Maximizing features while keeping a lid on price inflation was high on JVC's priority list for its new generation of home-theater-in-a-box (HTIB) systems. The company's TH-M505, for instance, has an impressive laundry list of features, including autocalibration technology; a compact receiver/five-disc changer; DVD-Audio compatibility; small, stylish satellite speakers; a full-size subwoofer; and--best of all--a $449 list price. Unfortunately, focusing on sound quality wasn't one of JVC's priorities.
Editor's note: We have changed the rating in this review to reflect recent changes in our rating scale. Click here to find out more.JVC mated incredibly tiny satellites with a supersize subwoofer for the TH-M505's speaker package. The jewel-like, 5.5-inch-tall front speakers' chromed metal grilles add a trendy flair to the design, and the three-sided 5.5-inch-tall surround speakers are a departure from standard HTIB fare. The 41-pound Hummer-esque subwoofer measures 10.2 inches wide, 19 inches high, and 18.2 inches deep. That's a big sub.
Speaking of size, most receiver/DVD changers grab a lot of shelf space, so we're pleased to note that the TH-M505's main unit measures a comparatively diminutive 15.75 inches wide and 15 inches deep. The changer can swallow up to five discs, each on its own separate tray. Better yet, each tray has its own eject and play buttons, so it's easy to keep track of CDs and DVDs. The disc-changing mechanism is fairly smooth and needs just 14 seconds to change discs.
The TH-M505 includes a cool automatic speaker-calibration system (see the page for more), but you can further fine-tune the volume levels of the center and surround speakers, subwoofer, and treble with the remote control. Its remote hides less-used buttons under a slip-down cover, simplifying normal, everyday use.
JVC also offers a similar, though less expensive HTIB, the , and a more expensive variant, the , which features slimline tower speakers. The JVC TH-M505's coolest feature is Smart Surround Setup. After you've hooked up the speakers and subwoofer, hit the Smart button on the remote, clap your hands once, and the M505's autocalibration operation takes over and balances the levels of all five speakers and sets listener-to-speaker distances. It's a clever and effective system.
JVC's ultracompact front and center satellites are two-way designs fitted with a 3.2-inch woofer and a 0.6-inch tweeter. The clever surround speakers employ a single vertically oriented 3.2-inch woofer that fires into a cone-shaped diffuser, producing a wide ambient surround effect.
The subwoofer houses a side-mounted 9.8-inch woofer--far and away the largest we've ever seen in an affordable HTIB, where 6- or 7-inch subs are the norm. All of the system's amplifiers are housed in the subwoofer's cabinet. They're rated at 140 watts per channel for the five sats and 300 watts for the subwoofer itself, which conveniently adds up to 1,000 watts. Those numbers seem wildly optimistic to us.
The receiver's surround processing suite includes Dolby Digital, Pro Logic II, and DTS, but we noted the TH-M505 can also play DVD-Audio discs. Connectivity options are downright skimpy: just one A/V input and one set of component, composite, and S-Video outputs. Oh, and there's one optical digital input. We'll start by accentuating the positives: the JVC TH-M505's satellites were detailed and could play louder than most little tykes, and the tiny omnidirectional surround speakers produced an unusually diffuse surround effect. Unfortunately, they all sounded like, well, little speakers. Dialogue was thin and coarse on John Woo's sci-fi Paycheck DVD, and we're not just referring to the quality of the limp script. Onscreen action, explosions, fistfights, and gunfire made demands the sats couldn't satisfy. The M505's subwoofer packs quite a wallop, but the bass sounded soggy and bloated.
The M505 tried in vain to belt out heavy-metal sounds with the Led Zeppelin concert DVD, but it was too lightweight to satisfy our rock-and-roll fantasies. Same deal on the newly remastered DVD-Audio release of the Who's classic Tommy. The M505's undernourished, crude sound quality wasn't remotely close enough to audiophile grade to justify investing in new DVD-Audio discs. We settled on drama and comedy DVDs, where we could more easily forgive the M505's limitations and stay involved with the movie. The M505 was at its best at low to moderate volume levels.
All in all, the JVC TH-M505 is quite a looker, but its sound quality falls short of competing models. By comparison, though it lacks the JVC's extensive feature set and built-in DVD changer, Panasonic's feisty soundly trumps the M505 on the performance front.