Home cinema has been shrinking for yonks, but now it's getting invisible.
Away from the steady flow of mainstream all-in-one speaker packages, soundbars and, more recently, Blu-ray versions and movie streamers like Apple TV, here's the really exciting secret stuff; secret speakers, pop-up projector screens, and iPad apps that control your whole system.
We've gathered together some of the best gadgets from the world of home cinema to give your den a luxury feel for an outlay of as little as £50. But don't be fooled by price; you could spend as little or as much as you like on speakers or a TV, but there's a creeping trend towards home automation.
The latter often applies to boring chores like controlling the heating or lighting in the whole house, but done well it can lead to multi-room video streaming and endless, easy customisation - and very often from a smartphone.
Before you bombard us with "how could you idiots forget the [insert the thing you just bought here]?" comments, please remember; this market is so innovative that and fast-moving this is a mere taster to give you an idea of just what can be done if you have the imagination and, yes, the cash - but it is getting easier and cheaper to get last year's high-end features for smaller bean. Dim the lights!
1. Logitech Harmony 650 universal remote control
There's no touchscreen or iPhone in sight, yet Logitech's £70 universal remote effortlessly restores, err, harmony to the universe by instantly de-cluttering your living room.
It can 'learn' infra-red commands from your existing remotes, but only in a emergency; the Harmony 650 prefers to rely on its own database of codes. Simply load the brilliantly addictive software onto a PC or Mac, attach the unit via USB, and set about entering model numbers and deciding on scenarios.
Within minutes you'll be pressing one button labelled 'play movie' that wakes a TV, sets an AV receiver to a particular mode, powers-up the Blu-ray player and - if you're lucky - dims the lights and can even activates the air-con. Blokey and brilliant.
2. Digital Future (DF) Solutions Base & Link multi-room system
We're now into the realm of 'footballer'-grade home cinema, where no stone is left unturned. Two products are at work here: the Base multi-room media server and Link video client, which pushes digital media around your home.
Including Blu-ray support, this endlessly customisable and expandable system features a beautiful user interface. Able to store 20,000 CDs, 120 DVDs or around 3,000 compressed movies (though NAS drives can be added at will) and supporting virtually all digital media formats, this comprehensive system costs from £2,920 for a simple one room solution, but can stretch to a stunning eight video zones if your wallet is up to it.
3. RedEye iPhone/iPad universal remote control app
The alternative to buying a universal remote like the Logitech is to instead rely on your iPhone or iPad, but never forget that Apple's tablet is virtually inert; you're going to need some third-party hardware to act as a go-between.
This £199 transparent blue plastic dock takes commands issued over Wi-Fi from a free iPhone (or iPad) app and converts them into infrared, thus controlling your home cinema stuff.
There were gaps in its database when we tried it (hopefully a very temporary problem for this US-birthed gadget) and the main unit (which can also charge an iPhone) frequently lights-up and ruins a movie blackout, but it's a cinch to set-up and can even control products in other 'zones' of your networked house.
Also available is the RedEye Mini (£49.95), which slots into your iPhone's headphones slot and doesn't require recharging, though it only works in one room.
4. Evolve lifeStation media server
Costing around £4,500 and custom built in the UK, Evolve's lifeStation is aimed squarely at those after a central hub for … almost anything. It's the only server of its kind to indulge in 24-frame switching, making its standard 4TB hard disk ripe for storing Blu-rays, though it's capable of distributing all kinds of digital media - BBC iPlayer, web radio, recordings from your Sky or Virgin box - as well as record from live TV. There's even a USB port on its front for adding drives and devices.
Although its runs on a Windows-based system, it's a modular 'shell' version designed purely for the handling of media, so there's zero chance of annoying pop-up error messages.
But best of all, you're not locked into the Evolve system forever – Xbox 360s can be used as clients (up to five, though - as we know - they can't handle Blu-ray), making a stunning multi-room system relatively cheap to achieve after the initial layout.
5. Beamax Dellegno X-Series pop-up projector screen
Discreet isn't the word; this £2,000 powered projector screen from Beamax screams luxury the moment you touch the remote (or your universal remote) and grin as the 80-inch screen rises from the floor and into its viewing position.
"How, what, where?" nonsense is likely to spill from your dropped jaw - unless you look at the so-that's-how-they-do-it folding cantilever arrangement behind the screen - but try to relax; you're the proud owner of surely one of the most striking slices of home cinema science. Projectionist, begin!
6. Yamaha YSP-2200 digital sound projector
Speakers might not be as in-yer-face as a brand new LED-studded screen, but home cinema is as much as about sound as picture. New lossless soundtracks on Blu-ray films in either Dolby True HD or DTS Master Audio HD will power their way through a classic 5.1 speakers + AV receiver set-up, but those after something less dominating should give Yamaha's latest digital sound projector a shot.
Built around 16 separate beam drivers that individually reposition themselves according to the exact shape of your room before bouncing sound off the walls, the low profile YSP-2200 sits in front of any TV and lends some serious power despite its diminutive dimensions.
7. Epson EH-R4000 Reflective 3LCD projector
Pricey at £6,500, yes, but brilliant; that's Epson's latest incarnation of its 3LCD projectors. Formerly known to be good, but not as good as a DLP projector, Epson's engineers have souped-up the tech to create Reflective 3LCD - and it works a treat in a blackout.
Glossy black contrast and colours to die for, this whisper-quiet beast is also far easier to set-up and position than most beamers. Cheaper under-a-grand alternatives come from Optoma, BenQ, InFocus, Panasonic and, indeed, Epson.
8. Lutron Single Rania IR digital dimmer
Among us tech types there's always chatter about phone-operated robots and fridges you can send a text to, but all we really want to do is dim the lights without getting up.
Cue Lutron's £50 dimmer, which comes with a remote control, and, because it uses infrared, can easily be operated by a universal remote. Add it to a DIY scenario such as 'play movie' on the RedEye or Logitech Harmony universal remotes, above, and snigger as the lights dim of their own accord.
9. Peerless Slimline motorised mount
Welcome to the '3D corridor'. Hanging a TV on a wall is becoming very fashionable (keep 'em at eye level, people - above the fireplace is way too high), but things have moved on for owners of 3DTVs who need exact positions for the best picture.
It's no longer enough to mount your superslim LED-backlit telly on a low profile mount - now it has to be motorised, like this £249 product from Peerless. Able to support 23-46-inch screens, it can move 20 degrees left or right and can be programmed - using a small remote - to remember two separate positions, which it leaps to at the touch of a button. Best of all, it's easy to install.
10. Amina Invisible in-wall speakers
Designed to be heard, but not seen (and hard to believe until you have), Amina has taken the nation's dislike of cabling and clutter and applied it to speakers; its AIW5X top of the range invisible loudspeaker (£990 single/£1,920 a pair) can be installed in walls and then, with a lick of paint, completely disappear.
The AIW5X speakers, along with the all-important ALF40 bass enhancer (£306), are best handled by a recognised AV installer - see www.amina.co.uk for details of where and who to buy from.
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