While the old-school home theatre crowd will readily scorn anything less than a proper multi-speaker setup, there's definitely a growing demand for compact alternatives. Development for these systems started as early as the 1990s with funky, virtual-surround boomboxes. These were followed by Yamaha's digital sound protectors which were ground-breaking for their time, though there are now a lot more comparable products out on the market. One of the latest entries is the Marantz ES7001, a close match to the HDMI-upgraded Yamaha offerings.
A number of virtual surround systems rely on the reflection of sound from rear walls to create an enveloping effect. Though somewhat effective, this approach has its limitations in irregularly-shaped or very large rooms.
The ES7001, however, uses OPSODIS or Optimal Source Distribution technology. Based on the "crosstalk cancellation" principle, it uses a series of powerful dual-digital signal processors. In a nutshell, rear-channel information is re-routed to the front speaker in a way that mimics the way our ears hear sounds originating behind us. Many "surround" headphones also work on the same principle.
Onboard Dolby Digital and DTS surround sound decoding may be standard for all-in-ones, but the ES7001 is one step ahead of the competition with A/V receiver-like connectivity. Not only does it come loaded with three digital optical and dual analog audio inputs, HDMI switching is also supported out-of-the-box. You could easily connect up to two HDMI-enabled decks to the set and relay video through a corresponding output. There's a good chance you could retire your TV remote, too, as the bundled wand is compatible with close to 100 brands.
For bass freaks, the sound bar can be further upgraded with a subwoofer of your choice -- the local distributor, QualiFi, suggests subwoofers from its Jamo range which vary in price from AU$499 to AU$1,500.
The single most glaring omission here is inbuilt surround-sound calibration such as offered by its Yamaha rival, though it does come with something called "Listening Position Optimisation". Though you may argue the relevance of such capability for virtual surround solutions, there are still parameters such as room acoustics worth considering. This is a tricky problem which can sometimes be effectively compensated by computerized room equalization.
On a lesser note, the ES7001 may be less appealing than the Philips HTS8100 which comes with an integrated DVD player. The Philips even ships with a sub and iPod dock, and is two-thirds the asking price of the Marantz.
If you have an irregular-shaped entertainment room and are seeking a clean-cut, one-box solution, the Marantz is definitely a product worth exploring. Having said that, it doesn't come cheap at AU$1,999 and lacks the value proposition of the Philips sound bar. Then again, the price premium is to be expected from a boutique hi-fi brand like Marantz.