Home Theater - Bang in a Box?
Convenience Vs Performance?
by Jim Bray
Buying a home theater doesn't have to be difficult or outrageously expensive.
In fact, it doesn't even have to require a lot of thought. An increasing
number of manufacturers now offer simple, "all-in-one" solutions for people
who want a home theater, but who aren't into it enough to justify a lot
of research or a lot of money.
These are the "home theaters in a box," and they can be a reasonable
I've been playing with Panasonic's SC-HT290D, though for some strange
reason its DVD player comes in a separate box from the rest, so I guess
it doesn't really qualify as a true "home theater in a box." Selling for
about $800, it includes a 5 disc DVD changer, a 100 watt x 6 receiver,
five identical speakers for the main channels and a passive subwoofer
to up the "oomph" factor.
Being a video snob, I probably wouldn't buy this system, but I know many
people who'd be perfectly happy with its combination of performance and
convenience. It isn't going to beat a multi-thousand dollar set of separate
components, but it will make a decent home theater for those who don't
live and breathe this stuff.
The SC-HT290D comes with all of the features the average person is likely
to want. Its receiver decodes Dolby Digital and DTS audio, which makes
it compatible with just about any DVD you can imagine, as well as offering
such common features as an AM/FM tuner, simulated surround sound effects
(including Hall, Club, Live, Theater and Simulated Surround) and a universal
remote control that operates the DVD player and can operate other components,
like a TV or VCR.
Three digital inputs (two optical and one coaxial) accept digital signals
from sources such as your DVD player, TV or CD player. This could give
added longevity to your purchase because, while there aren't a lot of
TV's or CD players with digital outputs, they'll probably come as technology
The receiver can accept three separate video and three audio inputs,
so it'll take everything you're likely to throw at it except for a turntable
Not much accepts turntables these days
The five disc carousel DVD player has that "disc exchange" feature that
lets you swap the four discs that aren't playing even though one is playing.
You probably won't be sitting down for a marathon five movie session very
often, but a five disc changer is particularly handy for programming an
evening of compact disc enjoyment.
The player uses an optical connector (which is included) to hook into
Hookup is pretty straightforward, thanks to good labeling and a short
"quick guide" to getting the system up and running. The actual day to
day operation isn't quite as straightforward, but that's more because
the abundance of features makes a trip or two through the main owner's
manual a recommended procedure. As with most things electronic these days,
there are a lot of features on tap, many of which you may never use, so
there is a bit of a learning curve.
One thing I never did figure out was how to play a DTS soundtrack on
a DVD. I followed the instructions carefully, more than once, and I even
cussed a few choice phrases, but eventually gave up. This could have been
a flaw in my sample (or my gray matter) but despite it being unfortunate
it certainly wasn't the end of the world. DTS is gravy at best.
Why? Well, pretty well every DVD with DTS also has Dolby Digital and,
while DTS is argued (by some who are into such things) as offering superior
audio, I would defy most people to notice the difference - or care about
it - on a system such as this.
The remote control isn't the most intuitive on earth, but that's a common
failure and this Panasonic is no worse than most. The problem comes from
offering so many features on a unit that's about the size of a telephone
The overall sound of the system is clean and clear, though the passive
subwoofer doesn't shake the walls as well as a real, powered subwoofer
would. Still, it's more than adequate for the price.
And "more than adequate" is undoubtedly just right for the market at
which this system is aimed.
Jim Bray's technology columns are distributed by the TechnoFILE and Mochila Syndicates. Copyright Jim Bray.
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