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HOW TO BUY HOME CINEMA GEAR

 

BUYING A TV

Mr and Mrs average Briton spends five hours a day staring at the box, that’s the equivalent of 76 days each year, so if you’re in the market for a new TV, make sure you get a good one!

 

* Get the biggest screen you can afford and comfortably fit into your living room. Aim for at least 25/26-inches, nothing less than 28-inches will do if you’re interested in home cinema

 

* Now is a good time to start thinking about widescreen TV, with digital television and DVD just around the corner. Don’t bother with anything under 28-inches or normal 4:3 pictures will look very small

 

* TVs with built-in Dolby Pro Logic processors are the quickest and simplest way into home cinema, though check out the alternatives, if you want the best performance

 

* NICAM stereo is essential, unless you -- and everyone else likely to watch it -- are deaf in one ear! Stereo TVs with detachable speakers, or provision for external speakers, usually have the best sound

 

* Stereo TVs with loudspeakers mounted on the sides of the cabinet generally producer a wider image than those with speakers beneath the screen

 

* Try before you buy, note how the screen handles reflections from overhead lighting. Flatter screens normally produce fewer annoying reflections

 

* At least one SCART AV socket is vital, two will make it easier to add extra components like satellite receivers, laserdisc and DVD players in the future. Front AV sockets are useful if you have a camcorder or video games console

 

BUYING A VCR

You can still buy mono VCRs but why bother, when home cinema quality NICAM machines are now so cheap?

 

* Spending a few pounds more by trading up from a basic machine to a mid-market model is generally worthwhile as you will usually get lots of extra convenience features

 

* If you watch a lot of satellite TV programmes shortlist VCRs with Video Plus+ controlled satellite time-shifting facilities. Try it out first though, some can be fiendishly difficult to use

 

* VCRs with tape tuning facilities and noise reduction systems are well worth having, especially if you archive a lot of recordings. Tape tuning optimises the recording for the tape being used, improving the look of LP recordings

 

* If you own a camcorder -- especially if it’s an 8mm or Hi8 model -- then front AV sockets will make it easier to copy and edit your recordings. If you’re into movie-making choose a model with additional editing facilities

 

* Check picture quality by looking for fine detail in the recording. Straight vertical edges should be sharply defined and patches of bright colours should not be smeared.

 

* Steady still frame and slow-motion trick play facilities are good indicators of the quality of deck design and construction 

 

BUYING A SATELLITE SYSTEM

Big changes are in the air for satellite television but the current crop of analogue channels will be around for some time to come. Digital satellite channels probably won’t be up and running until the middle of 1998 at the earliest, so what are you waiting for, if you want to watch satellite TV now?

 

* Take any claims for ‘future-proof’ technology with a big pinch of salt, there’s no such thing in satellite television. Any mid-range Astra system brought today should have a useful working life of at least five years

 

* Stereo sound from the current generation of analogue satellites can be quite noisy. Receivers with Wegner Panda 1 processors usually sound better and are most suitable for use with home cinema systems

 

* Make sure the receiver has at least two SCART AV sockets. It can be very difficult to both watch and record satellite programmes in stereo, on receivers with a single SCART socket

 

* Receivers with twin viewing card slots are useful if you subscribe to several channels 

 

* If you’re having a system installed make sure the contractor is a member of the Confederation of Aerial Industries (CAI), who lay down strict guidelines, codes of practice and ensure that all firms are properly insured

 

 

BUYING AV SEPARATES

You don’t need a lot of extra equipment to set up a surround-sound system. By adding a few well-chosen components to your TV and hi-fi, you can be enjoying cinema-style sound effects in no time flat...

 

* A Dolby Pro Logic AV amplifier or receiver is the easiest way to turn your TV and VCR into a home entertainment system, but make sure that it has sufficient inputs and switching facilities for any other AV components you may have  

 

* AV amplifier/receivers with sub-woofer outputs make it easier to recreate the dramatic and attention-grabbing low-frequency sound effects

 

* You can use your present hi-fi system for home cinema, in which case you will only need a DPL processor. Look for models with built-in amplification for the centre-front and rear effects channels, otherwise you will need an extra stereo amplifier

 

* The front channel speakers in a home cinema system should be magnetically shielded -- particularly the centre-front speaker -- which will normally be placed in close proximity to the TV screen

 

* Mixing different types of speakers can cause problems, home cinema speaker packages are well worth considering

 

2. GETTING INTO SURROUND SOUND

 

There’s never been so many different ways of putting together a home cinema system, and there’s more to come with prospect of 5.1 channel systems coming onto the market in the wake of DVD and digital television. However, for the moment at least the 4-channel Dolby Stereo system reigns supreme. It is used on pre-recorded movies on tape, Laserdisc and programmes broadcast by terrestrial and satellite TV companies.  All of the various home cinema options have one thing in common, they bring movies and TV programmes to life by attempting to recreate the sounds and sensations of watching a film at the cinema, in your own home.

