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Home theatre system reviews

Home theatre marketing claims don't always live up to the reality.
 
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01 .Introduction

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We test the latest all-in-one home theatre systems, priced from $699 to $1499.

Through our rigorous testing, we reveal which home theatre systems:

  • have the best sound quality
  • are the easiest to use, and
  • have the lowest standby energy consumption.

On this page:

If you want the spaceship in a movie sounds like it’s roaring over your head, you need a home theatre system with multiple speakers and a system that can process the sound. However, a true cinema experience at home can cost several thousand dollars and often complex speaker adjustments.

If you don’t want to spend this much on a custom system, you may be satisfied with a combination player/receiver setup with speakers included. These systems, also known as cinema in a box (CIB), offer a value compromise that may satisfy some users.

CHOICE tested seven CIBs, five of which have a BD (Blu-ray disk) player built into the receiver unit and five speakers plus a subwoofer to help with low frequencies.

To help you decide what you need, we've put together an article on buying a home theatre system with advice on what to consider before you head out to the store.

Video: Home theatre system review

We take a look at whether a home entertainment system is worth buying.

Brands and models tested

LG BH7530WB
LG BH9530TW
Panasonic SC-BTT880
Panasonic SC-HTB770
Philips HTL9100
Samsung HT-E6750W
Samsung HT-F9750W

How we test

The listening panel is made up of at least three people with a background in either sound engineering or production. They’re aware of the average price point of the products, but do not know the specific price point of each set of speakers. They listen to the same tracks at the same peak volume level through each system and agree on a score for each type of input.

Each set of speakers is positioned in the same locations around the listening position and at around head height, except for the subwoofer, which is on the floor. The room is about 5m x 4m x 2.5m (D x W x H) and is acoustically treated to approximate a reasonably sound absorbent lounge room.

We also conduct some technical tests such as frequency response, which tests how well the speakers produce tones evenly, and maximum output level, where we feed a signal to the speaker and measure the outcome.

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See the CHOICE guide to digital TV for a good background on what's new and our video on home theatre audio basics

Upscaling

Upscaling converts one video format to another of a higher resolution. The CIBs on test that support this feature attempt to improve the standard 576i picture of a DVD movie and upscale the image to 1080p.

3D Ready

The arrival of Blu-ray and 3D Blu-ray movies is making big demands on all parts of a home theatre setup. The HDMI standard of 1.4 has been introduced to help provide a framework to ensure there are no bottlenecks between the player, AV receiver, and the TV when moving those large amounts of information.

AV/lip sync

AV/lip sync allows for the difference in video and sound processing in some home theatre setups, which is responsible for a lack of “lip sync”. This potentially off-putting effect can be more pronounced when mixing analog, such as component video with digital audio from the same DVD player. All models on test have this feature.

Wireless rear speakers

Wireless rear speakers are useful if you can’t get cabling to the back or your room; the Panasonic, Samsung LG and Sony models offer wireless speakers, although you'll still need a power outlet nearby.

Standard speaker connections

Standard speaker connections allow you to upgrade your speakers if you want better sound than the standard speakers included in most CIBs. In models with non-standard connections, this task is more difficult. 721-wtlf001wtlf-721-001

Automatic calibration with microphone

Automatic calibration with microphone is a great help when setting up a system, using the microphone to take an acoustic map of the room and making the appropriate adjustments in the speaker delays to give you the best possible sound for your room. However, some units may not recognise all the speakers and adjustments may need to be made manually.

Network connectivity

Network connectivity is becoming a regular feature of Blu-ray players, as internet connectivity is now part of the latest Blu-ray standard. Access to YouTube, Picasa and other social network applications is available on systems with a LAN (Ethernet) connection. DLNA means the home theatre system can also operate media such as video, images and audio on other DLNA devices on your home network.

Tuner (Analog)

An FM radio tuner is included in all the models on test, with an AM/FM tuner for the models without a DVD/BD player. None of the units incorporates a Digital Audio Broadcast (DAB+) radio.

Digital audio

Digital audio without video can be delivered via either an optical (TOSLINK) or a coaxial (RCA) cable if you don't use HDMI. It doesn't matter which you use, so long as the receiver and the device to be attached have the same type of connector. All models on test have at least one of each.

HDMI (High Definition Multimedia Interface)

HDMI is a digital connection via a single cord that does everything for both sound and vision. It's very handy, provides excellent quality sound and vision, and saves clutter. Version 1.3a means it can deal with a DVD or Blu-ray disc, while HDMI version 1.4 may be needed if you want the full effect of the latest 3D Blu-ray movies. All these units have a single HDMI output for a direct connection to a TV, while some models have multiple HDMI inputs to accommodate devices such as games consoles and media players.  

