If you want to get the most out of Blu-ray without breaking the bank, then a home cinema system - rather than individual components - is an attractive option. The HB954 picks up the champagne flute design of speakers that LG have used in the past, but brings high-definition into the mix.
The system is a fully-fledged 5.1 surround sound system, so besides the main unit, you have two "champagne flute" speakers (where the stand resembles an elegant champagne glass), two satellite speakers (I'm guessing continental-style lager glasses), the central speaker and subwoofer (a 24-can pack?).
One bonus point is that LG have made this a complete kit, so you also get speaker wire in the box to connect everything up and you an HDMI cable to connect to your TV. The speaker wires even come in different lengths, with colour coding, so set-up is simple.
As if to accentuate the move to Blu-ray for this model, there is blue detailing running through the design. On the player itself the bottom edge is trimmed in blue, which looks neat enough and is a similar idea to some of Sony's Blu-ray players, but this styling has been followed through on the speakers which looks sort of odd.
The bottom of the "glass" is light and then fades through blue into the black of the main body. It's an unusual effect, especially in a home cinema speaker and perhaps goes a little too far. Taking the champagne flute analogy a step further, it looks like there is a little fizz in the bottom of the glass and ultimately can be a little distracting.
Otherwise we like the design; if you are looking for feature speakers on stands then the build quality is solid enough too and besides that unusual blue detailing, they are finished in gloss black plastic. The satellite speakers have a screw thread on the back so wall mounting would be a possibility if you don't have anywhere suitable to stand them.
The subwoofer, by contrast, lets the side down. You won't want to make a feature of it, because only the front seems to have received any sort of design detailing, with a metal grill covering the driver and a large port in the bottom. Unfortunately the box is black laminated MDF and if you are sitting at the wrong angle you can see right into the cabinet, via the port that is lined with a cardboard tube. It delivers bass well enough, but isn't really a talking piece, so best keep it tucked away.
The real star of the show, however, is the player that drives everything. This isn't just a Blu-ray player with some bespoke connections, it features standard wire connections for the speakers on the back, so if you want to change the speakers at any point it will pose no problem at all.
In terms of connections you are generously catered for. You get the HDMI output to hook up to your HDTV, as well as Component and Composite outputs. But you also get a range of inputs that will make the HB954 very much the centre of your home entertainment. As you'd expect you get analogue, optical and digital coaxial audio inputs so you can connect other sources, such as your TV, back though the player to take advantage of the speakers. It’s the two HDMI inputs that we were really excited about however.
These two HDMI inputs mean you can easily connect through additional devices, such as a PS3/Xbox 360 Elite or Sky HD box. We pushed the PS3 through the HB954BS to really give the sound a boost and the results were fantastic. We also hooked up the Panasonic DMR-EX769 we recently reviewed too to put some gusto into the soundtrack of all those CSI episodes we recorded - superb results again. There was no noticeable depreciation in the video signal either.
Worth noting through - we did experience some blank screens with the PlayStation 3 hook-up, however, such as when moving from a game back to the menu, which we put down to our test TV not supporting some of the display switching going on inside during these blank periods. Easily stepped around by pressing the Home button and then the Input button again in this case, but it is a known problem for some gamers who have hooked their PS3 to their TV via a receiver, and something to watch for here.
An iPod dock on the front of the player hides in a neat pop-out drawer. There is also a USB connection on the top, which again opens up your options, meaning you can view photos, playback music and video files, although file support is not great, but it will play DivX.
There is even an FM radio included, but with the inclusion of an Ethernet port to give you Profile 2.0 support, you have to wonder whether internet radio would have been too much to ask? We've been told by LG that the recently announced link-up with YouTube will be extended to this system, although the feature wasn't enabled in our review model. Given the full range of options, the HB954BS is more than just a home cinema system: it is an entire home entertainment centre.
Into the player itself and you'll find that the menus are nice and crisp, fully worthy of that high-definition title, and navigation is a breeze. A central Home page, accessed through the remote control will let you, for example, have a Blu-ray Disc in the drive, your iPod docked and a USB stick connected and pick music, or video, from wherever you want.
The remote control is comprehensive, giving you full access to all the features and is simple enough to use. You can shift through speaker profiles allowing you to select a sound that suits what you are playing, so you can optimise the system for movie playback, or switch to a music setting to balance out the speakers so it doesn't sound like it is coming from your TV. An excellent night mode also dims the player and turns off the bright blue volume dial highlighting and softens the bass - great for watching movies without added distraction or disturbing the neighbours.
The iPod dock is excellent, the player takes over full control, with a fullscreen menu system allowing you to navigate as normal by artist, album and so on. You don't get album art (you can't have everything), and don't be tempted to listen to your iPod with Night Mode: the bass is bitten off too tight and you'll lose a lot from your music that doesn’t matter so much in movies.
Startup time is a little slow, as is loading a Blu-ray Disc, but it is well worth the wait as the 1080p quality is excellent and for those looking for the full cinematic experience there is a 24p mode too. But one of the exciting things about the HB954 is the quality of the DVD upscaling. DVDs of course are a little soft compared with their Blu-ray siblings, but overall, they look very impressive as well.
In terms of audio you get Dolby TrueHD and DTS HD Master Audio Essential, so you can decode the audio track of your Blu-ray, but obviously this goes out over the 5.1 system, with no option of expanding as you might have with a separate player/AV receiver option.
Overall this is an impressive offering from LG. Some might not take to the colouration on the speakers, but otherwise there is little not to like here.
With a full range of connections and options, the LG HB954 could very easily be the centre of your home entertainment and should appeal to those who want everything in one box, rather than having to select everything separately.
The addition of the two HDMI inputs on the back will satisfy those who already have existing devices that will benefit from the 5.1 audio on offer here, which makes it a winner for us.