Surround sound is one of the greatest inventions in home entertainment -- nothing involves you in the on-screen action more than an immersive soundtrack rumbling out from all around you. The problem is, if you have limited space, or simply don't want to run speaker cables all over your living room, surround sound really isn't an option.
Enter all-in-one speaker systems, designed to produce a virtual surround effect from a smaller number of speakers. These systems range from very good to utterly useless, but offer a decent solution for those not prepared to turn their front room into a gigantic ball of wire.
Sony has taken an interesting approach to the problem by building its virtual surround-sound speakers into a TV stand, the RHT-G800, which is available online for around £600. Can it succeed where others have failed?
We like the styling of this stand, finished in a nice dark black and covered with a glass top, on which you place your TV. Concealed under this glass is a simple display that allows you to set up the basic menu options and displays information about the current settings.
The two HDMI inputs and one output mean that this stand will also act as an HDMI splitter. This is particularly useful if you're running out of HDMI sockets on your TV. The stand even comes with an HDMI cable, which is unusual.
Putting the stand together is easy, as it comes pretty much in one piece. The only job you have to do is fit the middle shelf and hook it up to your Blu-ray or HD DVD player and any other inputs you might have.
There are both coaxial and optical digital inputs for DVD players, as well as analogue RCA inputs for older equipment, and the Sony will extract Dolby Pro Logic sound from these connectors.
There are speakers at the sides and front. The subwoofer is at the bottom of the unit, and when you stand back you can just about see the woofer air port. The speakers at the side are intended to bounce surround effects off the walls, which should envelop the listener, while the front speakers take care of speech and stereo effects.
The real strength of this system is that, if used to replace the shoddy speakers you find on most LCD and plasma TVs, it will provide an immediate and enormous performance boost.
While there was mostly enough bass and high-end sound, the G800 lacks something in the midrange. During movies, this means speech can sound a little muddy, and when listening to music it can make the bass and treble a little too overpowering.
From the surround-sound perspective we weren't overly impressed with the virtual sound separation. Sometimes we got the distinct impression there were things happening behind us, and at other times the sound field didn't really envelop us. Sony claims it doesn't use reflected sound to create the impression of rear effects, instead using technology that delays certain parts of the sound, to fool us into thinking it's coming from behind us.
While we're happy to see this stand handle HDMI signals, we are slightly put off by the fact that it will only pass through 1080i. This means if you own a 1080p TV, you won't be able to send a full HD signal to it from your Blu-ray or HD DVD player via this stand.
Finally, you have to pay for having an elegant speaker set-up -- it costs as much as a good 32-inch LCD TV.
The G800 will suit people who would like a proper cinema-style experience at home, but don't want to sacrifice the clean lines of their front room. Decent styling makes it a good place to plonk your TV, but bear in mind you won't be getting the best possible sound that's out there. Before you make a choice, consider Yamaha's YSP-900 or YSP-1100 -- you may find they suit your needs better.
Edited by Jason Jenkins
Additional editing by Nick Hide