This package is a cut-down version of JVC's TH-SW9 - not in terms of processing or power output, but in terms of speakers. The satellites in this system are conventional satellite speakers, while the SW9 boasted floor-standing models. In fact, the only other difference we can see between the SW9 and the SW8 is the card-reading ability of the former. If you are not interested in this function, then you now have a cheaper option.

The floor-standing nature of the speakers on the SW9 system is largely cosmetic, but the SW8's satellites do have different driver complements. The magnetically shielded front stereo pair carry 80mm woofers and 15mm tweeters. Power handling is rated at 120W with a frequency response of 90Hz-20kHz. The centre box is identical to these but for its lesser power rating of 80W.

The surround speakers are the clever ones of this set-up. They can be attached to a wireless receiver, which receives an FM signal from the main unit. This means you don't have to find a way of unobtrusively routing your rear speaker cables across the living room floor.

There is a price to be paid in terms of power output - the rears are fed 80W when hooked up to the main system, but only 50W each when connected to the wireless receiver. The rear speakers themselves are an omni-directional design, intended to create a more diffused soundfield compared to conventional speakers. They have a single 80mm woofer and a frequency range of 80Hz-20kHz.

The subwoofer, which also does the dirty work of housing the system amplifier, is a very slim design and quite eye-catching. It holds on to 120W of power for itself and delivers this via a 160mm driver, with the result that it can get down to 30Hz, with a top end of 200Hz.

These figures should ensure a good crossover of frequencies between the sub and sats and create a coherent soundstage. The main unit is an unusual design, and we like it even more this time around. Connections at the rear are excellent, including component video outputs for PAL progressive scan and a Scart socket that can pump out RGB, S-video or composite video signals.

Under the hood

There is a socket here that looks a bit like an S-video connection, but is actually for the system chord, for hooking up to the subwoofer. An optical digital audio input will allow you to connect other AV components, while there are AM and FM antennae connections for the onboard tuner.

Decoding options include Dolby Digital, DTS and Pro-Logic II, with DVD-Audio playback an intriguing feature - will the small speakers do justice to this format? Format compatibility takes in MPEG4 material as well as JPEG and WMA files.

Set up is very straightforward, but not without its foibles. For example, there is a great auto-calibration feature for the speakers (Smart Surround Set-up) that sets levels and delay times in response to a clap of the hands. The only problem is that this doesn't work with the rear speakers in wireless mode - they have to connected to the sub for the software to work. This aside, the onscreen menus are nicely laid out and easily navigated.

You can access the Video Fine Processor menu to tailor the picture by adjusting gamma, brightness, contrast, saturation, tint and sharpness. And, if you don't trust the levels set by the Smart Surround Set-up function, you can do the whole thing yourself.

One thing you'll notice when inserting a disc is that the SW8 gets to work pretty sharpish. With our review sample, just four seconds elapsed before discs started to play. You may or may not be impressed with this saving of valuable seconds, but immediacy can't be a bad thing if it's a film you really want to watch.

You'll also have no cause to complain about the quality of pictures produced by the TH-SW8. We threw a number of test discs at this system and the results were uniformly strong. There is excellent colour rendition, and tricky reds do not smear or stray. Fine detail is evident throughout, and trick-play functions work without a hitch.

Some dimly-lit scenes in Return of the Jedi reveal surprising levels of detail - rather than degenerating into a dark smear - while Finding Nemo finds this system well up to the job of handling its explosions of vibrant colour. Movie soundtracks do well through the sub/sat speaker system. There's a genuine sense of cohesion between them, resulting in a solid soundstage.

The sub can offer some impressive bass, especially in some of the Star Wars battle scenes, but the satellites always manage to add their input. The diffuse-sounding rears are a matter of taste, delivering an unusual audioscape. Most systems deliver a more precisely located sound, and this can help with some surround sound effects. Others benefit from the diffuse approach, so it really is down to personal choice.

The overall sound quality does begin to suffer at higher volumes. This is where the limitations of a sub/sat system usually manifest themselves. Turning up the volume tends to give the satellites a slightly screechy edge, and the coherence of the soundstage begins to fray.

On music sources this is, if anything, a little more noticeable. DVD-Audio material can still impress you with the multi-channel experience, but there isn't enough sophistication in the speakers to get the most out of it.

This system is mostly intended for watching movies, so that's what we're concentrating on here. There's no denying that this is a superior picture and sound provider for DVD material. On top of that, it's slimline, has eye-catching looks - and the price is even more of an attention-grabber.

We would like to have seen provision for an upgrade to 6.1 sound, but other than that, this is an impressive system that will suit many buyers down to the ground.