HINTS AND TIPS SPECIAL -- PART 2
WHY BUY ALL IN ONE?
Until fairly recently you needed
money, commitment and a certain amount of ingenuity to install a home cinema
system in your living room. That all changed with the arrival of ‘one-box’
solutions, the box in question being the shipping carton, not the contents....
One-box systems are the way
to go if you’re willing and able to start from scratch, or don’t want the
bother of integrating components from different manufacturers. They’re not
necessarily any cheaper, but it’s usually possible to get one of these systems
up and running in an hour or two, they usually work first time, and in most
cases they’re easy to use.
The market is split into
two very distinct segments, surround sound TVs, and AV hi-fi systems. The key
features in both cases are the Dolby Surround decoder and a set of speakers, so
they’re ready to run with minimum fuss. These days the Dolby decoder is likely
to be a Pro-Logic type which resolves four audio channels (right, left, centre-dialogue
and rear surround), contained within the stereo soundtracks of many feature
films made in the last eighteen years, plus a growing number of TV programmes.
Surround-sound TVs make
sense if you’re already in the market for a new television, and you want to
keep your hi-fi separate from the TV and VCR. The trade-offs with this approach
are flexibility, and to some extent, performance. Most Dolby Pro-Logic sets
have small speakers, they’re mostly built in to the front or sides of the cabinet
but a few have detachable enclosures, which are better. The rear channel
speakers supplied with these sets also tend to be rather basic, though it doesn’t
matter quite as much. Thankfully most Pro Logic sets have external speaker
connections and/or line-audio outputs, so they can be used to drive larger, better
designed speakers, either directly, or via a hi-fi system, though that rather
defeats the object...
Price is another consideration.
The cheapest Dolby Pro Logic TV we’ve seen so far is a 25-inch model costing £650,
sold through one of the large high-street multiples. However, most model ranges
start at around £750 for baseline 25-inchers. In our opinion you really need a
larger screen to get the most from surround sound, 28-inches or more. Needless
to say this bumps up the price and you won’t see much change from £900, though
we would expect to pay between £1000 and £1,200 for one that’s really worth
watching, and listening to.
Pro-Logic AV Hi-fis suit
those who already have a good-sized TV, and want the convenience of a fully
integrated home entertainment system. Flexibility is the main selling points. From
the wide range of systems now available you can choose to have as many, or as
few facilities as you want. Basic systems come with the standard assortment of
mini or midi-sized components, i.e. tuner, twin-cassette deck, CD player plus
the all-important amplifier and Pro-Logic decoder, but it’s usually possible to
mix and match other components from the same manufacturer, which might include
better sounding speakers, more advanced tape and CD decks, more powerful and/or
more elaborate amplifiers, digital signal processors, graphic equalisers, plus
other AV devices, such as laserdisc and Video CD players. You could even go to
the extreme of getting the VCR and TV all from the same manufacturer though there’s
little advantage in doing this; it may be possible to work everything from just
one remote control handset, but don’t bank on it!
The disadvantage with this
sort of system integration is that it can only be used for one thing at a time;
for example, if you want to listen to some music and the rest of the family want
to watch TV someone is going to be disappointed. The speakers supplied with
these systems can be of indifferent quality, though it may be possible to
upgrade or replace them at the time of purchase relatively cheaply. Price isn’t
necessarily an issue, most of these systems cost a couple of hundred pounds
more than similarly-specified packages, without the surround sound decoder and extra speakers; that’s roughly
what you would expect to pay for these facilities if brought separately. The
cheapest Pro-Logic AV systems start at around £700, systems with simpler 3-channel
Dolby Surround processors are available for around £500 but it’s well worth paying
the extra for Pro Logic. However, the sky’s the limit and you could easily part
with a couple of thousand pounds or more without blinking, and we won’t even
begin to consider the cost of a THX system...
Pro Logic TV and AV systems
have only been around for a couple of years and they’re proving very popular,
but as with any new technology there are pitfalls to be wary of. Several
systems we’ve seen have clearly been cobbled together rather hastily with
little or no regard for future expansion. In one or two cases there’s only been
a cursory nod towards system integration, and you can still end up with two or
three remote control handsets. We’re also seeing a number of ‘interesting’ new
ideas, including combined speakers, with all of the surround channels emanating
from one box, motorised speakers and elaborate digital processors. At this very
early stage of the game we would advise caution, and remind you about all the
other good ideas we no longer hear anything about.
