Small Box, Big Solution

As I unpacked the box, I kept asking myself, "Yes, but where are all the speakers?" Your friends will ask, too, when they see the SurroundWorks 200 from Cambridge SoundWorks - and might wonder if you've decamped from the 21st century and returned to the days of mono. That's because this "home theater in a box" comprises the AVS600 DVD player/tuner console, a small subwoofer, and one - exactly one - speaker. Never fear, though. This is far from a 1.1-channel system.

The Short Form
CAMBRIDGESOUNDWORKS.COM / 800-367-4434 / $1,000 / SPEAKER, 14.875 x 4375 x 6.875 IN / SUBWOOFER, 10 x 11.125 x 12.375 IN
•Easy two-cable setup. •Good bass from small cabinet.
•Limited fidelity from small main drivers. •Narrow stereo panorama. •Virtual surround processing can't compare with true surround.
Key Features
•One-piece front speaker plus virtual surround processing •Progressive-scan DVD player plays DVD-Audio, JPEG and MP3 on CD •Dolby Digital, DTS, Dolby Pro Logic II •AM/FM tuner with 40 presets •speaker three 2.75-in drivers •subwoofer 6.5-in driver, amplifier rated at 50 W x 3, 75 W for sub •inputs/outputs component video in/out; 3 A/V inputs (including 1 on the front panel) and 1 output; coaxial and optical digital audio inputs and optical output; 6 line-level stereo outputs; monitor output

The single biggest complaint about home theater is that it's a pain - if not an impossibility - to set up six speakers. The SurroundWorks 200 tackles this issue by consolidating five main channels into one speaker cabinet that sits where you'd normally put a center speaker. The cabinet houses three shielded drivers for the front left, center, and right channels, with the center firing forward and the left and right angled out. Special processing by a company called Binaura creates a virtual sound field.

SETUP As you'd imagine, the SurroundWorks is designed for easy setup, with only two cables to connect. One sends 5.1-channel audio to the subwoofer, which contains all the amplifiers. The other carries the signals for the three front channels to the front speaker. I put the speaker on a shelf above my TV, the sub in a corner, and the player by my listening position. The console offers audio outputs for an external receiver or amplifier in case you ever want to hook up a pair of surround speakers. The straightforward remote has far fewer buttons than a full-fledged receiver's, and the onscreen menus were easy to navigate.

PERFORMANCE I loaded in a new surround mix of Simple Minds' New Gold Dream, a DVD-Audio reissue of their 1982 hit album. The player happily accommodated the DVD-Audio and DTS tracks as well as the standard Dolby Digital.

Sound quality was pretty good given what the system's trying to accomplish with just three drivers, though there were limitations. The front speaker delivered crisp vocals and surprisingly good music fidelity, with some upper-bass punch, natural midrange, and highs that were smooth but lacking the sparkle that gives presence to strings, cymbals, and other treble-heavy instruments. But the sound deteriorated at loud volumes due to amplifier clipping and the small size of the three drivers.

Also, because the left/center/right front speakers are squeezed into one cabinet, the stereo panorama was diminished despite the digital processing to enhance it. And most of the surround-channel sound ended up coming from the front of the room. This affected surround music most seriously but was less bothersome on movie soundtracks, where the surround channels are often used for ambience. On action films, such as Gladiator, subwoofer performance was very respectable, providing solid, even powerful, bass. As for the video, the progressive-scan component output provided a clean picture to my TV.

BOTTOM LINE The SurroundWorks 200 is not for everyone. If you have space for six speakers in your room, go for it. For the cost of this system, a savvy shopper could buy a nice entry-level speaker package, receiver, and DVD player - or even just a regular HTiB system! - that will deliver a more satisfying surround sound experience. But some rooms just don't allow for six speakers, and some users just aren't geared for setting up a true multichannel theater. In these cases, this two-speaker solution gets the job done, providing upstanding sound quality and a virtual surround sound field that represents a serious upgrade from any TV's built-in audio system.