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It’s impossible to measure sound quality objectively in a store, but you can rely on your own hearing to a large degree. Take along a CD or DVD to play with music you know well, and don’t be afraid to turn it up loud. Even though you may rarely listen to music at high volume, it will be very disappointing if the product you buy can’t hack it when you throw a party.

Listen for smooth transitions from low to high notes. Low notes shouldn’t be boomy or have only one tone, while highs shouldn’t be harsh or screechy. If the store has a listening room, ask for the speakers to be placed in roughly the sort of configuration they’re likely to be in your room. Where it’s not possible to hear the system before you take it home, get the store to agree that you can bring it back if you’re unhappy with the sound.

Media formats

If you’re looking for a system with a BD player, check it can handle all the music and video formats you’re likely to play, and supports all the regions you’re likely to buy DVDs from. If you have need for a particular format, it’s a good idea to take a disc to the store to make sure it will play.

Connections

Check the connections you’ll need to hook up to your TV. If the system needs separate power for the subwoofer or rear speaker, do you have enough power points? Check all the connectors and cables needed are included; they were in most of the boxed products on test.

Display and controls

Display and controls on the main unit should also be easy to understand and use so you can still use the system should you misplace the remote.

6.1 and 7.1 systems

The idea behind these systems is that extra speakers improve the system’s ability to localise sounds and smooth transitions as sounds move around the room. This may be the case, but movies are mixed for 5.1 surround sound and extra speakers won't necessarily improve the quality of the sound.

Wall mounts

Wall mounts can make it easier to place the speakers where they're most effective in the room. 

Subwoofers

Subwoofers are bulky objects that sit on the floor, but they may not be as robust as they look. Downward firing models have the speaker facing the floor with a relatively small opening at the bottom. This might offer some protection if you have pets who like sharpening their claws on fabric, or children who may push sharp items or their fingers into a forward-facing speaker.

How we test

Listening panel

Our tester sets up each system so the front speakers are 2.1m, centre speakers are 2.4m and the surround speakers are 1.4m from the listener and at head height. Any non-tower speakers are placed on speaker stands near head height. He positions the subwoofer on the floor close to the right front speaker. Three expert panellists then appraise the sound quality when playing stereo sound, DVD surround-sound music, and a DVD surround-sound movie sequence. Among other things, they listen for:

  • distortion
  • fidelity - how accurately the speakers can reproduce the content
  • how well the subwoofer deals with low frequencies, and
  • whether there's a seamless crossover from the speakers to the subwoofer at lower frequencies.

They move around to check the size of the sweet spot (where the sound balances and sounds best), and assess the ability of the system to localise individual sounds so they appear to be coming from a particular direction.

Frequency response

Our tester carries out frequency response tests to show the system’s ability to produce tones across the spectrum of human hearing (from 20Hz to 20kHz). We look at the linearity of the response and how they perform at the top end. Failure to produce tones evenly can result in unpleasant sounds or even loss of some frequencies. The results of this test may be less relevant than our listening panel results, because these tests are carried out at volumes that are at the limits of the speakers’ ability to produce sounds with minimal distortion.

Maximum output level (MOL)

Within the soundroom (a sound floor of 20dB) we connect each of one of the front speakers, surround speakers, the centre and sub to our reference amplifier at a time. The amplifier is fed a calibrated signal by our test suite. We place a calibrated sound meter at a distance of 250mm from each speaker. The sound meter provides input to the test suite. The test suite produces a tone sweep of approximately 150Hz to 20kHz and measures sound pressure level and total harmonic distortion. We know the maximum sound pressure level at 250mm and 3% total harmonic distortion and therefore can calculate the maximum listening distance at that same distortion level. We use a multimeter at the speaker to measure the voltage applied to the speaker. Using the voltage measured and the resistance in ohms stated on the speaker, we calculate the current.

Ease of use

The tester looks at the front panel display and controls, onscreen displays where applicable, ease of setting up and whether the documentation supplied is clear and useful. The power used in standby mode or equivalent (when it’s been turned off by the remote control but is still connected to the power) is measured using specially calibrated meters – the less power used, the better. To see how well systems with Blu-ray players can handle a BD with imperfections, the tester plays our specially-made test disc in each system with a BD player.

Remote control

Our tester looks at how well the sizing, spacing, colour-coding, and grouping of the keys helps the user distinguish between one operation and another. He also looks at the size of the print on each key and whether any keys are illuminated when operating in low light conditions. The remote should have all the necessary functions for using the system so the user doesn't need to keep getting up to change settings.

DVD/BD evaluation

DVD and Blu-ray evaluation is carried out by our tester, Scott O'Keefe. We test the load times of each model three times to verify how long it takes for the player to begin displaying content.

Standby power

Standby power is measured by connecting the AV receivers to a regulated power supply and power meter, and records standby energy consumption.

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