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GROUP TEST

 

DPL MINI SYSTEMS

The arrival of DVD brought with it some fairly substantial changes to the home entertainment landscape but many people are still perfectly content with analogue tape and Laserdisc. For them digital video is still a future prospect and rung or two up the technology ladder. For anyone who simply wants to upgrade from basic stereo (or even mono) TV and video sound, a Dolby Pro Logic mini system is still one of the quickest, simplest and most cost-effective ways of finding out what home cinema has to offer.

 

The concept is simple; DPL mini systems offer convenience, versatility and above all, they've become an affordable luxury that just about anyone who already owns a TV and stereo video recorder can aspire to. Normally everything you need to get going straight away is supplied, right down to the speaker connecting cables, so there's no worries about mixing and matching components. Everything is integrated, there's no need to mess around with interconnection and multiple mains leads or put up with a coffee table full of remote control handsets. What's more you get a complete hi-fi system thrown in for good measure with CD player, tape decks and tuner. It all sounds far too good to be true, so what's the catch?

 

To be honest there isn't one, provided you remember the wise old adage about only getting what you pay for. The only other small point to bear in mind is that a Dolby Stereo/Surround soundtrack -- coming from VHS tape  -- is relatively undemanding of an audio system, (top-end Laserdisc and DVD is another matter, and we'll come to that in a moment). If the components in a system are designed to meet only the basic requirements of home cinema sound from tape and TV -- as inevitably most budget systems are -- then the audio-only hi-fi performance may end up being fairly average. Even some mid market systems are compromised in that way. To be fair it's a difficult task for the manufacturers, trying to design a system to do two quite different jobs, but unless you are really picky even the humblest systems sound quite reasonable in the context of general-purpose hi-fi. The obvious point to make is that if you seek sonic excellence in its purist form, look elsewhere, and expect to pay for your pleasures.

 

Much the same applies if you're planning to build a home cinema system around DVD (or high-end Laserdisc), in which case you're into a whole new ball game. That is not to say mini DPL systems are incompatible with DVD -- far from it -- any system can be used with a disc player to process the standard DVD/LD stereo soundtrack, containing matrixed four-channel Dolby Surround information. However, none of the systems we're about to look at have the necessary six discrete channels of amplification or decoders required for AC-3 and MPEG audio. Dolby Digital mini hi-fi systems have begun to appear (the Sharp are first off the starting blocks) and this time next year it might be a very different story. However, for the moment at least if top-notch DVD sound is what you are after then your first stop should be the separates market.

 

The six systems we're looking at here share a number of common features, in addition to Dolby Pro Logic. All of them have a set of variable or preset graphic equaliser settings, only one of them has a full house digital sound processing (DSP) facility as well. All systems have 3-disc CD players plus one or two tape decks and an AM/FM tuner. This year's hot new feature is RDS, short for the radio data system. This is a kind of radio teletext service, broadcasters send out 'piggy-back' digital data along with the sound signal. The data contains station idents, details about program content and traffic news, which appears as text in the front panel display. It adds comparatively little to the cost of a system and can actually be quite useful.

 

Buying a DPL mini system is easy. Set out your priorities then work out how much you have to spend. If you are looking for a dual-role hi-fi/home cinema system then you really need to be thinking about spending upwards of £400 or so. If audio-only performance is a secondary consideration and you just want to get into surround sound then you can afford to set your sights a good deal lower. Finally, when you've narrowed your choice do try and hear you're chosen systems, preferably with a movie that you're familiar with. You're not going to get the full effect in a dealer's showroom or electrical superstore but it will give you a fair idea of what to expect, before you part with the plastic.  

 

HOW THE TESTS WERE DONE

There are two ways to test a Dolby Pro Logic system. Method one involves donning a white coat, fiddling with expensive test equipment covered in flickering dials and producing lots of numbers. Method two involves a comfy cardigan, several buckets of popcorn and a stack of favourite movies on tape (and disc) with plenty of noisy bits. We do both, well, maybe not the white coat, and our test equipment doesn't actually have any flickering dials but we do use specially mastered test recordings that tell us precisely what a system is and isn't capable of.

 

Our repertoire of test recordings changes little from year to year, in that way we can make valid comparisons with past tests. However, we have added a couple of DVDs this time around, including Batman and Robin and Contact, which join our tape-based regulars. The tests are simple, we're checking for the resolution and sensitivity of the decoders and their ability to accurately locate an effect or move it around the soundfield. We want to hear dialogue coming out of the centre speaker, if it's meant to, and we're listening out for that all-important floorboard-shaking bass.

