Design: Oh TV, I worship thee

Your sitting-room may end up looking like a small branch of Dixons, but if you're a sensorama sound freak, who cares? By Philip Kerr

TO DESCRIBE my television merely as a set does it no justice at all. If I may slip temporarily into Clarkson speak, to use the word "set" in conjunction with my television is like calling a Ferrari F40 a "vehicle". My television bears no more relation to the average crystal bucket than the London Aquarium does to a goldfish bowl. It is an entertainment centre. It is the coolest of cool media. It is not so much a television as a home cinema.

Let's take the big screen first of all. It is a rear-projection screen, 42 inches high, taller than a Mini. Attached to this we have a Nicam VHS recorder that is both NTSC- and PAL-compatible, which means that whenever I visit America I can buy lots of videos at the sort of prices we would all be paying if we hadn't been stupid enough to join the EC. Then there is a laser-disc player that enables me to play those extra- special films which I never grow tired of watching - Lawrence of Arabia, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Toy Story - without degrading the recording.

So, we have pretty good pictures. But then there is the audio. The audio is breathtaking. The audio quality is better than Wimbledon Odeon. (Not that this is difficult, mind. William Hague sounds better than my local Odeon.) The audio in my TV room comes out of five smallish speakers, arranged around the walls so that you get what you might call the Saving Private Ryan effect of bullets zipping past both ears, and a big bass Jago speaker - which doubles as a coffee table - that provides the secondary Saving Private Ryan effect of not just hearing the sound of a German 88, but feeling it, too, and thanking God that it missed you. Listening to that Jago rumbling underneath your Nescafe, you tell yourself that it sounds so realistic you would probably never hear the one that had your name on it. If Nicole Kidman is pure theatrical Viagra, then a Jago bass speaker is pure televisual Aldous Huxley: O, Brave New World that has such speakers in it.

On one occasion I was watching Heat, which has one of the best, and loudest, shoot-out scenes since Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch. On the equipment in my TV room, you could hear every high-velocity bullet impacting tinnily just above the dado rail, getaway cars screeching away behind the curtains, police sirens wailing like so many lost cats in the recesses of the fireplace, innocent bystanders screaming with terror as they threw themselves down on the Bokhara rug, and Al Pacino breathing heavily beside my Pullman- style armchair having sprinted in from the dining-room to put a bullet between the eyes of poor old Tom Sizemore. The sound of the heat coming around the corner seemed so realistic that I felt obliged to go outside the house and listen through the window, to find out if my neighbours thought they were living next to the spiritual heirs of David Koresh, and another Waco was in progress. It is perhaps fortunate that both they and I live in detached houses with bunker-thick walls and gardens in which there are many sound-absorbent trees.

Television is a natural part of my life and I love watching it. The only problem is that there is so little worth watching. Hence the VHS, the laser disc, the membership of the Blockbuster video shop and now Sky Digital, with all the sports channels and all the film channels for pounds 29 a month. This sounds expensive until you have to watch BBC1 for a whole Saturday evening. Try it and see if I'm not right.

The truth is, I'm bit of a convert to Sky. Originally, this might have had something to do with the fact that I was evangelised by the high priestess of Sky herself - Elizabeth Murdoch, whose eyes lit up as she told me about the digital revolution which, she assured me, would change forever the way we watch television. Once I escaped her electrifying gaze, I had my doubts. But now that I am a subscriber to Sky Digital, and have been a viewer for several weeks, I must confess that Elizabeth is right. It has changed the way I watch telly. I now have a wider choice of crap to browse through in a much more user-friendly way, thanks to Sky's excellent remote-control handset. Moreover, the Sky crap looks and sounds a lot better, too. In comparison, terrestrial television broadcasts now appear as if it's permanently snowing.

All this extra equipment means a lot of black boxes and wires. The room now resembles a branch of Dixons. But when the lights are off you hardly notice, and there's the added benefit of being able to watch a movie without having to endure the scratch and sniff of foodstuffs being consumed by the Great Unfed. There are no commentators and no critics. Best of all, I don't have to watch that silly Bacardi commercial.

Philip Kerr's novel `The Second Angel' is published by Orion (pounds 12.99)

Screen Dreams: The Ultimate TVs

THE TELEVISION set is no longer the cutting-edge object of desire that it used to be. Impossible to integrate into the stylish modern sitting- room, it more often than not squats like a large toad in the corner of your living space - too big, too black and just too damn bulky to be anything other than a complete eyesore.

But now television set manufacturers are beginning to change all that. Conscious that they are competing with a whole new world of computer games, not to mention the Internet, they are not only getting to grips with new technology, but with revolutionary design as well: having to fight to be the first to serve up the much-publicised digital revolution to a gadget- hungry, style-conscious public.

As a humble punter, you can realise at least one of your hi-tech aspirations with Phillips's 28-inch, fully integrated, digital, widescreen television, retailing at about pounds 1,000. Viewers will be able to receive around 10 free digital channels as well as the new services from ITV2 and the BBC, simply by plugging into their existing aerial socket.

Phillips have also managed to produce a range of television sets which are stylish enough to be viewed in their own right.

The award winning "Cool Green" widescreen, priced at just under pounds 2,000, features 45-watt Nicam stereo, surround-sound, a 100Hz (flicker-free) screen and includes a matching VCR. Call 0181-665 6350 for details and local stockists.

Another company that is investing in style as much as performance is Grundig: their 42-inch (4-inch depth) flat-screen Planatron can be mounted on the wall (call 0181-324 9460 for details), making it thoroughly and pleasingly discreet . The downside is the price - a hefty pounds 12,000.

Toshiba have also used state-of-the-art rear-projection technology to produce the 40-inch "Supermodel" TV, the 40PW8DB (available for around pounds 3000, call 01276 62222 for details), with a depth that is less than half its screen size.

The cinematic experience is heightened by the screen's ability to broadcast in widescreen format, and Dolby Digital or Dolby Pro-logic surround-sound produce crisp stereo in five different modes.

With their ability to link up to DVD players, and superior sound and vision quality, manufacturers are hoping that these sets will be the revolution that TV needs to reclaim its place in the nation's hearts - and sitting- rooms.

Katy Guest

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