For many people, the best home theater systems provide an excellent balance of good quality sound and easy installation.
A good home theater system can give you a great experience to rival a more complicated setup made up from separate components, but without the added complication of buying individual components.
Our guide will give you the low-down on all you need to know to get yourself up and running.
The main idea behind a home theater package is to make it easy to purchase, setup and use - allowing us to get home surround sound systems and top quality pictures without getting a qualification in electrical engineering first!
These systems are commonly referred to by names such as home theater in a box (HTiB) or home cinema systems.
Whatever the name, the idea is the same - to provide you with all the equipment you need to have a decent home theater setup in your room.
For many people, it seems too complicated to figure out which components they need to buy in order to have a home cinema system - and even more challenging to set it all up and get it working!
Therefore, the manufacturers provide these systems so you can get all the equipment you need in one go - and with all the cables required.
It's a good idea - although, I hope this website shows you that it isn't all that difficult to get a good system together yourself using separates.
For more information on using separates to setup your home theater, have a look at the introduction to the surround sound receiver.
However, if you just don't want the headache and prefer an easier life, it could be that an HTiB system is just right for you.
So what do you get in a typical all-in-one HTiB system?
Well, this can be the hardest thing about home theater systems - as although they all have essentially the same things there can be small, but important, differences between them.
So do be careful when buying these packages, as one home theater system may have different components to another.
Firstly, here's what you don't get - a flat panel TV!
All-in-one systems will assume you have something to display the picture on - you just connect the video output of the all-in-one system to your display.
What you do usually get is an AV receiver (sometimes with a built in DVD or Blu-ray player), the speakers and all the necessary cabling.
The idea is that you can connect all this to your TV, and you have a quick and easy way of watching movies with a greatly improved sound.
However, as mentioned earlier, it can be confusing when researching this area as some systems will include the means to play DVD or Blu-ray discs as part of the package - while other home theater systems will only have the amplifier, speakers and cables and expect you to provide the disc player.
For example, the Onkyo HT-S3700 5.1 home theater receiver/speaker package pictured above looks very similar to many HTiB systems you will see - however this package just comes with the amplifier and speakers - no Blu-ray player.
Of course, if you already have a Blu-ray player, then this is the type of system you would probably be looking for. There is also an argument that the sound quality may be slightly better with this type of system as no money is wasted on a player you don't need - and it's job is solely to provide great sound.
So do make sure that you know what you want - and check the system you are looking at has the components you need.
The most basic systems will come with a 2.1 speaker setup.
This has two stereo speakers for left and right stereo audio - plus a subwoofer to get an improved bass sound.
Therefore, this is not a true surround sound system. However, the AV receiver will often offer some digital processing that creates the illusion of sound coming from around the room.
If you want a simple system - or have limited space in your room for speakers - then then a 2.1 configuration may be all that you need. You will also come across 3.1 systems and those with a sound bar.
More expensive systems will then add more speakers - so you will have the option to buy a 5.1, or even a 7.1 version.
Many of the new all-in-one systems are appearing with wireless surround speakers.
Again, the reason for this is to provide a system which is easy to setup.
One of the big problems with surround sound for your average enthusiast has always been the need to run long lengths of speaker cable around their room to the surround speakers.
This issue is removed by providing wireless surround sound systems. More systems are appearing with wireless surround sound speakers - and speaker cable is only used for the front left/right and centre speakers.
These wireless systems will often be slightly more expensive than those which rely on cables for all the speakers, and are sometimes available as an optional extra to a standard wired system.
You can decide for yourself if paying a bit more for wireless surround speakers is worth it for you, although you shouldn't underestimate the reliability and sound quality you can get from a good old piece of speaker cable.
So what can you expect from the sound quality of these systems?
Well, the quality of the amplifier and the speakers won't be the best you can get - but as an HTiB system is generally much cheaper than buying separate units, I'm sure you wouldn't expect them to sound the same.
That's not to say that they will sound terrible.
Will it sound 100% better than listening to the built-in speakers on your TV? Absolutely, and you will be getting surround sound - which is great!
Will it sound and look better than buying a good quality separate Blu-ray/DVD player, AV receiver and speakers? Probably not - but you pay your money and you make your choice. A home theater in a box system will often be cheaper to buy than a separates system - and will be easier to setup.
If you're a bit of an audiophile and expect a very high standard in sound reproduction then maybe these systems won't be for you.
However, for the majority of people who just want to experience surround sound in their homes, these systems will do just fine.
As the amplifier is often combined with the DVD/Blu-ray player, there is less cabling to worry about.
The back of the unit will have six speaker outputs for the speakers to be connected (assuming you have a 5.1 system), and an HDMI connection to send the picture to your display via an HDMI cable (it may have component or composite connections too in case your display doesn't have HDMI - but check this before you buy). An HDMI cable will usually be included - but you may have to buy this separately.
There should also be enough speaker cable to run around most rooms of a reasonable size - although if you do run out you can always buy extra speaker cable yourself.
The DVD/Blu-ray player will have all the basic functions you need in any such device. It might not have some of the advanced functions you can get in some standalone players, but it should be of good quality and will let you do all the basics.
Hey, let's face it, most of us just want to pop in the disc and press play- who needs to make it more complicated?
The Samsung HT-J4100 Blu-ray home theater system pictured above even supports Dolby True HD high-definition audio. Not bad for a 'budget' home theater solution.
The Blu-ray/DVD player should also provide upscaling which makes a standard DVD look much more like the high-definition pictures of a Blu-ray player (assuming you have an HD ready screen).
Another bonus of an all-in-one system is that it will come with one remote control to operate everything.
So operating the DVD player, changing options, controlling the volume and switching everything on/off, can all be done without getting a headache trying to decide which remote control operates which device.
Well, I've already mentioned the quality of the sound may not match that of a dedicated amplifier and speakers.
You need to decide how important that is to you.
The DVD/Blu-ray player will also provide only basic functionality - but that may be all you require too.
The other thing to consider is that there may be limited scope to add new devices to a home theater in a box system.
The amplifier may not have many (if any) extra audio inputs to install extra devices to use the speaker system.
So if you buy a Blu-ray player to complement the built-in DVD player - or you want to connect your PS3 or iPod to the system - well you may not be able to add these into the setup.
Therefore, the surround sound audio would be limited to anything you played on the integrated DVD/Blu-ray player.
However, it is becoming more common for many new home theater systems to have a connection for you to play your iPod (or other MP3 player) through the speakers.
If you wanted to connect another video source, you may have to connect a cable directly to the screen itself (assuming the screen had enough spare connections).
So, while an all-in-one system may be cheaper in the short term - you may want to think ahead slightly and take into account any devices you might be thinking of buying in the longer term.
A home theater system package may not be as flexible as an AV receiver is when it comes to adding extra equipment to the system - but you may not need to add extra devices, so this may not necessarily be a problem.
Many of the major manufacturers of AV receivers also make all-in-one systems - and these will be of good quality.
However, there are also a couple of extra companies that make good HTiB systems that don't make AV receivers.
The main brands I would start looking at are:
The main things to look for in an all-in-one system are:
So as you can see, the best home theater systems can be a perfect way for you to get into the surround sound experience.
As you've probably know from reading the rest of this site (you have read every page haven't you?), I think surround sound is fantastic. So if these systems are the best way for you to get surround sound then go for it. You won't regret it.
If you want to keep the cost down, don't want to be bothered with too much setting up and configuration, or don't want the headache of trying to choose matching separates, then an all-in-one home theater system can be perfect for getting a setup you will love.