With more and more TVs now being hung on walls, it makes sense for companies to devise sympathetic wall-mountable AV gear. But so far the attempts to cater for this vertically challenged revolution have been surprisingly few and far between; just a handful of flat-panel speaker packages, and the DVD sections from a few high-end home cinema all-in-one systems.
Budget contenders have been practically non-existent. But Sharp wants to change this with its HT-X1H: a flat-thinking 'home cinema in a box' proposition for around £200.
As with all standard 'one-stop' home cinema solutions, the X1H package comprises a DVD player, multi-channel amplification, radio tuner, and 5.1 channel speaker package. Nearly all of these components are unusual to look at - but it's the DVD/tuner section which offers the most promise to wall-hangers, thanks to its vertical stance, flat back and slender dimensions (just 88mm from front to rear).
DVDs and CDs simply slide down into a slot along the unit's upper edge, and the LED appears as a tasteful circular window on the large, unexpectedly metallic fascia. What's more, the connectivity is thoughtfully tucked on the main unit's underside, so you can trail connecting cables easily down and away.
More conventional in design is the separate, rectangular subwoofer/ amplification unit, but it's back to the unusual with the satellite speakers, which sport a cylindrical design.
Connectivity on the X1H ticks all the boxes you could reasonably expect on a budget system. There's an RGB Scart output, FM tuner input, S-video output, digital audio input and a pair of stereo audio inputs for piping in an external PCM stereo/Pro-Logic source.
Day to day use of the X1H isn't especially enjoyable, mostly thanks to a remote control which looks quite good on the surface, but turns out to use buttons both too small for comfort and rather randomly laid out.
There are more features to get to grips with than I'd expected, though. There's a set of audio presets (including a satisfying Movie mode), Gamma adjustment, a picture 'clarity' adjustment, playback of MP3, JPEG and WMA files as well as all the typical CD/DVD options, DTS as well as Dolby Digital decoding, plus a standard suite of speaker adjustments (level, delay, test tone, etc). The only slight disappointment is the lack of progressive scan playback - but again, this system is only £250, and has been built to a price.
In action, the X1H generally impresses, even if it slightly underwhelms with its DVD playback pictures.
The main problem here is that pictures look a touch over-exposed, for want of a better description. Colours look slightly fragile, and brights appear bleached and raw - even with the Gamma setting at its lowest. In fact, none of the adjustments on the X1H really made much impact on this core flaw. Reducing my reference TV's brightness helped a little - but this, naturally, also reduced the visibility in dark areas of the picture to a degree I wasn't totally comfortable with.
The picture also looks a touch unstable, partly thanks to the presence of a few MPEG blocking artefacts, and partly down to a beat pattern running up the picture (at least via the RGB Scart jack). I'd also rate fine detail levels as only average.
Conversely, DVD colour reproduction is relatively natural, black areas look suitably dark but without compromising texture, and noise beyond some slight MPEG blocking is minimal. Overall the picture quality certainly isn't horrible - it's just rather average.
Sonically, the X1H is more interesting. Thanks, presumably, to their barrel design, the satellite speakers sound bigger than they really are, creating a soundstage entertaining enough for you to forget about the system and become involved in the film.
Happily, the X1H's character is rounded in tone, with surprisingly digestible treble unexpectedly pleasing mid-bass (the subwoofer/satellite integration leaves only a tiny mid-tolow- frequency sonic 'gap').
The centre speaker keeps dialogue clear and impressively scaled amid even the most rampant action sequences.
Inevitably something has to give at this price point, and in the X1H's case it's sensitivity. While I wouldn't go so far as to say that the speakers are actually soft, they're certainly not as interested in delivering the subtleties in a good sound mix as they are in portraying aggressive dynamics.
How much appeal Sharp's X1H sound system has depends ultimately on what you're going to run it on. The routine picture quality doesn't make it a great partner for a large TV - which is a bit ironic given the deliberately 'hang-on-the- wall', plasma-friendly design. But with a normal, mid-sized, mid-range TV its image performance won't be a big issue, which leaves you free to enjoy what is certainly going to be a better budget surround sound performance than you have any right to expect for the money. John Archer