Packaged Home Theater System vs. Component Home Theater System
What are the differences and which option is right for you?
HTIB versus Components

There was a time when “Home Theater” was reserved only for those with homes shown on "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" or "MTV Cribs". Today, however, Home Theater is a way of life in a day where television programs and movies are all in surround sound and the average citizen can readily enjoy the Cinematic experience without taking out a second mortgage.

Home Theater Systems today fall into two basic categories: Component Home Theater Systems and Prepackaged Home Theater Systems, or Home Theater In A Box (HTIB). Given the fact that HTIB’s can be found for under $200, you might ask yourself, “Why would I want a Component Home Theater System when the prepackaged system is so cheap?”

The short answer to that question is better quality of sound, superior performance, increased future options, and when done right, intuitive, user-friendly operation.

HTIBs make a number of compromises to get the price down. Speaker design and amplification is reduced to lowest cost to make a sound, connections are limited, processing is kept to the minimum, and control is another remote with 50 buttons to add to your collection. What does this mean in the real world?

Inferior speaker design and amplification makes it difficult to distinguish dialogue from background sounds or surround effects. I’m sure you’ve all been in a home where they have to turn the sound up when the actors are talking and then down when the surround effects are happening because they’re so loud just to turn it up again to hear what is being said. Limited connections mean adding something new, like an Apple TV, for example, probably isn’t going to happen. You get what the HTIB comes with. Minimum processing prevents the bulk of HTIBs from playing back the 7.1 channel surround sound format found on many Blu-Ray discs as well as limiting their ability to provide surround sound for older movies and television. And, the final trade-off is an additional remote on the coffee table. Turn on the TV with one remote, switch inputs, grab the HTIB remote, select a source, grab the source remote…

Component Home Theater Systems on the other hand, can be tailored to give you exactly the experience you are seeking. Better speakers will allow you to hear fine details, even at lower listening levels. Of course, they can also offer convincing Cinema level sound if you wish. A/V Receivers should offer multiple connections so you can add sources to your system over time. Even ones not yet invented. Any decent A/V Receiver will also offer the ability to process all current surround formats so you don’t miss out on what the director intended. Possibly most important of all, when done right, a Component Home Theater System will be operated using just a single, user-friendly remote with buttons for functions like ON, OFF, Watch Movie, Watch Cable, Listen Music, etc. Of course you may need to come up with a way to decorate the space formerly occupied by the collection of remotes.

So which is right for you, a prepackaged Theater System or a Component System? If price is your only concern and you aren’t concerned about the compromises mentioned previously, an HTIB is certainly cheap. If, however, you are looking for an easy to use, expandable, better sounding solution, I would certainly recommend a component home theater system. If you are unsure about how to put things together, seek out a CEDIA (custom electronic design & installation association) member dealer and find out what your best options are. CEDIA members specialize in home technologies including Home Theater and a good dealer can help make sure you get the performance you are looking for at a price you can afford.