We kick off this Mega Test with two linked but very different categories: build and looks. How well built your speakers are is vital. The construction of your kit will often mirror how well it performs, and poorly-built equipment can vibrate terribly, affecting sound quality, and ultimately your enjoyment. Also, in the long run, the system may prove to be a poor investment if it breaks.

The styling of players and amps is usually less important - after all, if a DVD deck isn't great looking it doesn't really matter as it's hidden away under your TV or on an equipment rack. However, when it comes to subwoofer and satellite (sub/sat) surround sound speaker packages, looks are more important; even small speakers are going to have an impact on a room when there are five of them.

On the construction front, we are happy to report that all of the speaker systems in this test are solid and well built, but, three of the products are particularly worthy of mention...

Built to last

The JM Lab Sib and Cub package immediately stands out, as its satellite Sib speakers are the by far biggest here. The large size certainly doesn't make them ugly though, and the impressive finish coupled with the concave metal grill on the front makes them a very attractive proposition for a decent sized room. The subwoofer is also, in our mind, the best looking of the bunch. Its attractively finished exterior and reasonable size means you can keep it on display, even though, as with all of the subwoofers here, you can also hide it behind a sofa.

We reviewed the KEF KHT2005AV package in HE90 and praised its solid build and attractive looks. But this is the first time we've had our hands on the black version of the 'Eggs', and it has to be said, we reckon these are even more appealing than the standard silver models. The matt finish is easy on the eye and feels good to the touch; and dotted around a room they look amazing. They are also pretty chunky, and just like the JM Labs, this extra size enables the manufacturers to make slightly smaller subwoofers than are partnered with some of the more diminutive satellites on test here.

But we're not being sizeist here. The small satellites of the Bose Acoustimass 10 package are most attractive. The brand is well known for its design kudos. The Cube satellites may look simple, but that's a good thing, and once in place they really do seem to disappear into the background, leaving you free to concentrate fully on the sound.

Looking good

The Quadral package is no slouch on the looks and build front either. It comprises four sizeable satellites, a chunky subwoofer and - rather cleverly as you'll read later - a double size centre speaker. All are finished in an attractive, metal-sheen casework.

The Tannoy is the least well finished system on test, but it's also the cheapest by some margin. And we certainly reckon the supplied metal stands are a thoughtful touch. The satellites are very small and silver, but unlike the KEF and Quadrals, they are made of plastic rather than metal. Still, positioned around a room the Tannoys fade into it - although the largish silver plastic sub takes more thought to hide.

There's not much to say about speaker packages' features, apart from to continue to praise the Tannoy system for coming supplied with stands. They are tall, thin poles that screw into a circular plinth and are excellent value-added additions. JM Lab is renowned for its innovative products, so it's fitting that the Sib satellites come with clever platforms that can be turned round for easy wall mounting. The KEFs also have a similar system, and can be placed in a variety of positions. A nice touch.

What is more important is how easy it is to set each package up as a convincing surround sound system. While we wouldn't say that any of the products are problematic, the Bose
does have an interesting little quirk.

The American company usually attempts to break the mould, and this product is no different. Rather than powering the satellites directly from a home cinema amplifier or receiver - the standard method used by all of the other systems in this test - Bose uses a propriety method. This involves taking the signal from the speaker outputs of a receiver and feeding it into the subwoofer before sending it to the speaker with the supplied cables.

Balancing the speakers

All bar one of the packages here use exactly the same speakers for the five satellites and the matching drive units make for a coherent, all-round sound. The KEF centre speaker is positioned horizontally, but is basically the same speaker at a different angle, and thanks to the use of Uni-Q drive units, this doesn't hinder the sound dispersion at all. The only system that uses an obviously different centre speaker is the item from Quadral. Here the centre speaker is larger, around twice the size of the other satellites, but it still has a reassuringly similar tonal balance, with just an extra feeling of weight and solidity that works well with dialogue.

Throughout all of the packages, this almost uniform sizing makes setting up the satellites relatively simple. What's much harder is getting the subwoofer to integrate smoothly into the system. This is because, unlike larger stand-alone loudspeakers, the smaller satellites found in these systems don't come close to producing what can realistically be referred to as bass. Even the larger speakers here struggle, with only the JM Lab Sibs creating any worthwhile deep sound, which is explained partly by the fact they can be bought as a stereo pair.

