The TH-S3 is a prime example of the plummeting prices in the home cinema market. While we've seen setups from unknown brands gracing the shelves of our local supermarket for as little as £70, this system is from one of the most respected electronics companies in the world - and yet costs just £150. It would no doubt have cost almost twice as much a year ago. Let's just hope JVC hasn't let standards slip to reach this low price point...

Budget beauty?

While not as good-looking as some of JVC's more expensive systems, the brand's attention to detail is still evident on this ultra-affordable model. It's certainly more eye-catching than your typical supermarket system! The main unit is compact - especially considering that it contains all the system's surround sound amplification and processing - and the blue insert on the DVD loading tray gives it a stylish twist. The partnering speakers feel solidly built, and their tiny dimensions made for a discreet installation when we placed them around our test room.

Setup is straightforward and, as with most of today's one-box systems, speaker connections are clearly labelled to make the home cinema novice feel at ease. What's more, the remote control is reasonably sophisticated for the price, neatly hiding lesser-used controls beneath a flap.

The TH-S3 continued to belie its budget price when we looked at its features. Topping the hit list is its ability to playback high-res DVD-Audio music discs (a feature that certainly wouldn't have appeared on a £150 system a year ago), closely followed by the presence of component video inputs for taking top-notch progressive scan pictures to your flatscreen. Dolby Digital and DTS decoding is onboard for 5.1 DVD soundtracks, while Dolby Pro-Logic II processing can convert stereo sources into near-digital surround sound.

Hooking up the TH-S3 to our TV via its component video outputs produced images that were very respectable for the price. The web-slinging action of Spider-Man 2 is a tough test for any system, but we were impressed by the TH-S3's detail resolution, even during fast-moving fight scenes. Colours are also strong, though skin tones were sometimes less rosy than they should be, making Kirsten Dunst look paler than ever!

Sounding off

When it came to sound, however, we found Spidey's antics less enjoyable. The film's omnipresent and often dramatic score wasn't done full justice by the JVC, and sounded thin and unfocused. Effects from the rear speakers were sometimes unnatural-sounding, which undermined the soundstage. What compounded our lack of enjoyment, however, was the fact that we could clearly hear the cooling fan on the main unit, which overshadowed softly spoken dialogue.

It wasn't all bad news, though - bass from the passive sub was surprisingly powerful. Also, correct setup is critical to get the best performance from any system, and we did find that experimenting with speaker positioning alleviated some of the soundstage problems.

After its lack-lustre performance with our test movie, we were unsurprised to find the TH-S3 lacking when it came to DVD-Audio playback. The Corrs' In Blue DVD-A album sounded synthetic and brash during our test. Regular CDs fared little better - the JVC doesn't really cut it as a music system.

Ultimately, the TH-S3 isn't quite the budget beauty we were hoping for. While it's good to see such an affordable system from such a big-name brand, sacrifices have clearly been made with regard to the amplification and speaker package. Pictures are very respectable, but that's only half the story; there are better-sounding budget systems to be had for just a little more cash.