It's amazing what you can get for your money nowadays. It's not too long ago that £200 would buy you a DVD player and that was your lot.
But now it seems that you can't walk into your local supermarket to buy a chicken and some milk without being badgered into adding a mini system, DVD recorder or even an LCD television to your weekly shop.
Mustek's R320A Plus is a prime example of that market trend, offering everything you need for a fully-functioning home cinema system bar the screen and all for just a couple of DVDs over two hundred quid. It has to be a bargain.
Well for starters, let's have a look at what you actually get for your money.The R320A Plus system comprises a main control unit into which Mustek has managed to squeeze a DVD recorder (of the R/RW variety), a 200W 5.1 channel amplifier and a brace of non-digital tuners for TV and radio.
Outside the box you get five rather sad-looking satellite speakers and a passive subwoofer. You also get all the cables you need to wire this lot up and a blank DVD R and a RW disc.
The build quality of the system itself is about par for the course at this kind of price. In other words not great, but you have to keep telling yourself: it's virtually free, it's virtually free, over and over again.
The main unit itself is long and thin, like a stand-alone DVD recorder, with a centre-mounted disc drawer and some unresponsive buttons dotted around the place.
Around the back there's a healthy smattering of connection options, including component video and a brace of Scarts, only one of which is RGB capable, so no recording off Sky. Colour-coded springclip terminals for connecting up the speakers round off the tally.
While this is all well and good, neither the supplied manual nor the 'layout of speaker box' addendum show the novice user - who we suppose is buying this - a picture of the back panel or explains how they are supposed to connect everything.
All you get is a picture of a room with some speakers in it and some quick guides to playback and recording.This really isn't good enough.
The remote control isn't good enough either. It's a really nasty, unresponsive jumble of buttons that can barely navigate you through the decidedly ugly, but pretty simple onscreen menu system. The latter lets you scan for available channels and make basic settings such as whether your TV is widescreen or 4:3.
No saving grace
All of this would be alright if the Mustek proved itself an adept little performer. But the iffy build, poor design and troublesome set-up were only the scouting party for the real problems that come along as soon as you start trying to watch a DVD.
We'll kick off with image quality, which we viewed through all available outputs just in case there was something wrong with the component video. Sadly, there was little discernable difference between any of them, by which we mean that changing from a supposed high-quality video output such as component to a lesser one such as S-video produced very little drop off in quality: it was uniformly bad.
Most instantly noticeable was the overblown colour, with i-Robot coming across like Monsters Inc, rather than the sedate, cold palate it should display. Skin tones in particular looked terrible, as though Will Smith had been spending far too long on a sun bed in preparation for a trip to Miami.
There was also a considerable amount of blooming and fringing around the offending colours - most usually reds - which didn't help the sharpness of the detail either, with some blurring visible on moving objects.
Sonically, the Mustek didn't perform much better. With an overall power rating of 200W we didn't expect blockbuster output, but we do demand a certain amount of ability at lower volume levels. This sadly wasn't the case, as the R320A instantly went into screechy mode and refused to come out of it until we finally had to switch it off.
The passive sub struggles manfully to produce some bottom end, but fails and just sounds disjointed from the rest of the system - and we can't bring ourselves to tell you how it sounded with a CD in the drawer!
The R320A Plus had once last chance to redeem itself: recording. To be fair, this was the aspect of its performance that bothered us least - which is very different from saying 'impressed us most'.
Still, the recordings made from the internal tuner proved to be representative of the source material, at least in the High Quality and Standard Quality modes, any of the three below that - which at SLP gives you around 6hr on standard R disc - aren't really keepers.
If this system is bought by someone who has not yet been initiated into the improvements that DVD offers over VHS - and yes,we're sure that somewhere in the western world there are people yet to jump on board the disc bandwagon - or have never experienced the sudden thrill of hearing a sound come from behind you while watching Star Wars, then we're sure they will be very happy with it.
At least for a short while. Because while at first their 'shrewd' investment may please them as they laugh at the clods who spend four or five times as much on a similarly specified system, it won't take long before that screechy sound and randomly colourised image will start to drive them nuts.
There obviously comes a point where cheapness no longer equates to value for money. Okay, so you get a lot of stuff in one package and it may be cheap, but that won't help you when you get sick and tired of it after a few months and have to go out and buy something else.