This problem puts a lot of pressure on the respective subwoofers to create a strong enough force to drive the system, and subs with a gaggle of smaller satellite speakers have to go much higher up the frequency range to meet them. And in some cases they really do struggle to manage it.

Because of this, the control options on the subs are vital for getting the best out of the system (see page 52). The KEF subwoofer is particularly impressive in this respect, with knobs to control input level (volume), crossover (the point where the satellites stop working and the sub takes over) and a variable phase control (a switch to set the phase anywhere between nought and 180 degrees).

The KEF sub also has LFE inputs and outputs and two sets of high level (speaker) inputs and outputs as well. Basically, everything you can ask for. The others are all reasonably well suited to their respective systems' needs.

Once upon a time, speakers came in pairs and were used for playing two-channel, stereo music. But times have changed, and with the massive success of DVD-Video, home cinema systems needing five speakers or more have become increasingly important. But people are never satisfied, and with the launch of DVD-Audio and multi-channel SACD formats, surround sound speakers now have to perform exceptionally as stereo/surround sound music items as well as movie boxes to meet their demands. To reflect this trend, we tested the systems with stereo and multi-channel music, the latter including both DVD-Video and DVD-Audio sources.

Musically, the Tannoy system reveals its budget nature pretty rapidly. Whether in stereo or multi-channel formats, its performance lags behind the other systems here. The satellites do a decent enough job - although they sound a touch thin compared to the likes of the JM Lab Sibs - but it's the bass that lets it down. It's just not agile enough to cope with the punchy rock sound of Bruce Springsteen's The Rising on CD.

The Bose system is equally disappointing, and while its performance with stereo music is certainly a little better than the Tannoy, at this price it should be! Switch to Dolby Pro-Logic II and the Bose speakers diffuse the sound too much, at both the front and back, leaving you with little to focus on - something that may pay dividends with movie soundtracks, but not with music.

The mid-range

The Quadral system sits somewhere near the the middle of this test when it comes to music playback. The sizeable satellites need plenty of running in to get rid of their initial hard edge. But once they've smoothed out a little and the subwoofer level is brought up to meet them, they present a reasonably musical interpretation of The Last Waltz by The Band on both DVD-Audio and Dolby Digital. However, they still don't totally convince and lack the detail required to ultimately make them a good all-round purchase for music and movies.

Tussle for the top

That leaves us with the best two of the bunch. JM Lab's Sib and Cub packageis very impressive when it comes to playing a tune. The Sibs are even reasonably competent as a stereo pair. But add the Cub and the trio makes a good fist of Springsteen in stereo, with impressive levels of detail and a real sense of space and atmosphere to the sound that's remarkable from boxes this small. With surround sound they are even more impressive, and with the rears in place they really draw you into The Band's landmark concert performance, with enough detail across the front to pick out each individual instrument on what rapidly becomes a very crowded sound stage.

In terms of outright musical ability, it's very close between the JM Lab and KEF packages. The KEF does a better job of digging out low-level, subtle details and the small satellite speakers sound remarkably dynamic. The subwoofer also puts in a good performance with the low-level output of both Springsteen and The Band, and allows you to follow bass lines with ease. At the end of the day the KEF system just beats the Sib and Cub to the punch when it comes to music, mainly because of its particularly articulate subwoofer.

Even though this type of sub/satellite speaker package gives a passing nod towards music, they'll mostly be used reproducing movie soundtracks. After all, the satellites here are small enough to stick the front left and right boxes directly on top of a pair of 'proper' hi-fi stereo speakers. It's therefore vital that they perform at their best when fed a blistering multi-channel movie soundtrack. The KEF system certainly fulfils this side of the contract.

The KEF satellite speakers may look small and unassuming, but the 'Eggs' have the ability to fill a room with explosions, rear effects and dialogue all at the same time; and without sounding confused or hard. Dialogue is well delivered and natural sounding, and the small satellites create a coherent image across the three front speakers. Thanks to the powerful little subwoofer, the system also has the degree of slam and power needed to really kick it with a high-octane DTS soundtrack.