 

DOLBY PRO-LOGIC TVs

If your first impression of home cinema is lots of boxes and cables cluttering up the living room then take a look at the latest generation of Dolby Pro Logic televisions. They are the ultimate ‘one-box’ solutions with all of the amplifier and processing circuitry built into the TV cabinet. The only extras are a couple of small speakers for the surround channel, that sit behind the sofa, or fix to the wall beside the seating position.  If you’re concerned about running wires around the room then check out the models that come with cordless infra-red rear speakers. If you are really short of space then it may be worth investigating JVC’s range of home cinema TVs with 3D Phonic sound system. This creates a wide spatial soundfield using just the speakers built into the TV, with the option to upgrade to full Dolby Pro Logic operation by adding amplified speakers.

 

DOLBY PRO LOGIC Hi-fis

Whilst DPL TVs are very convenient, the speakers and amplifiers they use are usually quite modestly-specified and better suited to smaller rooms. Dolby Pro-Logic Mini hi-fi systems are the next step up on the package-system ladder. Larger speakers, that can be placed where they do the most good, and more powerful amplifiers make a world of difference to the surround-sound effect. Most model also have a CD deck -- multi-disc autochangers are becoming increasingly common these days -- plus an AM/FM tuner and twin cassette deck as well, so they’re a completely integrated home entertainment system. All you have do is add the TV and NICAM VCR.

 

DOLBY PRO-LOGIC COMPONENTS

Dolby Pro Logic surround sound processors turn up in all sorts of unusual places nowadays, including the dashboards of a new range of Volvo cars that have just gone on sale in the US... A little closer to home, both Akai and Sony have VCRs with built-in Dolby Pro Logic decoders. Amstrad and Pace fit them inside their top-end satellite receivers and Goodmans have one installed in a TV console stand. Sony have developed two active speaker systems with on-board DPL processors, you can even get Dolby Pro Logic active speaker systems for PCs, but the prize for innovation must go to Philips. Their MX900 DPL upgrade kit has the processor and two-channel amplifier fitted inside a compact centre-speaker module. 

 

BUYING A COMPLETE DPL SYSTEM

Package systems have a lot going for them, though you tend to be stuck with the manufacturer’s choice of components. The point is, the speakers supplied with a lot of budget and some mid-range systems, can leave a lot to be desired. Why not put together your own package? The starting point has to the DPL amplifier, or combined AV receiver. Look for a ‘balanced’ output, with the same sort of power going to all three front channels. The rear channels needn’t be as powerful, though it helps if they’re at least in the same ballpark.

 

Facilities like universal or programmable remote controls make systems made up from components from several different manufacturers, easier to use. If you want to stay ahead of the game then consider amplifier/receivers that are AC-3 compatible. They have six discrete audio channels, ready and waiting for the next generation of digital sound systems.

 

Wide dispersion front channel speakers are worth considering if you are trying to fill a largish room, where not everyone will be able to sit in the so-called ‘sweet spot’. Rear channel dispersion is also a good idea; specially designed dipole speakers that radiate sound in two directions, do the best job. Don’t use any old wire for the speaker connections, low resistance high inductance cables can result in noticeable frequency errors and colouration.  

 

UPGRADING YOUR HI-FI

All this advice on how to spend several hundred pounds on a stack of new home cinema equipment is all very well, but what if you’re happy with your present hi-fi set-up. You may have spent a considerable amount of time and money getting it sound exactly the way you want, are you going to have to ditch it all and start again? Certainly not, hi-fi and home cinema can happily co-exist and there’s no need to change a thing, apart from maybe re-positioning the main speakers so that they’re either side of the TV screen.  Almost any stereo system can be quickly and easily upgraded to home cinema operation by adding a separate processor and the necessary extra speakers. Stand-alone processor are less common than they used to be, though there’s still a few models on the market. The easiest to install are those that have on-board amplification for the centre dialogue and rear effects channels, otherwise you will need an extra stereo amplifier.  

 

3. WHERE TO BUY

There are many and various ways of buying AV equipment but generally speaking most of it is sold through three different types of retail outlet. The most high-profile are the high-street chains. They have the buying power to offer the best prices, but they tend to concentrate on fast-moving, mainstream products. Demonstration facilities in larger stores are now quite good though the level of expertise amongst salespeople can be variable. 

 

Independent traders, with one or more shops in a local area, usually sell a wide range of electrical and electronic goods, though smaller premises often means they have limited room for demonstrations. The last group are the specialists, shops that sell and happily demonstrate high quality hi-fi and AV equipment. They know their products inside out and like most independent retailers, can be relied upon to offer largely unbiased advice and good after-sales backup. Prices at independent and specialist retailers are usually a little higher than the high street chains but that is more than offset by the quality of the service. Independents and specialists who are members of BADA  (British Audio Dealers Association), and RETRA (Radio and Electrical Trade Association) are committed to offering the highest standards of service and adhere strictly to codes of conduct.

 

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Ó R. Maybury 1997 2207

 

 

 

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