THE GOOD: A 5.1 home theater system with built-in Blu-ray player; two HDMI inputs; outstanding sound quality for a home-theater-in-a-box system at this price range; Netflix, Vudu, YouTube, and Pandora streaming; built-in Wi-Fi; plays music, videos, and pictures off a connected USB drive or via network; 1GB onboard storage.
THE BAD: No wireless rear speakers; requires a dongle for iPod connectivity, rather than a sleeker built-in design; buttons on top of the player are inconvenient; last year's Samsung Blu-ray players had reliability issues.
THE BOTTOM LINE: The Samsung HT-C6500 packs outstanding sound quality, Blu-ray playback, and tons of features into an excellent home theater system, with only some design quirks holding it back.
As much we liked last year's slew of Blu-ray home-theater-in-a-box (HTIB) systems, they still involved some features compromises, such as missing built-in Wi-Fi and HDMI connectivity. This year, Blu-ray HTIBs are filling in a lot of those holes and Samsung's HT-C6500 ($550 street price) is one of the most fully featured we've seen, including built-in Wi-Fi, two HDMI inputs, and 1GB of onboard storage. The HT-C6500 also has Samsung's expandable Apps platform, which includes streaming-media services such as Netflix, YouTube, Vudu, and Pandora. If only features mattered, the HT-C6500 would be less of a standout choice; for example, the LG LHB535 ($400 street price) includes much of the same functionality for $150 less. What puts the HT-C6500 over the top is its outstanding sound quality, coming much closer to the sound of a separates-based system than any other HTIB we've tested recently.
Most of our complaints come on the design side, such as the buttons on the top of the player, the need for a separate iPod dock dongle, rather than a dock integrated into the system, and a graphical user interface designed more for a standalone Blu-ray player. We also still have some concerns about Samsung's Blu-ray player reliability (last year's HT-BD1250 was not spared from reliability issues, according to user opinions), but we didn't run into any issues during our testing. Those issues aside, its excellent mix of features and superior sonics make the HT-C6500 the best Blu-ray HTIB we've tested this year.
Every part of the HT-C6500 features Samsung's signature glossy black finish on its front-facing side. The speaker set is made up of two relatively large (for an HTIB) front speakers, small rear speakers, a sizable center channel, and a subwoofer. If you're looking for the fine craftsmanship you'll find on separate speakers, you won't find it in Samsung's plastic speaker cabinets, but that's no different from other affordable HTIBs. Unlike Samsung's HW-C450 sound bar HTIB, the HT-C6500's subwoofer isn't wireless, although it doesn't need power.
The main unit houses both the amplification and the Blu-ray player, which is why it's larger (16.9 inches wide, 2.4 inches high, 13 inches deep) than any of Samsung's standalone Blu-ray players. The main unit also features a window on the top of the player that lets you see the spinning disc tray, like the standalone BD-C6900. There's a flip-down panel on the lower right that houses a USB port and the automatic speaker calibration mic port. There are volume up/down buttons on the front, but unfortunately the rest of the front-panel controls are relegated to the top of the unit, making them inaccessible if you stack anything else on the HT-C6500. In all, as long as you like the glossy black look (and the inevitable fingerprints and dust that come along with it), the HT-C6500 is a slick-looking system.
Samsung has redesigned its standard remote this year, opting for a wider, flatter clicker that lacks much of the glossy finish that collected fingerprints on the old remotes. The new button layout is straightforward, with the most important buttons, like the playback and volume controls, falling easily under the thumb. Of course, with a system with this much functionality, there are a lot of competing interests for layout priority--the directional pad feels too far toward the bottom--but for the most part we had no major issues. The remote can also control a TV.
Samsung has completely redesigned its user interface from last year, and we like the new look. It's visually appealing, with a wood-grain background and large icons for different media types (Internet@TV, music, video, photos). There are also five large icons at the top for popular streaming services (Rovi TV listings, Blockbuster, Netflix, Vudu, and Pandora), so you can quickly access them without jumping into the more involved Samsung Apps interface. Unfortunately you can't customize which icons show up at the top, so if you're not a fan of, say, Rovi TV listings, you can't replace that with Picasa.
