All too often, the first experience anybody has with home cinema comes from an all-in system, which includes DVD or Blu-ray player, amplification and speakers in one box. And while there are plenty of good packages out there, from a variety of respectable manufacturers, true home cinema fans will tell you that you need separates to get the best performance.
By that, they mean that alongside different video and audio sources, such as a Blu-ray deck or TV set-top-box, you need a dedicated amplifier or receiver (the latter of which adding a radio tuner into the mix) and separate speaker system.
Certainly, with separates, as they have been designed with a specific task in mind, they are generally excellent at that function, and will undoubtedly improve a home cinema experience. Also, with a decent amp or AV receiver, you can input all of your kit, including games consoles and CD players, and feed your TV one connection.
Granted, you can expect to pay more for separates, but it's worth it if you're choosy about performance, and there are plenty of options that needn't break the bank. Indeed, we've tested some reasonably-priced systems that it's worth shelling out that extra cash for...
- 7-channel AV receiver
- Main feature
- 3D ready HDMI v1.4 inputs (x4)
Although it's not available until July, it may be worth hanging on as this UK-tuned Denon AV receiver will be 3D compatible straight from the box. To get the full 3D experience, the HDMI transmission path needs to be v1.4 throughout, from Blu-ray player to TV, and that includes the box in the middle.
You can watch 3D content through a normal v1.3 amplifier, but you won't be able to enable automated switching, ie. your TV won't detect a 3D signal and switch modes accordingly. Of course, you can always do that manually, but this Denon ensures that you won't need to.
It also has 7-channels of amplification at 125W per channel, allowing for a raucous 7.1 home cinema experience, and the addition of Dolby Pro Logic IIz compatibility allows you to place those extra speakers at the front, rather than rear. Amazing for the price.
Bowers & Wilkins MT-25
- 5.1 sub/sat speaker system
- main feature
- Nautilus tube-loaded tweeters
A fairly recent entry into the Bowers & Wilkins stable, the MT-25 takes the superb satellite and centre channel speakers from the MT-30 system, but dispenses with the diving bell-style PV1 subwoofer, plumping for the ASW608 instead. This cuts down the price somewhat, but not at the cost of general performance.
Indeed, the system is capable of plenty of bass and, as the surrounds feature the company's proprietary Nautilus tube-loaded tweeters, the top-end, such as dialogue, is as clean as a Chuckle Brothers stand-up routine. The system is also as adept with music as it is with movie-playback, and it creates a spine-tingling atmosphere during football action.
Oh, and it looks very tasty, to boot.
- 9-channel AV receiver
- main feature
- Six HDMI inputs
It may be £150 more expensive than the Denon, and only have HDMI v1.3 inputs (six of them, mind), however the TX-NR807 represents phenomenal value - a trait of Onkyo amps per se. With 9-channels of amplification, at 185W per channel, it allows you to drive a mind-blowing 9.1 setup. And, like with the Denon, the inclusion of Audyssey DSX and Dolby Pro Logic IIz decoding means that you can either introduce extra height or width channels to the front soundstage in order to blast yourself with ambience.
There's also THX Select2Plus certification which, when matched with a comparable speaker package, provides a clean chain of performance, ratified by the bods at George Lucas' own audio company.
KEF KHT 3005SE
- 5.1 lifestyle speaker package
- main feature
- Uni-Q technology
Not only do KEF's egg-style speakers look the business, they sound it too. This all-in-one home theatre system comes with a dedicated centre and provides a smooth listening experience, with a cunning grasp on high frequencies. In short, it's great for music, movie and sports viewing.
Additionally, the package benefits greatly from the adoption of the company's proprietary Uni-Q technology. It's a drive system that enables each speaker to blend seamlessly with each other, and ultimately create a full and bodied sound regardless of room shape or size.
Some might be put off by a pure white finish, but black and silver versions are also available for those with more conventional tastes.
- Surround effect soundbar + in-built amp
- main feature
- 40 x 2W drivers, 2 x 20W woofers
A soundbar is another option for those who want a home cinema experience, but don't have the space for surround speakers. And there are few bars better than Yamaha's YSP-4100.
Contained in the cabinet are 40 speaker drivers (and two subwoofers) which fire sound in beams to reflect off the ceiling or walls to create the effect of surround sound. Most other soundbars just present a front soundstage, but with Yamaha's range of sound projectors, you do get a tangible sense of being engulfed in audio.
In addition, the YSP-4100 houses its own amplifier, and offers three HDMI v1.3 connections (and several audio inputs) to add external sources. We advise partnering the bar with a separate subwoofer, as the bass it delivers is only okay, but in all other respects it's a great alternative to normal systems.
Also consider (if you're hideously rich)...
Although we've tried to recommend kit that doesn't cost the Earth, the amps and speakers above may seem pricey to some. Not as much as these though. If money was no object, we'd have these, no question...
Denon AVC-A1HDA AV receiver (£5100)
It may only have 7 channels of amplification and 150W per channel, but this is the Daddy of amplifiers my friend! THX Ultra2 certification and 1080p upscaling prowess a TV studio would be proud of, are just two reasons to drool over this bad boy. Its smorgasbord of connectivity and pure audio throughput are many others. AV porn.
KEF Muon speakers (£70,000 a pair)
Seventy... Thousand... Pounds... A... Pair. 'Nuff said!