HOME ENTERTAINMENT 96

 BootLog.co.uk

HomeSoftwareArchiveTop TipsGlossaryOther Stuff

GROUP TEST

 

MINI AV SYSTEMS 

 

HEAD

SURROUND BY MINIS

 

INTRO

Rick Maybury looks at five new mini-hi systems, with home cinema aspirations

 

COPY

Mini hi-fi systems have finally shaken off their unfortunate music-centre image, theyíre almost respectable now and manufacturers are beginning to focus their attention on the home cinema market. A suitably-equipped mini is the ideal platform for a fully integrated home entertainment system. In addition to the usual compliment of CD player, AM/FM tuner, twin cassette decks, digital signal processors and battery of winky lights, a growing number of systems are now sporting surround-sound decoders and come packaged with a full set of speakers.

 

Building a home cinema system based around a mini hi-fi has several advantages. Firstly itís a quick and easy way to upgrade, itís cost-effective too, thereís no need to replace the TV or VCR. If your present hi-fi still has some life left in it, give it to the  kids or retire it to a bedroom; if it is a good system then put it in another room, where it wonít have to compete with the TV. Miniís donít take up much room, theyíre simple to use, and one remote control works everything.

 

Performance varies a lot and itís clear that a lot of systems are biased either towards home cinema or audio applications. Itís a good idea to decide what youíre going to use it for, before you buy; hereís five new systems that are fairly typical of whatís available.

 

REVIEWS

 

AIWA NSX-AV90, £500

The NSX-AV90 is an upgrade of the NSX-V90, one of last yearís top-rated DPL mini systems. This new version has increased power outputs, an RDS tuner and redesigned speakers. The general spec and configuration remains the same though. The one-box stack is topped by a 3-CD auto changer, below that thereís a 3-band tuner with 32 station presets and twin auto-reverse tape decks. Audio facilities include a 3-mode digital sound processor (disc, live and hall effects), three mode graphic equaliser (rock, pop, classic) and three stages of bass enhancement. Aiwa are clearly very pleased with the tunerís RDS facility, it gets as much coverage in the instruction book as Dolby Pro-Logic operation and Karaoke functions, which underlines the systemís slightly gadget-heavy feel.

 

The cosmetics are largely unchanged from the V90; itís still a bit flashy, with a few too many winking lights, and the controls are cluttered, especially on the remote handset. It goes together easily enough, though the captive leads on the right and left channel speakers could do with being a little longer.

 

The rear channel on the V90 was underpowered, so the power increase on the AV90, from 18 to 25 watts should, in theory, make a difference. However, the power outputs on the front stereo and centre channels have gone up as well, from 60 to 100 watts, and 18 to 25 watts respectively. The net result is a punchier sound, but the back channel is still left struggling to keep up. The new speakers have a meatier bass, though they only get into their stride on non-Dolby material, with the volume turned up. DPL resolution is generally good and the power increases have benefited the centre channel. This now sounds noticeably crisper with more impact, compared with its predecessor.

 

The NSX-V90 was good system and the AV90 is a little better, but simply bumping up the power and adding to odd extra bell and whistle may not be enough to maintain Aiwaís lead in this increasingly competitive sector of the market for much longer. 

 

AIWA NSX-AV90, £500

Features            3-mode Dolby Pro-Logic, 3-mode DSP, 3-mode preset equaliser, 3-mode BBE, clock/timer

Components            3-CD autochanger, twin auto-reverse cassette deck, 3-band RDS tuner

Speakers            2 x front stereo, 2 x rear surround, centre front

 

Sound quality            ***     

Features                     ****

Ease of use                 ****

Build quality               ***

Overall                        ****

 

Aiwa UK., telephone 0181-897 7000

 

 

KENWOOD UD-505, £50

One-box mini systems pretending to look like a stack of separate components probably donít fool anyone anymore, but the point is somewhat laboured on the UD-505 which has no less than three strategically placed Kenwood logos on the divided front panels. Thereís one on the 3-CD autochanger, at the top of the pile, another on the amplifier/3-band RDS tuner section in the middle; the third one is on the twin auto-reverse cassette decks at the bottom. Iffy cosmetics aside the system is reasonably well featured. The amplifier is rated at 58 watts RMS per channel for the right and left channels, 12 watts goes to the centre speaker, and 2 x 10 watts for the rear effects channel.

 

Additional facilities include a 6-mode equaliser, SRS (Sound Retrieval System) 3-D sound and karaoke voice cancellation. Control layout is a little haphazard in places and the NB (natural bass) button is partially obscured by the lumpy fascia and quite difficult to get at. The display panel looks a little untidy, there are far too many symbols. The CD autochanger is sluggish but otherwise itís reasonably easy to drive.

 

The centre channel could do with a bit more power; driven hard it can sound busy and thereís a little bleed through from the other channels. Bass output is quite modest and the top-end can appear shrill at times; everything tends to flatten out at higher volume settings though this can overwhelm the centre channel. Rear channel output is fairly lightweight and the small speakers need to be quite close to the listening position to be of any use. The SRS system produces a big fat sound with lots of mid-range detail; itís an interesting alternative for puffing up non-Dolby material, and a lot less clinical than most DSP pseudo-surround modes.

