LG HB45E $349  ★★★★

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Power player: a fine effort from LG, but there are holes to be picked with overall performance.

The design of this LG 2.1 system is something of a paradox. Taking the two speakers (standing nearly 50cm tall) and the subwoofer (comfortably the largest of the three in this test), this system is not just the bulkiest of those on test here, but, well, pretty darn bulky full stop. We can’t help thinking that this detracts from part of the central appeal of a 2.1 cinema system, and makes the much more petite, PS3-shaped main unit – which, like the PS3, is happy standing vertically or horizontally – something of a busted flush.

Still, everything is finished to a high standard and there’s an exhaustive specification to match. A clean and clear interface – which, frankly, puts the other systems to shame – makes it easy to access all the functions: Blu-ray, DVD and CD playback are all present and correct, of course, and you also get an external iPod dock, DLNA media streaming, LG’s Netcast internet-enabled apps, an FM/AM radio tuner and even USB recording, to highlight some key features.

In action the LG is something of a blunt instrument, but it still delivers a largely enjoyable level of performance. Watching the excellent Blu-ray transfer of Green Zone, there’s a decent amount of detail in the picture, though colours lack a little subtlety. Dialogue can sound a little closed and muffled, but there’s plenty of power thanks to that big sub.

As we test the DVD performance, the subwoofer does start to get a little boomy, and fast motion sees the LG struggle to keep a firm grip on passing objects. Nevertheless there’s still much to like, but we do notice (in quieter moments) that the system’s disc-spinner is a little noisier than others in action.

There’s some variation in prices to be found in this test but this LG will sit somewhere in the middle, and while you get plenty of box for your buck, we’re not sure the sound justifies the expense.

The HB45E is a doddle to use and packed with features – that’s two crucial ticks for a system of this type – but with question marks over aspects of performance – and the size of the thing – it’s not quite the all-star all-rounder.

 

Panasonic SC-BT222 $309 ★★★★

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Cheap but cheerful: the build, features and performance could be improved on – but the price is right.

The Panasonic SC-BT222 is the most compact system here by some distance. A slimline main unit is joined by dinky, PC-style speakers and a diminutive subwoofer. Sadly, what it lacks in size it also lacks in style, with touches such as the unfinished chipboard rear to the subwoofer, flimsy speakers and clunky menu system struggling to inspire.

In terms of technology there’s what nowadays counts for a fairly standard set of features and functions. Playing your DVDs, CDs and Blu-rays is a given, while you will also find an integrated iPod dock – the only one in this group, in fact – an FM tuner and inputs for SD cards and USB sticks. While there are digital audio inputs, there are no HDMI inputs – just a solitary HDMI output. Full HD 1080p/24fps video is handled happily enough, as is decoding of high-definition audio.

It’s certainly an upfront presentation. The opening scene in Ninja Assassin is anything but stealthy, providing a rapid-fire assault to eyes and ears, and while the compact speakers are fast, clear and punchy, the system could do with a little more refinement in the treble and power and weight in the bass. There’s a “7.1” pseudo-surround audio presentation on offer, but the extra scale comes at the cost of organisation and solidity.

Visually, it’s easier to digest, with good detail, bright colours and a clean presentation. Black levels lack a little insight and solidity and there are occasional hints of noise, but it’s more than competent. The iPod dock gives you on-screen menus for full remote control of your tunes, even if sound quality leaves a little to be desired, again sounding bright and lightweight – also true of the FM tuner.

But this is the cheapest system on offer here. Neither style nor substance abound, and there’s a comparative lack of features – though a decent performance. If you’re tight on space and money, this could do the job.


 

SAMSUNG HT-C6200 $520 ★★★★★

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This is just what we expect from a 2.1 home cinema system: style and substance.

It’s said a smile goes a long way. Well, in the case of AV kit, the equivalent might just be a gloss-black finish – it’s hard not to feel you’re getting more for your money when you unbox a system like this. Nevertheless, that takes you only so far; fortunately there’s plenty of substance to this stylish Samsung HT-C6200. 

Uniquely in this test, you’ll find two HDMI inputs alongside the output, allowing you to connect other kit such as games consoles to this system. You’ll also find an ethernet connection which, when connected to your home network, gives access to Samsung’s [email protected] service – so you can use YouTube, Picasa and Twitter directly on your telly.

HD audio decoding is present and correct too, while there’s also support for 1080p/24fps HD video and upscaling for DVDs. A standalone iPod dock connects to the rear of the unit and gives you full on-screen control of your music. Getting to know the system is easy enough, thanks to a colourful interface adorned with large icons, and you’ll find a set-up system that gives you a test tone and lets you adjust individual speaker volume.

Listening first to music, the decent- sized speakers and sub deliver a large but detailed sound. There’s substance and weight to Drake’s Karaoke, while vocals have immediacy and insight.

It’s more of the same when switching to movies. Treble frequencies err on the thick side, so there’s no sign of harshness, but it’s a big, bold and powerful sound with good dynamics for such a relatively compact system.

Focusing on the picture, action movie Green Zone provides a tricky test of motion with which the Samsung copes admirably, while there’s good attention to detail, a vivid, full colour palette and solid, true black levels.

Far from just a pretty face, the Samsung system backs up its sleek, smart appearance with features and performance to match. Now that’s definitely something worth smiling about.