The AVForums Soundbars of 2013

We give you our rundown of this year's best Soundbars - and what a variety there were!

by Mark Hodgkinson Dec 18, 2013 at 12:15 PM

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    The AVForums Soundbars of 2013
    If there's one kind of product that the manufacturers are almost falling over themselves to send us, then it is the soundbar. What started out as a fairly niche device has now become one of the success stories for the AV industry, and heaven knows it could use a few more.

    They are clearly fairly easy to design and assemble, else there wouldn't be so many, and they promise decent profit margins for the manufacturers, which is a far cry from the cut-throat world of flat panel TVs and assorted other products. Their popularity has, unsurprisingly, come at a time when the fortunes of multi-channel audio has been on the wane.

    It seems the public are keen to bolster the audio performance of their flat panel TVs but more reticent about seeing trailing wires and extra little boxes 'littering' the place. Of course, we would always steer people towards a separates system, where possible, but there are certainly some great solutions out there that come in a variety of shapes and styles.

    We've some soundbar packages that retail at close to £100, right up to ones that will cost you a grand - and everything inbetween. Frankly choosing a soundbar is a bit of a minefield so we've picked out our highlights from this last year with, hopefully, something here to suit all needs and budgets.
    There's never been so much choice, or variety
    Going Solo

    Whilst currently the majority of soundbar packages consist of a main speaker bar and accompanying wired or wireless subwoofer, there's a growing trend - and presumably demand - for an even more all-in-one solution. You can't get much more tidy than a single bar and the Philips HTL5120 is a particularly good looking example. The tear drop sides look lovely in the flesh and the build quality is superb for a product doing the rounds for circa £250.

    We made several false assumptions prior to receiving the sample and we were skeptical that it could deliver the goods but sometimes it's good to be proved wrong. The HTL5120 marries design with connectivity, featuring 2 HDMI inputs, ARC compatibility and Bluetooth, as well as a couple of digital audio inputs and it sounds surprisingly authoritative, whilst maintaining Philips' signature warm sound.

    The sound is also surprisingly big and Philips has engineered built-in bass drivers that will give any subwoofer, in this price-class, a run for their money. OK, it might not have quite the slam of a separate sub but it is a poised and capable system nevertheless. You'll be surprised what Philips has managed to accomplish with this compact little system. We certainly know we were!
    Without a sub, we were sceptical. We were wrong.
    The Last Word in Neat?

    Just when we thought it was safe to admit that soundbars are actually a great idea, along comes a new breed that had us chin-strokingly in wonderment at what the Dickens the World was coming to. Is a single soundbar sat in front of your TV such an eyesore that some will be horrified by the thought of their designer homes' being saddled with such unsightly clutter?

    Apparently so, or at least that's what the manufacturers tell us, and they are backing those claims up with cold, hard product. There are a variety of terms being bandied about - sound-plate, sound-base, sound-plinth, take your pick - but they all share a common feature, and that is you can stick your Telly on top. Of course, if space is very tight, then it's a good solution but surely the confines of such a small cabinet will be no match for a 'traditional' soundbar package?

    Well, for the most part, we would say that is the case. They simply don't have the necessary stereo separation and largely lack any low-end clout but there is a curio that came from an unexpected source. Maxell, the - 'tape guys' - from AV days of yore sent us the MXSP-SB3000 and it proved quite a performer.
    More 'console' than soundbar but still effective
    OK, it's fairly massive but that means it will accommodate a pretty big TV - up to 80Kg, basestand permitting - and its bulk also means it's home to an absolute wealth of connections. There's 3 HDMI in, with one out for ARC, plus a couple of digital audio, sterero, aux and Bluetooth and thanks to the size, it delivered an engaging soundstage with decent bass, thanks to a couple of built-in subs, although they did lack some of the clarity a separate woofer can deliver.

    At less than £230, it certainly won't break the bank and if you absolutely must stack, then it's the best alternative we've heard.

    Budget Beauty

    At the time of the review, the Roth Bar 3 was available for £250 but is currently available online for under two hundred. That, readers, is an absolute steal. Roth has built their business on 'lifestyle' audio products and, quite simply, they know what they're doing. The Roth Bar 3 comes as a discreet speaker-bar and subwoofer package and neither lets the side down in any way you could justifiably criticise, at this priceponint.

