Onkyo HT-SR800 Home Theater in a Box

Multiple sweet spots from one sweet system.

It's hard to get too excited about most inexpensive HTiBs. That's not to say a system has to cost a lot to be a great value. In fact, there are plenty of one-box-fits-all systems that pack a lot of punch for what you pay. But there's usually so much emphasis on quantity of features that the quality often suffers. In some cases, the system is a hodgepodge of gear thrown together by a manufacturer that sees how popular HTiBs are with the general public and doesn't want to miss out on grabbing its share of the pie.

So when an HTiB system comes along that's both reasonably priced and spanking good in terms of sound quality and loaded with useful features, I jump up from my perch on the couch and scream, "Praise the Lord and pass the remote!" (This is followed rather quickly by other members of my family yelling at me to sit down and be quiet.)

Onkyo's new $599 HT-SR800 7.1-channel Home Theater System is one of those exclamatory systems, and anyone interested in a system with serious substance rather than fancy fluffiness needs to take a look at it. Here's why.

First of all, it's a full 7.1-channel system. That alone makes it somewhat unusual when it comes to HTiBs. More unusual is the fact that it comes with all seven of the necessary bookshelf speakers, plus a powered subwoofer, to make a complete 7.1 system. But Onkyo doesn't lock you in to using it or losing it if you decide you'd be happier with a 5.1-channel system. The HT-R550 A/V receiver that's part of the system let's you configure it to run the "extra" pair of speakers and amp channels as a separate stereo pair in another location in your home or apartment.

As a matter of fact, you can also set up your main home theater as a 7.1-channel system using the included speakers and wire an additional pair of speakers to the Speaker Set B connections. When the Speaker Set B button on the front of the receiver is off, you'll hear 7.1-channels in your home theater. When Speaker Set B is turned on, the main system drops to 5.1. Based on past experience, I don't think a lot of people will take advantage of this feature; but the fact that it's even there is a clue to how much thought Onkyo put into the design of the system.

Although it is part of an HTiB, the HT-R550 is designed first and foremost as a full-fledged A/V receiver, with plenty of A/V inputs and outputs. It includes plenty of digital audio inputs, component video inputs, and even a full set of multichannel analog audio inputs for use with an SACD or DVD-Audio player. It would have been nice to see pre-amp outputs for all channels, but at least Onkyo included a subwoofer pre-out. Regardless, the amplifiers are substantial enough to use with a variety of other speakers when you're ready to move up.

Another big bonus with the HT-SR800 system is the inclusion of switching for two HDMI sources. Of course, switching for a lot more HDMI sources – more are headed our way every day – would have been great, but at least you can switch between two. Plus, both HDMI inputs support up to 1080p resolutions. You can only use the HDMI inputs for video (that's pretty standard for gear in this price range at the moment), so it's a good thing the receiver has those four digital inputs (two each optical and coaxial). [Just note that neither Toslink optical nor coaxial digital audio connections are capable of carrying next-gen audio from Blu-ray or HD DVD at full resolution, either as native bitstreams or multichannel PCM signals- Ed.].

The HT-R550 is also XM and Sirius satellite radio ready, so all you have to do is add the respective (optional) antennae and subscribe. XM sometimes broadcasts Neural Surround-encoded material, and the Neural Surround decoder built into the Onkyo receiver will let you hear those broadcasts in all their discrete-5.1-channel glory. For iPod owners, Onkyo makes an optional dock that provides control of the iPod from the receiver.

There's one more major, and I mean really major, feature built into the receiver, but since it affects the speakers let's move on to them first. As I've mentioned, the system comes complete with seven satellites and a subwoofer. All of the speakers, except for the subwoofer, of course, are designed to be used on either stands or shelves, or they can be wall-mounted. The three two-way front speakers are virtually identical, as are the four single-driver surround/back speakers. The subwoofer uses a down-firing 10" driver in a front-ported cabinet.

On the whole, the speaker package is okay, although nowhere near the high caliber of the receiver. That's okay because this system is obviously aimed at the consumer who's interested in value and performance, not glitz. Usually, such a person has thoughts of upgrading over time as his or her budget allows – and this is a system that's ripe with possibilities for upgrading.

When first set up, the speakers had a noticeable resonance in the mid-frequencies and were a bit aggressive and harsh in the high end. The subwoofer was nothing to write home about, but it was passable and equal in most respects to the quality of the rest of the speaker package.

This is where the really exciting part comes in. Onkyo says the HT-SR800 is the first HTiB system to use an Audyssey room-correction technology specifically designed for integrated systems. That's truly hot, and it gives this system the extra boost that catapults it over most of the competing systems on the market.

Audyssey technology, if you're not familiar with it, uses complex processing algorithms that tailor the system's sound to your particular room – and it provides a "sweet spot" for more than one listening position. There are various levels of Audyssey processing, and you can buy a standalone processor for several thousand dollars that will work with the most outrageous systems. This Onkyo HTiB uses a less elaborate version called Audyssey 2EQ.

Like other systems with built-in calibration technologies, the HT-SR800 lets you set up the speakers, place the included microphone in the listening position, and push the calibration button. The system takes care of the rest. There's no hassle with menus and setting speaker sizes, distances, and etc. Using Audyssey 2EQ, however, will take a little longer than most (about 10 minutes) because it needs to go through the entire calibration process for three listening positions – which means you have to move the microphone to each seat for separate testing.

The result of this little bit of extra work is well worth the effort. In this case, what starts as a lackluster speaker system becomes something that's pretty darn good – certainly better than the rest of the HTiBs I've heard in this price range. The aggressive highs were mellowed, the mid-bass resonance was greatly reduced, and the subwoofer, although still not spectacular, was tighter and had more oomph. In addition, the delays were right on, so the surround effects seamlessly meshed with the front channels. And, as promised, the sweet spot opened up from a center-of-the-couch position to one that encompassed the entire couch. (Of course, no one else could hear how good it sounded because I was still shouting about how impressed I was!)

Some will complain that $599 only buys a 7.1-channel receiver and the associated speakers. It's not really a Home Theater in a Box if it doesn't include a DVD player, right? Maybe so, but even if you add on $150 for a decent entry-level DVD player (and you can definitely find name-brand machines for less), you're still looking at – and listening to– one of the best HTiBs we've experienced for the money. If you are into performance and would like to have the possibility of upgrading, this one's highly recommended.

Onkyo Corporation
(201) 785-2600