 

For good measure we also check out the hi-fi facilities as well, but this is all about home cinema, and what we really want to know is how close a systems gets to recreating the theatre experience.

 

THE REVIEWS

 

AIWA NSX-AV320, £250, ****

Never let it be said that Aiwa has ever hidden its light under a bushel. In fact that should read lights, and far from hiding them, heavy-duty illumination has become a familiar up-front feature on Aiwa systems for as long as we can remember. The AV320, -- Aiwa's cheapest DPL mini so far -- is no exception and this time they've really gone OTT by integrating a cheesy slot machine game into the display. Curse you Aiwa! It has absolutely nothing to do with home cinema but it's thoroughly addictive…

 

Mind you, there's not a lot else to play with, this system is quite frugally equipped in the toy department. There is the occasional little luxury, like the tray operated 3-CD autochanger (discs can be changed whilst one is playing), but that's about it. The only other widgets worth mentioning are three preset graphic equaliser modes (rock, pop and classic), a three-level bass expander, programmed CD to tape editing facility and karaoke-style microphone mixer.

 

The lack of gadgetry has one useful spin-off, and that's ease of use. The system is housed in a split-level one-piece box with the controls grouped together by function. This has been quite well thought out and they light up according to the operating mode. The central control dial on our sample was quite stiff and difficult to operate, as there's not much to get hold of.

 

The exterior is flashy and a touch plasticky but it is sturdy and generally well put together. Connectivity is poor, limited to just one auxiliary line input. The only thing to look out for is the cables for the surround speakers, which are not very long and since they are captive at one and end terminated with a phone plug at the other, extending the cable run can be tricky. The front speakers are a 2-way bass-reflex design. They look quite stern but they are magnetically shielded, so they can be placed as close to the screen as you wish. The rear surround speakers are an odd shape, they are meant to be hung on the wall, which isn't always convenient.

 

First impressions are quite favourable, the speakers have a healthy bass content -- always welcome in an AV application -- but the treble response is a wee bit light. The power output from the front channels is adequate for normal sized living room and it only starts distorting at full whack. For once the rear channel holds up well at higher volume settings though the smallish speakers struggle a bit with bassy effects. The DPL decoder is good at pinpointing loud dynamic sounds and there's very little leakage. Quieter effects tend to be less well resolved but dialogue is clearly presented and moving frontal effects are very smooth. Front-rear transitions dip a bit in the middle but it is not enough to be distracting. 

 

Don't expect too much from the twin tape decks, background hiss isn't very well suppressed, the CD autochanger on the other hand produces a crisp, well rounded sound that is well suited to rock and pop. Much the same goes for the 3-band tuner, a no-frills design that does the job. 

 

Our only real regret is the solitary AV input, which limits flexibility and makes it difficult to use with more than one AV source component. It is fairly basic but that doesn't mean it can't cut the mustard when it comes to home cinema. In fact it gives a very good account of itself and if AV operation is your main concern, why pay more for a bunch of features that you don't want and will probably never use? The speakers undoubtedly have a big part to play in this system and for once you don't feel as though you're missing out on all of the drama and impact of big set-piece effects. Well worth considering, especially if you are on a tight budget.

 

CLOSE UP

Main Features             3 CD autochanger with 30 track memory, 3-band tuner with 32 presets & timer, twin tape decks, 3 mode DPL, 3 preset GE, bass boost, sleep/wake/record timer, microphone mixer, game demo, 5 speakers & cables 

 

Sockets                       line audio in, centre & surround speakers (phono), Digital out (optical jack), mic & headphones (minijack), main speakers & AM antenna (spring terminals), FM antenna (coaxial)                     

 

Dimensions                 260 x 305 x 345 mm

 

Sound Quality            ****

Features                     ****

Ease of use                 ****

 

Contact            Aiwa UK Ltd, telephone 0181-897 7000

 

Critical Captions

 

Flash, glitzy and the first mini DPL with a built-in game, gawd save us…

 

The big remote handset is easy to use; it's just a pity you have to get up to access the display dimmer switch

 

If only… The single auxiliary input is a disappointment, making it difficult to use with other source components

 

AKAI TX-720, £350, ***

Akai has a long and illustrious history in the field of home entertainment and in spite of not being a major player in the audio systems sector, it continues to maintain a presence with a series of attractively priced DPL minis. The TX-720 is the most recent arrival. It is a fairly conventional one-box design with the front panel split into three sections. On the top of the stack there's a 3 CD autochanger with rotary tray loading mechanism; it's a relatively unsophisticated design in that discs cannot be exchanged whilst it is playing. Below that is the amplifier/tuner section with most of the controls and a large fluorescent display panel. At the bottom of the pile is a twin auto-reverse cassette deck.

