Predictably, it was Sony that launched the first all-in-one cinema system in the UK in the early days of DVD, and quickly realised that it was shifting more DVD systems than stand-alone players and making much healthier margins.
The 'home-theatre-in-a-box' phenomenon has died down now, but it's still the most cost-effective and convenient way of getting DVD playback with surround sound into your home. As a purist fan of home cinema though, I have to conclude that they were all crap.
Compromised in both size and price, the HTB (Home Theatre in a Box) generally fails to deliver 'proper' home cinema sound through puny amplifiers and tiny plywood speakers. However, a British brand noted for its audio and video separates has come up with a new proposition that has changed my long-held opinions. It's an all-in-one system that uses high-quality components and allows you the freedom to choose your own speakers.
The Solo Movie 5.1 combines a high-performance DVD player with a DAB tuner and a powerful five-channel amplifier in one stylish machine.
Arcam wasn't the first to come up with the concept of a high-end one-box solution, but the alternatives, from Linn and Bang and Olufsen, are more esoteric compared to Arcam's very pragmatic approach. With a succession of cutting-edge DVD players and audiophile grade amplifiers under its belt, combining them in one box is simply a matter of engineering logistics.
From the front, the Solo Movie keeps a low profile and is only available in ninja-style black. Instead, the unit isdeep to accommodate the five discrete linear 50W amplifiers and massive toroidal mains transformer. It weighs a lot too - 7.5kg to be precise.
The Solo Movie has inputs for three other AV sources (potentially more) including Sky HD, which is controllable via the clever universal remote. An iPod cradle (the rDock) is an optional extra.
Much of the tech associated with the DVD player comes directly from the company's £1,300 DV137, which means it can upscale video to 720p, 768p and 1080i.
It's based around the Zoran 8885 processor - the best on the market, currently. It also means you can play both Super Audio CD and DVD-Audio discs.
Since the company's birth 30 years ago, Arcam has been best known for its high-end audio, and sound quality was high on the agenda during the Solo's conception. As well as expensive audio DACs that handle the digital-to-analogue conversion, you also get both digital and analogue radio tuners on board to satisfy new and old school audiophiles.
Simplicity was also the watchword in the Solo's design. Despite the sophisticated technology inside, it is wonderfully easy to use. The ordinary-looking remote control is backlit and intuitively designed and while the onscreen graphics are dull, they are mercifully easy to follow.
Just be careful when choosing the video output resolution. Pick one that's incompatible with your display device and you're faced with the dreaded black screen, then it's a case of quickly hooking up a composite video lead to change it back again.
Picture of health
With all the excitement surrounding the hi-def formats, it's easy to forget how good DVD can look. The Solo Movie is here to remind us. Any budget DVD player can upscale to 1080i these days, but they usually make a hash of it. Image quality here is top drawer, with upscaled episodes of 24 looking crisp and contrasty.
You can, of course, hook up your own hi-def source to the Solo as there are two HDMI inputs capable of switching up to 1080i signals. However, they are not version 1.3, so there's no way of getting lossless sound. I would also have liked a third HDMI in, but the two-into-one component switching is pretty good compensation.
With Arcam's Muso speaker range not available during my audition I was free to choose another. I used my Miller and Kreisel array - which are often difficult to drive - with great success. Budget systems often claim outrageous power ratings, but Arcam's claim of 50W RMS to each speaker is genuine. There's plenty of volume and headroom on offer to achieve an authentic home cinema surround sound.
With all of my sources connected up, the Arcam is a joy to use as the main switching box ,and it looks great under the TV in place of the DVD player, amp and tuner. All this convenience makes me feel uneasy, but there is no compromise. All of the sources, particularly the DVD player, look and sound fantastic.
The puffed up press release proclaims it 'the world's best one-box home cinema system' and for once, I'm inclined to agree.