Don’t Get Fooled, Avoid All-In-One Home Theater Systems

So you’re an average consumer, and you’ve decided you want some surround sound in your life. After all, that’s whats in movie theaters, and you’d like your movie watching experience at home to be more like the movie theaters. Its not something you care all that much about, enough to spend a few hundred dollars on at most. You look online, or go into an electronics store, and you find it. One box that has everything you need. One swipe of the credit card and your desire will be satisfied. Every marketing person at every electronics firm knows there are a significant number of people who will act this way; people who want better audio in their lives but don’t know where to start. They take advantage by selling something that looks right, without there being any good way for an average consumer to tell whether or not it is a good product. Its not like you’re going to listen to it beforehand, much less make any objective comparison among several samples. They sell convenience in satisfying your consumer urges, not actual audio quality.

Don't buy something like this
Don’t buy something like this

You may very well be thinking right now, “Brad, how do you know they are all bad?”. While I count vouch for every system ever created, I’ll lay out the bad qualities of every system I’ve seen.

  1. If one part of the system breaks you have to replace the whole thing. One speaker goes bad? You’ll be buying a whole new box to replace everything. This isn’t necessarily malicious on the part of manufacturers. Designing the amplifier and speakers for each other allows them to “cheat” the designs and hit the price and performance point the marketers are looking for. However, designing this way means they will only work together.
  2. Say you want to make part of the system a bit better, while leaving the rest the same. That’s too bad, you have to trash everything and buy a new box. Again, this is intentional but not necessarily malicious.
  3. Speakers made of cheap, thin, lightweight plastic sound bad. A good enclosure for the speaker is important to making a good speaker. A bad enclosure bends while it is producing sound and muddies the whole sound the speaker is making. They don’t make violins out of corkboard for a reason.
  4. Small speakers can’t do bass. Sound waves at bass frequencies are big, 10 to 50 feet long. You need to move lots of air to get loud bass. Little speakers cannot move lots of air, so they can’t do bass. Pint glass sized speakers will start to give out with alto female voices. The “subwoofers” most boxed systems include will have trouble with simple things like bass drums.

Companies sell these kinds of systems because they know most people have no idea about the four things I laid out above. The crazy thing is you can’t even rely on reviews to help you. Most people, including tech journalists, can’t do more than tell you that it works without breaking, what features it has and if they think its worth the price. You won’t find people who understand audio systems reviewing these. The people who are qualified find these sorts of systems beneath them, and its kind of pointless to review something you know is going to be bad beforehand. That leaves only the reviews from those who don’t know what they are talking about. Gizmodo, Engadget, and the Verge all qualify. If they don’t do measurements and present graphs, their opinions aren’t any better than some random Amazon reviewer’s opinion.

This trend started in the 90’s, with the advent of DVDs, and it has only grown since. While the traditional box still exists, soundbars are the new hip way for multinational corporations to separate you from your money for some plastic that won’t last you five years. On the other hand, at least sound bars offer a convenient form factor. I’ve had plenty to say about sound bars in the past, so I won’t go into them now.

So what kinds of evil corporations offer these products? They are companies which do something else very well and are looking to capitalize with these highly profitable systems.

  • Sony makes great TV’s. They even make pretty good receivers and pretty good speakers if you know what to look for. However, their myriad of all-in-one packages are bad buys.
  • Samsung makes a whole host of great electronics. None of them are in the audio realm. The only part of a good home theater that might have a Samsung logo is the TV and the smartphone in your pocket.
  • Vizio has driven down prices in the TV market by offering better bang-for-the-buck to budget conscious consumers. Unfortunately, that does not extend to any audio products they make.
  • LG makes good TV’s, phones and appliances. Like Samsung, they have no reputation for quality audio.

The companies that are not TV manufacturer’s tend to offer something seemingly better at twice the price. Don’t be fooled. Onkyo, Denon and Yamaha are well known makers of home theater receivers. Their all-in-one boxed systems don’t come with the receivers they are well known for, however. They come with cheaper parts and fewer features. Not to mention the speakers are every bit as bad as the ones above.

So now you know, avoid it when someone is trying to sell you a single box that will solve all your audio wishes and desires. Simply put, they are trying to profit off of your former ignorance. If you want to learn how to get a great setup going in your house, keep reading here, or feel free to send me an email at: brad@affordablehomeaudio.com with your questions.

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