Sound Bars for the Quality Concious

Lewis Dalven, resident audiophile, shares his thoughts on product, trends, industry happenings, and why Steeley Dan is the greatest band ever.Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth (on the Flintstones, at least) TVs were made using quaint technology called the CRT, for Cathode Ray Tube. These were never made in sizes above 40" diagonal due to their size and weight, but they did have one thing going for them that our new flat panel TVs don't…somewhere to put speakers big enough to sound like something. The fact that TV makers rarely followed through and put good speakers into TVs has its own rationale, but we can remember some Sony models that did pretty well, so at least it was possible. With TVs now sold based on sleekness, slimness, narrowness of bezel, etc. there really is no way to do it, which has given birth to the hottest trend in TV sound-enhancement…the sound bar.

Briefly stated, a sound bar is an add-on speaker system with an elongated cabinet shape that is placed below or above a flat panel widescreen HDTV to substitute for the feeble sound capabilities built into the TV. Some are stereo speakers, many are 3-channels (L/C/R), and some attempt to replicate the effect of a full 5.1 channel surround system by using more sophisticated speaker elements and/or DSP waveform manipulation. Most make no attempt to produce much bass output…some are supplied with separate bass modules, often wirelessly connected. The top-of-the-line models of some brands are strong enough bass performers to make the addition of a subwoofer optional.

Why add a sound bar to your TV? Simply put, to enjoy the immersive multi-sensory experience packaged in our entertainment media more fully, without requiring more conspicuous kinds of loudspeakers usually associated with surround sound. Or perhaps your TV is in a corner flanked by doorways, where placing L/R speakers would be impractical. Maybe you want your TV to move to face different seating areas, so you need a speaker to follow the TV. Another reason could be that one is in the phase of life where moving is more frequent, so a more permanent installed solution doesn't make sense. All these situations can be well served by a sound bar.

There are quite a few ways of categorizing the many sound bars available today, so I'll try to break them down in their broadest groupings. First, there are passive sound bars. These need to be connected to a receiver for their amplification, and are usually made by well respected specialty manufacturers. At Audio Concepts, we carry Golden Ear Technologies, whose Super Cinema 3D Array is a highly regarded example of this type of speaker. In this category, a subwoofer is a necessary, but not supplied, component…you buy as much sub as you wish to in order to satisfy your needs. You can also supplement this type of sound bar by installing rear speakers…which can be installed in-wall, in-ceiling, or on-wall, or stand mounted. A fully implemented system like this is very, very good!

SC3D Array with sub and surround satellites

The powered sound bar is by far the more diverse category. With these, the amplification is built-in, and the sound source is the TV itself, with any peripherals running through it. Many of these are made by off-brands or TV makers, and are low-cost plasticky affairs with no performance to speak of except they are louder than the TV. Some big-box stores even throw them in with your TV purchase. We'll raise our sights to some of the more ambitious powered sound bars.

A growing number of specialty speaker manufacturers and home theater electronics names have entered this category. One of the first to do so was Yamaha, whose "Sound Field Projectors" include some impressive models that effectively simulate 5.1 surround. Another noteworthy entry, the Bose Cinemate SR-1, is a strong performer, with a supplied wireless subwoofer and code-programmed remote control. The use of the subwoofer helps keep the SR-1 a sleek unit. Both of these brands employ special directional speakers to bounce sound off the side walls of your room to create their simulated 5.1…which means they work best in rooms with the right rectangular proportions and noticeably less so in rooms that don't fit that shape.

For pure sound quality, the undisputed kings of the sound bar world are the top offerings from Bowers & Wilkins and Paradigm, which we are proud to offer at Audio Concepts. Each has been ranked at the top by many reviewers worldwide. They differ in that the B&W Panorama 2 is equipped with a 3-input HDMI selector, while the Paradigm Soundscape has only audio inputs for the TV. Both, however, are impressive sounding in small to medium rooms even without a subwoofer, and can deliver higher quality and quantity sound than their inferiors. Soundscape is also a Bluetooth speaker, allowing it to take an audio stream from your mobile device wirelessly. Both of these models are larger than most, and look best when used with furniture suited to them, such as the Cavo or Sonda models from BDI-usa.

Paradigm Soundscape

Another of our brands, Leon Audio, is a speaker company whose specialty is custom matching their models to the TV's exact width, to create a more seamless appearance.

They even make custom grilles to match the color tone of the TV bezel and will mill their grill frames to follow any curves or protuberances on the bottom of the TV. They make the Horizon line in passive models with center, L/R, or L/C/R configurations, and the new OTO powered model, with a built-in wireless transmitter for one of their powered woofers. They offer a complete package which also comes with a unique bracket to attach the OTO to the bottom of your TV. We consider this the best-in-class solution for enhancing the TV sound with a full-motion cantilever wall-mount.

OTO, matched to TV

A unique sound bar from Digital Music System pioneer Sonos weds a high quality L/C/R powered sound bar with their proprietary music streaming hardware, effectively giving you two complementary entertainment systems in one. When the TV is on, you get enhanced TV sound, and when it's off, you have all the world's music at your command, using your smart phone or tablet to listen to locally stored files, web-based music services like Pandora or Spotify, and internet radio streams from literally anywhere. Your guests can even wirelessly stream their own music from their phones or tablet. The Play Bar, as it's known, can be further expanded with the Sonos Sub and rear speakers. And you can keep expanding into more rooms…

One of the more appealing applications for this type of product is the fully self-contained system solution, where furniture, video display, sound system, and sources are all together in one spot. This can be done with a wall-mounted TV over a credenza holding the rest of the system, or with the TV sitting on cabinet-top with a wide shelf below for the sound bar. Some cabinets even provide for concealment for a separate subwoofer.

The B&W Panorama 2 in a BDI Braden cabinet

BDI Corridor with Sonos Play Bar, Sub hiding in side compartment

That's all for now, thanks for reading!

Categories: Gear, Lewis Says....


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