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GRUNDIG PLANATRON II, 42-inch 16:9 widescreen plasma TV, £9,500

VERDICT ****

 

Why’s it here: There's no doubting the instant appeal of flat plasma screen TVs, you only have to see how people react to them in shops, looking around the back and marvelling at how thin they are. It's also interesting to watch their faces when they catch sight of the price ticket for the first time... The look of shock and surprise when confronted by a Grundig Planatron is still there, but it is tempered by the feeling that it's not just another monster flat-screen TV. This has bold design statement written all over it, announcing that Grundig any anyone who buys one, is daring to be different. Nevertheless, it takes a deep commitment to new technology, a burning desire to be an early adopter and very deep pockets, to want shell out the thick end of ten grand on a TV, even if it is only a few inches thick!

 

Any unique features: The optional stand – costing another £1000 or so – transforms the set into a monolithic block that would make old Arthur C. Clarke proud. It leans ever so slightly backwards, quite how it manages to stay upright is a bit of a mystery but there's no doubting the solidity of the construction or the trouble Grundig has taken to deliver better than average sound. The on-board Dolby Pro Logic decoder and amplifiers feed substantial front and rear speakers. It's not found wanting when it comes to picture facilities either, in addition to all of the usual widescreen options and a multi-standard input it has twin tuners with the choice of a split screen display or a picture in picture, showing what's on another channel. There's a full set of AV connectors front and rear, for camcorder and video game hook-ups and take it from us, you haven't lived until you've seen Lara Croft strut her stuff on a 42-inch display! By the way, it has a VGA input as well, so you can connect it to your PC or laptop. Despite its apparent complexity it's no more difficult to drive than a regular TV and the menu-driven on-screen display makes it a doddle to set up. It comes with a wall-mounting bracket; just make sure the wall in question can stand the strain, the panel weighs a hefty 45kg.

 

How does it perform: Planatron, like pretty well all current plasma panels has a few rough edges when it comes to picture performance. The most noticeable shortcoming is screen brightness, or rather the lack of it, compared with a CRT. In a well-lit room or exposed to indirect sunlight it can run out of puff and the viewing angle is not as wide as a tube TV so it is a little more demanding of lighting and seating arrangements than a conventional large screen TV. Don't sit too close, otherwise the fairly coarse pixel structure gives the picture a slightly grainy texture. On the plus side colour fidelity and contrast range are both very good, and image lag – a characteristic of some first generation plasma panels -- is almost nowhere to be seen. The larger than average speakers and sub-woofer create a lively soundstage with lots of detail and movement. DPL performance is good, effects are accurately located and dialogue is firmly locked to the screen. With careful adjustment and speaker placement side to side and front-rear transitions are almost seamless.

 

Our Verdict: It's a truly impressive sight, especially when sitting atop that slender, stand but inevitably the question arises, is it worth up to ten times as much as a big screen CRT? The simple answer is no. As far as picture quality is concerned, in many respects front and rear projection systems are at least as good, if not better than plasma, for a fraction of the cost. However, that's missing the point. None of them – dull and uninvolving black boxes to a man -- come even close to matching the style and presence of this hunk of a TV, which -- dare we suggest -- is a sublime fusion of technology and art. It's just a shame it costs ten grand…

 

Grundig 0181-324 9400

 

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Features            42-inch plasma screen, NICAM, Dolby Pro Logic, format switching (4:23, cinema zoom, panorama zoom, 16:9), twin-tuner split screen & picture in picture, 5-band graphic equaliser, fastext, VGA input, wall mounting kit

Sockets             rear: 3 x SCART AV, 2 x VGA in (D-sub), line audio out (phono), front: S-Video in (mini DIN), line audio in (phono), headphone (minijack)       

Dimensions            74 x 127.5 x 14cm 

 

Rival Buys            Fujitsu Plasmavision HTM-42A £9200, Philips 42PW9982 £12000, Thomson Wysius, £8500

 

 

TOSHIBA V729 NICAM VCR, £250

VERDICT, ****

 

Why’s it here: The V729 is one of four NICAM VCRs in the current Toshiba range. It is a step-up model, adding a more advanced remote handset, easier set-up and a bundled SCART lead to the feature list of the entry-level V709. Ease of use and AV performance is always high on the Toshiba agenda but don't expect too many frills, not that Tosh VCRs are noted for gadgets and gizmos. It is not into cutthroat pricing either but this helps maintain the brand's reputation for high quality but still affordable AV products. 

