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When Blu-ray HTIBs first hit the market, they really didn't make sense as a product type. They were slow, and the value just wasn't there, as it was easy to put together superior systems from separate components. One year later, everything has changed; there are several excellent HTIBs with integrated Blu-ray for not much more than a standalone Blu-ray player. The LG LHB953 is one of the better systems on the market, and a lot of that is due to its unparalleled streaming content options--Netflix, Pandora, YouTube, and CinemaNow augment its disc-playing capabilities. It also handles the basics with above-average finesse, with solid sound quality and excellent image quality on Blu-ray movies. Our complaints with the system were largely aesthetic; the speakers are a bit bigger than average and the main AV receiver/Blu-ray player lacks style, especially with its perpetually glowing volume knob. Also, the competing Samsung HT-BD1250 is a slightly better system, especially sonically, but its street price is about $70 more. If you can't swing the extra dough for the Samsung or don't need its perks, the LHB953 delivers much of the same performance and more streaming features for less.
The LHB953 is a 5.1 system; the included speaker package consists of four identical smallish speakers for the front/surround, a sizable center channel speaker and a subwoofer.
The four identical speakers have an odd shape. From the front, they have a slight bulge toward the middle, but from the side you can see there are some pretty radical curves. The speakers are also larger than competing systems, coming in at 9.5 inches tall. There's a built-in stand on the bottom of the speakers and, strangely, the speaker jacks are actually located inside the stand, underneath the speaker. There's a slot toward the back for the speaker wire and there's really no functional problem with the design, except it makes it a little hard to access the wires if you're moving the speakers.
The center channel is also larger than we expected, coming in at 13.8 inches wide, 4.1 inches high, and 3.7 inches deep. It will still fit comfortably under most TVs, but it doesn't quite "disappear" like the tiny center channel on Samsung's HT-BD1250. Although the speaker is quite wide, it appears to have just a single driver in the middle of the unit. The subwoofer is an average size for an HTIB (8.5 inches wide, 15.9 inches high, 14.2 inches deep).
LG certainly has some products that exude style, but the main AV receiver/Blu-ray player isn't one of them. We had it stacked up right next to the HT-BD1250's main unit and the Samsung was easily the more stylish component. The LHB953 has a more boxy shape and when you get up close, the front panel has a mix-and-match color scheme--some of it is glossy black, some glossy deep red, so it ends up looking like a car that had a door replaced that's just not quite the same color. (This doesn't show up well in photos, but it's obvious up close.)
The LHB953 does make up some points on usability, though. We loved the integrated iPod dock, which makes for less wire clutter than having a separate dock. The way it retracts is slick, too--just push it and it slides out automatically. We also appreciated the prominent volume knob--especially compared with the top-mounted disc on the HT-BD1250--but the bright blue light surrounding it is distracting. We also weren't crazy about the touch-sensitive controls--we prefer actual buttons--but at least they're located on the front of the unit so you can still stack other components on top of the LHB953.
At first glance, the included remote looks a little cluttered, but it's actually the best one out of the Blu-ray HTIBs we've tested this year. There's a large directional pad toward the top, surrounded by important buttons like disc menu and pop-up menu. Beneath it are the playback controls and farther down is a button rocker for volume control. We could have loved more separation between the buttons, but it gets most things right.
It's starting to look like a trend: The LG LHB953 is another one of those home-theater-in-a-box systems where speaker setup is completely manual. Instead of an automatic speaker calibration system, the LHB953's owner is left to handle that process on his own.
Don't get nervous; the setup is extremely easy via the LHB953's onscreen display: Press the "Home" button on the remote, click on the "Audio" icon, which brings you to "Speaker Setup." Then run test tones through all the speakers and subwoofer, next input the distances between the listening position and the five speakers and subwoofer.
No need to sweat the details, the LHB953's remote offers direct access to each speaker and the subwoofer's volume levels. We really liked that the LHB953 doesn't first require you to stop the movie or music to make those adjustments.
