Three for the Money

A lot has changed since a year ago, when I was last given the chance to offer some advice in these pages. Home theater systems in general - and DVD players in particular - have gotten a lot cheaper; new formats like DVD-Audio, Super Audio CD, and recordable DVD are becoming established; and convergence gear like hard-drive audio and video recorders is cheaper and more common. So with all these new developments to make my job easier, here are my recommendations to three people looking for practical solutions to their dramatically different home entertainment puzzles.

Dear Gear Guy, Every summer, my wife, two sons, and I go way up north to our cabin on a secluded lake. We love it there - except when it rains, which it can do for days at a time. Then we're all forced to watch whatever we can pull in over the TV's built-in antenna. Since we can't get cable there and don't want to put a satellite dish on the cabin, we're looking for a good, cheap DVD player to supply our entertainment. And we don't need big speakers - we go there for the peace and quiet. What we do need is a nicely contained home theater system that can keep two adults and two housebound kids happy. Any suggestions? - Happy Camper

Dear Happy Camper, Let me recommend a first-rate system for just a little more than $2,000 that you can build around your rainy-day TV - one that can produce decent sound without blowing out the caribou. And it'll even make you a backwoods trendsetter.

Microsoft Xbox game console and DVD player ($349), 800-469-9269

Denon AVR-2802 receiver ($799) 973-396-0810

Energy Take 5.2 speaker system ($900) 416-321-1800

You could get yourself a dirt-cheap, plain-vanilla DVD player, but why not start your system building with Microsoft's game- and DVD-playing Xbox (reviewed in May)? Gene Newman called it "a superior gaming console," while Michael Antonoff pointed out that the Xbox isn't only a DVD player but "a music jukebox, too - the most affordable CD player/ripper/hard-disk player you can buy." And it's a bargain at $349 ($299 for the Xbox plus $30 for the DVD Movie Playback Kit and $20 for the Advanced AV Pack, which includes a digital audio output).

Next, hook up your Xbox to Denon's compact, versatile, 90-watt-per-channel AVR-2802 digital surround receiver ($799, reviewed in "Real-World Receivers," December 2001). Daniel Kumin was "impressed with its well-balanced, flexible performance" and its "more than respectable power reserves." But he especially liked its Dolby Pro Logic II and DTS Neo:6 processing, which can derive convincing surround sound from two-channel sources.

To hear both those derived surround mixes and true six-channel surround in all its Dolby Digital and DTS glory, you'll need an inexpensive, space-saving, but full-sounding speaker system. So let me suggest the Energy Take 5.2 (reviewed in June 2001): four Take 2.2 left/right front and surround satellites, a Take 1.2 center speaker, and an S8.2 subwoofer. At $900, it's not going to break your bank, and it's small enough to bring home in the trunk of your car with plenty of room left for luggage, paddles, and inflatable rafts. Reviewer Kumin said the Take 5.2 "excelled" with both two-channel music and multichannel movie soundtracks, and that "the system's bass extension was remarkable given [the sub's] 8-inch driver. . . . Energy's Take 5.2 is one of the best ultracompact home theater speaker systems I've heard - and the price is a stone-cold steal."