 

At first glance it looks reasonably straightforward but there are a few oddities worth mentioning. On the front of the CD player there is a second display panel, showing speaker mode and output levels. It has to be said that it is a tad irritating, there really is no need to have it flashing in time with the music; we would have dearly like some means of switching it off. The amplifiers are unusually powerful with a fair old whack (2 x 90 watts RMS) going to the large 3-way speakers at the front. The other unusual touch is switchable Dolby B noise reduction on the tape decks. A six-mode graphic equaliser and switchable bass boost are the only other audio embellishments, unless you count the microphone mixer facility.

 

The front speakers are a bit of an eyeful but in keeping with the market trends, so we'll leave the aesthetic judgements up to you. There's some good news on the back channel speakers, the attached cables are a generous length and actually likely to make it around the outside edges of a normal living room.

 

Around the back of the system box there is another small and very pleasant surprise, it has two auxiliary line inputs and one output. The input and output connections are actually meant for an add-on MiniDisc player and there's a set of controls for it on the remote handset. However, there's no reason why the MD connections can't be used for a satellite receiver or DVD player instead. The rest of the inputs and outputs are fairly routine, the only notable extra is an optical output for the CD player, it's not exactly unique but they're still quite rare on systems at this end of the market. Going back to the handset for a moment, it suffers form the usual problem of being too small, with too many poorly labelled buttons, but you probably worked that out from the picture.   

 

With so much power going the front speakers there's a distinct danger of the surround channel being swamped in DPL mode, yet the rear speakers manage to hold their own until well past the volume halfway point. The big speakers produce a surprisingly well dispersed soundfield, even if they're positioned close to the TV screen (they are magnetically shielded), quieter effects are not so well focused though. The centre channel bleeds into the right and left channels and sometimes dialogue isn't quite as well locked to the screen as it should be. Bass levels on the front are a little better than average for this type of system and although they're no substitute for a proper sub-woofer, explosions and effects come across quite well.  Dolby encoded high frequency tones caused an unusual 'chattering' effect on the right and left channels, we haven't come across this before but it didn't happen during normal operation on any of our movie soundtrack test recordings. Audio-only performance from CD and tape isn't too bad either though the treble response tails off quite early.

 

We're in two minds about this system. It's a bit of a mixed bag but the hunky amplifiers and beefy speakers tips the balance tips in its favour. Worth thinking about, especially if it's going to be used in a larger than average room.

 

CLOSE UP

Main Features             3 CD autochanger with 30-track memory, 3-band tuner with 30 presets & timer, twin auto reverse tape decks with Dolby B NR, 3 mode DPL, 6 preset GE, bass boost, sleep/wake/record timer, microphone mixer, 5 speakers & cables

 

Sockets                       2 x line audio in/out, centre & surround speakers (phono), Digital out (optical jack), mic & headphones (minijack), main speakers & AM antenna (spring terminals), FM antenna (coaxial)         

 

Dimensions                 300 x 270 x 305 mm

 

Sound Quality            ****

Features                     ***

Ease of use                 ***

 

Contact                       Akai UK Ltd., telephone 0181-897 6388

 

Critical Captions

 

The upper display panel can be a bit distracting; shame there's no way of switching it off

 

Two line inputs, and a line output, well done Akai!

 

The remote isn't too bad at all; most functions are fairly accessible

 

JVC MX-D752, £300, ****

The MX-D752 mini DPL system is one of the most recent additions to JVC's highly successful Adagio range, which has made regular appearance on these pages over the past three years. The chunky 'Labyrinth' speakers are carried over from previous models and the front panel, whilst clearly revamped, is a reminder of panels past. One of the most significant changes however, is the drop in price and this system can be found selling for as little as £300, which makes it look like very good value for money.

 

There has been some minor re-jigging of the main facilities and power outputs and one significant new addition in the shape of an RDS decoder for the tuner. This is a high-spec design able to display station idents, traffic announcements, radio text, programme type information and EON (enhanced other networks) data. The rest stays pretty much the same with the nifty 3-drawer CD autochanger used on earlier models, this allows a disc to be changed whilst one is playing. The big bold and colourful display is another familiar landmark, as is the sometimes perplexing control system based around a large multi-function dial on the front panel. The controls are a bit cluttered and the multitude of tiny labels and logos all over the place doesn't help. Unfortunately the control implementation on the remote handset is no better with some buttons having three separate functions. In short it's a swine to use until you get used to it, especially in dim light.

 

Audio options include a two-stage bass booster and 6-mode SEA (sound effect amplifier), which is a sort of cross between a graphic equaliser and digital sound processor. The surround presets are 'Dance Club', 'Hall' and 'Stadium'; equaliser modes are 'Rock'. 'Pop' and 'Classic', each of them can be individually customised and it also has three manual settings. It has only one auxiliary input so linking it up to more than one source component could prove difficult.

 

The front speakers have acquired new fascia mouldings, they are a lot more angular than the old ones -- which we prefer -- it gives the system a distinctly macho appearance. For some reason they're not magnetically shielded so take care with placement otherwise they could cause staining if placed alongside the TV screen. Front and rear speakers are supplied with captive leads and the centre and surround cables are pre-terminated with phono plugs. The rear speaker wires could definitely do with being longer.

 

It's hard to fault the CD, tuner and tape deck, they all work as well as you would expect on a modestly-priced mini, full marks to JVC for the auto tape selection feature but noise suppression is only average. The autochanger clunks and clatters a bit but disc changeover is quite fast. From that you can rightly conclude that it stacks up quite well as a hi-fi system, though it has been configured for movie soundtracks so it tends to favour rock-oriented material.

 

The Pro Logic decoder works well, it accurately locates most sounds and effects and there's only a small amount of leakage across the front three channels. The rear speakers manage to keep up across much of the volume range but bass response is limited and it shows on loud dynamic effects. Front channel sounds are quite big and brassy, though bass frequencies lack guts. Moving effects are also handled well and front-rear transition is quite smooth at normal listening levels.

 

There's a lot to like about the MX-D72, especially the price. Maybe it has tacked on a few too many winky lights and chromy bits but that's par for the course and doubtless the market research people have concluded that's what people want. Nevertheless, this is still a very appealing package; the only notable deficiencies are the single AV input and unshielded speakers, if you can live with that then it is worth shortlisting. 

 

CLOSE UP

Main Features             3 CD autochanger with 32 track memory, 3-band RDS tuner with 30 presets & timer, twin auto-reverse tape, 3 mode DPL, 6-mode SEA (plus 3 manual modes), 2-stage bass boost, sleep/wake/record timer, 5 speakers & cables 

 

Sockets                       line audio in, centre & surround speakers (phono), headphones (minijack), main speakers & AM antenna (spring terminals), FM antenna (coaxial)         

 

Dimensions                 265 x 315 x 340 mm

 

Sound Quality            ****

Features                     ****

Ease of use                 ****

 

Contact                       JVC UK Ltd, telephone 0181-450 3282

 

Critical Captions

 

The controls and display look very busy and labelling is not that good so expect to spend some time getting used to it

 

The remote handset is small and cluttered with some buttons having three separate functions

 

There's not much to see on the back panel, just one external AV input, which is a nuisance

 

PHILIPS FW-775, £400, ****

Those of a nervous disposition should look away now. The stereo 'G-Shock' speakers supplied with the FW-775 should come with some sort of health warning! They have to be the most ugly, brutish-looking things we've seen in a long while, we can only suppose that whoever designed them was seriously disturbed. The thing is, though, they actually sound rather good, but we're getting ahead of ourselves.

 

The rest of the system isn't much easier on the eye. The front panel of the one-piece system box is littered with shiny buttons that light up and it has a brash coloured display panel that just won't keep still. The layout follows the by now familiar pattern of a 3 CD autochanger on top (a rotary tray type with change during play option). The tuner (3-band with basic RDS) and amplifier section is in the middle and down below there's twin cassette decks, one of which has an auto-reverse mechanism. The amplifier is the most powerful in this particular group with 120 watts RMS going to each of the right and left stereo channels, 40 watts to the centre and 40 watts to the rear.  