If you want to dig deeper into Samsung's online offerings, you can access the Samsung Apps platform (aka, Internet@TV; Samsung uses the terms interchangeably). Here you can browse and download new apps, which are categorized into genres like video, game, sports, and lifestyle. All of the current available apps are free, but Samsung said that premium apps will be available in the future. We haven't seen many new apps pop up since we've had the player, so it's tough to gauge how much additional functionality the platform will provide. We also would have liked to see the option to rate apps, which would make it easier to find quality programs.
As much as we liked the user interface for streaming functionality, we would have liked a more specialized interface for the HT-C6500, which is largely the same as Samsung's standalone Blu-ray players. There's not an easy visual way to select the different inputs available on the HT-C6500; the LG LHB535 has a separate menu where you can browse your available options. It won't be a problem for tech-savvy users, but it makes it harder for non-techies to use.
In addition to streaming content, the HT-C6500 can also browse digital media files on a connected USB drive. We found the method of navigation for digital media files to be a little geekier than the other menus, but that's understandable since it's more of an advanced feature in the first place. On the other hand, the layout could use work; for instance, when browsing an album, there are two columns of tracks and it can initially be difficult to determine which is the first track.
Though the HT-C6500 is generally well-featured, it lacks a few features compared with competing flagship HTIBs. Both the Panasonic SC-BT730 and the LG LHB975 offer "tall boy" speakers and wireless rear speakers. They both also feature built-in iPod docks, which we prefer to the HT-C6500's separate dongle, which adds to the clutter. On the other hand, it's worth pointing out that the LHB975 costs significantly more and doesn't have automatic speaker calibration.
The HT-C6500's Blu-ray feature set is strong. Like most Blu-ray HTIBs at this price range, the HT-C6500 has built-in Wi-Fi, which makes it easier to access its suite of streaming-media features. It's also one of the few Blu-ray HTIBs to have 1GB of onboard storage, which mean you won't need to connect a USB memory drive when you want to access BD-Live features. We're not that concerned that the HT-C6500 doesn't support 3D Blu-ray--as the format is still its infancy--but those who are interested in 3D should check out Sony's competing BDV-E770W and BDV-E570, which offer 3D support. Samsung also offers the similar HT-C6900W with 3D Blu-ray functionality.
For 2010, Samsung has taken a different approach to streaming-media services than its competitors, with Samsung Apps. Likely modeled after the iPhone's App Store, Samsung Apps allows developers to create programs that can be downloaded by compatible Samsung products, enabling owners to add whichever programs they like. To be fair, other manufacturers have added features via firmware updates, but Samsung's platform appears more easily expandable, which means buyers may benefit from additional services added as time goes on.
Even if no new services get added to Samsung Apps, the initial selection of streaming-media services is excellent. All the major bases are covered, including subscription-based streaming movies from Netflix, pay-per-view streaming movies from Vudu, and free streaming music from Pandora. Our only slight disappointment is that the HT-C6500 still uses the somewhat older Netflix interface, rather than the newer, more capable interface available on the LG's HTIBs.
The HT-C6500 is also DLNA-compliant and capable of streaming video, audio, and photo files from a network-connected PC or viewing them from USB drive. The DLNA compliancy is a big step up from the "PC streaming" feature offered last year that was difficult to set up, even for tech enthusiasts; we had no problem streaming files this year. We also had no trouble playing a couple MKV and DivX HD files off an attached USB drive; a full list of supported formats is available in the manual on Page 8.
Like all Blu-ray HTIBs this year, the HT-C6500 has onboard decoding for both high-resolution Dolby and DTS soundtrack formats. There's no support for DVD-Audio or SACD; if you're still interested in playing back SACDs, Sony's BDV-E770W offers that functionality.
Considering that the HT-C6500 includes a built-in Blu-ray player, its two HDMI inputs should be enough for many basic home theaters (for instance, you could connect an HD DVR and a PS3 or Xbox 360). If not, you'll be able to connect two additional devices--via an analog and optical input--bringing the total to four devices connected at once. The HT-C6500's feature set would seem more impressive if LG's entry-level LHB535 ($420 street price) didn't include the same connectivity, plus an additional optical input, allowing for five devices to be connected at once. Whether you need that much AV connectivity depends on your home theater setup, but it's always nice to have some room to expand later on.
