The JVC DD-3 Sophisti is a stylish home-cinema unit that employs a virtual-surround configuration that forgoes the need for rear speakers (and the wires that go with them). Instead it offers just two tiny front speakers, a centre channel and a subwoofer, plus a main unit with a DVD player. The DD-3 comes with slender, somewhat cylindrical front speakers that look to be designed specifically for those that don't like the traditional boxy look.
There's no denying that the system has an elegant look to it, but with a price tag of around £750, it's tough to get by on looks alone. In fact, the DD-3 performed better than we expected given its tiny speakers, but those that appreciate audio performance can certainly get more for their money (although it won't look as nice). For design-conscious buyers, the DD-3 is definitely worth a long look if you've got the budget.
Aesthetic appeal is the top priority of the JVC DD-3 Sophisti. The 3.1-channel system features three sticklike front speakers -- two vertical (left and right front channels), one horizontal (centre channel) and a stylish sub with some glossy black accents. There's also the 'head unit' that combines the receiver, amplifier and DVD player. The head unit is mostly covered in black gloss with silver trim along the edges. It houses the receiver/DVD player, and under the flip-down panel is a USB port, headphone jack and a minijack input and output.
Like many smaller systems, the speakers on the DD-3 actually connect to the subwoofer rather than the receiver. The subwoofer is equipped with spring-clip speaker jacks, and it uses standard speaker wire rather than a proprietary connector, so you can easily substitute your own wiring for longer or in-wall runs. The subwoofer connects to the head unit using just a single proprietary connection. Overall, the whole system looks very stylish, especially for those turned off by standard boxy component-grade electronics.
The remote will look familiar to those with JVC gear, which isn't necessarily a good thing. The combination of small buttons, cluttered design and confusing labels make it difficult to navigate easily. For example, having two volume buttons so close to each other with only a tiny label differentiating them is annoying.
The user interface is very basic and utilitarian. The very simple graphics and blocky white text contrast greatly with the outward appearance of the unit, so anyone expecting an Apple TV-like slickness will be disappointed. Still, it gets the job done, letting you pick a media category (Music, Video, Picture or Playlists) and then select from other categories -- such as artist or album -- by picking up tag information. It's certainly not the prettiest way to access your media, but it gets the job done for simple streaming.
The left and right speakers are two-way designs, featuring a 95x11mm direct drive driver (which JVC claims delivers a wider sound field) as well as a 21mm dome tweeter. The centre speaker features the same direct drive speaker, and the subwoofer is armed with a 160mm cone -- somewhat small, even by home-cinema standards.
The DD-3 has a built-in DVD player and is equipped with the standard Dolby Digital, Dolby Pro Logic II, and DTS surround decoding options, although it cannot reproduce true Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks without six discrete speakers. Instead, the DD-3 creates an approximation of a surround-sound field from the available four channels (including the subwoofer). There are three different sound-processing modes: Movie/M.Music for movies and multichannel music, Wide/2chMusic to widen the soundstage on two channel music, and Super Wide to create an even wider soundstage.
In addition to DVDs, the DD-3 can play DivX, MP3 and WMA files on DVDs and CDs. There's no support for SACD discs, although we'd argue that the benefits from high-resolution music discs would be difficult to detect on a system like this.
Connectivity is minimal. The highlight is the HDMI output, which is capable of upconverting DVDs to 720p resolution. Otherwise, the system includes the standard DVD player analogue video outputs (component video, S-Video and composite video). For audio output, the HDMI jack can be used (it carries both audio and video), but there's also an optical digital audio output. Of course, since the system has its own speakers, you'll probably use them instead.
The real omission is the bare-bones support for AV inputs. There are three audio inputs (one stereo analogue input, one optical digital audio input and -- on the front panel -- a minijack input) but there are no video inputs. That means you won't be able to do any video switching to integrate any external equipment -- say a cable or satellite box, or a games console. Of course, you can run the audio to the DD-3 and the video to the TV, but that involves a lot of remote fumbling or buying a good universal remote.
Like most other home-cinema systems, the DD-3 includes an AM/FM tuner along with the ability to save 30 FM presets and 15 AM presets. There's no support for satellite radio or HD radio.
