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Select a Home Theater-in-a-Box

Washington Post, January 4, 2004

Super Bowl XXXVIII is around the corner, and your killer 32-inch television will be the centerpiece of this year's party. But is it supported by a sound system that will catch every curse of the coach and crack of the bone? Don't let visions of tangled wires -- or aversion to high price tags -- deter you from aurally enhancing your viewing experience: Even if the name on your credit card isn't "Donald Trump," you can still score a game-day touchdown by investing in a pumped-up home theater-in-a-box set.

$300 OR LESS. In this range you'll be shopping for functional packages built for a smaller room. Look for a basic five- or six-speaker set to create the desired multi-channel, "surround sound" effect: three for the front of the room, two for the back and perhaps a small subwoofer, which carries only bass signals, for oomph. You'll also need an audio-video receiver, which teases apart the individual surround channels. (Beware: Receivers packaged with more inexpensive home theater kits may scrimp on the variety of hookups for peripherals.) Robert Silva, an editor of the Home Theater guide at About.com (hometheater.about.com), recommends the Yamaha DVX-S60 Home Theater-in-a-Box, which includes speakers and a combo DVD player and receiver, and retails for about $300. If you're searching for speakers only, Bary Maddox, owner of Graffiti Audio-Video on Connecticut Avenue NW, recommends the Sony SA-VE345 set, which for $299 delivers a lot of sonic punch for the buck.

$300 TO $1,000. A little more money goes a long way if you want more power and better sound. Paul Cook, keeper of www.hometheaterinabox.com, says that when shopping for an A/V receiver in this price range, you have the luxury to be sure it has inputs for all the devices you have now or plan to acquire. Silva recommends the Panasonic SC-HT810V system, which lists for $449.95; it includes a VCR and DVD player that can also play MP3 files, plus a beefy 300-watt receiver. On the more stylish end, Maddox recommends the Onkyo 767C package, which at $799 is the biggest seller at Graffiti; it features a six-disc DVD player and a relatively powerful (100-watt) receiver.

$1,000 AND UP. No surprise: If you're willing to pay more, you'll get better-sounding, more handsome packages. Think systems where you can adjust the audio to match the characteristics of the room and sturdy, compact speakers. Lewis Lipnick, a longtime contra bassoonist for the National Symphony Orchestra and a home theater installation consultant, recommends the Bose Lifestyle line, with integrated DVD and receiver, plus speakers that produce a larger sound than you'd expect from three- or four-inchers. Lifestyle goes for $1,999 to $2,999, depending on the type of speakers. He also recommends a speaker-only set by Anthony Gallo Acoustics: The curvy, pod-like package costs about $1,500 but sounds as good as speakers at twice that price. Joab Jackson

Home Theater RESOURCES

AudioFAQ: A thorough primer on how to pick speakers.

"Home Theater for Everyone," by Robert Harley and Tomlinson Holman. This smart book contains tips on home theater setup.

How Home Theater Works. electronics.howstuffworks.com/home-theater2.htm. A quick, clear guide to all the components that go into a home theater system.

--Joab Jackson