HTIB Shopping Tips & Strategies

So you've walked into an electronics store or decided to find a system online, and now you're confronted with scores of HTiB choices. Now what? Well, remember that HTiBs exist for two basic reasons. The first is cost; the other is convenience. If cost is your only concern, find the least expensive system that looks the coolest for the money (just stay away from the guys selling them out of the backs of white vans). The entire experience will be painless, mindless, although it might leave you feeling cheap and dirty – not to mention the fact that you run a high chance that it will sound like pig doo-doo on a swelteringly hot day.

On the other hand, if you're at least vaguely interested in something that won't cause the average human being to fall to the floor while covering their ears and crying "Momma!", we suggest you spend a little bit of time navigating the aisles or web sites checking out some important aspects of each HTiB you're considering and how they meet with what you need.

How Big is Your Room?
In the same way you should consider the size of your room when it comes to picking the right screen size of your TV, you need to take into account the amount of available space you have for the audio portion of your home theater system. For example, you probably don't want an HTiB with large floorstanding speakers if you are trying to fit it all in an eight-foot by ten-foot room, along with a 60-inch rear projection HDTV. Likewise, if your room is more along the lines of 25-feet by 20-feet, you'll probably want more than a 2.1-channel system with tiny satellite speakers and an equally tiny subwoofer.

Look at the layout of your room. Will it be difficult to run wires to the rear channel speakers? If so, you might want to look for a system with wireless rear speakers. This is also the type of situation that makes it very worthwhile to check out single-speaker systems with processing that gives the impression of having rear – and sometimes even side – speakers.

If your room is simply awful in terms of acoustics, some HTiBs (and more are coming) include processing designed to adjust the output of the speakers to compensate for poor placement and difficult acoustics. Audyssey is one type of processing you'll find in several systems, but some companies offer proprietary technologies. While none of these electronic solutions can perform miracles, this technology can yield a dramatic improvement in many cases.

What are You Going to Watch?
The number of source inputs will be important if you have more than one A/V source component you want to use with the system. Do you have a DVD player, a satellite receiver (or cable set-top box), and maybe a camcorder or a video game console? If so, you'll need an appropriate number of A/V inputs. Some HTiB systems also include audio-only inputs, so make sure you have enough to cover all the video as well as audio sources.

Keep in mind that you may want an HD DVD or Blu-ray Disc player in the future. If so, you'll need at least a one component video input or – preferably – one or more HDMI inputs. Of course, your TV will need an HDMI connection, as well.

Check Out the Remote Control
Before you go to the check out with your system, check out the remote control. Regardless of how cool the system looks or where the buttons are located on the front panel, chances are you'll be spending most of your time with the remote control when you're using the system. Are the buttons easy to read – in daylight and in the dark? Are the buttons too small for your fingers? If it's a universal remote control, are the buttons laid out in a way that's easy to understand? Will the system's volume control work even though the remote control is in another mode (TV, DVD, etc.)? Will the remote control work some of the higher functions, such as menus or guides, of your other components?

If other people in your household are going to be operating the system, you should take into account how savvy each person is when it comes to home theater gear. Will your family be able to use the remote control without calling you every time they want to play a disc?

Will You Always Love this System?
If you have dreams of creating the ultimate system but are held back by a less-than-ultimate budget, consider buying an HTiB that will be easy to upgrade over time. Single-speaker systems as well as systems based around all-in-one electronics units will be difficult to improve upon or expand over time. Look for systems with discrete components that have multiple inputs and outputs. Finding a system with full-range pre-outs for all channels and a sub pre-out is ideal because this will allow you to upgrade amplifiers and/or speakers when you're ready.

Hearing is Believing
As with any audio system, the speakers are the most important part with regard to the overall sound quality. Unfortunately, you can't compare the way speakers sound based on specifications or looks. Fortunately, your ears are the best test instruments in the world. (And they're free, too!) There's simply no substitute for actually listening to the system.

Giving a system a sonic test drive may be difficult, at best, depending on where you're going to buy it. Obviously, there's no way to hear how a system sounds if you're shopping online. If that's the case, you may want to consider ordering from an online store that will let you send the system back if you don't like it.

If you're buying from a local retailer, it may still be difficult to hear how a system sounds but not impossible. Most stores have plenty of HTiBs on display, and even if the entire speaker package isn't hooked up, usually have the front left/right speakers/subwoofer (and sometimes center channel) are up and running. Listening to the two front speakers will give you a good idea as to the overall sound quality of the system. Of course, if all you're listening to are the front two speakers, make sure the system is set for two-channel mode and not 5.1. If you're lucky, the store will have the system set up in a kiosk-like display with the rear speakers hanging in the air above you. Sure, this isn't ideal, but it's better than nothing.

No retail store display, however, is ever going to be the best environment in which to hear a system, and no two stores will have exactly the same acoustics. As a result, it'll be hard to judge a system in one store against a system in another. But at least you'll get an idea of the differences between systems for sale in the same store.

Also make sure to bring your own demo material, stuff you're familiar with. Don't listen only to the material that the salesman or store has handpicked for the system. We recommend music and movies. A system that doesn't do justice to a singing voice probably won't make movie dialog sound believable either.

Take it Home
By now, any ideas you may have had that buying an HTiB would be quick and easy have probably been dashed. Actually, picking out the right HTiB for you is only as difficult as you want to make it. In many cases, an HTiB is perfect for the person who just wants to sit down and watch a movie without giving the electronics much thought. On the other hand, if you're finding yourself spending lots of time making decisions about each aspect we've mentioned here, you might do better taking the time to pick out individual electronic components and match them with an HTiB speaker-only package. You're likely to get better performance, and the result will be a system that's tailored specifically for you and your room.

Once you find what you want and take it home, then the real fun begins as you try to set up the system. But that's another topic for another Guide. . .