The competition

The only package that comes close to KEF's performance in terms of outright exhilaration is the JM Lab. The Sib speakers sound excellent when playing the rollercoaster ride that is Monsters Inc. They have an impressive solidity to their sound, and plenty of weight and presence, while voices are delivered with precision. The larger-than-usual boxes also do a fine job of wrapping the sound around you, and with a top quality, atmospheric soundtrack you find yourself reassuringly enveloped.

The system just falls short of the KEF, though, especially when switching between the Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks on the Superbit DVD of Gattaca. The JM Lab package doesn't quite demonstrate the level of differentiation between the two formats that the KEF system manages. That aside, and taken on its own merit, we can't really fault this package.

It's a shame the same can't be said of the Bose product, which proves itself to be a victory of style over substance. The Acoustimass 10 may be easy on the eye, but it leaves the ears wanting when it comes to the blood and thunder of a good action flick. The larger-than-life sub sounds disjointed from the tiny speakers, and the sonics rarely mesh into a coherent whole. Dialogue across the front is okay, though, and the novel design of the Cubes makes for a well dispersed, enveloping rear soundstage.

Just off the mark

The Quadral system performs somewhat better, however, it still misses out on being in the leading pack. The satellite speakers need longer to run in than most of the others here, and when they do finally lose their brittle sound, they prove to be better than the Bose. The sub digs deep for the big blasts of DTS power whenever a rocket launches in Gattaca, and the sound is believable from the surrounds. However, it's still not perfect and even after plenty of running in, the satellites sound a touch thin compared to the best here.

The DTS soundtrack of the Superbit Gattaca DVD leaves the Tannoys floundering. As with music, the satellites make a good fist of things - particularly the dialogue in this wordy,generally quietly atmospheric movie soundtrack - but when called upon for big blasts, the sub finds itself out of its depth and us reaching for the volume control.

In terms of value for money, the Tannoy FX 5.1 package obviously stands alone in this test. The fact it costs around half the price of the other products here, yet still manages to hold its own with some of the other systems makes it well worthy of four stars. All well and good, but the cut-price nature of the FX 5.1 is obvious in the way it performs, and while its output is good for the price, it doesn't come close to that of the majority of the more expensive systems. It sounds just that little bit insubstantial compared to the best of the bunch here. But it looks great and does a decent job with movies, which marks it out as an impressive piece of entry-level kit - well worthy of attention if you're on a tight budget.

Three of a kind?

Next up we have three sets of speakers that cost the same - £800. When it comes to the Bose Acoustimass 10, let's not beat about the bush - this is a very smart looking piece of kit. The stylish, black Cube satellites will look great in most people's homes, and while the subwoofer is less appealing, it is flexible enough to be hidden out of sight. You certainly get your money's worth with looks. But sadly the same cannot be said of performance. The Bose really struggles to better the output of the cheaper Tannoy system, and while we'd admit that style does have its price, we think that sound quality shouldn't be the element to lose out. Don't get us wrong, people will buy this product in droves - why not, it looks great - it's just that if you want good sound quality, you're better off looking elsewhere.

Middle of the road

The Quadral system also feels worth its asking price, the satellites are solid and weighty, and while not exactly pretty to look at, they are plain enough to blend into the background of your living room. The package's sonic performance is reasonable as well, and while it's not up to the standards of the best we heard in this test, it certainly betters that of the Bose. If you buy this system, you won't be too disappointed.

However, the availability of the KEF KHT2005AV for exactly the same amount of money rather limits the Quadral's appeal. The KEF is just a better all-round bet. The system looks and feels like it should cost a lot more than the asking price, and its performance is very impressive. With movies or with music it presents a particularly wide and detailed soundstage, and the extremely capable subwoofer has more then enough guts to perform with the deep thudding bass needed to get the best out of home cinema. The KHT2005AV is quite simply the best we tested here, something that is all the more impressive considering it has been around for quite a while now.

Top of the pile

However, the impressive performance of the KEF system doesn't adversely affect the value rating of the JM Lab product. It's a great-looking package, solidly built and with a performance level that all bar the KEF can't hope to attain. So, even though the JM Lab costs £60 more than the KEF, it offers enough in terms of performance and aesthetics to make the decision in many people's minds come down to one of style - which one do you prefer the look of? You can be sure that the sonic performance of either won't disappoint.