TechRadar: Is your super-slim LED TV style over sonics? Flatscreen TV makers have had to sacrifice decent speakers to achieve the kind of millimetre-measured thinness people want to buy – and to the massive detriment of sound quality.
Having taken your slim screen home and discovered that the audio is – shock horror – about as impressive as your bedside alarm clock, your penance for shallowness is to invest in a soundbar.
Conveniently (ironically, some would say) they come from more-or-less the same brands as your TV, and arrive with varying ambitions from simply boosting sound and volume to replacing your home cinema with a ‘virtual’ surround sound set-up.
Countless soundbeams, room calibrations and a lot of internal mathematics later and the modern soundbar is ready to redefine the ‘one box’ home cinema. The latest must-have AV accessory? Here are 10 of the best soundbars around.
Panasonic SC-HTB520 – £300
A 2.1-channel “home theatre” with a wireless subwoofer, Panasonic’s soundbar is designed to be mounted on a wall under a flatscreen TV – ideally a 42-inch TV.
Crucially, it works with a 3D setup and supports stream-out for 3D image signals and ARC (Audio Return Channel).
With a mirror finish and black stainless mesh material almost – but not quite – shielding the speaker units from view, this is a relatively powerful option at 240W. It comes with a down-firing, wireless subwoofer as well as a Clear-mode Dialog that subtly projects the sound upwards to create the illusion that voices are coming from the centre of the screen. Nice idea.
Yamaha YAS-101 – £220
The king of pseudo-surround sound has always been Yamaha, the company that came up with the idea six years ago for what it still stoically calls the Front Surround System. It’s present here in its umpteenth, though most affordable (and most basic), incarnation, and unlike rivals makes the subwoofer part of the main unit.
Its chief promise is that its Air Surround Xtreme tech delivers surround sound (from decoded Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks) akin to a 7.1 setup. That’s a bold claim. The actual unit combines two cone speakers with a subwoofer, both of which are driven by a digital amp with a total output of 120W.
Uniquely, its built-in IR flasher acts as a repeater for the instructions emanating from a TV remote, which is useful if the YAS-101 is placed in front of a TV, blocking the IR receiver.
Pioneer HTP-SB510 – £339
This 3.1 system is all about convenience, with a built-in subwoofer, an HDMI repeater and a USB connection to attach an iPod or iPhone.
The HDMI repeater is 3D-ready, while the USB port’s digital connection means it’s possible to navigate an iPod or iPhone’s contents straight from the HTP-SB510′s remote.
It’s the multi-channel acoustic calibration system that’s most important; a supplied microphone needs to be attached for the system to measure the dimensions and soundfields of your living room.
The stakes are high, because that data is used to calibrate and customise the HTP-SB510′s Front Stage Surround Advance function – Pioneer’s take on quasi-surround sound from a soundbar.
Roth BAR 1 – £250
If you’re loathe to give more money to the same brand that cruelly under-specc’ed your TV’s speakers in the first place, how about trying a shiny new British company? The elegant Roth BAR 1 soundbar – complete with wireless subwoofer that can sit nine metres from the main unit – promises a sonic improvement from its eight mid-range drivers and two high-frequency tweeters.
Measuring 780 x 57 x 96mm, the BAR1 can be wall-mounted (a bracket is available separately). Oddly it only offers analogue hook-ups to a TV (two twin RCAs and a 3.5mm stereo jack), although that does at least make it possible to use with almost any audio gadget.
OrbitSound T12v3 – £299
The third attempt of this annually refreshed British-designed stab at a soundbar is all about ‘spatial stereo’. Its rather mainstream gloss black finish might not appeal, but the depth and width of its audio certainly will.
But don’t confuse this with a high-end home cinema – the OrbitSound T12v3 is as much about convenience as performance.
There’s an iPhone dock atop the relatively slim T12v3, although it can hook up to almost any audio source.
