Monday 15 October 2018

Ask Adrian: Our tech editor tackles your trickiest technology problems


Sony HT-XT100, a plug-in-and-play sound bar for your TV
Sony HT-XT100, a plug-in-and-play sound bar for your TV
Vodafone Smart V8
Panasonic Lumix GX800
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Q My wife and I are in our eighties and we recently got a flat-screen TV, but the sound isn't strong enough. We're looking for a ­speaker to let us hear it properly but don't want to make the living room messy.

A You're not alone. For all their ­advanced picture technology, the sound quality on many televisions is actually quite poor. Ironically, the ­thinner they get, the worse the speakers - less ­physical space means tinnier, weaker audio quality. It's a question of physics. Audio ­typically needs space to reverberate. This is why the larger tube televisions of yesterday (the type that used to sit in a room's corner) often had better speakers than today's sets. And it's also why so many people think of getting an external speaker.

However, there are a couple of things to know before going shopping for one. One key element that sometimes isn't immediately apparent is that external speakers often come in several parts. Even those that try to contain the system to a single 'soundbar' frequently require a separate 'subwoofer'. For a hi-fi or home cinema enthusiast, this may well be part of the attraction. But for the rest of us, it can be a pain, both in having to set all the speakers up and in finding space for the various speakers without the sitting room starting to look very messy and wire-laden.

I prefer single speaker solutions that simply plug into your telly and work beside it. The one I've been most impressed with lately is Sky's Soundbox, which plugs into your TV or, if you're a Sky subscriber, your Sky Q box. (This is the little set-top box that a lot of Sky subscriptions now come with.)

The reason I like it so much is that it has really excellent, warm sound while being very neat: it sits right beside your DVD player, taking up about the same amount of space. It's reasonably easy to set up, too, although if you feel bamboozled by HDMI cables and the like, get someone to help. The only thing that might stop people getting it is its price - its €300 price tag is only for existing Sky Q subscribers (€350 for normal Sky subscribers). But while it works with any telly and any system, if you're not a Sky subscriber it's over twice the price.

In any case, €300 might seem a bit steep for plenty of people. If this includes you, I'd look at two cheaper options.

The first is Sony's HT-XT100 (€129 from PC World or Currys), which is a plug-in-and-play sound bar with all the required components (including the subwoofer) built in. Its audio quality isn't as good as the Sky Soundbox but it's less than half the price.

If something even friendlier on the wallet is required, try Bush's ultra-budget 45-watt soundbar (€25 from Argos). I'd only advise this option, though, if the telly you bought is a cheap or small one, as the sound output from this won't be significantly better than what you get from medium-priced new televisions in Irish shops.

Of course, you can always stick in a pair of headphones to the telly (some budget headphones come with two or three-metre leads) if there's a TV item you really want to hear urgently, but that's a little unsocial.

RECOMMENDATION: Sony HT-XT100 (inset, €129 from PC World or Currys)

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Two to Try

Vodafone Smart V8

(€199, Vodafone shops)

Vodafone Smart V8

If you're looking for a budget smartphone that performs beyond its price tag, Vodafone's new Smart V8 may be it. The 5.5-inch handset is unusually well designed for a sub-€200 device. Its 16-megapixel camera, full HD screen, fingerprint reader and 32GB of storage are a pleasant surprise. As the name suggests, however, it's a Vodafone-only handset.

Panasonic Lumix GX800

(€469 with 12-32mm lens from Conns Cameras)

Panasonic Lumix GX800

For a beginner considering a 'proper' interchangeable lens camera system under €500, this one stands out for me. Packing a flip-up touchscreen, photos out of it are sharp and detailed and video goes right up to 4K. It has the same excellent 16-megapixel sensor used in pricier Panasonic cameras. It easily fits into bags or coat pockets, too. And there are 70 Panasonic and Olympus lenses available for it.

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