The rest of the HT-C6500's connectivity is relatively standard. We would have liked an additional USB port on the back panel--like both the LG LHB975 and Sony BDV-E770W have--but that's a minor nitpick.
Even before we ran through Samsung's setup routine, the HT-C6500 was sounding awfully nice. Samsung doesn't refer to the audio portion of the setup as "speaker calibration"--instead it's "Musical Room Calibration", which sets the volume level of each speaker, measures the distances between the speakers and the measurement mic, and applies equalization to the sound of the speakers. That sounds like speaker calibration to us, so we dutifully plugged in the included calibration microphone and commenced the Musical Room Calibration.
Then we understood why it's called that; instead of the usual sequence of tones, beeps, and whooshes, the HT-C6500's speakers played music that sounded like a large marching band leaping from one speaker to the next and the subwoofer. The procedure was certainly the most entertaining calibration we've heard.
We found the results accurate overall, except the subwoofer volume was set too high for our tastes. No problem, we lowered the sub volume in the manual setup menu.
The HT-C6500 immediately distinguished itself as one of the best-sounding HTIBs we've heard in a long time. The rich balance hews closer to a separates based system than a typical home theater in a box system.
Mickey Rouke's deep-toned narration on Robert Rodriguez's gritty crime drama "Sin City" had the sort of gravitas no other HTIB with lifestyle-friendly speakers has ever mustered. When one bad guy hits another bad guy in the gut, you feel it. The over-the-top violence and ominous film score were well communicated by the HT-C6500. The three front speakers disappeared as sound sources and projected an immense soundstage, and the front-to-rear surround field was truly seamless.
The HT-C6500 was certainly a lot more powerful and richer-sounding than Yamaha's YSP-5100 sound bar speaker, when used on its own without a subwoofer. And the YSP-5100 is more than three times as expensive as the HT-C6500.
Speaking of subwoofers, the HT-C6500's sub produces deeper bass than any similarly sized HTIB sub we know of. Yes, the little thing can sound a bit thick or tubby at times, but it seamlessly integrates with the satellite speakers.
We tested the speakers' limits with the "It Might Get Loud" Blu-ray, starring the White Stripes' Jack White, U2's the Edge, and Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page. The DTS Master Audio sound was crisp and clear as Page demonstrated why he's had a lifelong love affair with the instrument, explaining that he can play with "dynamics, from light and shade, whisper to thunder." The HT-C6500 had absolutely no trouble keeping up with Page's antics. The HT-C6500 can play fairly loud without strain, just don't expect sound on par with much larger speakers or subs when doing so.
The Sony BDV-E770W HTIB comparison was a tight contest, but the HT-C6500 won for its richer balance and fatigue-free listening charms. The BDV-E770W was leaner and therefore more detailed-sounding during the intense battle sequences in "Black Hawk Down." The Sony's much larger subwoofer didn't have as much of a tendency to get muddy when played loud. It's an all around better and much larger sub. The BDV-E770W is really good, it's just that we preferred the HT-C6500's fuller sound.
CDs sounded quite good on the HT-C6500, if a few steps down from the sound from DVDs and Blu-rays. The speakers sounded closer to their actual, very small size when playing CDs, and we heard the speakers straining when we played Bob Marley and the Wailers' "Live at the Roxy" CD fairly loud. Backed down to a more moderate volume, the sound regained full composure.
We imagine most HT-C6500 buyers will spend most of their time watching movies, and on that score this system is an exceptional performer.
Blu-ray and DVD image quality
Overall, we were impressed with the HT-C6500's Blu-ray image quality, as it passed all of the most important test patterns and program material tests. Its operational speed wasn't great--it received a CNET speed rating of 74--but it should be plenty fast for most buyers. We found its performance to be very similar to Samsung's standalone BD-C6500; for a more in-depth look at this player's Blu-ray and DVD performance, we recommend checking out the review of the Samsung BD-C6500.