Which home theater approach is better: components or all-in-one systems?

Home Theater All-in-one Systems

An all-in-one system is an easy approach for the tech challenged.
An all-in-one system is an easy approach for the tech challenged.
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If you're more of a movie lover than a techie, buying an all-in-one system can take a lot of the mind-numbing complexity out of your home theater. You can buy a prepackaged system that combines a receiver with a set of matched speakers, wiring and often a disc player. And if you're price-conscious, Consumer Reports advises that in most cases, buying a package will cost less than assembling your own system of separate components. While such a system may not have the impressive specs of a component setup, unless you have the ears of a musician (or a German Shepherd), you probably won't be able to tell the difference [source: Consumer Reports].

Within the all-in-one universe, there actually are two different types of systems:

The classic all-in-one system is the theater-in-a-box setup, which generally consists of an array of surround-sound speakers, a subwoofer, and a disc player/amplifier. These items, plus the necessary wiring, are all sold as a unit in a single box, hence the name [source: Dolby.com].

Another variation on all-in-one is the sound bar system, which basically is an array of speakers inside a long, thin bar. These are designed to be mounted on the wall below a flat-panel TV [source: Dolby.com].

Because they're designed for convenience and ease of installation and use, as you might expect, all-in-one systems have some limitations. They typically have less power and fewer features than separate components, they're not generally expandable, and you can't upgrade the speakers with better ones. And they're designed to work in a typically-sized living room with run-of-the-mill acoustics, so if you live in a sprawling castle a la the one in "Citizen Kane," a custom component system might work better. Ditto if you're intending to use it in a space with a lot of ambient noise [source: Consumer Reports].