A big-screen high-definition TV takes center stage in any home theater. But even the best TV can't convey the rich, multichannel surround...

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A big-screen high-definition TV takes center stage in any home theater. But even the best TV can’t convey the rich, multichannel surround sound on most DVD movies and a growing number of HD programs. That demands a digital receiver and a full set of speakers.

There are two ways to get surround sound at home: a custom system you build using separate components or a prepackaged home-theater-in-a-box (HTIB) system. For most consumers, an HTIB is the easiest, cheapest way to fill a small- or medium-sized room with theater-quality sound.

A boxed set

An HTIB system contains all you need except a TV and sometimes a DVD player. At its heart is a multichannel receiver that powers the speakers, decodes the Dolby Digital and DTS multichannel audio, and tunes in radio stations. (In many systems, a DVD player is integrated with the receiver.) The receiver also allows easy switching among audio and video sources.

Branching out from that heart are the six or more speakers needed to bring life to the explosions in action movies and the dialogue and ambient sound that add realism. They’re matched for sound, so you don’t have to search out speakers with a similar “voice,” or tonality.

HTIB systems support Dolby Digital 5.1-channel surround sound, which has two front and two rear channels, a center channel and — representing the “.1” — a subwoofer for low bass effects. Many such systems use satellite speakers for the front, center and rear audio channels, although others use floor-standing speakers in front.

Some pricier systems, meanwhile, support Dolby Digital EX and DTS ES 6.1- or 7.1-channel formats and may (or may not) include the additional rear speakers required. Color-coded wires and cables simplify setup, although some HTIB models can work with wireless rear speakers.

Some standout systems

We recently rated several HTIB systems and found that most were solid performers, especially well suited to playing movie sound tracks. Top rated among all was the Onkyo HT-S790 ($450). It was the only system we tested that offers both 7.1-channel surround and all the speakers required for it. You need to supply the DVD player.

The Yamaha YHT-670 ($600) is a 6.1-channel system that includes a separate five-disc DVD changer, but only enough speakers for 5.1-channel sound. The system’s receiver (and the Onkyo’s) is XM-ready, meaning it can decode that satellite-radio service’s broadcasts. (You provide the XM subscription and an XM antenna.)

While the extra speakers in a 6.1- or 7.1-channel system provide a more convincing surround experience in larger rooms, we think most consumers will find that 5.1-channel surround is sufficient. Our tests revealed two 5.1-channel systems that combined very good sound with low price to earn them distinction as CR Best Buys.

Both the Panasonic SC-HT740 ($335) and the Samsung HT-Q45 ($295) are easy to use and are wireless ready. Both also include an integrated, five-disc DVD/CD changer. The Samsung adds an XM tuner, and the Panasonic comes with an MP3 minijack that lets you plug in your portable digital player.