Because it was so easy we used that feature all the time; so if a movie's dialogue was hard to follow, it took just a few seconds to turn up the center channel speaker volume "on the fly." Same with the subwoofer or surround speakers, it was a pleasure to always get exactly the balance we wanted. Most Panasonic, Samsung, and Sony Blu-ray HTIBs bury those adjustments in their setup menus, so you have to restart the movie every time you need to make an adjustment.
The LHB953 sound can be also adjusted with its "Sound" button on the remote. Pressing the button toggles through options such as "Natural," "Bass Booster, "Drama," "Sports," "Concert," as well as Dolby Pro Logic II surround. The Sound mode options also include a "Bypass" setting, which is automatically selected when you're watching a Dolby or DTS encoded movie.
The LHB953's built-in Blu-ray player is nearly as featured as LG's standalone Blu-ray players. Like virtually all Blu-ray players this year, it's Profile 2.0 compliant and has onboard decoding for Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio. In addition to Blu-ray, the LHB953 has several streaming media services, including Netflix, Pandora, YouTube, and CinemaNow. (For a more in-depth look at these services, read our review of the LG BD390.)
As mentioned before, the LHB953 has an integrated iPod dock and it's capable of playing back music and movies. For music, the interface is more responsive than the other Blu-ray HTIBs we've tested, as we were able to zip through our music collection in no time. There's no album art, but LG's graphical user interface is visually appealing and displays relevant info about what's playing, like artist, track and album names. Annoyingly, playing back videos requires you to make a separate composite video connection to your HDTV, but that is a limitation of every iPod-compatible HTIB we've tested this year.
Like most Blu-ray HTIBs, the LHB953's connectivity is limited to audio inputs; there are no video inputs. That means with additional components, like a cable box or game console, you'll need to make separate connections to the LHB953 and your TV, plus you'll have to fumble with several remotes to get it all working. (Alternatively, you can avoid some of the hassle with a quality universal remote.) While most Blu-ray HTIBs don't have video inputs, it's worth mentioning that the LG LHB977 (street price of less than $600) and Samsung HT-BD3252 ($800 list price) each have two HDMI inputs, so they might be a better choice if you have other HDMI gear, such as game consoles and DVRs.
The LHB953 has two digital audio inputs (one optical, one coaxial) and one stereo analog audio input, which is average compared with other systems. There's also a minijack input for portable audio devices (other than an iPod), which is a nice perk that's not offered on other systems. All of the inputs are selectable by repeatedly pressing the "input" button on the remote. Lastly, there's a USB port on the front panel, which is capable of playing back MP3s and MPEG2 video off a connected USB drive.
Unlike all the other Blu-ray HTIBs we reviewed this year, the LHB953 does not have a wireless rear speaker option. Samsung and Panasonic both offer the option to buy an additional accessory that allows you run the rear speakers wirelessly; Sony includes the wireless receiver with the BDV-E500W. It's worth pointing out that standalone wireless speaker kits, like the Rocketfish Universal Wireless Rear Speaker Kit, can be used with the LHB953, so the lack of a compatible accessory isn't a huge drawback.
The LG LHB953 delivered a powerful and dynamic sound on movies and music. The small satellite speakers didn't sound small, mostly because the LG LHB953's subwoofer's bass so seamlessly blended with the sats.
In the "Knowing" DVD astrophysicist John Koestler (Nicolas Cage) races to stop catastrophes before they happen. It's not a great movie, but it has a good number of special-effect scenes you can use to test the stamina of HTIBs. There's a very realistic plane crash where the aircraft, just as it's about to hit the ground slices through power lines. The skidding plane's impact culminates when its fuel ignites into a massive fireball.
The LHB953 took the whole thing in stride and didn't overly compress the scene's tremendous dynamic range. The sub's low-end thunder was mightily impressive for a HTIB. We watched the same scene again in "Night" mode to compress the wide dynamic range as we listened quietly and were reasonably happy with the sound quality.
