Home Theater on a Budget

No, these aren't HTiB systems - home theaters in a box. You'll need to add more than just a TV to them before you can kick back and enjoy a movie theaterlike experience at home. But this trio of home theater speaker systems - Energy's act6 ($800), Hsu Research's Ventriloquist VT-12 ($498 factory-direct with the Hsu STF-1 subwoofer), and JBL's SCS300.7 ($699) - shows that compact subwoofer/satellite speaker packages have come a long way. Each brand carries a legacy of speaker innovation and excellence, and each system here is a far cry from the cheesy stuff you'll find at the local discount warehouse.

The continuous action in the 2003 remake of The Italian Job was a perfect DVD test for these budget price speaker systems.

Hsu Research, the youngest brand, made its name with unconventional subwoofers of impressive performance and remarkable value sold factory-direct, and it's now applying the same approach to complete speaker systems. Energy, a brand of Canada 's Audio Products International, has well-established street cred for value and performance. And JBL is familiar to aficionados of both music and cinema sound as well as audio professionals around the world.

No lightweights, then, but what do they bring to the HToB party? To find out, I set up each system in turn in my home theater. The systems Energy, Hsu, and JBL sent us have five, six, and seven satellites, respectively, but all use essentially identical speakers for the front left/right and the surround positions; JBL and Energy use the same speaker for the center as well.

Front speakers went on adjustable stands flanking a 42-inch Gateway plasma HDTV, while each center speaker sat just below the screen. Left/right surrounds went on my usual high, side-wall shelves, while the single and dual back surrounds in the Hsu and JBL systems were placed high on the back wall. Although I explored the Hsu and JBL systems' 6.1/7.1-channel performance, in the interest of a level playing field I did most of my listening in 5.1-channel mode.

All three makers recommend connecting the satellites directly to your A/V receiver (or amplifier), with the subwoofers wired to your receiver or preamp/processor's subwoofer output, so that's what I did.