The Return of The Gear Guy

While it's relatively easy to find good components, it's a lot harder to find ways to get them to play nice with each other. And that challenge has only gotten greater as components have become more complex and setups more elaborate. But our Gear Guy spends all his time putting together systems and making them work, and here he selects three first-rate rigs, all assembled from components we've reviewed.

Dear Gear Guy: My wife and I love movies, but we're sick of dishing out $20 each at the local cinema for a ticket, a Coke, and some stale popcorn only to sit through a film that's played so quietly you can't hear it over all the people talking in the audience! We'd rather enjoy a DVD in our living room, curled up on the sofa. Also, our VCR has gone to the Great Blockbuster in the Sky, but we're never home on Thursday nights, and missing Survivor and The Apprentice isn't an option. We don't want the electronics to dominate the room, and we can't let our first-class dreams exceed our coach budget - we have around $4,000 to spend. Happier at Home

Dear Happier: I feel your pain. Fortunately, replicating the theater experience at home - without the sticky floors and overpriced goodies - keeps getting cheaper and easier to do.

For a truly cinematic experience, nothing beats a front projector. Its giant image will have you thinking your room has been transformed into the holodeck! But before you clutch your wallet like an over-protective mama grizzly, consider the InFocus ScreenPlay 4805 (see "Big-screen Megabargains"). It offers enhanced-definition rather than full high-def resolution, but Al Griffin was impressed with its crisp picture and natural colors. Watching Wild at Heart on DVD, he said: "In a shot of the newly paroled Sailor waiting outside the penitentiary for Lula, the sunlight beating down on his all-black outfit brought out a range of subtle dark tones." Al and I might not like the same kinds of movies, but you can't argue with that kind of detail.

To squeeze every ounce of performance from your projector, you need a good screen. And you'll want a motorized design that disappears when not in use. Vutec's Lectric I - a 92-inch (diagonal) model with a widescreen 16:9 aspect ratio - has a 12-volt trigger to automatically roll it down or up when the projector is turned on or off. Best of all, the Vutec will show off everything the ScreenPlay has to offer.

But front projectors work best in a dark space. If your room gets a lot of light, you might want to add a regular TV for daytime viewing. Sony's 30-inch KV-30HS420 HDTV ($999, see "HDTV on the Cheap") would be a perfect choice. Reviewer David Katzmaier found it to be razor sharp, delivering every dot of detail in every DVD he tried. (Sacrificing the ScreenPlay's big-screen thrills for the Sony would hold the system ticket to about $2,300.)

Ultimately, movies can only sound as good as your speakers, and Rich Warren found Paradigm's Cinema 110 home theater speaker system appealing both sonically and visually. It has dipole surrounds, which radiate sound from both sides of the cabinet instead of just the front, creating theaterlike ambience. Rich said that the soundtrack of King Arthur "flowed out of the Cinema 100 sub like a deep ocean current" and that "the system as a whole created a wide, deep, and enveloping sound field, with the dialogue rock solid front and center."

An A/V receiver with all the features of Pioneer's VSX-815 (see "Cost Control") would have cost thousands a few years ago, but progress has reduced its price to less than $400. David Ranada called it a bargain that makes it easy to get great sound from your speakers. And a low price doesn't have to mean poor performance - David found that the Pioneer produced enough power to fill all but the largest rooms with sound.

That same shiny DVD disc you love for playing movies will ensure you never miss your favorite boardroom tussles and island escapades again. For only $200, Panasonic's DMR-ES10 DVD recorder (see "DVD Recorders on the Cheap") performs recording and playback tricks that are usually only possible with a TiVo-like hard-disk recorder. David Ranada praised the DMR-ES10 for its "fine video performance and versatile editing system," making this one machine that won't get voted off the island!

The Price Tag
InFocus Screenplay 4805 front projector ($1,299) with Vutec Lectric I 92-inch motorized screen ($910) Paradigm Cinema 110 speaker system ($799) Pioneer VSX-815 digital surround receiver ($365) Panasonic DMR-ES10 DVD recorder ($200) Total: $3,573