 

Audio facilities -- over and above standard 3-mode Pro Logic -- includes 3-stage bass boost, 4-mode Digital Sound Control (actually a preset equaliser) and Philips Incredible Sound, which generates a wide spatial stereo soundfield. On the back there's a line-level sub-woofer output for an active or cordless sub and unusually it also has line outputs for the mains stereo channels and the rear surround channel as well, also for active or cordless speakers, nice touch that. Sadly there is only one auxiliary input, which makes life unnecessarily difficult when it comes to using more than one source component.

 

Previously Philips has gone to great pains to simplify installation and set-up on its audio systems. This one offers no special assistance though it is fairly obvious where all of the wires go and the tuner has an auto tuning (Easy Set) facility that sorts out all locally available broadcasts quickly and efficiently.  The cables for the oddly shaped surround speakers are a good length and unusually the main speaker cables aren't captive, so you can easily exchange the supplied bell-wire for something longer or more substantial. For those who do not like the idea of speakers all over the place the rear surrounds fit neatly onto the top of the main speakers, though obviously any semblance of surround sound will be lost.

 

Whether or not the G-Shock speaker cosmetics have any part to play in the sound output is a moot point but the fact remains that they work really well. They're a three-way design with 6.5-inch woofer and twin Ferro-fluid cooled tweeters poking out of the top. Port on the front and back and the sizeable enclosures produce a big roomy bass, ideal for movie soundtracks; the optional sub-woofer facility is almost redundant. With the bass boost on full special effects have real impact, mid range and treble frequencies are accurately rendered as well and the front soundstage is packed with detail. Effects are clearly located; side to side and front-rear movement is very smooth. In the past Philips has tended to spread the power levels evenly across all four channels but this particular arrangement -- with 40 watts going to the centre and rear -- hasn't had any adverse effects and the surround channel is never overwhelmed, even at higher volume levels. The CD is a competent design and benefits greatly from the performance of the amplifiers and speakers; audio-only operation is a definite notch up on rival systems.  

 

The 775 does almost everything you could wish of a DPL mini system, it sounds great and the hi-fi performance means it can comfortably fulfil a dual role as a well rounded home entertainment system, even in larger rooms. The single line input is regrettable but if you can live with the outlandish cosmetics you are in for a treat, it deserves your very serious consideration.   

 

CLOSE UP

Main Features             3 CD autochanger with 40 track memory, 3-band RDS tuner with 40 presets & timer, twin tape decks one auto reverse, 3 mode DPL, 5-mode equaliser, Incredible Sound (stereo wide), 3-stage bass boost, sleep/wake/record timer, 5 speakers & cables 

 

Sockets                       line audio in/out, sub out, surround out (phono), headphones (minijack), main, centre, surround speakers & AM antenna (spring terminals), FM antenna (coaxial)         

 

Dimensions                 265 x 310 x 380mm

 

Sound Quality            *****

Features                     ****

Ease of use                 ***

 

Contact                                   Philips Consumer Electronics, telephone 0181-689 4444

 

Critical Captions

In your face styling and speakers but it sounds really rather good

 

Only one auxiliary line input makes life difficult if you want to expand or upgrade

 

Small but accessible, for a change the remote handset is quite easy to use

 

SHARP CD-C477, £380, ****

Time and again the complaint levelled against DPL mini systems is the limited bass response, so Sharp has decided to do something about it. The CD-C477 comes equipped with its very own sub woofer, powered by a 50-watt amplifier, to put back some of the drama that all too often is missing from movie soundtracks. More about that in a minute, but first the obligatory guided tour.

 

A wacky looking control cluster dominates the front panel of the main system box. The central 'jog' dial handles CD track selection, clock adjustment and station selection. Above that is the display and for once it is fairly discrete and doesn't look as though it has been prised from a one-arm bandit. The 3 CD autochanger features a rotary tray and discs can be changed whilst one is playing. One of the twin cassette decks has an auto-reverse facility and the 3-band tuner boasts an RDS EON decoder. The amplifiers deliver 50 watts RMS to each of the front stereo speakers and 25 watts apiece to the centre front and rear surround channels. It has two auxiliary line inputs plus an optical digital jack input. In contrast with the rest of the system the stereo speakers have refreshingly plain cosmetics, they're three-way designs with a removable front grille.

