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How we test home cinema systems

By Martin Pratt

Which? puts home cinema systems to the test to help you find a model that's easy to set-up and use. The best models deliver superb surround and stereo sound.

Put us to the test

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At Which? labs we test a wide range of factors to determine the best and worst home cinema systems. 

These include stereo, surround effect and sound quality, how easy a home cinema system is to set up and extras like a DVD or Blu-ray player. Read on for more information on our detailed test programme.

Browse all our Best Buy home cinema systems to see the top models on test.

What's the stereo sound quality like?

Our panel of five experts listens to a range of music by everyone from Michael Jackson to ZZ Top, as well as classical and orchestral music by Bruckner and Handel.

We play more than 20 pieces of music on ease system, enabling us to assess how the home cinema system handles audio frequencies from all types of genre, as well as finding out which home cinema systems deliver good stereo sound.  

What's the surround sound quality like?

We test how the home cinema systems handle surround sound by watching clips from films that are rich in surround sound effects and stretch the systems' abilities, including Lord of the Rings and Casino Royale. Live concert footage is also used, to see how the systems cope with real-life surround sound.

We're looking for all the elements to work well - bass from the subwoofer, treble and voices - and for none of them to be overpowering or unduly weak.

What's the surround effect like?

We use the same film clips from the surround sound quality tests to assess the surround sound effect, listening carefully for special effects coming from different parts of the room to see whether the sound is realistic and whether you feel as if you are in the middle of the action.

How easy is the home cinema system to use?

Our extensive usability tests sort the intuitive systems from the plain irritating. A system can sound fantastic but, if it has you throwing the remote control across the room in frustration, you won't be pleased. 

Is the home cinema system easy to set up?

Instruction manuals are rated for their contents, structure, readability and diagrams. Some home cinema systems feature colour-coded jacks and sockets on all the speakers, making connecting everything straightforward.

Long rear speaker cables are helpful if you’re kitting out a large room and extra marks are awarded for home cinema systems that feature an auto-setup option.

Using the DVD or Blu-ray player

When the home cinema system comes with a DVD or Blu-ray player, we assess its basic functions - these include playback and chapter selection. We also look at any additional features, such as bookmarking.

Most DVD and Blu-ray players that come with home cinema systems are fairly mediocre, as the majority of the functions can be controlled via the on-screen display on the TV only, which is fine when playing DVDs or Blu-rays, but not so helpful if you want to listen to an audio CD without the TV on.

How we calculate home cinema test scores

We give every home cinema system a Which? test score so you can immediately see at a glance which are the best and worst, plus how each model compares to others in features and specifications.

The home cinema system test score ignores price and is based on the following:

  • Picture and sound quality 65%
  • Ease of use 20%
  • Features 10%
  • Energy use 5%

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