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If the prospect of building your own separates system is all too daunting, then an all-in-one alternative offers a convenient escape clause -- all you need to do is add a TV and you're away. Home-cinema-in-a-box systems may not equal the performance of separates but they are increasingly popular for their ease of use and affordability.
Compared to other systems available for around £300, Pioneer's DCS-360 is an outstanding example. You get a more generous speaker package featuring floor-standing speakers and it's one of the few budget systems that can claim HDMI connectivity, which allows you to play near high-definition quality 720p or 1080i pictures.
If you've recently bought an HD Ready flat screen and want to supplement the sound and vision, without spending too much, it's an excellent option. Picture performance is unrivalled at this price, and although the sound is less impressive, it's still well worth it.
While most budget home-cinema systems are restricted by small satellite speakers, Pioneer's DCS-360 catches the eye with a far more substantial setup, featuring floor-standing cabinets.
The front and rear channels consist of four aptly named 'tall-boy' speakers, which tower over typical systems at this price. The attractive design features slender black-wood cabinets with a lacquered front panel that gives the system presence, especially alongside a large-screen display. The oversized dimensions also enhance sound performance with greater dynamics and bass extension than smaller speakers are capable of.
Completing the 5.1-speaker configuration is a compact centre channel that can be easily placed above or below your screen and a reasonable-sized passive subwoofer -- both finished in silver to match the main unit.
Considering both DVD player and surround-sound receiver functions are conveniently housed in a single unit, the design is surprisingly slimline. The softly contoured edges and minimal, chromed controls on the front panel are elegantly styled and supported by peerless connectivity (for the cost).
To say it's a surprise to find a sub-£300 system with HDMI connectivity is an understatement. Provided you have a compatible digital display, this direct digital connection allows you to play upscaled 720p and 1080i images for optimum performance. However, owners of non-HD Ready TVs will have to rely on a single RGB Scart, as component outputs and therefore progressive-scan video have been ignored altogether.
Equally unusual for a budget system is the inclusion of a USB port on the front panel. This allows you to access images and sound from a variety of external devices, including your PC's magnetic hard drive, portable flash memory sticks and digital audio players -- with support for MP3, WMA, MPEG-4 and JPEG files. Digital camera owners will be able to view pictures as a slideshow accompanied by music if they so desire.
The remaining space on the rear panel is taken up by a set of 5.1 speaker outputs, which feature one-touch, colour-coded terminals to ease installation. There is also a pair of stereo inputs that can be used to source sound from your TV, which can then be processed and listened to in multi-channel surround sound.
The small remote is overcrowded and the uniform appearance of keys can be confusing until you've become used to the arrangement -- but it's still easier than using different remotes for separate devices.
The Pioneer DCS-360 is an all-in-one solution that conveniently integrates a DVD player, home-cinema amplifier and AM/FM tuner within a single unit. It may not offer the same performance as a separates system, but as an affordable and easy-to-use alternative it's ideal.
You can play a variety of discs including standard DVDs and CDs as well as encoded + or -R/RW formats carrying MP3, WMA, JPEG and DivX files. An integrated image processor allows you to upscale standard definition DVDs to 720p and 1080i high-definition standards -- great if you have an HD Ready display with digital connectivity.
The surround amplifier is a digital design that offers greater efficiency, lower power consumption and less signal deterioration than conventional analogue models. Each of the six speakers claim an impressive 60W of amplification, which is enough to satisfy most normal-sized living rooms and, at high levels, really annoy your neighbours.
The DCS-360 offers a supporting cast of standard processing and decoding algorithms used for surround sound. Vanilla Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS formats will automatically decode soundtracks used in practically all DVD films, and you can add surround effects to stereo sources using Dolby Pro Logic II processing. There are also several preset sound modes such as Action or Rock, which can be used according to what you're listening to.
The radio tuner will receive both AM and FM stations and lets you save up to 30 station presets. Most FM broadcasts also carry RDS (Radio Data System) information that provides details such as station name and allows you to search for stations playing a particular genre of music.
Setting up surround systems can be a laborious and time-consuming task, but the Pioneer's basic functionality, allied with a clear menu system and a thoughtful remote, makes the ordeal relatively painless. You need only manually adjust speaker levels using a test tone and input speaker distances to calculate delay settings before the system is ready to use.
If you have a digitally compatible display then the Pioneer DCS-360's image quality outperforms practically any other system available at this price. Using the HDMI output to deliver upscaled 720p images produces impeccably clean pictures with meticulous detail and superb contrast. Colours are beautifully balanced between natural and vibrant shades, while movement glides across the screen without stuttering or streaming.
As expected, standard-definition images using the alternative RGB Scart connection are less stirring. Detail is softer and movement occasionally struggles with slow pans, but decent black levels and unbiased colours ensure images are still commendable.
While the picture can be considered class-leading, however, the system is less impressive sonically. The sound is composed with plenty of detailed expression from the midrange and doesn't falter when faced with high volumes. But the cohesion between speakers during challenging scenes can become confused, with the ambient effects from the rear channels too conspicuous. Nonetheless, it still compares favourably with equivalent systems and with picture performance this good, it's a system to be reckoned with.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide