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Budget home-cinema systems are often condemned for compromised specifications and performance. But if you step up to midrange systems you can afford some high-end features and greatly improved picture and sound quality.
The Philips HTS9800W offers digital HDMI connectivity with integrated video upscaling, advanced surround-sound processing, multi-channel music compatibility and a 6.1-speaker system that includes wireless rear channels.
It's a large system convoluted by separate units, including a connector box and a wireless receiver that still relies on some cables, but the sleek, futuristic design is unobtrusive and you won't find better, all-in-one performance for just under £650.
For an all-in-one system, this is an incredibly substantial setup that features numerous components, which demand space -- although the sleek styling and flexible positioning options allow it a relatively inconspicuous appearance.
The main unit is accompanied by a separate connector box and a wireless receiver with a 6.1-speaker system that includes an additional centre-rear channel. The rear channels are so-called 'wireless' models that still need connecting to a receiver, but at least you don't have to trawl cables to the other side of the room.
The clean and contemporary main unit features a unique, compact design that can be stood upright or even wall-mounted -- an option that's encouraged by a slot-loading disc mechanism at the side. The illuminated, touch-sensitive screen at the front is free of cumbersome controls and carries plenty of futuristic appeal.
Although the main unit does feature a single HDMI digital output, all remaining connections are housed in a separate connector box. This leaves the system slightly disjointed, but it means most connections can be hidden out of sight. The nondescript unit features an integrated RGB Scart output, component connections (enabling progressive scan) and both stereo and coaxial digital audio inputs. You can use the audio inputs to induce surround-sound effects from separate devices, such as a set-top box.
In turn, the connector box is linked to an attractive active subwoofer that carries all amplification and is wired to the main front channels using colour-coded spring-clip terminals. The rear channels are similarly connected to a separate wireless receiver that needs power, but can be hidden behind the sofa.
All the speakers have flat-panel designs that save space and look suitably stylish, although the Perspex fronts and glossed black finish are prone to smudging fingerprints. The four main channels are supported by tall, solid stands, whereas the corresponding centre channels arrive on smaller, pedestal stands -- but they can all be wall-mounted if you wish.
The final piece in this elaborate setup is a weighty remote that's spaciously arranged with comfortable controls and useful source illuminations.
Home-cinema systems are often compromised as a result of cost-cutting or saving space, but Philips has crammed an impressive specification into this high-end package.
The main unit will play a variety of DVD and CD formats, including recordable discs carrying MP3, WMA, JPEG and compressed DiVX video files. There's also support for SACD multi-channel music discs -- but not DVD-Audio.
If you have a compatible display with digital connectivity, the player can upscale standard-definition DVDs to near high-definition 720p and 1080i signals. Image quality isn't quite as impressive as true hi-def content, but this feature offers an obvious improvement in performance and is the easiest way of breathing new life into your existing DVD collection.
The amplifier is a digital design that's said to offer greater efficiency and less signal deterioration than typical analogue models. And a total of 800W amplification is powerful enough to fill a large room and have your neighbours banging on the walls.
The accompanying 6.1-speaker system includes an extra centre-rear channel that creates ambient surround effects with more cohesive steering than the usual 5.1-speaker set ups. All speakers also feature omni-directional Neodymium ribbon tweeters that radiate high frequencies in a 360-degree pattern, which opens up an even wider sound stage and enhances high-pitched clarity.
The additional speaker means this is one of the few all-in-one systems that features Dolby Digital EX 6.1 surround processing as well as the more recognisable Dolby Digital EX, DTS and Pro Logic II systems, which can be used to decode film soundtracks or manufacture surround effects from stereo sources.
Wireless rear channels ease installation by eliminating long cables and, although the associated receiver appears oversized, it uses more advanced 2.4GHz technology with less interference than outdated RF or infrared designs.
You can expect to spend some time assembling, positioning and connecting the system, but a user-friendly menu system supported by an intuitive remote makes using it easy. Speaker levels and delay settings can be easily adjusted, although you have to calculate your own delay times using speaker distances. It pays to use a tape measure and a sound meter if you want to precisely tune the system for the best performance.
Although single-system performance is unlikely to equal separates, this package comes close and can be considered the class leader at this price.
The future-proof specification deserves to be accompanied by a high-definition display, as the quality of upscaled images using HDMI far surpasses that of analogue. Image detail is undiminished in dark scenes and digital artefacts only appear in the outer backgrounds of only the most complex scenes. Colours are bright and vibrant, while deep black levels give realistic contrast and perspective.
The sound is equally impressive. The inclusion of an extra speaker, with seamless steering, creates an immediately enveloping experience. You'll appreciate this more by raising the levels of the slightly underpowered rear channels. The powerful subwoofer integrates well with the other speakers, providing extra oomph in explosive scenes. You can crank the system up without the sound distorting.
Music performance lacks a little timing and high frequencies can occasionally sound bright depending on what you're playing, but compared to equivalent systems it's more than capable.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide