Package deals: choosing a packaged surround sound system


Take the pain out of choosing a surround sound system with a packaged home theatre setup, writes Anthony Fordham.

When it comes to audio-visual gear, there are three kinds of person. First, there?s the person who?s just not that into movies or music. They buy a decent little TV, and an all-in-one music system to sit on the shelf and not dominate the whole living room. Then, there are the audiophiles, the people who spend the equivalent of a small hatchback on a killer AV setup, where seven speakers are barely enough and the very cables themselves need to be made of precious metals.

Then there?s the rest of us.

We know what we want – we want a modest home theatre system that, in the snugness of our living rooms, sounds nearly as good as a movie theatre. We want to spend a decent amount of money now, so we can save pots of cash over the years by buying a DVD for the cost of one-and-a-half movie tickets every time we want to be entertained. We want a system that works well for both movies and music. And if possible, we want to minimise the rat?s nest of cables behind our entertainment unit.

There are two approaches to take. One is to buy a very good all-in-one home theatre system. It comes in one (usually insanely huge) box, and all the bits plug into each other with a minimum of fuss. If you spend somewhere around $1,500, you?ll end up with a system that offers digital inputs and outputs, support for pretty much every video and audio standard you can think of short of the new HD formats, and the audio quality will be much better than anything you?ve heard before.

Of course, your audiophile friends will poo-poo this, since they believe getting serious about home cinema means installing component-level devices. Fortunately, some manufacturers offer component packages, selecting an AV receiver, DVD player and a set of speakers for you.

The advantage of this is you get very high-quality gear chosen by professionals, plus all the badges match too. The disadvantage is that, when you spend $1,500, you get gear from the lower end of the high quality range.

It?s the bottom of the cream – still extremely good quality, but you may miss out on things like HDMI or flexibility when it comes to digital audio. But the quality of the audio will be considerably higher than through an all-in-one system, and since you?ll be using a component DVD player, visual quality for movies will also be somewhat better.

So it?s a bit of a toss-up: an all-in-one system will be slimmer and neater and integrate less obtrusively into your living room. A component package will give better results, but you might miss out on HDMI. Both approaches will give you more or less the same number of inputs and outputs, with the component package probably having more analog inputs, which may suit you if you have some older equipment you still want to use.

Audio video?

You?ll notice in the language above that appreciating the performance of a home theatre package is biased toward audio. Certainly, two systems can offer almost identical video performance while varying wildly in audio.

Obviously it?s your display that does most of the hard work when it comes to video. However, getting the video signal to said display is also important. These new home theatre systems include circuitry that upsamples low resolution video, such as that from a VCR or bog standard DVD player, for output to an HD display.

A common example is the ability of some receivers to take a 576i or 720p signal (from VCR, analog TV broadcast or, on the latter case, a DTV receiver) and upsample it to 1080i. Of course you need a display that can take advantage of this, but the results are impressive and it?s definitely functionality to look out for at the higher end.