We moved to a new house sometime back and one of the features of the place was that the living room was already wired for surround sound speakers. If that's not an excuse to buy a home theatre setup, what is? :-)
Thus began an exploration of the world of AV receivers, speakers, blu-ray players, streaming players, etc., etc. After much analysis-paralysis, the conclusion was that a "serious" setup - one involving a Marantz/Denon/Onkyo AVR paired with a set of Boston Acoustics/JBL/Jamo speakers would cost at least S$ 2000, a number far north of the WAF.
The next best option? A Home Theatre in a Box.
HTIBs, as these are known, are mass-market consumer appliances that combine a DVD or Blu-Ray player and an AV Receiver in a single box and pair those with some entry level speakers. Virtually every consumer electronics manufacturer, from Panasonic to Samsung to Toshiba has a product in this segment. Prices range from a modest 300 S$ to about 1000 S$ at the top-end.
The biggest drawback of these HTIB systems is the under-powered amplifier that they come with; it is practically impossible to find a quality set of speakers that can be driven by these amps. The other drawback is the generally limited range of connectivity options.
In some sense, the situation is similar to getting a compact camera vs an SLR!
Now I am no audiophile and the main thing I was looking to get out of a surround sound setup was a decent home movie experience. Thus, I didn't really mind settling for a budget system.
(Incidentally, if you are thinking of buying an AVR, I think the Denon AVR-1612 is a fine choice.)
I thought it would take a while to decide which system to buy but as it turned out, the choice was surprisingly easy to make. Of all the brands in the market, only Sony had systems which supported HDMI input! Think about that - not one other manufacturer thought that their customers would want to connect, say, an XBox or a PS3 to their surround-sound system!
Having finalized my choice, on 31st March 2012, I bought home a Sony BDV-E380 Blu-ray Home Theatre System. Herewith, some thoughts on it after having used it for three months now.
The system (full specs) looks and feels quite heavy but has a clean and smart looking front that, once setup inside my TV console, looks great. Upon powering on, the interface is straight-forward to navigate and anyone who has used a PS3 will feel right at home. There's a first-run wizard which guides you through all the setup tasks, including calibrating the speakers using the provided auto-calibration microphone.
I've found the video and audio output from this system to be excellent and have no complaint in that department. Blu-rays especially look and sound fantastic to my eyes and ears. For reference, I have a 40" Samsung LCD connected to this E380.
The highlight of this device has been the excellent video file format support. It plays pretty much all the files I've thrown at it - AVI (Xvid), MP4, WMV, MKV. It even supports multiple audio tracks within an mkv file - giving me the option to choose the movie's language. It has no problem playing back 1080p streaming videos, even over my less-than-optimal powerline ethernet LAN connection.
This system, like many others these days, claims to be loaded with "apps" promising rich content from a variety of online sources. The skeptic in me didn't put much stock in these claims and I wasn't wrong. The apps are, by and large, useless and are best ignored. I thought at least the YouTube app would be useful but even that has a ridiculous limitation - it plays only SD or at best 480p videos!
Another irritant is that when turned on, the default menu selection always goes to something Sony calls a "3D Showcase". I don't have a 3D television, nor do I intend to get one. So this is one default choice which I'll never choose!
I've installed Serviio to stream media from my home computer to the E380. I've found Serviio to be fairly easy to use and quite reliable in operation. There's just one thing I wish to point out. The Serviio software comes with a set of profiles that describe the capabilities and formats supported by the various network streaming devices. Based on these profiles, Serviio can transcode videos from their original format to one that would be playable by the streaming media device.
For Sony, Serviio ships with a profile that aims to support all of Sony's Blu-ray players. However, this profile appears to be optimized for models sold in the US/UK which, based on the profile, seem to have very poor support for different video formats. This causes needless transcoding and the associated drop in quality for videos served to the E380. At the end of this post, I've appended an updated profile that minimizes transcoding and has worked out well for me.
All in all, I am quite happy with this product. If you are looking for a nice home theatre setup on a budget, you can't go wrong with the E380!
<Profile id="50" name="Sony E380 Player" extendsProfileId="1"> <Detection> <UPnPSearch> <FriendlyName>(Blu-ray Disc Player|.*Home Theat(re|er) System|Media Player)</FriendlyName> <Manufacturer>Sony Corporation</Manufacturer> </UPnPSearch> <HttpHeaders> <X-AV-Client-Info>.*cn="Sony Corporation"; mn="(Blu-ray Disc Player|.*Home Theat(re|er) System|Media Player)".*</X-AV-Client-Info> </HttpHeaders> </Detection> <DeviceDescription> <!-- act as WMP so that the TV doesn't show root categories --> <ModelName>Windows Media Player Sharing</ModelName> <ModelNumber>3.0</ModelNumber> <Manufacturer>Microsoft Corporation</Manufacturer> </DeviceDescription> <ContentDirectoryMessageBuilder>org.serviio.upnp.service.contentdirectory.SonyDLNAMessageBuilder</ContentDirectoryMessageBuilder> <ContentDirectoryDefinitionFilter>org.serviio.upnp.service.contentdirectory.definition.WMPContentDirectoryDefinitionFilter</ContentDirectoryDefinitionFilter> <MediaFormatProfiles> <!-- force DLNA profile names of supported formats --> <!-- e.g. though renderer should support wma, it only does so when disguised as mp3 (many other audio types are transcoded later in the profile) --> <MediaFormatProfile mime-type="audio/mpeg" name="MP3">WMA_BASE</MediaFormatProfile> <MediaFormatProfile mime-type="audio/mpeg" name="MP3">WMA_FULL</MediaFormatProfile> </MediaFormatProfiles> <Transcoding> <Video targetContainer="mpegts" targetACodec="ac3" aBitrate="320"> <!-- FFmpeg cannot currently remux dts audio properly so it must be transcoded, but all other audio is left alone --> <Matches container="ogg" vCodec="mpeg4" /> </Video> <!-- unsupported codecs will be transcoded to mpegts with mpeg2video and ac3 audio --> <Video targetContainer="mpegts" targetVCodec="mpeg2video" targetACodec="ac3"> <Matches container="asf" /> <Matches container="flv" /> <Matches container="ogg" /> </Video> <Audio targetContainer="lpcm"> <Matches container="mp4" /> <Matches container="flac" /> <Matches container="ogg" /> <Matches container="adts" /> </Audio> </Transcoding> </Profile>