Home cinema systems offer all-in-one convenience that can save you time and money. You may not get the same performance as separates but space-saving designs and user-friendly functionality have recently been supported by more advanced features and greatly improved picture and sound quality.
Budget systems are often condemned for compromised specifications, but if you're prepared to spend slightly more you can afford some pretty high-end features such as video upscaling. This means you can upconvert standard DVDs to close to high-definition quality - ideal if own a new flat screen and want to improve the performance of your existing DVD collection.
We've collected four systems across a range of prices to find which system 'scales' the greatest heights (ho ho).
Price: £600 More info: LG Electronics Power rating: 700W Disc formats: DVD, DVD-R/-RW, DVD+R/+RW, DVD-A, : CD, CD-R/-RW, VCD, SVCD, DiVX, JPEG, MPEG, WMA Recording formats: DVD+R/+RW, DVD-RAM Hard drive: 160GB Video connections: HDMI, component, 2x Scart, S-Video, composite Decoding: Dolby Digital, DTS, Dolby Pro Logic/Pro Logic II Tuner: AM/FM Upscaling: 1080i Progressive scan: Yes Size: Main unit: 61x440x282mm Fronts: 1350x300x300mm Centre: 160x500x115mm Rears: 1350x300x300mm Subwoofer: 435x235x403mm
LG's LHRH7601A is slightly different to its test rivals as it includes an integrated analogue TV tuner with both a DVD recorder and 160GB hard drive - offering a one-stop solution for all your home entertainment needs.
It makes sense to use the hard drive for most recordings as you can store up to 220 hours of footage using the lowest quality (EQ) mode or 40 hours using the highest quality (HQ) mode. And the hard drive also offers the usual array of post editing features and time slip functions such as chasing play and simultaneous record and playback. Alternatively, you can record directly to disc for archived or portable copies and recording compatibility includes +R/+RW, +R (DL) and DVD-RAM formats - but not the more commonly used DVD-R/-RW.
The system is well built and smartly styled with the near-ubiquitous black and silver finishing and eye-catching neon lighting in the compact main unit. The speakers are attractively curved at the weighted base and surprisingly tall, which certainly offers presence but can appear overwhelming if space is limited.
Peerless connectivity includes two Scart terminals, progressive scan-enabling component outputs and an HDMI digital output that supports upscaled 1080i signals from standard DVDs. A flip-down panel at the front also conceals some useful convergent connections including a USB port that allows you to access digital files from storage devices and a DV input that offers a direct, high-quality connection for digital camcorders.
For recordings, it's best to connect a separate Freeview box as the quality of the integrated analogue TV tuner is typically limited. Using the higher quality modes produces recordings that are virtually indistinguishable from the original but edge definition deteriorates and pixilation escalates as you move down the recording quality hierarchy. Playback performance is acceptable but not exceptional, offering decent detail, contrast and colours but a loss of composure in dark scenes and occasional picture noise - even when playing upscaled images.
Sound quality is more impressive with a crisp, clean delivery that opens up an involving soundstage with focused dialogue, subtle separation and smooth steering. Although the delivery doesn't distort at high levels and the robust subwoofer packs plenty of punch, the sound isn't as powerful as the claimed 700-watt rating suggests.
Integrated DVD and HDD recording; all-inclusive connectivity; good recording quality; impressive sound performance
Overwhelming design; no DVD-R/-RW recording; average playback performance
Price: £300 More info: Panasonic Power rating: 850W Disc formats: DVD, DVD-R/-RW, DVD+R/+RW, DVD-RAM, DVD-A, CD, CD-R/-RW, VCD, SVCD, DiVX, JPEG, MPEG, WMA Video outputs: HDMI, component, RGB Scart, S-Video, composite Decoding: Dolby Digital, DTS, Dolby Pro Logic/Pro Logic II Tuner: AM/FM Upscaling: 720p, 1080i Progressive scan: Yes Size: Main unit: 60x430x350mm Fronts: 1130x250x240mm Centre: 90x270x90mm Rears: 110x90x90mm Subwoofer: 400x180x270mm
Panasonic's SC-HT855 is the most affordable system in this test and while the specification appears impressive on paper, you can expect a few compromises in practice.
