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How do they do it?
The TH-A9 is one of the few kits with miniature satellite speakers that sounds great in fairly large rooms. True, the silver, plastic 4-inch tall sats look like standard-issue equipment, but they summon up a surprisingly refined sound. The sub is no slouch either. This solidly built, 36.4-pound critter measures a substantial 9.5 inches wide by 17.25 inches high by 18 inches deep. An onboard 100-watt amplifier is dedicated to the sub's 8-inch woofer, and its 20-watt amps run the five sats.
The TH-A9's compact DVD player functions as the control center for the system. It features a cool, motorized top cover with a hinge that flips up and offers access to the player's mechanism. That's nice, but if you stick this DVD player inside a cramped entertainment center, you might have a hard time loading discs. It's better to leave it out in the open, such as on top of a cabinet, for easy access.
The DVD player houses the Dolby Digital/DTS surround processors and an AM/FM tuner. The owner's manual claims the TH-A9 won't play CD-Rs, but it didn't have any problems spinning our burned offerings. Alas, the TH-A9 won't play MP3-encoded discs.
As noted, the TH-A9 isn't blessed with a wealth of connectivity options. The DVD player's rear end has just one stereo input and composite video, S-Video, and component video outputs. That's it--there are no digital audio connections or anything else.
Listening to the TH-A9
We started our music auditions with Radiohead's Amnesiac CD. Wow. The sats let the band's incredibly dense textures and atmospherics shine through. The dreamy piano that lingers across "Pyramid Song" and the slinky deep beats that drive "Dollars & Cents" didn't sound like they were coming out of a kit. The sound was more alive and real than that. Encouraged, we next rocked out with Jethro Tull's first album, This Was. Yup, the TH-A9 can shake things up all right. You can, by the way, adjust the subwoofer level with the remote.
We were taken aback by the ferocity of the sound on the latest rehashing of the Jack the Ripper story, From Hell. The TH-A9's weighty presence belied its actual size. Dialogue was nicely balanced and articulate, and the wraparound surround effects were well delineated. Unlike some kits, the JVC's little sats don't roll off the treble but deliver a fair amount of top-end air and sparkle. The sub's contributions were heard and felt whenever the soundtrack's pounding heartbeat motif appeared, and the kit's picture quality on the darkly opulent DVD was to die for. We're not claiming the TH-A9 can mimic the sound of a set of large speakers and a healthy receiver, but it can muster fairly high levels and dynamics without distress.
Even at $900 (MSRP), the TH-A9 begs comparison with Sony's $1,200 . Yes, the sleek Sony is more attractive, sports a five-disc changer, and plays SACDs, but the TH-A9 sounds more alive. That's due in large part to JVC's powered sub; Sony's gets its juice from the receiver, so it's not in the same league. Plus, the JVC's sats are more refined and detailed than the laid-back Sony's. Pioneer's $1,150 kit is worth checking out, too. It has a smaller but quite potent sub, a bit more power for the sats, more extensive connectivity options, and MP3 support.