If the prospect of building your own separates system is all too daunting, then an all-in-one alternative offers a convenient escape clause -- all you need to do is add a TV and you're away. Home-cinema-in-a-box systems may not equal the performance of separates but they are increasingly popular for their ease of use and affordability.
Compared to other systems available for around £300, Pioneer's DCS-360 is an outstanding example. You get a more generous speaker package featuring floor-standing speakers and it's one of the few budget systems that can claim HDMI connectivity, which allows you to play near high-definition quality 720p or 1080i pictures.
If you've recently bought an HD Ready flat screen and want to supplement the sound and vision, without spending too much, it's an excellent option. Picture performance is unrivalled at this price, and although the sound is less impressive, it's still well worth it.
While most budget home-cinema systems are restricted by small satellite speakers, Pioneer's DCS-360 catches the eye with a far more substantial setup, featuring floor-standing cabinets.
The front and rear channels consist of four aptly named 'tall-boy' speakers, which tower over typical systems at this price. The attractive design features slender black-wood cabinets with a lacquered front panel that gives the system presence, especially alongside a large-screen display. The oversized dimensions also enhance sound performance with greater dynamics and bass extension than smaller speakers are capable of.
Completing the 5.1-speaker configuration is a compact centre channel that can be easily placed above or below your screen and a reasonable-sized passive subwoofer -- both finished in silver to match the main unit.
Considering both DVD player and surround-sound receiver functions are conveniently housed in a single unit, the design is surprisingly slimline. The softly contoured edges and minimal, chromed controls on the front panel are elegantly styled and supported by peerless connectivity (for the cost).
To say it's a surprise to find a sub-£300 system with HDMI connectivity is an understatement. Provided you have a compatible digital display, this direct digital connection allows you to play upscaled 720p and 1080i images for optimum performance. However, owners of non-HD Ready TVs will have to rely on a single RGB Scart, as component outputs and therefore progressive-scan video have been ignored altogether.
Equally unusual for a budget system is the inclusion of a USB port on the front panel. This allows you to access images and sound from a variety of external devices, including your PC's magnetic hard drive, portable flash memory sticks and digital audio players -- with support for MP3, WMA, MPEG-4 and JPEG files. Digital camera owners will be able to view pictures as a slideshow accompanied by music if they so desire.
The remaining space on the rear panel is taken up by a set of 5.1 speaker outputs, which feature one-touch, colour-coded terminals to ease installation. There is also a pair of stereo inputs that can be used to source sound from your TV, which can then be processed and listened to in multi-channel surround sound.
The small remote is overcrowded and the uniform appearance of keys can be confusing until you've become used to the arrangement -- but it's still easier than using different remotes for separate devices.