Few big-screen-TV buyers are willing to invest in bona-fide home theater systems with a receiver, five (or more) speakers, and a subwoofer. Most folks are satisfied with the sound from the tiny stereo speakers built into the display. That's sad, since based on what I've heard from the displays being reviewed at the CNET offices the sound is at best barely passable. In fact, the quality of the built-in speakers is getting worse with each passing year. Great-looking high-definition video matched to lo-fi sound doesn't work for me, but we all have our priorities, don't we?
Those considering stepping up to a $300 sound bar speaker are more sophisticated buyers, and by the time we get to home theater in a box systems, with five or more speakers and a subwoofer, we're getting to the elite buyer class. I'm not joking, HTIB buyers can deal with a tangle of wires, and nearly all the setup hassles associated with a receiver-based home theater system. If you want an even higher quality home theater system with a receiver and full-size speaker/subwoofer system plan on spending close to $2,000. Sure, you can spend less, but you'll just wind up with something that doesn't sound much better sounding than a really good HTIB.
Here are my recommendations for the best-sounding affordable home theater solutions. (Editors' Note: The following list is Steve Guttenberg's personal opinion, based on his evaluation of sound quality and audio performance. For a more complete list of CNET's official product recommendations [which takes design and features into account], check out CNET's in-depth list of best home audio products.)
The Samsung HW-C450 sound bar ($300 street price) is a worthwhile step up from your TV's built-in speakers.
Want something better? If you already have a DVD or Blu-ray player, put Onkyo's HT-S3200 HTIB on your short list. It comes with five nice speakers, a hefty subwoofer, and a component grade receiver, all for around $350!
For a 5.1 channel HTIB with a built-in Blu-ray player, I like Samsung's HT-C6500 ($650 street price).
For an entry-level receiver, I'd go with Pioneer's VSX-920 ($399) matched up to a Klipsch RF-10 ($1,464) speaker package with tower speakers, full-size center speaker, dipole surround speakers, and a 200 watt, 10-inch powered subwoofer. This system will blow away the pitiful speakers built into your TV, as well as every sound bar and home theater in a box ever made. Chances are you'll own this system long after your shiny new TV is taking its place in a landfill.