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Home Theater Comparison

Home theater reviews by experts and consumers agree that a low-cost package is no match for a pricey home theater assembled one piece at a time or for a total system with a price tag exceeding $800. Even so, entry-level systems are a big improvement over the poor sound quality that plagues even expensive HDTVs.

The home theater systems we researched are easy to set up and sufficiently varied that you should find a package with the components you want and lacking the ones you don't.

Home Theater Sound.

Because TV speakers just don't cut it, many consumers buy inexpensive home theater systems to add higher quality audio to an existing setup. Home theater reviews clearly indicate that the packages we researched will put your TV's audio to shame.

Boston Acoustics' TVee 26 (starting at $299) may be the best sounding of the bunch. This simple 2.1 sound bar impresses reviewers at sites like Audioholics with its punch and very clear mid and high ranges. An expert home theater review by Big Picture Big Sound reports no distortion when cranking up the volume on the sound bar but noticeable distortion when doing the same on the included subwoofer. That said, the review notes you don't need turned up volume to get a rocking bass.

The Zvox Z-Base 220 (starting at $200) wins high praise in home theater reviews for its sound and easy set up, box-like design. A CNET expert was "blown away" by this unique system, with its excellent audio and a dialogue enhancement feature that's a boon for movie watching. The powerful bass and clear spoken words earn a shout-out as well in PC Mag's home theater review. One minor complaint about this system concerns a less-than-impressive virtual surround sound effect.

The Panasonic SC-BTT195 (starting at $358) is a full-fledged surround sound system with two front speakers, two rear speakers, a center channel, and a subwoofer. That home theater in a box configuration makes for an immersive experience, according to a home theater review at About.com, which nonetheless notes that the audio could use a little more detail. PC Mag considers the SC-BTT195 a first-rate starter system that produces excellent surround sound even though the midrange and treble disappoint slightly.

Another Panasonic system worth considering is the SC-HTB350 (starting at $198), a 2.1 system with separate control box. The slick design, which can be arranged as a sound bar or as two separate speakers, appeals to a reviewer at Digital Trends, as does the user-friendly support for wireless Bluetooth connections. On the down side, this home theater review reports that the bass from the subwoofer is too loud, especially when playing music. Other expert reviews commend the wide sound field and excellent dialogue playback in movies but say the speakers struggle a bit with detail in higher frequencies and the bass is a little too boomy.

Review continues below

We identified several other systems that can buoy the sound of your home theater even though they didn't make our list. The Vizio SB4021M-A1 (starting at $221) is a simple 2.1 sound bar with a built-in control that a home theater review by Gadget Review praises for its accurate midrange tones and a powerful bass that doesn't overwhelm the speakers. The Toshiba Mini 3D (starting at $162) sound bar is a tiny device that still manages to fill up a room with well-balanced sound; a home theater review by Digital Trends deems the sound quality remarkable and lauds the good detail and balance and the clear dialogue during movies. The Samsung HT-E5400 (starting at $307), a 5.1 home theater in a box system that includes a 3D Blu-ray player, has yet to be reviewed by experts but consumer comments at Amazon and Crutchfield contend its small speakers produce high quality sound.

Another 5.1 home theater system, the Yamaha YHT-397 (starting at $248), includes a receiver rather than a simple control box or Blu-ray player. The small speakers are plenty loud and this home theater in a box is a good value, according to home theater reviews at Amazon and Newegg. We came across a few grumbles about a slightly underpowered subwoofer and audio quality that doesn't quite meet expectations.

Home Theater Systems Video.

Home theater systems of the past included a DVD or Blu-ray player more often than not, but that trend has played out now that many buyers already own a Blu-ray player or would rather choose one independently. Only two of the products we researched come with a Blu-ray player -- the Panasonic SC-BTT195 and Samsung HT-E5400.

Both Blu-ray players performed well, according to home theater reviews. The Blu-ray player in the Panasonic SC-BTT195 package displays excellent color, contrast, and detail, reviewers report, and its black levels are impressive. A review in PC Mag also points out that the Ethernet connection on the Blu-ray player enables a connection to a home network and access to HuluPlus, Netflix, and other streaming services. None of our other picks can make that claim. Users of the Blu-ray player in the Samsung HT-E5400 like it well enough. The only grousing we noticed in home theater reviews came from a consumer who claims the Smart TV menu is a bit slow.

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