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Mention all-in-one home cinema packages to the discerning home cinema fan, and they're likely to look at you like you've soiled yourself in public. So what's a hardcore Japanese manufacturer like Denon doing not only slugging it out with Sanyo and JVC for mid-range buyers, but also flogging its wares for only £400? Thankfully, the answer is that it has found a way to bring its high-end expertise down to a budget level, with such success that the competition should just go home and have a cup of sake.
The DHT-500SD is extraordinary value for money. Every part of the package screams designer style, the audio quality is incredible and it has enough supported formats to make a mid-range AV receiver jealous. You don't need to be a genius to set it all up -- perhaps the lasting impression of the DHT-500SD is that it's unbelievably easy to use. If you want an excellent home cinema experience that you can get up and running within ten minutes, the DHT-500SD is the best option for under £500. Nothing else comes close.
There's something inherently wrong with calling a piece of electrical equipment 'sexy', but there's no other way to describe the glorious allure of the Denon speaker kit -- it's damn fine. The five satellites are finished with grooved aluminium sides and a cherrywood trim. They're certainly not the functional speakers most manufacturers would be content with. The subwoofer follows this classy design through to its logical conclusion, with a lightweight MDF construction and a cherrywood finish that surrounds the entire unit. It's small enough to tuck away, although it looks so nice you'll want it right beside your TV.
With all this fine craftsmanship going into the speaker set, it's a shame to find the DVD player uses the same dull aluminium construction as everything else on the market. It's quite big, which is to be expected due to the surround processing going on inside, but it doesn't have any distinguishing features. The silver styling may make it fit in with the rest of your AV equipment, but it's not going to attract any intrigued glances.
Connectivity is arguably more important to a DVD player than mere looks, and Denon doesn't disappoint. Component outputs may now be available on DVD players costing as little as £60, but it's still impressive when you find them on an all-in-one system. As flat screens gain popularity, the need to buy a player that can provide a good quality picture is paramount, and in this respect the DHT-500SD really shines. However, the rest of us haven't been forgotten either -- there's an RGB Scart video output and S-video to connect to analogue displays. All the speaker outputs are located on the rear, but if you ever decide to upgrade to a fancy AV receiver, you can output in digital via coaxial or optical cables.
If the player's dull and the speakers are wonderful, then the remote control is a cross between the two. First of all, it's big, but with Denon's Glo-Keys, the main action buttons all glow in the dark. And while the fascia is relatively busy with an assortment of different buttons, the fact that it can control other devices such as a TV, VCR and AV amp explains the deluge of keys.
When you consider the price of the system, the range of features is extraordinary. Not only can the system output vanilla Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1, but Denon has also crammed in DTS ES, DTS Discrete and Dolby Digital EX too. If you want to be greedy and add another speaker to the system, you can buy one for £50 and create a rear centre channel. Clever stuff, and with Dolby Pro Logic IIx and DTS Neo:6 thrown into the mix, you can do the same even from standard stereo sources. However, you'll have to connect the subwoofer to an AV receiver to use 6.1 audio, which negates the home-cinema-in-a-box idea.
Don't let all this advanced processing put you off -- the system is completely geared towards ease-of-use. Once you've plugged everything together, you can tell it what size of room you're using and where you're sitting in relation to the speakers, and the system will take care of the speaker optimisation. There's even a button that sends a test tone across all the speakers, just to make sure you've wired them in correctly. Most people shouldn't need this function -- setup of the system is a cinch, because all six speakers plug directly into the DVD player without needing an external power source.
The built-in radio is sadly not digital, but has support for FM and AM broadcasts with 30 presets each, plus support for RadioText to display the current station. You can also use the main unit as a way of inputting a variety of different sources, both by using the Scart as an input or via the two composite inputs. The idea must have been to reduce the need for a separate AV receiver or switching box, but the video quality of composite inputs leaves a lot to be desired.
The DHT-500SD also has a wide array of supported formats aside from standard DVD-video. It will play back MP3 files written to a CD or DVD, as well as music in WMA format that you have ripped in Windows Media Player. This is on top of support for Kodak Picture CD and JPEG images, although the latter isn't advertised anywhere on the box. SACD, DVD-audio and DivX playback would have been welcome, particularly with strong support for these formats from competitors like Pioneer, but at this price their omission is forgivable.
With a spectacular build quality and a features list longer than anything else in this category, the DHT-500SD was unlikely to disappoint when it comes to AV performance. DTS movies such as Master & Commander are a stupidly enjoyable experience, rich in detail and power. Each of the speakers (including the subwoofer) is rated at 100W, which translates to an awful lot of noise to throw around. Despite being a passive subwoofer (one that uses amplification from the main unit itself), it can create a suitably menacing tone when given the right movie, and if anything, you might need to tone it down slightly in the main menu. The front and centre speakers do a brilliant job with vocals, which sound natural and well balanced.
If you can use the component output, you'll be treated to an amazingly vibrant and detailed picture. The player is also PAL progressive-scan compatible, which means all Region 2 movies will look their very best, with no motion artefacting or juddering. Having said that, if you're using a plain old CRT TV, the picture quality is still excellent through RGB Scart, if a little bit more susceptible to colour bleeds and blurred edges.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide