If a manufacturer wants to enjoy brisk sales of a new home cinema all-in-one package in today's tough sales climate, it either has to do something dramatic in terms of features or design, or else it needs to aim squarely at punters' pockets. Pioneer's new DCS-340 system falls - perhaps surprisingly, given the company's usually upmarket stance - very much in the latter category.
It typically sells for less than £300, yet included is a DVD/receiver with 600W RMS (claimed) of amplification, tall-boy tower speakers for front left and right duties, two rear speakers, a centre speaker, a fancy slimline subwoofer, and even an auto-setup system - complete with supplied mic - for optimising surround sound levels.
Your outlay gets some nice looks too. The main unit is promisingly heavy and sports an upmarket metallic finish; the two tower speakers are tall and elegant with their curved shape and combination of black felt and burnished metal; the subwoofer is one of the most slender we've seen; and the rears and centre are impressively small. The only slightly worrying thing at this stage is that the speakers all feel a little on the light side...
Connections are a touch disappointing, though, as they include no digital video or component video outputs. This means there's no upscaling or even progressive scan processing to boost pictures with. There's no dedicated 4-pin S-video jack, either.
What you do get are an RGB Scart connector, a composite video output, an optical digital audio input, jacks for attaching an FM/MW tuner, and a set of stereo audio inputs.
Features beyond those already covered run further than you'd expect for the price tag. The DVD deck can handle DiVX, MP3, WMA and JPEG files in addition to the standard Dolby/DTS codecs (though there's no DVD-Audio or Super Audio CD support). You can also adjust the deck's DVD pictures, with contrast, gamma, chroma level, hue, brightness and sharpness tweaks all at hand.
DTS or Dolby Digital soundtracks can both be decoded, and there are Pro-Logic II settings for movies and music. Pioneer has provided multiple source-themed audio presets, too, and a dialogue enhancement option.
Setting the system up is predictably easy. The speakers all use colour-coded wires, the DVD setup menus couldn't be simpler, and the automatic audio setup feature works a treat - even allowing for a three-speaker setup if you don't want to use the rears (pictured right). My only niggle at this stage is the use of a slightly aggravating 'shift' switch on the remote, to give some of the buttons double uses.
Let loose on Se7en and Pirates Of The Caribbean, the 340 system's pictures prove very assured. For starters, there's much less MPEG decoding noise than I'm accustomed to seeing on budget systems. Other types of noise are well suppressed too, leaving edges looking crisp and clean and areas of particularly fine detail free of moiring or mosquito noise.
Colour fidelity is rich and the sense of depth is undeniable. My only complaint with the pictures would be that they can occasionally look a touch overprocessed, as if there's a maverick noise-reduction system at work cancelling out any potential MPEG noise that might be around.
But even though this means the DVD transport doesn't deliver every last drop of detail from texture-filled sequences like Pirates...' swordfights in Barbossa's treasure cave, I'd still take it any time over the overt noise and instability that characterises so many similarly-priced rivals.
The 340 really comes into its own with its audio, though. Starting out with our Pirates and Se7en twosome, the fairly extreme dynamics of the scene where the Black Pearl attacks the fort are delivered with surprising integrity. Although built to a price, the tall-boy speakers also offer hints of delicacy and precision from the subtler but more immersive Se7en mix. I live in the countryside, but thanks to the 340 I felt completely lost in the middle of a huge, crime-ridden metropolis!
The 340's audio is equally pleasing with music, producing a convincing soundfield with a wide variety of genres that compares well with other similarly-priced best-in-class all-in-one systems.
Sure, the centre channel can sound a touch muffled at loud volumes, and the rears can't deliver the same sort of timbre as the fronts, but I feel much criticism would be churlish given the price.
Overall, Pioneer's DCS-340 is an attractive system solution. Indeed, how appealing it is depends almost completely on how you relate to its eye-catching price tag. If £300 is your limit, the DCS-340 is as good as the best compatible offerings. If, on the other hand, you can lay your mitts on an extra £150 or so, I'd urge you to look for a system with matching tower speakers to do Dolby Digital/DTS better justice, plus a progressive scan component video output.