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Marantz NR 1403 - AV receiver - 5.1 channel
If your TV's typically lame speakers are stopping you from enjoying film scores as they should be heard, then it could be time to consider a home cinema system.
These systems offer all-in-one convenience that cuts out the confusion of buying separates while saving you time and money. For around £200 online, JVC's TH-P7 is incredibly affordable and puts in a good performance with both pictures and surround sound. Build quality and design are unimpressive, though, and the exclusion of HDMI means it's far from future-proof.
The design features the all-in-one convenience of a single unit complemented by tall, floor-standing speakers that give the system an illusion of authority compared to typical models at this price.
The brains and the brawn of the system reside in the broad main unit, which integrates a disc player, AM/FM tuner and 6-channel digital amplifier with integrated processing. Average build quality and uninspired styling mean the unit isn't much to look at, but the surprisingly slim dimensions could be described as sleek and discreet.
At the front is a USB terminal that allows you to access music, video and still photo files from a variety of media players or storage devices. It's a useful convergent feature that's gaining popularity with home cinema devices and offers a wider range of entertainment options in this digital age.
Basic connectivity is conspicuous by the absence of a digital HDMI output, which limits performance if you own a compatible HD Ready display. JVC probably presumes that most budget buyers are still using conventional displays, but the exclusion of HDMI could carry repercussions in the future.
Consequently, there's no integrated video scaling, but you can play progressive scan images using the component video connections, and the Direct Digital progressive outputs negate the need for analogue conversion, which claims to reduce signal loss and improve image quality. Standard users will have to rely on a single RGB-enabled Scart as the only other available video output. There are no dedicated audio inputs, so you'll need to make a Scart connection if you want to listen to TV through the speakers.
The four main speakers feature tall, slim designs that can be positioned at different heights using accompanying floor stands, or mounted on the wall if you prefer. The cabinets are roughly constructed and finished in silver with a fixed material grille that looks and feels economical. The centre speaker is comparatively smaller and almost entirely assembled from plastic materials. All speakers feature easy-to-use spring clip terminals, although colour-coded terminals would ease the installation process.
The 5.1 configuration is completed by a passive subwoofer that's similarly styled but incredibly small. The side-firing design offers flexible positioning -- especially for corner placements -- and at least the compact dimensions mean it can be concealed out of sight.
Like all budget home cinema in-a-box designs, this system offers affordable flexibility and fuss-free functionality. You can use this system to play both DVDs and CDs, including recording -R/RW formats that carry WMA, JPEG, MP3, MPEG-4 and DivX Ultra files. USB hosting allows you to directly access digital files from portable media players or any other USB Mass Storage Class device.
The integrated 6-channel amplifier features a digital design that offers less signal degradation and more efficient power consumption than typical analogue models. The total power output of 360W isn't exceptionally high, but it's enough to fill an average sized room.
On-board Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS decoding will deliver surround sound formats from virtually all DVD films, while Dolby Pro Logic II processing and All Channel Stereo allow you listen to stereo sources in multi-channel. There's also a Stadium mode that will process surround sound from stereo TV sports programmes, creating greater awareness of the atmosphere without dulling the commentary.
The integrated radio tuner features 30 memory presets for FM stations and 15 presets for AM stations. Most FM stations also carry RDS (Radio Data System) signals that provide useful information and allow you to search for stations more easily.
As mentioned, video playback is restricted to progressive scan so owners of the latest flat-screen displays could be swayed by similarly priced models that feature video upscaling and digital connectivity.
Although setting up the system is relatively simple using the bland but uncomplicated menu system, it's not aided by the diminutive remote. There isn't enough space on the stubby design to accommodate all controls and several keys have dual functions, which means you have to shift between controls and constantly search for the right key.
While both sound and picture performance is unlikely to astonish you, the system's competent, all-round ability still deserves praise for the price.
The multi-channel performance is engaging and expansive, using carefully controlled surround effects that add subtlety and ambience without being overwhelming. Dialogue is reasonably detailed and expressive from the centre channel, while the accompanying speakers are surprisingly commanding -- although the insubstantial subwoofer loses composure with explosive content.
As a surround sound system, the speakers are effective but stereo listening is restricted by limited dynamics and off-pace timing that leaves challenging tracks sounding slightly one-dimensional.
Picture quality is enhanced by evenly balanced, natural colours and delicate gradations between shades. Black levels are deep enough to coax decent detail and contrast, especially using progressive scan, and images are reasonably stable in all but the most complex scenes.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Kate Macefield