Although the minimal black and silver finishing looks attractive, the lightweight build quality of the speakers and unimaginatively styled main unit are not as impressive as its more expensive rivals. And the rear channels rely on small satellites that limit dynamics and restrict the sound stage. However, any system that offers digital connectivity and integrated video upscaling deserves praise at this price.
The inclusion of HDMI allows you to output both 720p and 1080i near high-definition quality images from standard DVDs, while conventional users can turn to progressive scan-inducing component outputs or an RGB Scart terminal. The system also includes HDAVI control, which means it can communicate with a compatible Panasonic Viera display and allows you to control the entire system from a single remote and adjusts all settings automatically when you turn the system on.
Recording enthusiasts will be attracted by comprehensive disc compatibility that lets you play all DVD recording formats as well as multichannel music DVD-Audio discs. The digital amplifier employs basic Dolby and DTS decoding supported by a wide range of pseudo surround settings and audio enhancements - including an H-Bass function that claims to create deeper low frequency sounds than the speakers' theoretical limits.
Performance is a mixed bag that carries impressive picture quality but disappointing audio ability. Upscaled images are intricately detailed with decent black levels that create solid definition and plenty of perspective while motion is tracked confidently and there's very little picture noise. However, the ineffectual rear channels limit spaciousness and low frequencies struggle to retain composure with challenging soundtracks. It's fine for a smaller sized room but can sound strained if you have more space to fill.
Affordability; video upscaling; recording disc compatibility; interactive features; excellent image quality Minus points
Lightweight build quality; basic features; restricted sound performance
Price: £700 More info: Philips Power rating: 800W Disc formats: DVD, DVD-R/-RW, DVD+R/+RW, CD, CD-R/-RW, SACD, VCD, SVCD, DiVX, JPEG, MPEG, WMA Video outputs: HDMI, component, RGB Scart Decoding: Dolby Digital EX 6.1, Dolby Digital EX, DTS, Dolby Pro Logic II Tuner: FM Upscaling: 720p, 1080i Progressive scan: Yes Size: Main unit: TBCmm Fronts: 32x497x136mm Centre: 32x497x136mm Rears: 32x497x136mm Subwoofer: 300x399x300mm
Philips' HTS9800W may be the most expensive system here but you get a far more substantial set-up with a specification that includes integrated upscaling, advanced surround processing, multichannel music compatibility and a 6.1 speaker system with wireless rear channels.
The large system is overcrowded by components including a separate connector box and a wireless receiver but the sleek, futuristic styling and flexible positioning means it appears surprisingly inconspicuous. The compact main unit can be stood upright or wall mounted and features a slot-loading disc mechanism and attractive touch-screen front panel. Although the unit integrates an HDMI input, all other connections are housed in a separate box that leaves the system slightly disjointed but can be hidden out of sight.
The flat panel speakers are accompanied by tall floor stands for the main front and rear channels. The design features omni-directional Neodymium ribbon tweeters that radiate high frequencies in a 360-degree pattern for a wider sound stage. It's also the only system that uses an additional centre rear channel, which offers greater cohesion between ambient surround effects. All rear channels are so-called wireless models using advanced 2.4Ghz technology that reduces interference compared to typical RF and infrared models. You still have to make limited connections to a wireless receiver but at least you don't have to trawl cables to the other side of the room.
You can play a variety of discs including multichannel SACD (but not DVD-Audio) and standard DVDs can be upscaled to both 720p and 1080i high-definition formats. The amplifier uses a digital design that claims to offer greater clarity with less signal deterioration while integrated decoding includes Dolby Digital EX 6.1 to accommodate the additional speaker.
The system takes a while to set up and configure but performance sets new standards for an all-in-one package. Upscaled images are doused in detail and depth-defining contrast with superbly balanced colours and virtually no distracting digital artifacts.
The sound is equally impressive using seamless steering and expressive subtleties to create a wonderfully enveloping soundstage - especially if you raise the levels of the rear channels. The claimed 800 watts of amplification and powerful subwoofer provide explosive scenes with plenty of impact and there's no distortion even at high volumes. Musical performance can sound slightly muddled with stereo soundtracks but that's not really what this system is about.
Superb styling and flexible positioning; 6.1 speakers with wireless rear channels; advanced surround processing; SACD playback; outstanding picture and sound performance Minus points
Separate connector and wireless boxes; lengthy set up; music performance
Price: £400 More info: Pioneer Power rating: 360W Disc formats: DVD, DVD-R/-RW, DVD+R/+RW, CD, CD-R/-RW, VCD, SVCD, DiVX, JPEG, MPEG, WMA Video outputs: HDMI, component, RGB Scart, S-Video, composite Decoding: Dolby Digital, DTS, Dolby Pro Logic/Pro Logic II Tuner: AM/FM Upscaling: 720p, 1080i Progressive scan: No Size: Main unit: 60x420x330mm Fronts: 1090x260x260mm Centre: 100x270x90mm Rears: 1090x260x260mm Subwoofer: 360x190x320mm
Pioneer's DCS-360 is more ample than most systems you'll find at this price and comes with some useful convergent features that allow you to access a wider range of digital media - a sign of the times.
The generous speaker system includes four floortsanding 'tall-boy' speakers that feature black wood cabinets attractively finished with heavily glossed front panels. These give the set-up a sizeable presence as well as offering greater dynamics and bass extension than smaller satellite models. By contrast, the sleek main unit is surprisingly slimline considering it houses both the disc player and a digital amplifier. Connectivity includes an all-important HDMI input that allows video scaling using 720p and 1080i formats, which complements the latest flat screen displays. However, component inputs are ignored altogether leaving conventional uses to rely on a single RGB Scart terminal. There is also a pair of stereo inputs that can be used to induce surround effects from sources like your TV or set-top box.
Like LG's system there's a USB port that lets you access digital video, music and photo files from a variety of devices including your PC, portable flash memory sticks and media players. You can even view your digital pictures as a slide show accompanied by music.
Disc compatibility is limited to standard DVDs and CDs including recording formats encoded with JPEG, WMA, MP3 and high compression DivX video files, which can store an entire film on a single CD. And onboard decoding is similarly basic using vanilla Dolby Digital, DTS and Dolby Pro Logic processing. The system is incredibly easy to set up using colour-coded speaker terminals, a thoughtfully arranged remote and functional menu system.
You'll need a compatibly connected digital display to get the most from this system as upscaled images using HDMI are far superior to those using the analogue Scart connection. We found that using upconverted 720p signals produces the finest performance with excellent detail and more cohesive movement than alternative 1080i upscaling.
Colours are beautifully balanced and all but the most complex scenes are untroubled by background noise. Sound performance is less inspiring with ambient effects occasionally sounding confused and overexaggerated. However, there's plenty of detail and natural expression in the midrange and despite the relatively low power rating there's easily enough oomph to fill most rooms.
Stylish full-size design; convergent USB connectivity; easy operation; great 720p upscaled images
No component outputs; confused surround effects
As with so many things, there's a direct relationship between cost and quality, and the more you spend, the better the features and performance. Philips' HTS9800W is relatively pricey but the future-proofed specification, additional wireless speakers and superb picture and sound performance make it the class-leading system of its type. And we're still not talking a lot of money for an impressive all-in-one surround system.
If you want your system to include the ability to record then LG's LHRH7601A gives you the versatility of a hybrid recorder and a host of extra features including convergent connectivity. Pioneer's DCS-360 may only have comparatively basic functions but it delivers a better all-round performance and is reasonably priced for a full-sized set-up. Panasonic's SC-HT855 sound quality is restricted by the small, lightweight speakers but the upscaled image quality is excellent value for money.
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James Wilson 2
Posted: 08/01/07 21:45:20 20
I have just purchased a Toshiba 32WLT66 TV and a Philips HTS/3115 Home Cinema System. The surround sound when playing DVD's is fantastic, the AM/FM tuner plays clearly through the Philips system but I get no sound from the Surround sound when I select the TV function. I have a HDMI connection from the tv to the cinema system and have also added phono cables today with no success. Any advice would be much appreciated