Together with a wireless subwoofer, the main unit – set to ‘wide’ – sends out stereo sound that can be heard wherever you are in a room. It’s hardly the end to the ‘sweet spot’ since listening from the edges of a room isn’t surround sound in the traditional sense, but it does at least make the idea of a stereo home cinema more powerful – and palatable.
Boston Acoustics TVee Model 30 – £450
The newest TVee soundbar from Boston Acoustics brings Bluetooth to the audio party. Able to stream music via the wireless tech from a PC or any smartphone, the Model 30 also features an aux input to wire-in an iPod and its ilk. Its special ‘stereo mode’ even promises concert-quality music reproduction.
Despite a musical bent, this 3.1 channel soundbar is an effort to bridge the gap between 40-inch+ TV speakers and a home cinema. It offers a Virtual Surround Sound mode (using Dolby Digital decoding) that’s designed to envelope the listener in quasi-5.1 effects from its three mid-bass drivers and three dome tweeters.
Featuring analogue or optical digital hook-up to a TV, the TVee Model 30 can be wall-mounted and its volume controlled by TV remotes from most brands.
A matching wireless subwoofer is also on-trend, and Apple AirPlay-aping Bluetooth connectivity will appeal most to iPod and MP3 player owners.
Philips CSS2113 – £TBC
Announced at IFA 2011 and coming to UK shores imminently, Philips’ latest effort at a soundbar is typical of the genre in that it attempts to improve on most TV’s woeful sound, but within a slim build – just 65mm – which is the problem with TVs in the first place!
Still, it means that this super-slim and 70cm-wide solution is low profile enough to sit in front of any TV. It’s also reasonably well specified, with a separate wireless subwoofer (with Double BASS mode in tow), virtual surround sound tech that seeks to replicate a 5.1 home cinema, and wallmount accessories all included.
This 20W system has also got Music iLink, a relatively basic wired option that promises to improve the sound quality of compressed music from a laptop, iPod, phone or tablet.
Samsung HW-D570 – £307
As with most Samsung home cinema gear, the sleek HW-D570 comes with a separate wired iPhone dock. But unlike most soundbars, this one is aimed at larger TVs.
Created to partner a 46-inch TV – ideally one from Samsung’s D8000 flagship range of LED TVs, such as the UE46C8000 – this extra-long soundbar is a simple 2.1 configuration. The stereo speakers achieve 80W and the 150W subwoofer is wireless.
That makes the sub easy to position, and though the wired iPhone dock isn’t quite so flexible, it does charge its host as well as transmitting sound to the HW-D570′s main unit. Other connectivity includes two HDMI inputs alongside analogue and digital optical audio ports.
Yamaha YHT-S401 – £499
The flagship front surround system from soundbar instigators Yamaha is the YHT-S401, a product that’s a jot more versatile than its siblings.
Also offering Air Surround Xtreme to create a 7.1 surround sound effect without the need for rear speakers, the YHT-S401 can be adjusted for height. This is clearly a system designed for performance rather than merely convenience – the YHT-S401 is accompanied not just by a separate subwoofer, but also by an AV receiver.
The seriousness of this system is further boosted by the appearance on that AV receiver of three HDMI inputs and one output. Just in case you thought Yamaha was cutting corners, an iPhone dock is also included for good measure.
Pioneer HTP-SLH600 – £749
Another brand offering Bluetooth audio streaming, albeit via an optional £65 adaptor, is Pioneer on its flagship Sound Wing soundbar.
Like the Yamaha YHT-S401, the Pioneer HTP-SLH600 ships with both a separate subwoofer and AV receiver – in this case Pioneer’s VSX-S300, which sells on its own for around £299. It’s equipped with four HDMI inputs – one more than the Yamaha. And, despite the Bluetooth option, an iPod or iPhone will most typically be hooked up via the HTP-SLH600′s minijack.
The soundbar itself is ultra-slim, at 25.5mm, although Pioneer promises a “wide presence” to sound quality from the plethora of HD audio codecs that this high-end soundbar can cope with.