It seems that everybody wants bigger and bigger flat-screen TVs--and smaller and smaller audio systems. Sharp's sharp designers took that cue and cooked up this supersleek, wall-mountable HTIB, the Sharp SD-AS10. Even the speakers are slender, so they'll look neat flanking your plasma or LCD TV. Not only does the $699 (list) system look the part, it actually sounds pretty good, particularly with movies. If discs didn't take unusually long to load and the remote was less byzantine, we would have graded it a bit more generously.
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.Thanks to the Sharp SD-AS10's design flexibility, you can place the 3.5-inch-thick DVD changer horizontally or vertically, or you can lay it flat like a normal DVD player. In each case, the LCD and disc-loading mechanism will reorient itself for ease of use. The receiver/changer comes with a table stand, or you can mount it to the wall with the optional bracket. The SD-AS10 is a two-piece affair; the receiver/changer is mated to a separate amplifier via one thick cable. The 17-inch-wide, 2.5-inch-tall, and 12.75-inch-deep amplifier doesn't have any user controls, so it can be stashed out of the way.
Type-A personalities take note: the AS10's disc-loading mechanism needs close to 40 seconds to start playing a CD or DVD, and 40 seconds more to change already-loaded discs. Ejecting discs requires 20 seconds of churning before the AS10 is ready to hand over the disc. Since discs are loaded through a pair of foam "lips" in the circular drum, we were a little concerned that the rubbing contact might blemish our discs. However, we didn't detect any evidence of disc damage during the period we were using the AS10.
Overall, system sound balances were pretty good, even before we navigated the AS10's audio setup menu, which may be a little daunting for novices to figure out. It doesn't help that that you don't have the option of viewing the relevant information on your TV screen. Instead, it's crammed into the AS10's small, circular LCD. Since the AS10 doesn't have tone controls, the only way to balance the sound to your liking is to adjust the subwoofer volume level. That requires navigating that tricky menu system. On the upside, the DVD setup menu is available on your TV screen. Hallelujah!
The remote's unconventional button layout tested our patience. All of the main DVD player buttons are squeezed clear down on the bottom, and the fast-forward/reverse functions are nearly impossible to master. Ergonomically, this remote isn't so hot.
The front and rear satellites' wider-than-deep shape conforms to the AS10's thin-is-in design motif: they're 6.5 inches wide, 7.76 inches tall, and a mere 3.25 inches deep. The 17-inch-wide center speaker is a more conventional design, and the curvy, cubed subwoofer is a darling little thing. That said, the silver-plastic AS10 system doesn't quite have the sex appeal of Sony's aluminum-skinned Dream systems. The Sharp SD-AS10's main unit houses a motorized, cylindrical five-disc changer. It plays DVD-Video, DVD-R/RW, CD-R/RW, and MP3- and JPEG-encoded discs. Dolby Digital, Pro Logic II, and DTS surround processing are included. Dolby's Virtual Speaker processing simulates 5.1 surround sound without cluttering your room with speakers and cables; more on that in the Performance section of this review.
The separate, 77-watt-per-channel amplifier unit features Sharp's proprietary 1-Bit all-digital technology. As one might expect from a lifestyle system, you don't get a ton of connectivity options, but the ones you do get are adequate. On the audio side, you'll find stereo inputs and one output along with two digital inputs (one optical, one coaxial) and one optical output. The DVD changer sports the standard composite, S-Video, and component/progressive-video outputs. And there's also a line-level subwoofer output that can be used with a powered subwoofer (not included).
As for the speakers, the satellites and the center speaker are fitted with two 3.2-inch woofers but no tweeters. The subwoofer has a 6.5-inch driver. We decided to start our auditions with the Troy DVD, which, as with other discs, took its sweet time in loading. Once under way, though, the Sharp SD-AS10 didn't hold back one bit--the soldiers' soaring spears whooshed over out heads, the metallic clang of the sword fights sounded real, and the galloping horses convincingly thundered across the screen. The little front speakers' sound loomed large, but we noted the panorama of the rear surround effects wasn't as seamless as we would have liked. We were always aware of the surround speakers as distinct sources of sound.
While we were watching Troy, we experimented with Dolby's Virtual Speaker surround processing and repositioned the two surround speakers up front, to the outside of the front left and right speakers. With all five satellites in the front of the room, the sound was less enveloping than it was when they were in the normal rear positions, but it was a hell of a lot more spacious-sounding than stereo. Dolby Virtual is a nice alternative for folks who don't want to run wires or place speakers in the rear of the room. The AS10 plays louder than we thought it would, and the little subwoofer's bass is fairly deep, but the AS10 system is at its best at more moderate levels.
The AS10's skinny speakers sounded a little anemic when we played our acoustic jazz CDs. We moved the subwoofer around the room, searching for a magic location, and tweaked its volume level to flesh out the system's low end, but we never fully retrieved Prince's throbbing bass lines. Funny, the lack of midbass didn't bother us when we played roots rockers the Blasters' feisty live reunion CD, Going Home. The band's driving rhythm section, chugging guitars, and wailing harmonica all sounded remarkably live. Some discs sounded better than others, or more bluntly, the AS10's musical talents were inconsistent. All in all, though, we definitely came away thinking the AS10 was better attuned to DVDs than CDs.