 

DPL performance is fair to middling -- it helps if you and the neighbours donít mind louder volume settings -- and the range of features makes it quite good value for money, particularly if youíre a big RDS fan, but it lacks sparkle and the other source components are rather average.

 

KENWOOD UD-505, £500

Features            3-mode Dolby Pro-Logic, auto power save, SRS 3-D sound, Karaoke mike mixer, clock/timer

Components            3-CD autochanger, twin auto-reverse cassette decks, 3-band RDS tuner

Speakers            2 x front stereo, 2 x rear surround, centre front

 

Sound quality            ***

Features                     ***

Ease of use                 ***

Build quality               ***

Overall                        ***

 

Kenwood Electronics UK., (01923) 816444

 

PHILIPS FW-672P, £600

Until now Philipsís involvement with home cinema has centred on their range of large-screen TV and video products; now theyíve decided to tackle the audio side head on with the FW-672P, their first DPL mini hi-fi system. Theyíve stuck to a tried and tested formula with a mini-sized box full of AV components, though the CD autochanger is unusual as it can hold 7 discs, and the 3-band tuner has an RDS facility. Philips have done their homework and concluded, quite rightly, that a lot of people are put off surround sound and home cinema by the prospect of installing and a system with five speakers. To make things easier all of the cables and speaker terminals are colour-coded, and the DPL processor has an install mode, with the front panel display generating messages and instructions to help the user through the set-up procedure and adjusting levels. 

 

Lack of power on the effects channels is another common complaint, Philips have sought to address this one by matching the outputs on the right, left and centre front channels at 65 watts apiece, and running 35 watts (2 x 17.5 watts) to the rear speakers. For non Dolby coded material thereís Philipís Incredible Sound effect, which produces a wide stereo soundstage. A five mode equaliser has presets for various types of source material and thereís a four stage bass booster. The front panel display is a bit gaudy with a pointless (though quite entertaining) spectrum analyser, but the legends for some operating modes, including Dolby Pro Logic, are so small as to be almost invisible across a typical living room.

 

The powerful centre-front channel is a mixed blessing; it can sound confused at times, with information from the stereo channels mixing in at higher volume settings. The rear channel is very punchy though, and effects are cleanly resolved. Bass response is limited and big effects lack drama. The CD and tape decks work well, the Incredible Sound effect livens up stereo material though stereo imaging can be confused.

 

Philips have struck a fair balance between features, performance and price; the simple, unthreatening  design should certainly appeal to those concerned about the apparent complexities of home cinema.

 

PHILIPS FW-672P, £600

Features            3-mode Dolby Pro-Logic, ĎMagic Menuí interface, 7-band equaliser, 4-mode DSP, Incredible Sound, clock/timer

Components            7-CD autochanger, twin auto-reverse cassette deck, 3-band RDS tuner

Speakers            2 x front stereo, 2 x rear surround, centre front

 

Sound quality            ****

Features                     ****

Ease of use                 ****

Build quality               ****

Overall                        ****

 

Philips Consumer Electronics., telephone 0181-689 4444

 

 

SHARP CD-C570E £280

This is the only system in this round-up not to have Dolby Pro-Logic, instead it has a SRS (sound retrieval system) processor that generates a three-dimensional surround-sound effect through two speakers. SRS uses selective filtering, amplification and a decoder matrix to extract sum and difference signals from the two stereo channels, that give the listener extra directional cues and spatial information. The system also includes a 3-CD autochanger, 3-band tuner and twin cassette deck, only one of which has an auto-reverse mechanism. The amplifier is rated at 50 watts RMS per channel; it has a 5-mode pre-programmed equaliser and two-stage bass boost.

 

Installation is clearly a lot simpler than a full-blown DPL system, with only two speakers to connect. The control layout takes some getting used to and the CD and tape decks share a common set of transport keys. The volume control is an unusual design, that looks like a normal rotary knob but is in fact a disguised up/down switch, that makes rapid adjustment almost impossible. The CD loading mechanism makes a lot of noise, and it is quite slow.

 

SRS is can be surprisingly effective. It seems to work better with higher frequency sounds, some of them can appear to be coming from the sides, and other effects are very clearly pin-pointed within the soundstage. Speech is clearly positioned at the centre, however where thereís a mixture of frequencies effects can become muddled. It can be quite choppy at times too,  and occasionally an effect or sound will suddenly disappear and reappear at a slightly different location. Sharp claim SRS eliminates any Ďsweet spotsí and whilst thatís largely true, the shape of the soundfield does vary with head movement. The bass doesnít really get going but treble and mid-range are smooth.

 

There is no substitute for multi-channel surround sound in a home cinema system. The CD-570 is first and foremost a mini hi-fi system. The CD, tape and tuner are quite good for what is after all a budget system, and SRS provides interesting alternative for those unable or unwilling to go the DPL route

 

SHARP CD-C570E £280

Features            5-mode SRS 3-D sound, 2-mode extended bass, 5-mode pre-set equaliser, clock/timer     

Components            3-CD autochanger, twin cassette deck, 3-band tuner

Speakers            2 x front stereo

 

Sound quality            ***     

Features                     ***

Ease of use                 ****

Build quality               ***

Overall                        ***

 

Sharp UK Ltd., telephone 0161-205 2333

 

 

TECHNICS SC-CH570, £500

This seems to be something of a toe in the water exercise for Technics, anxious not appear to be jumping on the home cinema bandwagon, though at the same time unwilling to miss out on this important new market. The system is based around four mini-sized components, reaffirming the Technics belief that separates deliver a better sound, compared with systems where everything is clustered together in a single box. This approach is also a lot more flexible and the boxes can be arranged horizontally, or stacked, as space permits.

 

The single disc CD deck, twin auto-reverse cassette, and 2-band tuner are connected together using three ribbon cables, which adds slightly to installation time but the control systems are fully integrated and itís no more difficult to use than a one-box unit. The rear channels speakers are small pod-like modules, there appears to be no easy way to mount them on a wall but they do come with an unusually generous length of cable. The main display is quite discrete but the volume setting is shown in decibels, which might impress the neighbours but seems a tad pretentious.

 

Treble and mid-range are richly detailed on Dolby source material, the centre channel is a little leaky at lower volume settings but effects are sharply resolved. The back channel speakers could do with being a little bigger, and location is quite critical. Overall the bass is weak and somewhat uninvolving, especially on busy blockbuster soundtracks. On the other hand normal stereo hi-fi performance is excellent; the CD is particularly crisp, the tape decks sound good too, and thereís a better than average assortment of CD and tape to tape dubbing facilities.  

 

Technics have approached home cinema with a certain amount of caution. Rather than jump in at the deep end with a DPL system theyíve designed a package that will not alienate their loyal fans seeking hi-fi performance and flexibility first, with home cinema features second. Itís a solid little system with few superfluous gadgets or gimmicks; build quality is good and the price seems fair.

 

TECHNICS SC-CH570, £500

Features            3-mode Dolby Pro-Logic, karaoke voice mute, 3-mode equaliser, bass boost, clock/timer

Components            twin auto-reverse cassette deck, CD deck, AM/FM tuner, AV amp/DPL processor

Speakers             2 x front stereo, 2 x rear surround, centre-front

 

Sound quality            ****

Features                     ***

Ease of use                 ***

Build quality               ****

Overall                        ****

 

Technics, Telephone (01344) 862444

 

BOX COPY 1

THE COMPETITION

The Dolby Pro-Logic mini systems launched in the past year have been a pretty mixed bunch. At one extreme there was a stack of separate components from Onkyo that sold for the best part of £1400; lots of features and the individual components were well specified, but somehow the system didnít gel and the overall result was  disappointing, we awarded it 55%, (the equivalent of two to three stars on our current rating system) The Akai TX-700 proves you donít have to spend a fortune to get good sounds. This £500 system is built around components that have been designed to work effectively together. True, it could have done with a little more bass and the rear channel was underpowered but it sounded lively and effects were well defined, it earned our respect and a very creditable 90% or four stars. The Sony MHC-991AV also did well, we gave this system 4 stars. It bucked the trend on a couple of counts by having a half decent bass response and lots of useful facilities.

 

The Akai and Sony systems are definitely worth shortlisting, along with the Philips, Technics systems weíve just been looking at. The Aiwa and Kenwood minis are still worth considering though theyíre not so instantly appealing. The Sharp CD-C570 is really only of interest if you absolutely definitely canít run to a full 5-speaker DPL system.  

 

BOX COPY 2

WATTS THE DIFFERENCE?

Movie-makers tend to use the rear surround channel on Dolby Stereo encoded films quite sparingly, for ambient or incidental sounds, and the occasional dramatic effect. However, whilst small back speakers, running a relatively low power levels can cope easily with background noises, they can sound rather thin when it comes to more dynamic sounds -- explosions, gunfire, screams etc. Surround effects are normally heard through a pair of speakers, to dissipate the sound, but it is a single channel; check whether the output figure is for each speaker, or the combined power. In short, as far as rear-channel speakers and output powers are concerned, the bigger the better.

 

Centre front channels on DPL systems are often underpowered as well. Ideally the power output should be similar to the right and left stereo channels, so it doesnít get swamped at louder volume settings.

 

Itís pointless talking about watts per-se, speaker sensitivity and design has as much if not a greater influence on sound output, but itís fair to say that on most package systems piddly little speakers are not going to perform as well as larger enclosures.

 

---end---

” R. Maybury 1996 1907

 

 

 

[Home][Software][Archive][Top Tips][Glossary][Other Stuff]


Copyright (c) 2005 Rick Maybury Ltd.

admin@rickmaybury.com