Although recent sales figures suggest that we're buying fewer all-in-one home cinema systems, JVC is showing no signs of winding down its one-box AV onslaught. No less than six new JVC all-in-ones are scheduled to appear in the coming months - and the first of them to reach us is the mid-range TH-S66.
So why does JVC class this as a midrange model? Naturally it has all the features you'll find on the upcoming THS11 entry-level package - which includes a 12-bit/108MHz video DAC, compatibility with a wide range of disc formats beyond DVD (including MP3, JPEG, DVD-RAM and DIVX), and Dolby Digital/DTS/Pro-Logic II decoding.
But it builds on this basic model's spec by adding, among other things, nearly four times as much power (a claimed 2 x 140W to the fronts, 3 x 130W to the rears and centre, and 140W to the subwoofer), DVD Audio playback, WMA compatibility, PAL progressive scan video playback, and more powerful, elongated speakers to front and rear, complete with elegant slender floorstands. The only key difference between the S66 and the brand's upcoming range-topping systems is its lack of digital recording features.
The four towers
The S66 is unusually attractive for such a mainstream system. The subwoofer's a bit of a box, perhaps, but the main DVD player/control unit is impressively slim and - thanks to its 'black strip' fascia, metallic finish and glowing blue disc tray light - somewhat stylish. The four tower speakers (the centre, of course, doesn't have a tower attachment) are the very definition of space-saving elegance, too. They are rather top-heavy though, so folk with small children or big dogs may prefer to wall mount them.
Connectivity is limited. Naturally there are component video jacks for the progressive scan output, and an RGBcapable Scart. But there are no dedicated S-video or composite video jacks, and the options for adding AV extras to share the system's surround sound talents are restricted to a single optical digital audio input and one pair of stereo phonos.
Set up is a pain. First, attaching the speakers (which can be wall mounted) to the floorstands is a nightmare but the results make the effort worthwhile. Then there's the frighteningly over-crowded, rather randomly laid out remote. There's one good bit of setup news though: the S66 features JVC's groovy 'hand clap' system for automatically optimising the relative volumes etc. of the speakers. Just take your preferred viewing seat, lift you hands, clap once, and low and behold, the system adjusts its speakers accordingly.
Interesting features beyond those already covered include a decent suite of manual picture adjustments (gamma, brightness, contrast, sharpness, tint, and saturation), and a built-in radio tuner with RDS and EON functionality. The picture quality from the system's DVD deck and 12-bit/108MHz Video D/A Converter is good. Particularly striking is the picture's sharpness; via the progressive or RGB Scart outputs, the deck serves up fine detail sharp edges largely free of aliasing or halos.
There's thankfully little sign of the sort of MPEG macroblocking seen on one or two previous JVC DVD decks. Black levels are deep too, which helps the picture look solid and three-dimensional. And the colour tone is engaging no matter how garish (The Fifth Element), or otherwise (Se7en), the DVD you chuck at it. The only thing fetching the images up short of excellence, in fact, is a slightly twitchy look to motion and backgrounds from time to time. But this really is a minor point overall.
Sonic performance is surprising for the price point. By far its greatest strength is its subtlety. The satellite speakers - especially the front left and right - are remarkably sensitive for such ostensibly cheap and cheerful items, creating a soundstage that is detailed, dynamic and widely dispersed .
The satellites are notable, too, sounding clean and controlled. There are, however, caveats. The centre speaker has an overly narrow delivery, compared to the other four satellites. And while the subwoofer kicks in readily enough, the midbass it produces is rather crude.
Although I have a few sonic concerns, the S66's general level of performance is well in keeping with its price tag. It's nicely designed and benefits from a certain level of brains and brawn.
For a one-stop cinema solution, it does a very creditable job. A round of applause please...