There’s little or no point
waiting for the market to settle down, it never will, the only thing we can say
for certain is that this is an open-ended technology. However, we have had a
glimpse of the future, and we can tell you right now these will be the good old
Audio and video are
converging along their respective digital pathways and sooner or later they will
merge with the much-hyped ‘information superhighway’. Video and audio ‘on
demand’ is one very likely outcome. Instead of passively receiving broadcast
media we will be able to select what we want to see and hear from entertainment
and information providers, who will pipe it into our homes via telephone lines
or maybe fibre-optic cables. The home entertainment console of the future will be
a simple box to which you can connect video screens, speakers, and a keyboard. We
reckon it will need two links to the outside world, one to the digital network,
the other to your bank account!
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
* Has the system been designed as a single integrated
entity, or is it simply a collection matching components? Look around the back
for the answer to that one...
* The stereo speakers supplied with AV systems and surround TVs
often look quite good but they’re often the weakest link in the chain, let your
ears, not your eyes be the judge of that.
* Are there enough inputs, you might only have a VCR and
satellite tuner now, but can the system or TV cope with a laser disc payer,
Video CD deck, video game, camcorder etc. etc. as well?
* If you can’t afford all of the components you want at once
make sure the system can be easily upgraded.
* Ask about backwards and forwards compatibility, so you’re
not forced to buy extra components immediately, before the model range is
* How easy is it to use? Can everything be controlled from
one unified remote handset, or are you going to have to live with a coffee
table full of button boxes?
* Does it come with a full set of surround speakers, or are
they hidden extras?
* Is the centre-front channel speaker magnetically shielded?
If not it may cause colour staining on the TV screen.
* Watch out for phoney stacks, if the manufacturers are
trying to kid you into thinking it’s a pile of separate boxes, what other cons
are they trying to pull?
* Do you really need all those knobs, buttons and winking
lights. They might look great in the showroom but you’re going to have to look
NTSC-compatible laserdisc/CD player, tuner, turntable, five speakers
Best points A
solid, reliable performer, and the excellent laser disc player broadens this
systems appeal considerably; vinyl fans won’t be disappointed either. A good
all-round specification with better than usual audio facilities
Worst points It’s
big! The main stereo speakers could be better, they certainly don’t do justice
to the rest of the system. System integration is also suspect with some
facilities not accessible from the remote
Value for money 65%
cassette deck, CD, tuner, twin ‘panoramic’ speakers
Best points The
all in one speakers make installation a doddle and the ‘Panorama’ effect is
definitely interesting. All of the components are made to a very high standard,
and under ideal conditions it produces a pleasing sound
Worst points All
in one speakers produce a very confined surround sound image and the short multi-way
cables restricts placement. The controls take some getting used to and there’s a
few too many unnecessary gadgets
Value for money 75%
cassette deck, 3-disc CD autochanger, tuner, 4-speakers
Best points A competent
and reasonably priced system with several unusual and entertaining features. The
CD autochanger is great for party animals, it performs reasonably well and from
a distance it looks okay
Worst points The
sound might be a tad thin for serious music buffs, though it’s fine for AV
material, the tape deck could be better and the fake four-box cosmetics are a
Value for money 85%
cassette deck, CD player, tuner, 2 multi-way speakers
Best points A
really classy system, and the futuristic-looking electrostatic tweeters earn
their keep. Equally at home with music or AV material, a powerful, detailed and
involving sound that brings movies alive
Worst points Ouch!
£1500 seems like a lot to pay, even for a system as technically advanced as
this one. We’re not convinced all of the digital signal processing is necessary
and the mains-powered speakers can make positioning difficult.
Value for money 85%
cassette deck, CD, tuner. 4-speakers
Best points Stylish
and imposing 4-box stack with eye-catching power amplifier. complete with
dancing moving-coil meters. It’s very well appointed with top-grade CD and tape
decks and large, half-decent speakers.
Worst points All
said and done the fancy meters are a bit of a gimmick and the styling appears a
little haphazard. The centre-front speaker is an optional extra, costing another
Value for money 90%