The high-end home cinema system market has thinned out in recent times but there are still great bargains to be found at the budget end of the price spectrum. Affordable systems not only offer all-in-one convenience but also now include an extensive range of advanced features.
LG's LHT7601A offers a generous speaker setup, convergent USB connectivity and integrated video scaling that's designed to compliment the latest flat screens. With a compatible display you can upconvert standard DVDs to near high-definition quality and enjoy full 5.1 surround sound without spending a fortune.
Image quality is slightly flawed compared to dedicated players but excellent sound performance for the price means this system is great value if separates are out of your reach.
The first thing that strikes you about this system is the overwhelming size of the speakers. The front and rear channels are assembled on towering stands that rise 1.4m from the floor. The tall structures, which are stylishly curved inwards at the weighted base, give the system more presence than typical budget designs but demand more space.
The four large speakers are accompanied by a smaller centre channel mounted on a pedestal stand, and an attractive, asymmetrical subwoofer. All the speakers are beautifully styled in a black and silver finish that matches most flat-screen designs.
The broad main unit is similarly styled with a clean front panel and an assortment of primary controls arranged across the top, which allow easy access from above. A flip-down panel on the right conceals a convergent USB port that lets you access digital music, video and photo files from a variety of storage devices or portable media players -- but not digital cameras.
All connections are housed across the rear panel as the main unit is responsible for playing discs, surround-sound processing and amplification. If you want to play upscaled images, the most important video output is HDMI. Provided you have a compatible HD Ready screen you can use this direct digital connection to upconvert standard DVDs to close to high-definition quality -- LG has graciously supplied a low quality cable.
There's an alternative selection of analogue video outputs, including an RGB Scart terminal and progressive scan supporting component connections, which need to be selected using a switch at the rear. You can use the component outputs to display upscaled images but not with copy-protected discs.
A set of analogue phono inputs let you induce surround-sound effects from stereo sources like a set-top box or recording device. Otherwise, there are aerial inputs for both AM and FM antennas and a series of spring-clip speaker terminals that have been colour coded to ease installation.
As with most home cinema systems, the remote is overcrowded with controls but an intelligent arrangement means it is easy to use once accustomed to, and numerous shortcut keys will save you from always accessing the menu system.
Integrated video scaling was once reserved for high-end DVD players, but the influx of high-definition screens with digital connectivity has filtered this feature down to the budget market -- it offers an affordable way of enhancing your existing DVD collection.
This system can upconvert standard DVDs to both 720p and 1080i high-definition signals. It's not true high-definition but it comes close, and is the easiest way of improving your film's image quality without spending exorbitant amounts on next-generation Blu-ray or HD DVD players.
Disc compatibility includes standard DVDs and CDs including + and - R/RW formats carrying encoded JPEG, WMA, MP3 files and high-compression DivX videos. You can also play high-quality DVD-Audio multi-channel music discs, although the popularity of this format has waned considerably since its introduction.
The integrated digital amplifier supposedly produces purer audio quality by way of less signal degradation than its analogue counterparts, as well as being more power efficient if you're environmentally minded. The system claims a total power output of 700W, but you can take this with a pinch of salt as these figures are always dependent on the manufacturers' flexible means of measurement.
The amplifier is supported by vanilla decoding for Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks, which are used by the vast majority of DVD titles. There's also Dolby Pro Logic I/II processing that can recreate surround effects from stereo signals, so you can listen to TV programmes or music using all speakers.
An AM/FM tuner completes the all-in-one specification with up to 50 station presets and RDS (radio data system) information for FM broadcasts, which will display various information and allows you to search for stations by programme type.
Setting up surround systems is always a chore but this model's basic functionality shaves considerable time off the process. There are very few interactive adjustments to contend with, especially with picture options, but the menu system is well presented. You can virtually plug and play after making simple adjustments for speaker levels and distances, while most functions can be controlled directly from the remote.
Sound options are more extensive with a variety of preset modes and virtual surround enhancements for both stereo and multi-channel soundtracks. There's also a XTS/XTS Pro feature that claims to optimise the balance between low and high frequencies for a more realistic and involving sound.
Performance is a slightly mixed bag containing average image quality enhanced by more impressive audio ability -- but at this price it's still a steal.
Upscaled images expose more elaborate detail and cohesive movement than their analogue understudies, while colours are realistically balanced between natural and superficial shades. Black levels, however, are not vast enough to produce class-leading contrast, and detail is lost in dimly lit scenes. There's also a surprising amount of picture noise that constantly afflicts bright backgrounds irrelevant of the type of output signal used.
Sonically speaking, the system is far more inspiring. The speakers and subwoofer integrate excellently using seamless steering to create a wide and involving soundstage. Sounds are well separated and subtleties are not ignored or too conspicuous, while the expressive midrange delivers dialogue with plenty of realism. Music performance is more restricted but that's par for the course with practically any home cinema system.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Kate Macefield