 

Any unique features: The styling is quite snazzy but new or unusual features are not something we expect to see on Toshiba VCRs, though you can be reasonably confident that the features it has are worth having. They inlcude Video Plus+ Deluxe, which incorporates satellite control; the IR codes cover a good assortment of analogue receivers and ONdigital boxes but not Sky Digital decoders for some reason. Toshiba is justly proud of the 729's auto installation system and you would have to be pretty determined, or stupid, not to get on with the menu-driven on-screen displays. Otherwise the 729 has a fairly standard assortment of secondary features, like multi-brand remote control, twin SCART sockets, NTSC replay and NexTViewLink for faster set-up and control interactivity with compatible TVs. 

 

How does it perform: From start to finish the auto installation systems takes just 75 seconds to get the machine up and running. It's not quite a record but it can't be far off! Although the 729 lacks the advanced digital noise reduction systems of models high up the range, picture quality is good with very little in the way of picture noise. This helps bolster the fairly average resolution, which on our sample was just under 240-lines. Colour accuracy is satisfactory though highly saturated areas can look a bit heavy-handed; overall picture stability is fine. Trick frame facilities are confined to picture search and still frame the latter can be a bit jittery though. There is some background hiss on the stereo hi-fi soundtracks but it is not excessive, the response is wide and flat with plenty of headroom for lively stereo and Dolby Surround soundtracks.  

 

Our Verdict: Toshiba is justly renowned for its home cinema tellies and top-end VCRs but there's a sense that models lower down the range are merely there to maintain a presence. There's certainly nothing wrong with the V709 but it's hard to get too excited about this machine, particularly when compared with some of the more interesting VCRs on the market at or around the same price point. 

 

Toshiba (01276) 62222

 

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Features            NICAM, Video Plus+ with PDC, auto set-up & clock check, satellite control, NexTViewLink, multi-brand TV remote, NTSC replay 

Sockets             2 x SCART AV, line audio out (phono), RF in/out (coaxial)         

Dimensions            360 x 94 x 298mm   

 

Rival Buys            Hitachi VT-FX860 £250, Sanyo VHR-889,  £230, Sharp VC-MH742, £250

 

TECHNICS SA-AX730 6-CHANNEL AV RECEIVER, £250

VERDICT ****

 

Why’s it here: We suspect that the rapidly growing number of DVD players with built-in Dolby Digital decoders launched over the past six months has caught amplifier manufacturers slightly off-guard. Mid-range and high-end DVD has created a healthy demand for multi-channel amplifiers that has only recently begun to be addressed by the mainstream hi-fi companies. Technics, doubtless mindful of what's happening next door at Panasonic, has responded with a range of very competitively priced 6-channel AV receivers, starting with the SA-AX730. It provides a flexible starting point for anyone with a basic DVD player and one-box convenience for those with mid-range decks having on-board Dolby Digital decoders and no immediate interest in DTS.

 

Any unique features: Technics has taken the slightly unusual step of assigning a comparatively high power output (100 watts RMS) to each of the five amplified channels; the sixth sub channel output is at line level. The power is clearly designed to be used since there's a thermostatically controlled cooling fan on the back. The AX730 has two video inputs and outputs, vinyl fans will be please to see a phono input. The built-in Dolby Pro Logic decoder provides a quick and simple entry route into surround sound and there's the option to upgrade to full-blown digital surround with a matching AC-3/DTS decoder (SH-AC500). The FM tuner has a full-spec RDS EON decoder and there are 30-channel presets. An on/off timer can be programmed to wake you up, or send you to sleep with your favourite sounds.   

 

How does it perform: The amplifier is capable of delivering a big room-filling sound but it takes a fair bit of tweaking to get the channel balance right. It's no good hooking it up to weedy little bookshelfs, it deserves to be given free reign through good-sized speakers, front and rear. With so much power on tap there's little chance of the AX730 running out of steam. There always seems to be plenty in reserve and it's tempting to push the rear channels hard during the noisy bits in lively action movies. The DPL decoder is fast and responsive with good channel separation, however it comes into its own when fed from a AC-3 equipped DVD player, the response is wide and open with negligible background hiss.

 

Our Verdict: The AX730 is well thought out AV component that could solve a lot of problems for those coming to home cinema via DVD and at only £250 it's great value. It provides instant analogue surround for entry level players, multi-channel amplification for players with on-board digital decoders, plus the tuner and all of the source switching functions needed in a home entertainment system.

 

Technics (01344) 862444

 

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Features                     Dolby Pro Logic/ Dolby Stereo decoders, 5 x 100 watts RMS, AM/FM tuner with RDS & 30-station memory, on/sleep timer

Sockets                       AV inputs/outputs (phono), optical & coaxial digital input (TOSlink & phono), centre & surround speakers (spring terminals), front stereo speakers (binding posts), FM antenna (coaxial)

Dimensions                 430 x 158 x 324.5mm

 

Rival Buys Denon AVR-1100 £300, Philips FR-752 £300, Yamaha DSP-A592 £330

 

 

TECHNICS SA-DX930 DIGITAL AV RECEIVER, £300

VERDICT ****

 

Why’s it here: You may have noticed some similarity between the SA-DX930 and the SA-AX730 above, it's okay, you're not seeing double and we haven't got the pictures mixed up since they are virtually identical. In fact you would need a magnifying glass to spot the external differences. Whereas the AX730 provides DVD deck owners with a leg up to multi-channel surround, the AX930 provides a complete digital surround solution with on-board AC-3/Dolby Digital and DTS decoders. Like the AX730 it has Dolby Pro Logic as well, though we can't imagine it getting much use.

 

Any unique features: As we have said the AX730 and AX930 are basically the same, as far as the core specification is concerned. That means five amplified channels of 100 watts RMS apiece, an AM/FM tuner with RDS and 30 preset channels, on/off timer, switching for up to three AV components and a phono input. The Dolby Digital and DTS decoders has necessitated some extra sockets on the back panel, namely two digital inputs (one coaxial, the other TOSlink optical). However, it also retains the six discrete line-level inputs (front stereo, centre, rear surrounds & sub-woofer), so there's the option to use the DVD player's built-in digital decoder, should you so wish. The front panel controls have been slightly reorganised to cope with the additional options and speaker set-up.

 

How does it perform: Since the amplifier stages are exactly the same as the AX730 we didn't expect to hear any significant differences when connected to analogue source components, and we were not disappointed. Once again there is a good sense of clean and controllable power, a wide response geared towards the dynamics of movie soundtracks, there's a feeling of openness, especially when connected to large roomy speakers. The Dolby Digital processor is pin-sharp, though it has to be said it didn't reveal any more detail than, say, most mid-range DVD players with on–board processing. DTS is another matter; there's a noticeable increase in the depth of bass information and a sharpening up of spatial detail that only serves to whet our appetite for more DTS material.

 

Our Verdict:             Even if you take DTS out of the equation the AX930 still stacks up as a highly competent AV Receiver/surround sound processor and an ideal partner for DVD players without any on-board digital decoders. DTS is the icing on the cake though, and whilst the format is still very much on the fringes of mainstream DVD the indications are that it will take off.  In that case, in addition to its primary role as a home cinema component, the AX930 provides a useful degree of future proofing, and it's excellent value for money.

 

Technics (01344) 862444

 

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Features                     Dolby Pro Logic Dolby Digital & DTS decoders, 5 x 100 watts RMS, AM/FM tuner with RDS & 30-station memory, on/sleep timer

Sockets                       AV inputs/outputs (phono), optical & coaxial digital input (TOSlink & phono), centre & surround speakers (spring terminals), front stereo speakers (binding posts), FM antenna (coaxial)

Dimensions                 430 x 158 x 324.5mm

 

Rival Buys Denon AVR-1700 £450, Sherwood R-925RDS £400, Sony STR-D8925 £600

 

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Ó R. Maybury 1999, 1110

 

 

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