We don’t altogether “get” compact home-cinema systems. As far as we’re concerned, attractively designed big electonics kit can actually be fun to look at, rather than automatically mucking up your living space.
Plus, of course, there’s the itsy-bitsy problem whereby AV packages with small speakers tend to sound crap. But if domestic space or dominant other halves truly are an unavoidable issue for you, we have good news in the shape of a compact all-in-one AV system that actually doesn’t sound crap. At all.
Not that first impressions of Pioneer’s DCS-363 are wholly promising. The main DVD/amp unit and down-firing subwoofer are pretty and reassuringly large, but the centre speaker is too small for comfort, while the four satellite speakers are mere 100mm square cubes that look likely to have the hi-fi quality of two tins and a bit of string. Hmm.
The colours of sound
At least plugging the speakers in is a doddle, thanks to a simple colour-coding system that even our office monkey understood.
Similar levels of user-friendliness are found in the DVD deck’s onscreen menus, which are clear and immaculately organised despite being surprisingly feature-laden.
Highlights among these features include upscaling of DVDs to 720p or 1080i (though not 1080p), and video adjustments such as gamma and chroma level tweaks alongside the usual sharpness, contrast and brightness options.
If, like us, you’ve got all sorts of video and audio files stored on all kinds of media, you’ll also appreciate the DCS-363’s playback flexibility. MP3, WMA, JPEG and DiVX files are all playable, and there’s even a USB input for accessing files on USB storage devices.
Please note, though, that the system can’t actually record anything itself.
Intriguingly the DCS-363 carries a system dubbed Front Stage Surround Advance that lets you arrange all six speakers alongside your TV rather than spreading them around your living room, with psycho-acoustic processing attempting to recreate a surround-sound experience. Personally, we found this approach just sounded weird, but hey – it’s there if you want it.
Sounding many miles from weird, however, is the 363 system’s proper surround-sound performance. For somehow those piffling little satellite speakers turn out sound clearer, punchier and just plain bigger than that produced by many a full-sized system, never mind other compact rivals.
What’s more, they create a soundstage large enough to fill even a pretty big room, and somehow combine seamlessly with the smooth, distortion-free rumbles of that chunky subwoofer. Even The Loudest Film We Can Think OfTM, Armageddon, fails to break the 363’s stride.
This alone would make the Pioneer DCS-363 a winner for £300, but joining the seemingly impossible sonics are some seriously terrific pictures. The upscaling options work a treat, lending standard DVDs a near-HD sheen without introducing loads of horrible processing noise, while more prosaic stuff like colours and black levels are handled with real cinematic aplomb.