When they first appeared at the beginning of the decade, home-theater-in-a-box systems (HTIBs) were revolutionary for taking everything you needed for a basic home theater system--an amp, five speakers, a subwoofer, and maybe even the DVD player--and wrapping it all together in one convenient box, leaving you to just add a TV to the equation. But as the HTIB market became commoditized, manufacturers were left to up the ante with more original "lifestyle-friendly" designs that deliver better features and more attractive designs. The JVC DD-3 Sophisti is a perfect case in point. The stylish unit employs a unique virtual surround configuration that forgoes the need for rear speakers (and the wires that go with them), instead offering just two tiny front speakers, a center channel, and a subwoofer, plus a main unit with a DVD player. The DD-3 comes with slender, somewhat cylindrical front speakers that look to be designed specifically for those that don't like the traditional boxy look. There's no denying that the system has an elegant look to it, but with a list price of $1,000, it's tough to get by on looks alone. In fact, the DD-3 performed better than we expected given its tiny speakers, but those that appreciate audio performance can certainly get more for their money (although it won't look as nice). For design-conscious buyers, the DD-3 is definitely worth a long look if you've got the budget.
Aesthetic appeal is the top priority of the JVC DD-3 Sophisti. The 3.1-channel home theater system features three sticklike front speakers--two vertical (left and right front channels), one horizontal (center channel), and a stylish sub with some glossy black accents. There's also the "head unit" that combines the receiver, amplifier, and DVD player. The head unit is mostly covered in black gloss with silver trim along the edges. It houses the receiver/DVD player, and under the flip-down panel is a USB port, headphone jack, and a minijack input and output.
The left and right speakers are two-way designs, featuring a 3.75x0.44-inch direct drive driver (which JVC claims delivers a wider sound field) as well as a 0.81-inch dome tweeter. The center speaker features the same direct drive speaker, and the subwoofer is armed with a 6.31-inch cone--somewhat small, even by HTIB standards.
The DD-3 has a built-in DVD player and is equipped with the standard Dolby Digital, Dolby Pro Logic II, and DTS surround decoding options, although it cannot reproduce true Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks without six discrete speakers. Instead, the DD-3 creates an approximation of a surround sound field from the available four channels (including the subwoofer). There are three different sound processing modes the DD-3 uses: Movie/M.Music for movies and multichannel music, Wide/2chMusic to widen the soundstage on two channel music, and Super Wide to create an even wider soundstage.
The real omission is the bare-bones support for AV inputs. There are three audio inputs (one stereo analog input, one optical digital audio input and--on the front panel--a minijack input) but there are no video inputs. That means you won't be able to do any video switching to integrate any external equipment--say a cable or satellite box, or a game system. Of course, you can run the audio to the DD-3 and the video to the TV, but that involves a lot of remote fumbling or buying a good universal remote. For comparison, the stylish Sony DAV-X1V 2.1 HTIB has two AV inputs with S-Video and we've seen it going for as low as $600 online (although it has some video switching issues too).
Like every other HTIB, the DD-3 includes an AM/FM tuner along with the ability to save 30 FM presets and 15 AM presets. There's no support for satellite radio or HD radio.
You'll also note there's an Ethernet port on the back, which is used for the network media playing functionality of the DD-3. The DD-3 is basic as a network player, offering support for LPCM, WAV, MP3, and WMA audio file types. For video files, it can play ASF, DivX, MPEG1, and MPEG2 files--while photo support is limited to just JPEG files. That certainly doesn't stack up to the best standalone network media players, but for basic streaming it should get the job done. We were disappointed to find that it couldn't play non-DRM 256kpbs AAC files purchased from the iTunes store.
We started off our listening tests with Pat Martino's East! CD. It took only a quick cycling through the surround options to realize that leaving the surround mode off was clearly preferable for standard stereo music. We have to admit we were a little skeptical given the size of the speakers, but they fared pretty well--at least in a midsize room. We were able to pump the DD-3 up pretty loud and it continued to deliver detail and clarity without breaking up on Pat's intricate guitar phrasings. In fact, we felt the subwoofer was actually more of the choke point--when we pushed the volume up it started to get a little boomy and less musical than we'd like. Luckily the DD-3 allows you to adjust the levels of each of the speakers, so we were able to dial the sub in a little better, but we couldn't get the acoustic bass to sound just right.
We swapped out the DD-3's left and right speakers with a pair of older, standard Onkyo HTIB speakers to compare. Ultimately, we definitely preferred the boxy Onkyo speakers, as they were a little less bright and sounded more natural--the DD-3 can sound a little harsh at times. The harshness was also apparent on more aggressive music like Jeff Beck's Truth album, where the Onkyo speakers were more listenable over long periods.
We also watched Serenity, and the DD-3 did a decent job approximating the surround experience, although it's definitely not one of the best at creating a faux-surround soundstage from less than six speakers. Of course, no front-only system is really going to compete with actual surround speakers. That said, the DD-3 does benefit nicely from the center channel--which many virtual surround HTIBs lack--and we could easily make out all the dialogue, which was placed right in the center of the soundstage. We were also able to crank the system up pretty loud. It was just about enough to fill out the medium-size testing facility, and the sub was able to deliver enough bass when the action picked up.
In all, the sound quality on the DD-3 is pretty solid, given the admittedly lower expectations we have for a virtual surround HTIB. As with any HTIB, compromises have been made and audiophiles won't be ditching their full 5.1 systems anytime soon. The DD-3 definitely sounds better when playing DVDs, but that knock can be applied to almost every HTIB.
Moving on to video, we started off our testing of the DD-3's DVD upconversion by looking at Silicon Optix's HQV test suite. The test didn't start off very well--it failed the initial resolution test, which means it cannot display the full resolution of DVDs. Where we should have seen detail, there were flashing boxes, and several of the lines were unstable. Things didn't go so well after that--there were tons of nasty looking jaggies on a test with a rotating line, as well as a test with three shifting lines. We moved on to the 2:3 pull-down test, which the DD-3 failed, as it never kicked into film mode, resulting in moire in the grandstands as the racecar drove by. The bottom line with the DVD player is that it's nowhere near as good as other dedicated players; videophiles should definitely look elsewhere. Again, that's a disappointment relative to the DD-3's price tag--but the casual viewers to whom the product is targeted aren't likely to even notice.
The network streaming performance of the DD-3 was pretty good overall. We were able to stream videos and music over the wired connection and didn't run into any snags. The caveat here is that because the DD-3 doesn't support high-def videos and it only uses a wired connection, none of the streaming is very taxing. That being said, for someone who just wants to do basic media streaming and has Ethernet connectivity in their home, the DD-3 can handle the task and we never saw it falter.
Performance off the USB drive was disappointing. We had a couple of DivX clips we tried to play directly from the USB drive, and while a few of them played without a hitch, others had choppy playback with audio dropouts. We initially had some trouble finding where our MP3 and JPEG files were--that's because you need to go into the setup menu and change the setting in the picture category from video to audio, or to still picture. It's not intuitive and annoying if you are switching between media, but we didn't have any problems playing back the files once we found them.