Next up, the music numbers set in an early 1900s Parisian nightclub from the "Moulin Rouge" DVD. Elton John's "Your Song," heroically sang by Ewan McGregor with swelling orchestral flourishes, was spectacular. The LHB953's clarity was above par, and the front-to-back envelopment of the surround mix was quite good. Our only complaint was the subwoofer had a tendency to turn thick and muddy when played loud.
That was even more obvious with CDs, so when we played the Queens of the Stone Age's "Songs for the Deaf" nice and loud, the sub blurred the basslines. But the LHB953 played this sort of hard rock fairly loud without distress, in stereo or surround. Even classical music sounded decent, which is something few HTIBs do passably well.
As much as we liked the LHB953, Samsung's HT-BD1250 was sonically superior on every count. First because it has the best subwoofer we've heard from a Blu-ray HTIB. It's powerful, punchy, and it doesn't turn to mush when pushed hard. And it's not just the sub; the HT-BD1250's overall clarity is well ahead of the LHB953's.
The image quality of DVD-based HTIBs is usually pretty poor, but we've found Blu-ray systems to be a different story. Many of the Blu-ray HTIBs we've tested have offered nearly identical performance to standalone Blu-ray players. We put the LHB953 through out full Blu-ray image quality tests, connected via HDMI to the Samsung PN50B650.
First we took a look at the Film Resolution Loss Test, and the LHB953 has no problem with either the test pattern or the slow pan across Raymond James Stadium. Next up were a few video-based test patterns that we put less importance on because there are relatively few video-based Blu-ray titles. The Video Resolution Loss Test and the LHB953 passed easily, displaying full detail without any jaggies on the rotating white line. The following jaggies tests were solid too; we saw a few jaggies on a test screen with three shifting lines, but it was relatively minor.
We switched over to program material, and the LHB953 was able to back up its strong test pattern performance. We started with "Mission: Impossible III," and the LHB953 had no problems with scenes we know can be problematic; the stairs at the beginning of Chapter 8 looked crisp as well as the trimming on the limo in chapter 16. We switched to "Ghost Rider" and while some entry-level Blu-ray players show moire in the grille of the RV as the camera pulls away, the LG LHB953 handled it with finesse. Last up was the video-based "Tony Bennett: American Classic," and the LHB953 looked as good, without some of the more obvious jaggies that show up on lesser players.
Surprisingly, the load times on the LHB953 are essentially as fast the standalone LG BD390. The LHB953 loaded "Mission: Impossible III" in just 11 seconds with the player on, and 25 seconds with the player off; that just about ties our speed champion, the BD-P3600. On discs with more elaborate menus, the LHB953 is still very fast, but is just a hair behind the BD-P3600. It loads the main movie of "Spider-Man 3" in a minute and 7 seconds (the BD-P3600 does it in a minute, 3 seconds), and "Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl" in a minute and 22 seconds (the BD-P3600 does it in a minute and 15 seconds). Even beyond just strict load times, we found the LHB953 to be very responsive when navigating menus or skipping through chapters.
Blu-ray may be the latest and greatest, but it can't match DVD in terms of cheapness and sheer number of titles. You're likely to still watch a lot of standard-definition DVDs on the LHB953, so we put it through our full test suite.
We started with test patterns, so the HQV test suite on DVD was first. The LHB953 aced the initial resolution test pattern, with none of the image instability that we see on lesser players. A couple of jaggies tests followed and the LHB953 continued to perform well, looking nearly as good as the Oppo BDP-83 we had on hand. Last up was the 2:3 pull-down test, and the LHB953 kicked into film mode nearly immediately. Impressive performance, especially from an HTIB.
We switched over to program material, checking out the opening to "Star Trek: Insurrection." The LHB953 handled it with ease, as both the hulls of the boats and bridge railings had smooth curved edges. Last up was the notoriously difficult introduction to "Seabiscuit," but the LHB953 has no issues with the pans over the black and white photos either. DVDs didn't looks as pristine as the Oppo BDP-83 we had on hand, but it should be "good enough" for all but the pickiest viewers.