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If you’re holding off buying AV equipment in the vague hope that prices are going to settle down, it just ‘aint gonna happen! The right time to buy is now, it always has been. The cost of AV technology has been on a downward spiral since the late 1960s, and it shows no sign of slowing down. As fast as prices fall, so the performance, specification and reliability of audio and video systems improves, and you can forget any ideas about future-proof technology, there’s no such thing. There are bargains to be had right now, the proof is out there...



There are many ways of recreating the cinema experience in your own home but surround sound TVs are definitely the most convenient. There’s no need to fuss around with amplifiers and decoders, just plonk a couple of extra speakers behind, or to the side of the viewing position; it couldn’t be easier.  And if that sounds complicated, some sets have cordless speakers -- no trailing wires to trip over -- and others that produce a surround effect using just the TVs own built-in speakers, (though they’re not as dramatic as full multi-speaker systems).


They needn’t be expensive either, some surround sound TVs are only a little dearer than conventional stereo sets with the same screen size, though there’s nothing to stop you spending several thousand pounds on monster screen models, with all the trimmings. If you’re in the market for a new TV this could be the excuse you’ve been waiting for.



Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, bigger is better, especially when it comes to television screens. Large screen TVs used to be considered a luxury but if you take your home cinema viewing pleasures seriously, they’re essential. These days you don’t have to spend a fortune; TVs with screens 28-inches and above cost only marginally more than traditional living room sets, but if you’ve got the room -- and reasonably deep pockets -- there’s virtually no limits with the latest generation of rear and front projection models. Just think of all the popcorn you can buy with the money you’ll save on cinema tickets...



If you’re determined to take home cinema to the limits then you have to consider getting a widescreen set. One day soon all TVs will have 16:9 widescreen displays but why wait, there’s plenty of outstanding sets on the market right now. True, there’s not much in the way of widescreen TV broadcasts at the moment but satellite and terrestrial TV channels are showing plenty of letterboxed movies and TV programmes, that are just crying out for the widescreen treatment, and there’s lots of movies on tape and disc, that benefit from being shown in all their glory. Even normal 4:3 TV programmes look better when blown up to fill a widescreen display, and the latest models can expand the picture, without adversely cropping the top and bottom of the picture. Widescreen TVs are upgradable too, so you’ll be well placed to take advantage of the digital TV revolution, whenever that might be.



The heart of every home entertainment system is the VCR, for the simple reason that tape is the most abundant source of Dolby-encoded surround-sound material, moreover, it’s a quick and simple way to upgrade to stereo TV sound, if you’re stuck with an older set. The price of NICAM stereo VCRs has plummeted in the past couple of years, to the point where some budget models are actually cheaper than top-end mono VCRs, but you do get what you pay for. Whilst some bargain basement models are quite good, there is often a perceptible trade-off of price against performance or facilities, or both, so it’s worth spending a little extra. However, with good mid-range machines now selling for less than £400, AV excellence is an affordable luxury. If you can dig a little deeper, top-end machines have much to offer, including better picture quality and a host of convenience features, to make home cinema even more enjoyable.



You can forget all this talk of digital satellite television, for the time being at least; the fact is right now there are more than 200 analogue channels beaming into your backyard from satellites orbiting 36,000 km above the earth. Okay, so a lot of those channels are in a foreign language, and if you think our four terrestrial channels (maybe five by the time you read this), are bad, you should see what they have to put up with in other countries... Even so there’s still several dozen channels that are worth watching, particularly if you’ve got a surround-sound set-up. A high proportion of the hundreds of films shown on the BSKYB movie channels each month have Dolby Stereo soundtracks, plus there’s plenty of TV programmes in surround sound, from The Simpsons to Star Trek, on the general entertainment channels. Digital is coming and who knows, one day it might be worth having, but while you’re waiting check out what’s already available!



For serious home cinema buffs nothing less than the superb picture and sound quality of laserdisc will do. The format’s future may be uncertain -- DVD is coming  -- but it’s certainly not going to disappear overnight, and there’s still hundreds of movies out there, including a steady supply of new ones, some of them with THX and AC-3 soundtracks.



If you’re planning a home cinema system from the ground up then an AV amplifier is a very good place to start. They’re a very convenient blend of technologies, with a Dolby Pro Logic decoder, multi-channel power amplifier and possibly a AM/FM tuner as well, all in one box. Just add your own speakers, or one of the many AV speaker packages now on the market, and connect it up to the source components of your choice. AV amplifier/receivers are one of the most popular upgrades, with good reason. Apart from the flexibility of being able to integrate with existing audio and video components, they’re the first big step on the performance ladder. With fewer restrictions on price and size -- compared with most one-box solutions  -- manufacturers are able to build in more powerful amplifiers and better specified DPL decoders, that can be used with high performance speakers, to deliver a more dramatic and involving effect.



AV decoders are the way to home cinema heaven. For the very best surround sound performance separate components are the only logical choice, and it all begins with the decoder. Stand-alone processors are usually designed without compromise and that’s reflected in the price, one model costs more than £3000! However, for most people the main reason for buying a separate decoder is to upgrade an existing hi-fi system, without having to replace a treasured amplifier. The decoder simply becomes another source component, some of them have on-board amplification for the centre and surround channels, so there’s no need to disrupt the rest of the system.



It really doesn’t matter if you’ve just spent several thousand pounds on surround sound equipment, if you’re planning to pipe it through cheapo speakers salvaged from redundant hi-fi systems, it could all go horribly wrong. From a broad technical standpoint most home cinema speakers are not that different to regular hi-fi speakers, but they are designed to do a particular job, that has specific requirements. Centre-channel speakers are a case in point. To begin with they should be magnetically shielded, to avoid colour staining on the TV screen. Magnetic shielding is also a consideration on the main stereo right and left  channel speakers, that may also be placed close to a TV. It helps if they produce a wider, more diffuse soundstage, so the surround effect is not confined to one small ‘sweet’ spot. Rear channel speakers have fewer constraints but again the optimum shape of the soundfield is different to a normal stereo hi-fi set-up. 


Home cinema is heavily reliant on large quantities of bass, that conventional hi-fi speakers have difficulty in delivering. Hence the need for one or more powerful sub-woofers. Many subs have their own built-in amplifiers, to increase their impact, and relieve the strain on the main amplifier.



Mini hi-fi systems with built-in Dolby Pro Logic decoders are the undisputed Jacks of all trades of the home entertainment market. They’re cost effective too, combining the convenience of a complete one-box surround-sound package system and the versatility of a component hi-fi -- including CD, tape and tuner -- with the flexibility of separate speakers.



Camcorders have just gone digital; the latest DVC machines deliver near broadcast quality picture and sound, and they fit in your coat pocket.  At the other end of the scale inexpensive family camcorders have everything you need to make interesting and watchable video-movies, some of them can even help you chop out the dull bits.



Ó R. Maybury 1996 0412












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