Philips' SoundBar HTS8100 isn't a home cinema system as we know it -- instead it's a space saving solution that delivers a virtual surround experience using only a single speaker unit with an integrated DVD player.
It's the ultimate in minimal design with an inconspicuous appearance combined with the convenience of not having to trail wires to various speakers across the room. It looks stylish and comes with some high-end features including full 1080p video upscaling, integrated surround processing and versatile connectivity, including a USB port and optional iPod dock.
Image quality is extremely impressive for an integrated system but there are some sound compromises, especially with stereo music, and the £700 price is more than you can pay for a six-channel set up.
If you want your home cinema system to be heard but not seen, then the HTS8100 is ideal. The long, slender main unit can be flexibly positioned below your screen or wall mounted out of the way -- and it looks clean and stylish, especially the sliding disc drawer that conceals the integrated DVD player.
The SoundBar main unit uses 'ambisound' technology to recreate the illusion of surround sound by positioning eight individual drivers at varying angles. There's also a separate subwoofer to take care of low frequencies, but that's the only out of the way connection you need to make.
You can use the unit as a mini-amplifier by connecting separate sources through a range of audio inputs and there's a dedicated MP3 line-in for portable media players or a USB port that lets you access digital music and photo files from any USB flash device.
Depending on your display, you can upscale standard DVDs all the way to 1080p near high-definition quality. And image quality is noticeably enhanced with immaculate detail, dense definition and smear-free movement, even with slow scrolling text.
The sound makes a decent attempt at approximating extra channels with an expansive sound stage and reasonable impression of peripheral noises such as falling rain or clashing blades during 300. And there's an easy listening integration between the speaker system and subwoofer.
While the system's virtual surround technology is impressive, especially since there's only a single speaker involved, it never really convinces you that you're listening to a true surround sound set up.
The multi-directional sound and subsequent reflections vary wildly according to the speaker's positioning and can seem muddled at times. The absence of a dedicated centre channel also weakens vocals, which can sound thin and inexpressive. With films such as 28 Weeks Later, where explosive special effects share the stage with ambient dialogue, the presentation can sound puzzling and less involved.
The sound also falters when faced with high volumes, which lose subtlety and leave low frequencies sounding distorted and overwhelming. And, even when not using multi-channel, music tracks sound confused and unstructured.
Philips' SoundBar HTS8100, at around £700, is a decent alternative to a full surround sound system for anyone who places space-saving style and convenience above uncompromised sound performance.
Edited by Jason Jenkins
Additional editing by Jon Squire