Home Theater in a Box
But what really matters is how they perform once you pop in a DVD, so I enlisted the aid of the second Harry Potter movie, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. If any of these systems still enchanted me when the closing credits rolled, there was a good chance it could convince any magic-deprived muggles out there that it would bring their movies and music to life.
The Denon DHT-1000DV most resembles a conventional component system, while the Panasonic SC-ST1 and Yamaha DVX-S100 both show a real flair for flashy design. With its slim, vertical orientation, the Panasonic unquestionably wins the styling award, while the Yamaha takes the prize for ease of installation. It might have a separate DVD player and a control unit, but the Sharp system is so compact that it qualifies as a home theater version of the popular executive desktop audio systems.
Good looks aren't the only thing these systems have in common-they each have six speakers, including a subwoofer, and share a lot of the same features. All provide everything you need to enjoy a DVD or CD within an hour after you open the box. For instance, they all include a minimum of 10 feet of cable to go from the control unit to the front speakers and at least 30 feet for the surround speakers.
All four systems have Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1-channel decoding, and all offer a progressive-scan component-video output as well as composite- and S-video. All include digital audio inputs and outputs for CD and MiniDisc (MD) recorders, although you'll need a Y adapter to connect a recorder to the Sharp. The control units with the Denon and Yamaha systems have enough inputs and outputs so you can connect both a VCR and a satellite receiver. And the remote controls supplied with each system will also operate your TV-the Denon and Yamaha remotes even let you operate other components.
The lengthy instruction manuals explain not only how to assemble the systems, but also how to access and adjust essential settings (like screen aspect ratio) and the numerous bonus features meant to enhance the quality of your audio or video. The Denon and Sharp also include quick setup/speaker-placement guides. None of the manuals are as spellbinding as a Harry Potter book, and some make Rules of the Road seem lively.
For each system, I connected the progressive-scan component-video output to my 42-inch Toshiba widescreen rear-projection HDTV monitor. I placed the front left/right speakers about 9 inches to either side of the TV and the center speaker on top. All of the surrounds were positioned to the sides and slightly behind the listening position in my 15 x 24-foot home theater. I placed the subwoofer to the left of the TV, near the corner.
Panasonic SC-ST1 Bang & Olufsen, eat your heart out-the innovative Panasonic SC-ST1 looks that good. It's the only system here to come in two boxes-one for the control unit mounted on its floor stand and the other for the speakers. The eye-pleasing main unit, which is about the size of a violin case but thinner, houses all the control functions and a front-loading disc player. Since Panasonic assumes you'll typically operate the system using the 54-key remote control, there are only 12 keys on top of the unit. To keep it slim, the amplifiers are relegated to the compact subwoofer enclosure.The slender, silvery plastic left/right front and surround speakers can be placed on shelves, hung on walls, or mated with matching floor stands. The Panasonic system's horizontal center speaker is svelte enough to sit atop virtually any TV, while the rear-ported subwoofer stands on end so that it's much taller than wide.
To deal with all of those formats, the SC-ST1 has an exceptional number of multilayered onscreen menus. It also offers no fewer than four digital video noise-reduction modes (with three or four steps each), five picture modes (Soft, Fine, Mellow, Sharp, and Normal), a choice between interlaced and progressive-scan video (with one video and two film modes), and contrast, brightness, sharpness, color, and gamma controls, which you normally expect to find on a TV. There are also five picture presets: Standard TV (that is, direct-view), CRT Projector, LCD TV/Projector, Plasma, and Projection TV. There's no explanation as to whether you should use CRT Projector or Projection TV with a tube-based rear-projection set, so I used the Projection TV setting.
Along with Dolby Digital, DTS, and Dolby Pro Logic (but not Pro Logic II), Panasonic provides its own Super Surround, seven synthesized ambience modes, and two degrees of Center Focus to enhance movie dialogue. There are also three levels of something called Re-master, which Panasonic says improves treble playback from standard CDs and restores the high frequencies that are lost in MP3 and WMA encoding.
Given all of the other controls, it's surprising that the system doesn't let you set precise speaker levels and delay times. You can roughly balance the surrounds with the front channels, however, and set delays for the center and surround channels in large increments. You could physically set up the system in 20 minutes, even with the unlabeled speaker cables, but it might take an hour to click through the maze of onscreen menus.
The speaker cables are basic narrow-gauge wire with easily distinguishable untinned copper and aluminum conductors to keep the phasing straight. All of the speakers, except the sub, have spring-clip terminals. Assuming that you can tell the long cables from the short ones, Panasonic doesn't label them for their respective positions, and none of them are terminated with any sort of plugs. The control unit connects to the subwoofer through a thick cable with computer-style multipin D plugs-the same cable also powers the player/receiver.
The clearly labeled remote control has logically arrayed keys in three shapes, with a large enter key surrounded by four cursor keys. The relatively small keys are spaced far enough apart even for fat fingers.
After setting all of the controls to normal except the subwoofer level, which I set to its maximum, I let Harry Potter play Quiddich in my theater. The video impressed me more than the audio. There were no obvious picture artifacts no matter how fast Harry zoomed or the camera panned. The colors were solid, and the deeply saturated hues showed little noise. Impressive details punctuated every scene. For instance, the fine strands of Hermione's hair were clearly visible in the scene just before the Quiddich match. And the transition between layers on the DVD was almost imperceptible-a nice change from many players I've used.
The audio was clean with a modest upper-midrange peak. The surround effects spun my head as the rogue Bludger ball tore around the stadium. But the surround speakers had fairly narrow dispersion, so there was some localization. Pointing the speakers slightly away from the listening position helped. The Chamber of Secrets creaks and rattles with subtle effects ranging from chains to birdcages, and the Panasonic clanged and pinged faithfully. This system played at a respectable level, but not with the boneshaking, earthquaking intensity often associated with home theater.
Since the SC-ST1 plays DVD-Audio discs, I gave the DVD-A release of Neil Young's Harvest a spin. The lush sound totally surrounded me, and at higher levels than when playing Harry Potter. But the disc's strange mix made me feel like I was inside Young's head, with his voice seeming to come at me at the same level from all five speakers. And I had to turn down the subwoofer a couple of notches to maintain a reasonable tonal balance.
Because I've heard her in person many times and am very familiar with her voice, I used Dar Williams's new CD, The Beauty of the Rain, for my two-channel listening. Surprisingly, the music sounded much smoother and more natural in Super Surround than in two-channel stereo. For the same amount of money, you could get a better-sounding two-channel music system, but you wouldn't be getting the SC-ST1's respectable surround sound capabilities-and probably not its style.