You'll also note there's an Ethernet port on the back, which is used for the network media-playing functionality. The DD-3 is basic as a network player, offering support for LPCM, WAV, MP3 and WMA audio file types. For video files, it can play ASF, DivX, MPEG1 and MPEG2 files -- while photo support is limited to just JPEG files. That certainly doesn't stack up to the best standalone network media players, but for basic streaming it should get the job done. We were disappointed to find that it couldn't play non-DRM 256kpbs AAC files purchased from the iTunes store.
We started off our listening tests with Pat Martino's East! CD. It took only a quick cycling through the surround options to realise that leaving the surround mode off was clearly preferable for standard stereo music. We have to admit we were a little sceptical given the size of the speakers, but they fared pretty well -- at least in a midsize room. We were able to pump the DD-3 up pretty loud and it continued to deliver detail and clarity without breaking up on Pat's intricate guitar phrasings.
In fact, we felt the subwoofer was actually more of the choke point -- when we pushed the volume up it started to get a little boomy and less musical than we'd like. Luckily the DD-3 allows you to adjust the levels of each of the speakers, so we were able to dial the sub in a little better, but we couldn't get the acoustic bass to sound just right.
We swapped out the DD-3's left and right speakers with a pair of older, standard Onkyo speakers to compare. Ultimately, we definitely preferred the boxy Onkyo speakers, as they were a little less bright and sounded more natural -- the DD-3 can sound a little harsh at times. The harshness was also apparent on more aggressive music like Jeff Beck's Truth album, where the Onkyo speakers were more listenable over long periods.
We also watched Serenity, and the DD-3 did a decent job approximating the surround experience, although it's definitely not one of the best at creating a faux-surround soundstage from less than six speakers. Of course, no front-only system is really going to compete with actual surround speakers.
That said, the DD-3 does benefit nicely from the centre channel -- which many virtual-surround systems lack -- and we could easily make out all the dialogue, which was placed right in the centre of the soundstage. We were also able to crank the system up pretty loud. It was just about enough to fill out the medium-size testing facility, and the sub was able to deliver enough bass when the action picked up.
Overall, the sound quality on the DD-3 is pretty solid, given the admittedly lower expectations we have for a virtual-surround system. As with any home-cinema system, compromises have been made and audiophiles won't be ditching their full 5.1 systems anytime soon. The DD-3 definitely sounds better when playing DVDs, but that criticism can be applied to almost every home-cinema system.
Moving on to video, we started off our testing of the DD-3's DVD upconversion by looking at Silicon Optix's HQV test suite. The test didn't start off very well -- it failed the initial resolution test, which means it cannot display the full resolution of DVDs. Where we should have seen detail, there were flashing boxes, and several of the lines were unstable. Things didn't go so well after that -- there were tonnes of nasty-looking jaggies on a test with a rotating line, as well as a test with three shifting lines.
We moved on to the 2:3 pull-down test, which the DD-3 failed, as it never kicked into film mode, resulting in moire in the grandstands as the racing car drove by. The bottom line with the DVD player is that it's nowhere near as good as other dedicated players -- videophiles should definitely look elsewhere. Again, that's a disappointment relative to the DD-3's price tag -- but the casual viewers to whom the product is targeted aren't likely to even notice.
The network-streaming performance of the DD-3 was pretty good overall. We were able to stream videos and music over the wired connection and didn't run into any snags. The caveat here is that because the DD-3 doesn't support hi-def videos and it only uses a wired connection, none of the streaming is very taxing. That being said, for someone who just wants to do basic media streaming and has Ethernet connectivity in their home, the DD-3 can handle the task and we never saw it falter.
Performance from the USB drive was disappointing. We had a couple of DivX clips we tried to play directly from the USB drive, and while a few of them played without a hitch, others had choppy playback with audio dropouts. We initially had some trouble finding where our MP3 and JPEG files were -- that's because you need to go into the setup menu and change the setting in the picture category from video to audio, or to still picture. It's not intuitive and annoying if you are switching between media, but we didn't have any problems playing back the files once we found them.
Edited by John P. Falcone
Additional editing by Nick Hide