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HOME CINEMA, THE EASY WAY...

 

If you think stereo sound on TV is a neat idea, wait until you’ve tried home cinema! Imagine the Batmobile screaming across the room, big Arnie blasting away behind the sofa, or a Tomcat fighter aircraft whizzing over your head, with sound effects so realistic you duck for cover! Large screen TVs with powerful sound systems have been around for years, but only recently has it become possible to authentically recreate the experience of watching a movie at the cinema, in your own living room, without spending a small fortune (though you can still do that, if you wish...).

 

The key developments, that have made all this possible, has been the coming together of video and audio technologies, and the availability of films with Dolby Surround soundtracks on tape, disc and broadcast, from land-based transmitters or satellites. The coded information contained within many recent film soundtracks is the same as that used to generate the exciting multi-channel audio effects you hear in movie theatres.

 

You don’t need a lot of expensive equipment, in fact you may already have the basic components, if you’ve got a stereo VCR or NICAM TV. Maybe you’ve decided to upgrade your television, hi-fi or satellite receiver in the near future, if so you can put your own home cinema system together for only a few pounds more than you would have normally spent.

 

However, the simplest approach is to go for a so-called ‘one-box’ solution, with a TV that has a built-in Dolby Pro-Logic (DPL) decoder. There’s at least a couple of dozen sets on the market with this facility, made by Ferguson JVC, Hitachi, Sony, Nokia, Grundig, Panasonic, Philips, and Toshiba, to name just a few. Prices start at under £600, for a 25-inch model, though most are in the £800 to £1000 price bracket. They all come with the necessary extra surround-sound speakers, that are placed behind the viewing position. If you don’t fancy the idea of extra boxes and cables JVC have a range of ‘3D Symphonix’ sets, that generate surround-sound effects from the TV’s own speakers.

 

The alternative is to stick with your present TV and upgrade your hi-fi with a Dolby Pro-Logic decoder, or better still, get a DPL-equipped system and use it as the centrepiece of an integrated home entertainment set-up. The cheapest ones cost just under £400, for a mini hi-fi, complete with the extra speakers, as well as CD player, twin cassette decks and AM/FM tuner. Aiwa, Sanyo and Sony have well-specified budget systems, most other manufacturer’s outfits start at around £500, though the sky’s the limit and if you’re really determined you could spend easily several thousand pounds on a top-end system.

 

If you’re happy with your hi-fi speakers and audio components, there are several stand-alone DPL decoders to choose from, though you may need another amplifier to drive the extra speakers. There are also a couple of satellite receivers with on-board DPL decoders, made by Amstrad and Pace, that are worth considering (both sell for £400), however, if you want both power and performance go for a purpose-designed AV amplifier. In addition to the Dolby decoder and extra sound channels many of them have digital sound processors (DSP), that create a variety of interesting surround sound effects from normal stereo sources.

 

Most surround sound upgrades involve buying extra speakers. Whilst it’s possible to use ordinary speakers for the rear-effects channels, care needs to be taken when choosing a speaker for the centre-front channel. This mostly carries dialogue, and it should be placed as close as possible to the TV. Unfortunately speaker magnets can cause colour ‘staining’ on the screen, if they’re too near, so it’s necessary to use a magnetically-shielded speaker, which can be brought separately, or as part of a home cinema speaker package. Again there’s a broad spread of prices, from a couple of hundred pounds, to £5000 or more. While we’re on the subject, it’s worth adding a sub-woofer to any surround sound system. This is a large speaker specifically designed to handle low-frequency bass notes. It can be hidden out of sight, behind furniture as bass sound is non-directional. They really earn their keep if you’re into action blockbusters which generally have a lot gut-rumbling effects, that really add to the drama.

 

If you want to do the job properly think about a widescreen TV, though it has to be said there’s not a lot of widescreen software to watch on them right now. Lottery winners and the filthy rich, with between £3000 and £10,000 to spend, may also like to consider video projectors, which can throw up images up to 100-inches across though don’t forget to add on the cost of the building work, needed to extend your home...

 

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CONNECTIONS

Some people are put off setting up a home cinema system by the thought of all the wiring, needed to link the components together. It is getting easier, integrated systems and home cinema TVs usually come with all the necessary AV and speaker leads but some extra cabling is usually still required.

 

Most TVs, video recorders and satellite receivers are fitted with SCART sockets, they’re used to carry video and stereo audio signals between the various pieces of equipment. SCART leads are relatively inexpensive -- about £5.00 upwards -- and one or two are normally all that’s needed. In a basic set-up one of the TV’s SCART sockets is used to connect it to the VCR; if there’s a satellite receiver in the system, this plugs into the VCR’s second SCART socket, if it has one. If not a 2-way SCART adaptor can be used to make the connections.

 

Systems with the surround sound decoder in the hi-fi need an audio-only connection between the VCR (and satellite receiver) and the AV amplifier. Virtually all stereo VCRs have stereo line-audio output sockets on the back for this purpose. These go to the AV amplifier’s auxiliary input, though nowadays the majority of systems have separate inputs, designated for video recorders and other AV source components.

 

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VIDEO DISC

Whilst pre-recorded tapes and movies or programmes shown on broadcast TV can look and sound very good, home cinema purists invariably prefer the superior performance of Laser Discs. Currently this is the closest it’s possible to get to the picture and sound quality of the original movie, and one of the few sources of widescreen format material.  

 

Unfortunately for British aficionados the selection of movies on laser disc, mastered for the European PAL colour TV system, is nowhere near as extensive as that in other countries, notably the US, where the format has been reasonably successful. Nevertheless there is still a fairly good choice of software, some of it imported. Equipment from the leading manufacturers -- Pioneer, Philips and Sony -- sold in the UK can replay discs encoded for the NTSC colour system, on recent PAL standard TVs.    

 

CD-sized laser discs are likely to become the main carrier for movies in the future, indeed they’re already available for use with the Philips CD-i system, though as yet picture quality is little better than VHS. The next generation of digital video discs (DVD) promise even sharper pictures, though the technology is still under development and format rivalry means it will be several years before players, and discs are available.

 

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Ó R. Maybury 1995 1807

 

 

 

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