    Wired connectivity options are limited to S/PDIF digital audio and two 3.5mm analogue jacks but supplemented by Bluetooth, which is always a useful feature, allowing the BAR 3 to also be the answer to your living room music streaming needs. The Roth is equally assured with music as it is movie and TV soundtracks, delivering warm, tight sound with a very impressive degree of localisation. The subwoofer might not be the biggest but it’s capable of producing more bottom end than one would probably expect and it integrates with the stereo speakers on the main bar to great effect. The Roth BAR 3 is a great example of something simple done right, and is comfortably the best soundbar we've heard under the £250 , nay £200, price barrier.

    A Touch of Class with a Dash of Innovation

    We'll make no apologies for including another Philips in the rundown - credit where credit is due, and all that, and this is quite a different beast from the model discussed above. The HTL9100 certainly costs quite a bit more than its stablemate and with it hovering around the 600 pounds mark, the sums discussed aren't inconsiderable so it's a good job it delivers on all fronts and justifies its place amongst Philips' flagship audio, Fidelio range.

    The Fidelio HLT9100 soundbar will look gorgeous sat below just about any TV we can think of and the low-slung design means it wont intrude on the screen or get in the way of the infra-red sensor. It’s also well connected, with two HDMI inputs and choice of various analogue sources. It also includes the de rigeur t Bluetooth compatibility.
    The Philips Fidelio HTL9100 produced some of the most appealing sounds we've heard from a soundbar.
    The subwoofer was particularly impressive, producing taut, impactful bass with no little agility. It just goes to show you can’t always judge a book by its cover as its appearance would suggest something a little more demure and restrained. Of course the major USP of the package are the detachable speakers that can be placed as rear surrounds and this worked very well with material using 5.1, if not so much with stereo sources.

    Philips has produced a little cracker with the Fidelio HTL9100 – it looks the part, couldn’t be simpler to use and, most importantly, produces warm, room filling audio that justifies the ticket price. And, best of all, when the rest of the house goes to bed, you get that surround sound system you really wanted!

    Top Shelf Naughtiness

    Big 'n' Bouncy would be a fair way in which to describe the Paradigm Shift Soundtrack and there’s no denying it stands a little taller than most; or should that be prouder, as it packs in drivers most of the rest can only dream about. Still, it is a matter for consideration so it would be wise to ensure you’ll have enough clearance from your sitting position if you’re not wall-mounting. Also, priced near a thousand pounds, you will need to be serious about the idea of a soundbar as there are very good 2.1 satellite packages which will offer better separation, at similar sums.

    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.

    The Soundtrack delivers precise mids and high notes and it’s all under-pinned by convincing, pulsating bass. If anything the Soundtrack leans to a warm sound, which is composed and fully capable of providing precise effects localisation. 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.
    Paradigm's Soundtrack costs more than most spend on a TV but it's grrreat!!!
    But quality costs and if audio is fifty percent of the AV experience - which we would argue it is - then it’s not that high a price to pay. We’d still lean toward the Paradigm Millenia CT, in this sort of price bracket, but the Soundtrack does present more varied placement options and will suit many. In fact, for our money, it’s quite possibly the best sub-one-thousand pound Soundbar package, bar none.

    Past Master

    Yamaha is the Daddy of the Soundbar market. They didn't invent the product but they have been at the forefront of promoting the concept for more years than most. And all that experience has taught them more than a thing or two about what constitutes a great soundbar package, which is the perfect blend, of convenience, usability and performance.

    Step forwards the Yamaha YSP-3300 which provides superb connectivity options – there’s 4 HDMI ports, for starters, and with its ability to pass 4K signals, a good degree of future-proofing too. The Yamaha has quite a wide footprint, which means it will match up well to todays’ larger screens, but that also gives it the opportunity to pack in 16 array speakers, which is an unusually high number.

    It’s the little touches, such as the YSP-3300’s ability to pass on infra-red signals, should it being blocking the TVs receiver, that make this the most refined package we’ve seen in 2013 but let’s not ignore the primary concern - sound quality, because it certainly had that in spades
    Yamaha has pretty much thought of everything.
    Music was well rendered with dialogue clear and nicely anchored to the centre of the screen. Sound effects were well placed with superior localisation, at the front, and a surprisingly immersive sense of surround thanks to some clever DSP.

    Again, this is not a budget option, the YSP-3300 has a recommended retail price that’s nigh on a thousand pounds but if you want the best, you have to be willing to pay for the privilege

    So, there you have it, hopefully we've covered all the bases and helped you make up your minds but if you have any questions, or suggestions for something we may have left out, please use the comments section below.

    To comment on what you've read here, click the Discussion tab and post a reply.

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