Soundbars - Do I want one? And which to choose
Everybody's doing it
The soundbar isn’t that new a concept – the first was produced back in 1998 – but it’s only in recent years that they have become part of the mainstream manufacturers’ product ranges and only in the last couple where sales have really taken off.The momentum is such that 5.1 (or above) systems are now usually a mere footnote on the various press releases we receive and the shift toward convenience over true multi-channel is currently inescapable. So why should you choose a soundbar solution and, more importantly, what product suits you best?
The reasons for opting for a speaker bar are fairly obvious. First and foremost, they will almost certainly make the speakers fitted in your flat panel TV sound puny and flat - which, for the most part, they are. As manufacturers chased the Size 0 TV, sacrifices in the audio department were inevitable and the gap between picture and sound quality has steadily grown to a point where it’s a sometimes embarrassing chasm. The soundbar presents a swift and virtually effortless upgrade to your TVs audio, requiring little to no specialist knowledge.
Choosing between a 5.1 (or above) and a soundbar solution is also a matter of convenience and tidiness. For many it’s tricky to accommodate a multi-speaker package effectively in a room and, even for those that can, hiding speaker wire can entail major work. Let's face it, we're skirting around (pun unintended) possibly the issue, which is having to sell the idea of turning your living room in to a home cinema to your significant other. We're sure many will testify that's no easy task.
A multi-channel package is, of course, the ideal and what we’d recommend where circumstances permit but they are more clutter-some, by definition, and not for everyone. Again, in steps the soundbar solution to fill the gap but which one is right for you?
To HDMI or not?HDMI has its detractors – often for good reason – but it does have its plus points. One such reason to be cheerful is the Audio Return Channel (ARC) feature. ARC allows your TV to act as a conduit for both the audio it produces and the audio it receives from external sources, which means you can distribute sound from any device connected to the TV by HDMI, via a single cable between the soundbar and television. So, you could have a Blu-ray player, set-top box and couple of games consoles hooked up to your TV and be able to utilise the soundbar for each with just one HDMI cable. Your TV’s remote would then act as the controller for the soundbars’ audio, which is undeniably slick and convenient.
On a budget.
We were more than a little pleasantly surprised by the sub £150 Xenta 201SB - in fact it’s now less than £100 - and it proved a match, in the audio department, to systems costing twice as much and more. Like many soundbar packages, the 201 features a separate subwoofer for the low end frequencies but it’s not wireless like many of the more costly packages are. It’s also not one of those blessed with HDMI or ARC but it’s otherwise abundant in connectivity options and sports two coaxial digital inputs, one S/PDIF digital and two RCA stereo jacks. That’s not all, the Xenta is also Bluetooth compliant, meaning you can pair it with a smartphone, tablet or PC for music streaming. It’s a touch no-frills but the build quality is good and you seriously cannot grumble at that price.ARC and Smart Contenders.The Panasonic HTB570 is a potential flexible friend that offers users the choice between lying flat or arranging in a more traditional 2.1 format. The left and right speakers can be detached and fitted to supplied base-stands, to act as separates, or joined together to form the proverbial bar. We like this approach and the additional flexibility a wireless subwoofer brings, in terms of placement, is also an added bonus. Panasonic’s decision to go with a separate unit for inputs and amplification has the benefit of keeping your setup nice and tidy, due to the lack of cables accumulating behind the speaker bar, but the downside is that you’ll need the room to put it in your unit.
LG’s NB3730A is a soundbar that really demands your TV is at least HDMI, but also ideally, ARC capable. It has no HDMI output – only an inward connection – so if your TV isn’t ARC friendly you might as well ditch this one from the shortlist now. The Smart functionalities certainly add to the asking price. There’s certainly something to be said for having the likes of iPlayer, Netflix and LOVEFILM built into a multi-purpose device that sits under your telly and the 3730A also has lots of available apps as well as media streaming abilities but we found it a bit lacking on the processing and audio front, although it is an option for those looking for a simultaneous boost in smart TV features and sound quality.
Given Samsung’s penchant for all things Smart TV, it’s a little surprising their HW-F750/F751 doesn’t include any real connected features. It has other tricks up its sleeve, however, including gyroscopes that alter both the sound processing and placement of visual display, according to how the soundbar is orientated and there’s also Bluetooth and some of the best 3D DSP we’ve heard in the sector. It can truly fill a room, both vertically and horizontally, with mesmeric audio that particularly impressed us with multi-channel movie and TV soundtracks. Undoubtedly, and unashamedly, Samsung is aiming this package at the ‘lifestyle’ market – and why wouldn’t they? For that purpose it ticks all the boxes – it’s a cakewalk to setup, gorgeous to look at and kicks sand in the face of your TVs speakers. At £600, the entry fee is not inconsiderable but the HW-F751 is designed for purpose extremely well.
It’s all about the sound.Paradigm's Shift Soundtrack range is something a little new for the Canadian audio manufacturer’s repertoire. It’s a definite shift toward the ‘lifestyle’ crowd but sacrifices very little in the audio quality department for the price of convenience. It has no HDMI connectivity nor will it stream Bluetooth but it’s almost totally uncompromising where it really counts. Paradigm does provide a lot of flexibility in terms of where you can sit the subwoofer, however, and its cunning dual ported design allows for placement under a sofa, table or even in your AV unit, whilst not skimping on power. Paradigm has brought to bear its formidable engineering resources to deliver a soundbar package equally at home with music as it is with movies and TV. It’s beautifully composed and capable of providing precise effects localisation as well as thumping bass. We can fully appreciate, that at around £800, the Paradigm Soundtrack is still in the aspirational category for many – that’s a sum considerably more than most are willing to pay for a television - but quality costs and if audio is a major concern there aren’t many more capable than this.
More costly still is Yamaha's YSP3300. At just under £1,000 it’s a fair old investment but Yamaha really does have a pedigree in the soundbar category and have been at the cutting edge since they became a commercial reality. Yamaha prefers to call it a ‘Digital Sound Projector’ and we can see why with its 16 array speakers and subwoofer combining with proprietary ‘Sound Beam’ technology to create a genuinely more immersive sound field. The sound quality of the YSP-3300 was impressive and although it isn't cheap, it's an excellent soundbar and wireless subwoofer system that combines looks, design, features and performance in equal measures to create a very tempting package.
Something a little different.It’s arguable whether the GoldenEar Super Cinema Soundbar qualifies for inclusion in the soundbar category, at all, but since that’s what it’s marketed as, so shall it be judged. Unlike all the others we’ve mentioned, the SC3DA doesn't come with any built-in amplification or signal processing, nor are there any connections or a subwoofer. You will need to provide three channels of amplification for the SC3DA and ideally add a subwoofer too. GoldenEar obviously recommends one of their own. Of course once you have to start adding amplification and a subwoofer it not only increases the cost of what is already quite an expensive product but does rather diminish the aesthetic simplicity of the soundbar concept. However, the GoldenEar SuperCinema 3D Array offers a level of performance that is exceptional, even if it doesn’t really offer a one-stop solution. It doesn’t half look good as well.
So there we have it. We realise that soundbars aren’t for everyone and, where possible, we’d still recommend a separates package for the greater separation – even a good 2.1 system will be better in this regard than any soundbar – but at least there’s a choice now for those who can’t accommodate multi-channel audio and hopefully we've helped save a few relationships along the way.
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