LG HB354BS Blu-ray home cinema system review

We've been impressed with LG's Blu-ray offerings of late, offering good value for money and an impressive feature set. The HB354 is the little brother of the HB954, offering a 2.1 system playing off a similar central Blu-ray player.

But what a Blu-ray player it is, typifying the move away from just being something that spins-up and churns out movies from your optical media. The main unit of the HB354 offers not only the Blu-ray drive, but also and iPod dock and a USB connection, making this a versatile player.

To the specifics of the player itself, it is something of a big beast, measuring 375mm deep (which you'll have to add about 50mm to for all your connections), 73mm high and 428mm wide.

It is attractively designed however, with the central unit being mostly black, save for a bluish tint swiping across the bottom-front edge. There is an informative display on the front, which lets you know what is going on. A large volume is also present, which is largely superfluous, but lends itself to quick volume changes at parties and so on when playing music.

We like the design of the speakers too, with smart chrome-effect feet and main drivers paired with tweeters for left and right. They are a good size too, but are something of a feature, rather than being discrete. They do have a screw fixing on the back, so could wall-mount them too.

We're not so sold on the looks of the subwoofer. As we found with the HB954, it's a little cheap looking in its construction, with the MDF cabinet and cardboard vent tube a little too visible for us – it doesn't have the same solid looks that the other speakers have, so is best tucked out of the way.

The connections around the back are where the LG HB354 exposes itself to a certain degree. You get the 2.1 connections for the speakers mentioned above, but goes no further, so in terms of future expansion, your options are limited and if you might want a 5.1 or 7.1 system in the future, you'd be better off looking elsewhere.

The HDMI output is present for connecting to your TV, as well as Component and Composite for those with older displays. An Ethernet connection is present to take advantage of DB-Live services as this is a Profile 2 compliant player. There is an FM aerial connection too for the built-in tuner.

But it is the inputs that excite us even more. Not only do you get coaxial and optical digital audio inputs (and an analogue stereo input), but you also get two HDMI inputs as you did on the HB954.

This makes the LG HB354 much more of a compelling option because it can function as a hub to a certain extent too. Sure, you don't get the full range of connection options you would from even an entry-level AV receiver, but it does mean you can connect your other devices, such as a PS3 or Xbox 360 (or both!) through the HB354 to take advantage of the 2.1 speakers, which is something we like a lot.

The iPod dock drawer pushes neatly away with a satisfying click, so if you don't have an iPod, it doesn't stick out like a sore thumb. We like the way the iPod is handled, both charging your iPod and giving full control via the remote so you can navigate via LG's high quality menu systems. There is no support for cover art, but that's a point we’re willing to over-look.

The USB connection functions principally as the store for any BD-Live content you might choose to download. But it also gives you a range of further file format support, so you can play back files from a USB drive, but it music, video or photos.

The menu system is praiseworthy on the HB354. Large crisp icons on-screen allow you to choose between Movie, Photo, Music and Setup. (LG has also told us that YouTube support will be included here, but wasn't on our test player.) Finally Setup lets you configure various settings, including the likes of engaging the 24p mode, enabling HDMI audio (for whatever reason) and so on.

These menu options apply across the range of media you connect, so if you insert a data disc it will attempt to play this back, as well as when you plug in a USB drive. Cited format support includes the most common variants, AVCHD/MPEG4, WMV, as well as DivX, with MP3 and JPEG support for audio and images.

It's a convenient system and so long as you stick within the confines of the supported formats, you'll have a fairly comprehensive range of options open to you, and it is well worth trying out the formats that work best for you from the start.

Blu-ray performance as you'd expect is excellent. It's relatively fast to start-up and get playing, and the DVD upscaling performance is fairly reliable, even if it doesn't quite match the top offerings out there.

Sound performance is very good too. It can be a little heavy on the bass at times, but this is easy enough to control. The built-in sound profiles make it easy to switch through different modes, which some will like and others will ignore. The option we found the most useful, however, was Night Mode, which suppresses the bass and dims the illumination on the front of the player, which is both thoughtful and practical.

The supplied remote is a little cluttered with buttons, but controls is simple enough. We like the fact that when you open the HB354 packaging, you'll find everything you need inside, including the speaker wires and an HDMI, so it really is a one-box solution.

Verdict

We've liked LG's offerings lately, having been impressed by the BD370 and HB954. The HB354 follows that trend, giving an impressive feature set that's been put together with some consideration.

As a home cinema solution out of the box, it's a shame there is no scope for future upgrades, so if 5.1 or 7.1 is your dream, you'll be better off with an AV receiver and building up as and when you can afford it.

If you are after a system that gives you a whole range of functions in one tidy package, this is a Blu-ray system that comes highly recommended.