When it launched, the AVJ-X5 heralded an image change for Aiwa. And it's certainly a change for the better; under the tutelage of parent company Sony, this system offers stylish looks at an affordable price.

The main unit boasts chrome and silver styling, and the front panel has a tapered design that echoes the look of the distinctive, elliptical speaker package. The subwoofer, meanwhile, has to be one of the funkiest we've seen - you'll want to leave it on show rather than place it out of sight.

The AVJ-X5 is equipped to handle both Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks, and there's also Dolby Pro-Logic II. There's Super Audio CD or DVD-Audio playback, however - a slight shame considering this is one of the most expensive systems in this roundup. But it does have a karaoke facility, with a mike input on the front to turn it into a PA system to entertain your friends after a few beers! Perhaps this gives away which age group Aiwa is aiming the AVJ-X5 at...

Another slight disappointment comes with the connections - there are no component video outputs for flicker-free progressive scan images to your flatscreen. Still, there is a Scart socket to take goodquality RGB (and lesser composite video) picture signals to a TV, and an additional set of inputs for connecting to external sources (like a games console).

The Aiwa's on-screen menus are easy to use, and can tailor the system exactly to your tastes. They're actually the same menus as used on Sony's systems and DVD players, and we cannot fault their ease of use.

Picture-wise, it's clear that the AVJ-X5 comes from good stock. The first thing that struck us during a run-through of Spider-Man 2 via the RGB Scart was the colour reproduction; everything, from Spidey's costume to Kirsten Dunst's hair, looked vibrant but believable, and skin tones were natural. What's more, we spotted subtle details in dark and/or complex scenes that are sometimes masked by lesser systems at this sort of price.

Action star?

With Spider-Man 2's soundtrack, we soon discovered that distinctive looks isn't all that the Aiwa's speakers have going for them - the satellites created a good soundstage that immersed us in the action of our superhero movie. Occasionally, however, they can sound a bit lean on bass - a flaw that is highlighted by the Spidey vs Doc Ock battles from our test disc. Moreover, voices sometimes sounded weak given the centre speaker's considerable size. This is a minor quibble, however, and for the most part dialogue was clear and easy to understand. And while the stylish subwoofer may under-support the centre speaker when it comes to filling out dialogue, it's certainly no slouch when it comes to backing up the bass-light satellites - we enjoyed some well-timed bass rumbles.

The sub's powerful capabilities are also in evidence in the Aiwa's musical performance. The AVJ-X5 provided plenty of punch with Duran Duran's Astronaut album, and there's even a 'bass boost' mode.

Thanks to Aiwa's change of image, the AVJ-X5 has distinctive looks that, like its karaoke function, are probably designed to catch the eye of the younger home cinema buyer. Its picture performance is very impressive, and our only real criticisms with regards to sound are a bit of bass-lightness with speech, and occasional sibilance.

It is missing a couple of important features - component video, DVD-Audio - but it's still an attractive setup that's worth considering if you can find it even cheaper online.