The old adage "you get what you pay for" certainly applies in consumer electronics, but perhaps no more so than with home theatre-in-a-box systems. Quality varies from the very poor to the pretty good. Sony's new DAV-F500 Bravia system costs around the same as a system of separate components, so is it worth going for this "one-stop" option?
It's quite a swanky looking bit of kit; very modern in design, but construction quality suffers from an overly plastic feel to the various components. Provided are 5.1 channels including an active subwoofer and S-AIR wireless rear surround speakers (which are driven by a separate surround amplifier incorporating a plug-in wireless transceiver). The rest are all powered by Sony's S-Master digital amplification built into the subwoofer unit. The main unit will play most DVD and CD disc formats, although you don't get a Blu-ray player at this sort of price, for the time being at least. Sony's got its own Bravia TVs in mind to use with the DAV-F500 which will upscale to 1080p via its HDMI output, and the remote handset also provides "Bravia Sync" control of its compatible LCD TVs.
Despite being wireless this system requires installing with a veritable spaghetti junction of cables. Even the rear surrounds are not truly wireless — they require connecting to the surround amplifier using conventional speaker cables. The fronts and centre channels connect directly to the subwoofer, so too does the main unit via a control umbilical lead. Make sure you have plenty of time allocated to setting the system up, because it's far from "plug 'n play". Column stands are provided for the satellite speakers and everything bar the subwoofer can be wall-mounted. Thin speaker cables are supplied with colour-coding to help make the right connection.
The main unit is equipped with a single HDMI output, plus there are inputs for external devices such as a satellite receiver or STB/PVR. There's a single USB port which offers both playback and recording with compatible devices, built-in FM tuner and a tactile remote control, much like all current Sony handsets. Backlit buttons would have been handy as in our dark, projector-equipped AV room we were fumbling to find the right buttons. The on-board S-Master amplification generates some 852 watts of total power, according to Sony, but take this figure with a big pinch of salt — realistically it's a lot lower than this.
Using the S-AIR wireless system, the DAV-F500 can be added to with an optional receiver which can be used anywhere in the house to receive sound from the main unit.
Before you do anything else, the wireless components need "pairing". Once this is taken care of in the on-screen set-up menu, the speakers can then all be calibrated using a supplied microphone. This only takes a couple of minutes and then the system's ready to go. We hooked the unit up to a 1080p BenQ W5000 projector and the initial impression was just how good the Sony's upscaled DVD image looked. Bright, bold colours and highly detailed, the Gorillaz 19-2000 music video looked fantastic — the animated car ride was really brought to life, especially on a big projection screen. The image was surprisingly well resolved — blacks were nice and deep with strong edge definition and the overall contrast of the picture was really well balanced.
We found with movie soundtracks we had to drop the auto-calibrated subwoofer level quite considerably as it was swamping the other front speakers. Meanwhile the centre speaker, being physically much smaller than the rest, needed a couple of decibels lift in order to make its presence properly heard. A larger, more capable centre speaker would have given movie dialogue and other centrally placed effects far greater substance. However, there are several DSP modes and Sony's own DCS (Digital Cinema Sound) benefited both Dolby Digital and DTS decoding, adding both clarity and dynamics to the systems surround sound.
Music was a different matter and we weren't really impressed with the sound of CDs or MP3s. The main speakers sounded flat and uninvolving and the subwoofer once again tended to dominate. This was in both stereo and Dolby Pro-Logic II Music modes and no matter how much you fiddle with the settings we wouldn't recommend serious music listening on this system.
Used with a Sony Bravia TV, this system makes sense if you want to keep the complete AV package "in the family". While the picture quality and movie surround sound are impressive, its poor audio quality with music and plastic construction take the shine off its ultimate appeal.