Let's face it - nobody likes hassle, particularly when it comes to setting up a home cinema. Thank heavens then for all-in-one systems, which provide everything you need in a single box without having to shop around for a Blu-ray player, receiver and speakers separately. Buy wisely and you could also save yourself a packet in the process.
On the downside, all-in-one systems don't always deliver the same standard of sound quality as decent separates - which is understandable, given the need to fuse components together and to meet affordable price points - but the added convenience and money-saving benefits might just make them worth a punt.
What's more, the latest generation of one-box Blu-ray systems are packed with cutting-edge features, allowing you to do much more than just play hi-def discs. We've cast a critical eye over four of the latest systems to help you find the best one for your budget.
Price: £600 More info: LG Electronics Key features: 1100W 5.1 channel output; Profile 2.0 (BD Live); NetCast; Home Link DLNA media streaming; built-in Wi-Fi (802.11b/g/n); 1080/24p output; Sound Gallery (Virtual Sound Matrix, Night Mode, BassBlast, MP3 Upscaling, Game Equalizer, Clear Voice, Natural Plus); Information Display with Gracenote; 1080p DVD upscaling; Dolby True HD, Dolby Digital Plus, DTS HD Master Audio, Dolby Digital and DTS decoding; Dolby Pro Logic II; LG Simplink; FM radio tuner; CIFS; wall mountable speakers Sockets: HDMI v1.3 output; 2 x HDMI inputs; Ethernet LAN port; 2 x optical digital audio inputs; analogue stereo input; component video output; composite video output; USB port; iPod dock; FM antenna input Playback: Blu-ray, DVD, CD, DivX HD, MKV, AVI, MP4, MP3, WMA, AAC, JPEG
Like its three rivals, the HB965TZ offers a staggering amount of features, and most likely more than the average person will use in a lifetime. Besides 3D compatibility, there isn't a single technological stone left unturned, making it feel like exceptionally good value despite being the most expensive system in our test. A step-up 3D-ready version is also available.
The LG also has the added bonus of being the most attractive of the four, using gorgeous flat panel speakers with a translucent trim that can either be mounted on the wall or perched on elegant pole stands. The gloss-black main unit complements them beautifully and every component is robustly built.
The LG steals a march on Sony and Panasonic with built-in Wi-Fi (802.11b/g/n), which can be used to download BD Live content (onto USB memory), stream music, video and photos from networked PCs using the Home Link DLNA feature and access LG's internet portal NetCast. YouTube, Picasa and AccuWeather.com are the only widgets available at present, a selection that pales in comparison with that of the Sony and Samsung.
Other feature highlights include Virtual Sound Matrix, which expands 5.1 sources to sound more like 10.1, a Gracenote-powered movie/music database that brings up info about the disc you're playing, and an integrated iPod dock hidden behind a drop-down panel on the fascia.
The plentiful connections make it an excellent hub for your other kit too. Among them are two HDMI inputs, two optical digital audio inputs and an Ethernet port for people without wireless routers. A USB port on the front lets you play a wide range of digital formats, including MKV and DivX HD.
LG's user interface is eye-popping - the beautiful Home menu is designed to look like a tank of water, with each icon bobbing up and down inside a block of ice. All of the menus share this stunning aesthetic approach, but it's just a shame that the cursor is sluggish when moving around the options.
Loading a Blu-ray disc is quick and painless, plus picture quality is flawless when transferred at 1080/24p to a compatible TV. We're also big fans of its sound quality, with the system getting nice and aggressive when called for, without drowning out the detail or descending into a mess of hard high frequencies and boomy bass. The surround channels are crisp, dialogue is clear and although passive the subwoofer sounds tighter and better integrated than its rivals, which amounts to a superb overall sound performance with music and movies. Yes it's expensive but worth every penny.
Attractive speakers; picture and sound quality; features; HDMI inputs; fast disc loading; built-in Wi-Fi Minus points
OLimited NetCast content; sluggish onscreen menus
Price: £500 More info: Panasonic Key features: 1000W 5.1-channel output; Profile 2.0 (BD Live); Viera Cast; Smart Setup; 1080/24p output; advanced Bamboo Cone; Dolby True HD, Dolby Digital Plus, DTS HD Master Audio, Dolby Digital and DTS decoding; Dolby Pro Logic II; PHL Reference Chroma Processor Plus; P4HD; High Precision 4:4:4; Deep Colour; 7.1-channel Virtual Surround; High Clarity Sound; Whisper Mode Surround; Cinema Surround; Center Focus; 96kHz Surround Re-Master; 192kHz/24-bit audio DAC; Digital Noise Reduction; Viera Link; optional wireless rears & WLAN; FM/AM radio tuner with 30 presets; picture adjustment Sockets: HDMI output; composite video output; 2 x optical digital audio inputs; analogue stereo input; Ethernet port; wireless terminal; iPod dock; SD card slot; 2 x USB port (1 front, 1 rear for Wi-Fi); headphone jack Playback: Blu-ray, DVD, CD, DivX HD, MP3, AVCHD, JPEG, MPEG-2
This Blu-ray system comes with a pair of tall column speakers at the front, compact satellites for the rears and centre, plus a passive Kelton subwoofer on bass duties. All of the speakers feature Panasonic's bamboo cones, which are designed to provide a better response than regular ones.
The BT330 looks unremarkable and the build quality of the three-piece front speakers is poor - their hollow and plasticky construction doesn't instil much confidence in their sonic prowess. That said, the satellites and main unit are a lot more robust.
The system offers a decent array of features, but like the Sony you'll need deep pockets to access the best ones. For instance, the rear speakers can be connected wirelessly, but only with the £100 SH-FX71 kit. It can also connect to the internet wirelessly, but you'll need to buy the optional DY-WL10 USB dongle for around £80. That's quite a premium for two features that some systems supply as standard.
The Ethernet port provides a more old-fashioned way of connecting to the internet, but either way it's worth doing as it throws up a few neat features. These include Viera Cast, a ring-fenced selection of websites including YouTube, Picasa and Bloomberg, a selection dwarfed by Samsung's line-up.
It also allows you to stream MP3, JPEG and DivX files from Windows 7 PCs, access recordings made on networked Panasonic recorders and download BD Live content.
There's plenty more besides - a built-in iPod/iPhone dock, an HDMI v1.4 output with Audio Return Channel, a USB port and SD card slot, HD audio decoding and Panasonic's usual arsenal of Blu-ray picture tech, which contributes towards some of the most gloriously crisp HD pictures you're likely to see.
Disc loading is fairly slow compared to the Samsung but set-up and operation are a breeze. Given the front speakers' disappointing build quality, we weren't expecting miracles, but its sound quality is decent. There's pleasing dynamism, plenty of detail and speech is consistently intelligible. The fronts fuse fairly well with the centre, while the rears project enveloping effects and ambience into the soundstage.
Its downfall is the overpowering bass, which lacks the punch and agility to make action scenes truly memorable. The front speakers also distort slightly at loud volumes and miss the last scintilla of detail that more competent speakers can reproduce.
Overall the SC-BT300 is a decent choice, although others in this test offer better performance and overall value.
Good feature set; picture quality; HDMI v1.4 Minus points
Slow disc loading; front speaker build quality; no HDMI inputs; some sound issues; limited Viera Cast content; optional Wi-Fi support