Creating cinematic magic in your home

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 29 April, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 April, 2009, 12:00am

With HDTV high-resolution LCD screens by the acre, the technical quality of home entertainment systems has dramatically advanced over the past few years, especially with the introduction of blu-ray media-playing technology.

Add the latest in surround-sound audio systems and you can create a home experience that is at least the equal of the smaller screens at the local multiplex.

All of the leading industry players - Panasonic, Sony, LG, Samsung, Sharp, Toshiba, Philips and Pioneer - compete for the huge market in large high-resolution screens, each launching a seemingly endless stream of products to try to gain a competitive edge over their rivals.

And for those who prefer not to have a screen, even a new ultra-thin one, cluttering their living rooms, the alternative of high-resolution projectors offers the flexibility to take the movie show into the back yard or onto the terrace.

Both plasma and LCD offer exceptional screen performance, but these days the vote seems to be going increasingly to LCD.

Prices for LCD products have continued to drop recently, suggesting that economies of scale are kicking in.

Plasma may still be the safer bet for screens of more than 50 inches, though.

When buying a home theatre system, it is important to consider not just the price, which for very-large-screen systems can start at HK$50,000, but the options for synchronising with other new technologies and how tricky they are to set up.

Panasonic's SC-BT100 Full-HD Blu-ray DiscTM Home Theatre System, for example, offers bamboo diaphragm speakers, whisper-mode surround sound specially adapted to let you have full sound effects even with the volume turned down low; an integrated universal dock for iPod and other media players; the ability to play back video from your iPod through the large screen and sound system; HD camcorder linking; digital camera linking; a special user-friendly graphic user interface that will display all the menus from attached components on screen; automatic set-up for all channels; USB input; and, of course, the dazzling image definition and enhanced playback flexibility of blu-ray.

It is a jaw-dropping array of options and applications, but when you're making your choice today, this should be the norm, not the exception.

With Sony, you can also buy your blu-ray player in combination with the PlayStation 3 games console. There is also a consensus that the standalone blu-ray unit can be overpriced. High-end players Panasonic and Sony are at the top end of the price scale, with Sony's Bravia screen alone retailing for more than HK$60,000.

By comparison, the South Korean members of the global electronics industry, Samsung and LG, pitch considerably lower prices, sometimes HK$20,000 less for comparable specifications.

At the lower end of the market are the 'non-brand' brands - mainly suppliers from the mainland, where the performance is certainly acceptable but the quality visibly and audibly inferior, and the durability questionable.

Even so, they are options worth serious consideration for limited budgets.

It is perfectly reasonable to combine one manufacturer's television with another's blu-ray, yet another's sound system and a third-party HDTV receiver.

The disadvantages, of course - and why every manufacturer wants to try to convince you that only their technology is worthy of a place in your household - are multiple remotes, aesthetically incompatible components and, potentially, a reduced ability to negotiate a hard bargain at point of sale.

It's simply more convenient to take everything from one brand. That, however, may not necessarily mean optimum performance for all components.

Take a checklist and look up the many available reviews online or in a magazine.

One major recent breakthrough is the move towards wireless linking of components, a huge relief for every home that struggles to cope with the inevitable weaver-bird's nest of cable crammed into the living room - which effectively means virtually every home in the developed consumer world.

The wireless possibilities will probably be a significant consideration in the decision-making process.

As to the aesthetics of home theatre systems, the high-end systems all offer surround sound floor-standing speakers that enclose the audience inside their periphery.

Slim, elegant and as unobtrusive as possible, they nonetheless demand space and can force a full redesign of how the living room is laid out.

The only advice is to measure before you commit. Unless you happen to inhabit an aircraft hangar, systems in showrooms generally appear far smaller than when they are in your living room.

Finally, there seems to be no limit to the increases in size of screen that manufacturers are ready to push out to the market.

It's always tempting to buy the biggest possible viewing area for that ultimate home movie theatre experience.

The biggest, though, might not be the best for your eyes, and finding yourself too close to an oversized screen diminishes, rather than enhances, the experience.

As a guideline, you should only be looking at a 50-inch screen if you are sitting at least three metres away from it.