 

A two stage bass enhancer gives an instant lift to low frequencies and a five-mode equaliser give further opportunity to tailor the sound with presets designated 'flat', 'heavy 1', 'heavy 2', 'vocal' and 'soft'.  The subwoofer output level is also independently adjustable and there are two Dolby Pro Logic modes (normal or phantom). Installation is easy, the supplied speaker cables should be long enough for most rooms and there's plenty of helpful advice about speaker placement (all front channel speakers are magnetically shielded) in the instruction manual. Although the front panel controls looks a bit intimidating they're actually very easy to use and the same goes for the remote handset, though there are rather a lot of similarly-sized buttons to contend with.

 

At this point in the proceedings it's all looking quite promising but there was a fly in our ointment. The test sample had a particularly noisy CD mechanism that made an annoying whirring sound that cut in and out for no apparent reason. Thankfully the sub-woofer makes a much more agreeable noise; it adds a whole new dimension to action movie soundtracks bringing to the fore effects that all too often disappear or pass with a whimper on lesser systems. The front stereo channels also have a very healthy bass content but without in any way compromising treble and mid-range coverage, which is well within the home hi-fi ballpark. The DPL decoder manages to discriminate effectively between loud and quiet effects though the frontal soundstage can be a little mushy at times with individual sounds merging into one another. Sounds that move across the front soundfield and between the front and rear speakers can lack focus but it is worth experimenting with the speaker positions; they seem to work best when placed a little further from the screen than normal. The tape decks are unremarkable, there is some background hiss but the CD player makes up for lost ground with a bright crisp sound. 

 

The noisy CD deck mechanism is a concern but we'll be charitable and assume it was confined to our sample. Nevertheless, if you're auditioning one of these units it's worth playing a disc with the volume turned down. The cosmetics are a matter for personal taste, we reckon Sharp has just about got away with it due to the display panel being fairly discreet, and the subdued main speakers. The big selling point, however, is the very solid bass output, thanks to the sub-woofer and the front speakers. It makes a tremendous difference and action movies suddenly come alive. The fact that this system sells for less than £400 and the sub is included in the package should put this system at or near the top of your shortlist.

 

CLOSE UP

Main Features             3 CD autochanger with 32 track memory, 3-band tuner with 40 presets, RDS EON decoder, twin tape decks one auto reverse, 2 mode DPL, 5-mode equaliser, 2-stage bass boost, sleep/wake/record timer, 6 speakers & cables 

 

Sockets                       line audio in/out (phono), headphones (minijack), main, centre, sub-woofer, surround speakers & AM antenna (spring terminals), FM antenna (coaxial), digital out (optical jack)

 

Dimensions                 270 x 316 x 343 mm

 

Sound Quality            ****

Features                     ****

Ease of use                 ****

 

Contact                       Sharp UK Ltd., telephone 0161-205 2333

 

Critical Captions

 

It's difficult to ignore, both visually and sonically

 

Extra Brownie points are awarded for the sub woofer and second auxiliary input

 

It's not the best remote we've seen but it is reasonably easy to live with

 

SONY MHC- RX110AV, £500, ****

Whilst the majority of the DPL mini systems in this roundup look different they actually conform to a fairly standard pattern, as far as the specification, core features and layout are concerned. Sony is the exception; it has defied most of the conventions with this unique product. Whether or not the RX100AV really belongs here is open to debate. It is a mini system and it has Dolby Pro Logic and a full set of speakers, but home cinema operation almost seems to be an afterthought, the feature list is headed by a range of special effects under the banner 'DJ Mix Pro'.

 

Nevertheless, we're going to start with the AV side of things and look at the DJ stuff later on. The most noticeable departure from the norm is the positioning of the twin auto-reverse cassette decks on the system box; they're below the 3 CD rotary tray autochanger, which leaves room underneath for a huge display and control panel. It slopes and sticks out from the front of the box in clear homage to professional audio equipment. The front speakers receive a respectable 100-watts RMS each and 25 watts are allocated to the centre and surround channels. We get a distinct feeling that Sony is messing with our minds with the design of the speakers. The shape and lines are definitely anatomically inspired, though we hesitate to say which parts of the human body they resemble.  

