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When we looked at last year's TH-L1 from JVC, we were really impressed at the number of connectivity options the compact 5.1-channel home-theater-in-a-box (HTIB) packed in its tiny chassis. While the device didn't come with a built-in DVD player, it still was able to switch between two 1080p-capable HDMI ports. Since then, JVC has released a sibling product, the TH-F3. The TH-F3 utilizes a 2.1 configuration--two speakers and a subwoofer--and includes a built-in DVD player to boot. Unfortunately, the F3 eliminates much of the flexibility of its predecessor, as it does not allow you to hook up any external video devices you may have--just two audio-only connections (one analog, one digital). The package does, however, come with an onboard USB port and an external iPod dock.
The system's main "head unit"--the amplifier/receiver that also houses the DVD player--seems a bit larger than it needs to be: it's an 11-inch square that's 3 inches high. It's covered in a black glossy finish with ridged sides. The front of receiver also boasts a blue light that's annoyingly bright--thankfully, it can be turned off using the dimmer switch. You can only select sources via the front display--all directional functionality (such as DVD navigation) must be done with the included remote control.
The two front speakers are what JVC describes as anisotropic diaphragm cone speakers. Basically, the speakers have two sets of wires feeding into them, which are meant to supply the virtual surround sound. The argument can be made that this makes the package a 4.1 system, but as you'll read below, we did not find the effect to be very impressive.
The remote control is a bit complex considering the limited amount of features the TH-F3 offers. There's also a manual shift switch on the right side of the remote that allows buttons to double their functionality.
The JVC TH-F3 can be used to play DVDs and CDs, AM/FM radio, an iPod, and a variety of digital media (photos, music, and videos burned to discs or pulled off of a USB flash drive). Standard Dolby Digital and DTS surround decoding is supported, as is Dolby Pro Logic II (for creating a surround-like effect from a stereo source). However, the JVC TH-F3 is fairly lean when it comes to offering inputs for external AV sources. Aside from the iPod and USB options, it can toggle between just two external audio devices--one digital (an optical SPDIF connector), one analog (standard red/white RCA jacks). That means you could, for instance, hook up a cable/satellite box and a game console--but that's it. All video-switching capabilities would have to be handled by the TV.
The DVD player offers the standard upconverting duties to 720p, 1080i, or 1080p resolutions via HDMI. It did the job, but with most of today's TVs already delivering satisfactory upscaling, you may want to leave it set at 480p. For TVs without HDMI, component and composite outputs are also available (no S-Video). The disc player also handles the increasingly obscure DVD-Audio format.
As with most audio systems these days, the JVC TH-F3 includes an external iPod dock that's compatible with most fourth-generation-and-later Apple music players. Unfortunately, there's no onscreen interface for navigating through your music--that must be done by actually looking on the iPod's display while either using the remote control or the iPod itself. Also, the dock only supports audio--you can't play any videos off your iPod through the system.
At first glance, the TH-F3's digital media support looks strong. It can play videos (MPEG 1, 2, and 4, DivX), audio (WAV, WMA, MP3), and photos (JPEGs) from home-burned discs or via the front-mounted USB port. Unfortunately, the confusing onscreen interface throws a real wrench into the fun--you need to go back into the system's settings and select which type of media you want to play before the system will notice the files on your disc or USB stick. For example, when we wanted to play our MP3 files, we had to manually select "audio" from the list of playable media before accessing our USB drive. Also, we had varying luck with files able to be played on the TH-F3. With our movie and photo files, only about 85 percent of our total samples were recognized by the system, despite the fact that they all met the compatibility requirements set forth in the operating manual. We noted the same annoyance on the TH-L1. Those compatibility issues notwithstanding, when you look at the far better interface found on Samsung's products (where all compatible files can be accessed at once, regardless of media type), it's clear that JVC needs to upgrade the interface on its products to make accessing files easier and more straightforward.
The 2.1 configuration of the TH-F3 means that the system's speaker wires will be limited to the front half of your room--one left speaker, one right, and a subwoofer. But since there are no rear speakers, the F3's front drivers need to do double duty and create the illusion of a surround effect. Unfortunately, the system's virtual surround sound mode did not perform as well as we would have liked. Scenes in The Fifth Element that took place in what looked like a busy city came across as audibly confusing. Even some scenes involving space travel gave us some unexpected results. The intended effect is to have sound appear as if it is coming from all sides, but the result was very hollow and echoey. We decided to stick with normal stereo instead.
Overall, sound quality was about average--the system can get loud, but we were easily able to tolerate the unit cranked all the way up in our 25-by-25-foot testing room. That said, the system's passive (unpowered) subwoofer struggled to keep up. Even with the bass cranked up to maximum, the subwoofer barely makes an impact.
So, at the end of the day, the JVC TH-F3 didn't wow us in terms of audio quality or faux surround capability, and its digital media playback was less than optimal. Still, it'd be good enough for those who need a small-footprint home-theater system in a dorm, bedroom, or secondary den--or at least it would be, if it wasn't priced at a somewhat exorbitant $500. To get a more recommendable 2.1 system, you'd have to pay close to $1,000 for something like Sony's DAV-X10. While the JVC's $500 price tag looks like a good deal by comparison, we'd prefer to go with the even lower priced JVC TH-L1, which delivers more flexibility and better sound for even less money. Yes, you'll end up with more wires, but you'll still get the TH-F3's iPod connectivity and USB port, along with true 5.1 surround and the ability to switch between two 1080p-capable HDMI sources.