own. The subwoofer can be used as a standalone, as can the speakers (although not with too powerful a receiver). As an incredibly inexpensive entry-level system, the HTD2204 succeeds. As in, it works and gives you a base to move up from. And that is one thing that this system really excels at: It makes you want to upgrade, and really fast.

Well. . .the price

(314) 621-3314