 

Other less contentious points of interest include an RDS decoder tacked onto the tuner and a pukka digital signal processing system with four modes (surround, hall, theatre and enhanced theatre). They're in addition to 15 preset and 5 user adjustable equaliser settings; it also has two-stages of bass boost and something called 'Groove', which increase bass emphasis still further.

 

And so we come to DJ Mix Pro. There's Loop and Flash on CD playback, drum pads for adding percussive effects and hand claps, a beat function that mixes in a rhythmic background. Beat Jam synchronises rhythms to the sounds being played, and Random mode adds a variety of sampled sounds. In short there's hours of fun for all the family but it has nothing whatsoever to do with home cinema. If you're interested go try it for yourself.

 

One useful spin-off for home cinema from all this jiggery-pokery is that bass performance has been given a high priority. The RX110 is capable of delivering a hefty wallop of bass in all the right places whilst in DPL mode. The relative lack of importance of Pro Logic is well illustrated in the instruction book, which devotes a little over half a page to it, compared with almost two pages covering a minor karaoke function. 

 

Nevertheless, surround effects steering is very precise, the centre front dialogue channel in particular is very well defined, the surround channel is just about adequate but it can be left struggling to be heard when the front channels are wound up much past the halfway mark. Effects moving from the front to the rear also fall into a bit of a hole in the middle at higher volume levels but a lot will depend on where the speakers are mounted and in smaller rooms it shouldn't be a problem at all.

 

We suspect that the RX110's won't be selling on the strength of its home cinema facilities, it's the DJ effects that catch the eye and the ear but that is not to say it cannot hold its own in a surround sound role. Thanks to those DJ features it has a better than average bass response and that, coupled with a fast responsive DPL decoder gives it a useful edge. Of course the Sony name and the DJ Mix bits bump up the price but we feel it is not unreasonable for such a distinctive and well-appointed system.

 

CLOSE UP

Main Features             3 CD autochanger with 32 track memory, 3-band tuner with 30 presets, RDS decoder, twin auto reverse tape decks, 2 mode DPL, 4-mode DSP, manual equaliser, 2-stage bass boost, sleep/wake/record timer, DJ Mix functions (see text), karaoke microphone mixing, 5 speakers & cables 

 

Sockets                       line audio in/out (phono), headphones & microphone (minijack), main, centre, sub-woofer, surround speakers & AM antenna (spring terminals), FM antenna (coaxial), digital out (optical jack)

 

Dimensions                 280 x 365 x 405 mm

 

Sound Quality            *****

Features                     *****

Ease of use                 ***

 

Contact                       Sony UK Ltd., telephone 0181-784 1144

 

Critical Captions

 

Definitely different, though the 'professional' look is spoilt by too many lights

 

A more or less standard set of back-panel connections, the extra auxiliary input is a welcome feature

 

A bit on the skinny side but the remote is generally easy to use

 

VERDICT

Once again we are very pleased to report that our latest group test of budget and mid-priced Dolby Pro Logic mini system hasn't thrown up any old dogs. The general standard of performance build quality and value for money have all been very good indeed and all of the systems we've looked at will get anyone interested in upgrading their TV and VCR to home cinema operation off to a very good start.

 

The Akai TX-720 is a competent middle of the road system, the spec not terribly exciting but it more than makes up for the lack of gadgetry with a solid gutsy sound, lively surround and not forgetting that handy second auxiliary input. The JVC MX-D752 feels very much like an old friend and when it comes down to it, it's not that different from previous Adagio systems. Maybe we were expecting something a bit more radical, but in the end the D752 looks like a system that has had a fairly minor facelift. The RDS decoder and lower price are both very welcome and we've certainly no complaints about the hi-fi or home cinema performance but in such a closely matched group it could have done with just a little more 'fizz' to have lifted it above the crowd.

 

The Sony TX100 is brim full of character and we are in no doubt that the DJ Mix Pro facilities are going to attract a lot of attention. Unfortunately its home cinema talents are in danger of being left on the sidelines. The higher than average price will make it less appealing to those who simply want a home cinema and hi-fi system and are not interested in the fancy sound-mangling extras.

 

Because of the impressively low price the Aiwa NSX-AV320 is an easy nomination for best value system. If anyone had suggested to you a couple of years ago that a well specified Dolby Pro-Logic mini hi-fi systems would one day be selling for less than £250 you would have thought they were mad! Well, Aiwa have gone and done it, without making any serious compromises and this remarkable package has to be your first choice if you are watching the pennies.  

 

Philips has done it again putting together a superbly well specified system at a price you just can't argue with. We're still not quite sure about the cosmetics but those G-Shock speakers really are something a bit special. Another very good reason for liking the FW-775 is the fact that it can so easily switch between being a home cinema and a living room hi-fi, a feat very few of its rivals manage as well. If Philips had seen fit to endow it with a second auxiliary line input, who knows, it might even have made the top slot, but if you can live with that kind of restriction it surely deserves to seen and heard, before you finally make up your mind.   

 

The Sharp CD-C477 turned out to be a real showstopper, even when it is switched you just can't ignore it. However, the reason it heads up this group is simple, it's all down to the sub-woofer, punchy amplifier, and front speakers. Bass is the lifeblood of home cinema sound, without it movies -- particularly action blockbusters -- can end up sounding flat and uninteresting. The CD-477 has bass to spare. Movies you may have previously dismissed as dull can have the hairs on the back of your neck standing to attention when played through this system. Big bass is only part of the story though; the feature list contains some useful very extras, it looks the business and it's all yours for significantly less than £400.

 

BEST IN TEST

 

AIWA NSX-AV320, £250

You don't have to look far for the star budget buy. Aiwa systems have always been good value for money but they've excelled themselves this time. They're almost giving it away! The low price doesn't mean Aiwa has skimped on performance or facilities, quite the opposite in fact and the AV320 can hold its own against systems costing significantly more

 

SHARP CD-C477, £380

Sharp has obviously done their homework and worked out that what most home cinema fans want is to recreate the big movie theatre sound, and that means lots of bass. Including a sub-woofer in the package was an inspired move but pricing the system at or below that of rival systems puts it with reach of a much wider audience.

 

PHILIPS FW-775, 400

Let's face it, the FW-775 isn't going to win any beauty contest and those G-Shock speakers are not a pretty sight but this isn’t about looks. It is about sound performance, and in particular how it stacks up as a home cinema system so in that regard the 775 is a tough act to beat

 

RIVAL BUYS

 

Kenwood SE-A70, £1000

The system of choice if you put hi-fi performance on the same or a higher footing as home cinema. Yes, it is expensive but it's packed with useful features and gadgets, like the multi-brand two-way remote handset, five disc CD autochanger, voice activation, full-whack DSP, sub woofer and some of the smoothest bookshelf speakers in the business.

 

Teac Reference 500, £900

Another no-holds barred system for those seeking sonic excellence in both home cinema and audio-only applications. It looks serious too with the system built around four separate components. There's no frills, no gadgets to speak of just good old-fashioned quality, precision and power, and you have to supply your own speakers…

 

Yamaha AV-1, £650

The AV-1 is about as different as it is possible to get from the standard issue one-box mini stack system. The main control unit and CD player looks more like a video recorder, and the speakers are not much larger than matchboxes but combined with the mighty sub-woofer, it delivers a big, full-bodied sound, whether you're watching a movie or listening to a music CD.

 

TABLE

AIW            AKA            JVC            PHL            SHP            SON

££s                              250            350            300            400            380            500     

No. speakers              5            5            5            5            6            5

Sub-woofer                 -            -            -            SO            *            -

Power front                 2x37            2x90            2x45            2x120 2x50    2x100

Power rear                  25            90            25            40            25            25

Power centre              25            30            25            40            25            25

Power sub                   -            -            -            -            50            -

CD                              3A            3A            3A            3A            3A            3A

 

Sound                          ****            ***            ****            *****            ****            ****

Features                     ****            ***            ****            ****            ****            ****

Ease of use                 ****            ***            ****            ***            ****            ***

Verdict                        ****            ***            ****            ****            ****            ****

 

Table Comments

 

AIWA NSX-AV320

Basic hi-fi facilities but bags of glitz and three-quarters decent AV sound

 

AKAI TX-720

Worthy but a tad dull, compared with its flashier rivals

 

JVC MX-D752

A fine all-rounder hi-fi and AV system, and a good price!

 

PHILIPS FW-775

Sound great, looks, well, you decide…

 

SHARP CD-C477

A big home cinema sound, with looks to match

 

SONY MHC-RX110AV

It's different, both to look at and listen to…

 

 

---end---

ã R. Maybury 1999 1601

 

 

 

 

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