Philips Ambi Sound Review (Verdict: Big Sound, Small Package)

philips_ambisound_front.jpg The Philips HTS8100 Ambi Sound DVD Home Theater System can pump out some amazing sound. It plays back DVDs, scaling their video from their lowly standard-definition up to 1080p. The system also includes an iPod dock that rocks your tunes into those superb speakers and splashes your pictures all over your HDTV, fed via HDMI. We got our hands on the first of these just-shipping systems to hit these shores, loaded up DVDs, CDs and our iPod, and gave them a serious look and listen. At first glance, this SoundBar doesn't look like it can do much, because it's rather thin and not very heavy. However, its accompanying subwoofer is quite a bit more substantial, supplying the power for both units. That SoundBar's diminutive size is a big advantage, because it's small enough to be hung just under a wall-mounted flat panel display. It holds the controls and DVD player, while the subwoofer can be hidden any on the floor, and does the heavy lifting. Put a DVD or CD into the SoundBar, and its door gracefully slides aside, inviting you to mount the disk inside with a reassuring click. Both pieces of this system are exceedingly handsome, and would go well in even the most chic home theater.

The first thing we wanted to try on the HTS8100 was a couple of CDs we normally use to test sound quality. We turned the volume up all the way using the beautifully designed piano black remote control, and we were astonished at this speaker's clean, crisp and extraordinarily powerful sound.

Even sitting 12 feet away, there was still enough stereo separation to create a well-defined soundstage, with plenty of presence and depth. It was even able to simulate surround sound rather convincingly when we placed it into multichannel mode, and there were a couple of passages where we could have sworn there were speakers behind us.

The 120-watt subwoofer rattled the rafters here at the Midwest Test Facility, literally scaring some of our coworkers with its clean, tight bass. Meanwhile, the precise tweeters offered crispy and sweet-sounding highs and upper midrange. The midrange sounded a bit hollow for our tastes, but was still able to pull its weight, accurately reproducing voices that didn't sound the best we've heard, but acceptable nonetheless. Overall, the system put out some extraordinary sound, and it surprised everyone with its force, power and high quality.

Next it was time to test the included iPod dock, and that also worked well. On a system of this high quality, the sonic deficiencies of compressed music were immediately obvious, but the SoundBar still handled the sound well. Connecting into the side of the speaker, the docking unit lets you plug in just about any iPod. When you place your iPod inside, after a quick touch on the remote, the iPod's functions are all available via remote control. We also like the extended control that shows you all of the iPod's functions on your TV screen.

Next we mounted a DVD into the sliding vertical compartment, and here's where we realized the system's forte. Dialog came through loud and clear, and the movie's explosion scenes must've made the neighbors jump. Its simulated surround sound was not quite as realistic as an actual 5.1 system with rear speakers positioned behind us, but we found it good enough to satisfy our surround sound jones. It would be perfect for someone with a room not well-suited to 5.1 speakers, where the rear surround speakers might be inconvenient or impossible to place behind the listeners. That said, there's an astonishing amount of audio coming out of this slim SoundBar, and we were all quite impressed.

As for the video scaling, its Faroudja upscaling system, attempting to turn garden-variety 480p video into 1080i or even 1080p high definition video, did an admirable job, but we've never been a fan of upscaled video. It's always a poor stepchild to the real thing, and tends to amplify flaws as well as sharpen the video...somewhat. We've never seen upscaling that was worthy of being called true HDTV, and the output of this Philips unit was no exception. However, the system's enhancements were every bit as good as the best 1080p upscaling we've seen thus far on players with similar technology such as those from Oppo. Even so, the whole up-rezzing ruse is one of those selling points that looks great on paper, but has yet to measure up in reality.

Summing up, this Philips HTS8100 Ambi Sound DVD Home Theater System is easy to set up, gives you a lot more options for speaker placement than you'd have with a 5.1 surround system, delivers decent simulated surround sound, is unobtrusive in the living room, looks great and sounds even better. We think it's an outstanding value, especially at its $700 street price.

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