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!

What’s Not The Latest trend in HiFi

Lewis Dalven, resident audiophile, shares his thoughts on product, trends, industry happenings, and why Steeley Dan is the greatest band ever.
Lewis Dalven, resident audiophile, shares his thoughts on product, trends, industry happenings, and why Steeley Dan is the greatest band ever.

I began to get interested in HiFi in 1964 when my older brother assembled his first system. I tagged along with him to a shop in Ridgewood, NJ, a leafy suburb bordering our home town. After a brief qualification we were ushered into a dimly lit room by the proprietor and were given the chance to compare the speaker systems we were considering….using their reference components to power them. I remember the turntable looking very serious. The amplifier was immediately recognizable by its black glass, blue meters and brass metalwork…this was

I began to get interested in HiFi in 1964 when my older brother assembled his first system. I tagged along with him to a shop in Ridgewood, NJ, a leafy suburb bordering our home town. After a brief qualification we were ushered into a dimly lit room by the proprietor and were given the chance to compare the speaker systems we were considering….using their reference components to power them. I remember the turntable looking very serious. The amplifier was immediately recognizable by its black glass, blue meters and brass metalwork…this was McIntosh equipment…unassailably the highest quality gear of that era. We heard the KLH Six’s compared to the KLH 17’s, and both compared to the ARs. Our ears could tell the difference, but my brother’s budget was only enough for the smaller speakers, and we liked the KLHs more lively sound, so we took a pair home to hook up to his newly built Dynakit Stereo 70 and matching PAS-3X and FM-3 tube components. Once the 18 gauge zipcord was wound around the terminal posts, and the needle dropped, we were entranced by the richness of the music. I was hooked.

PAS FM-3
PAS FM-3
PAS 3x
PAS 3X

9 years later, I got my first job in a NJ audio store that sold many b rands, but whose loftiest purpose was to sell McIntosh components to those with the wherewithal, and to instill a longing for McIntosh in everyone else. I didn’t initially understand the allure…we sold other makes that were getting great reviews in the magazines…and McIntosh didn’t submit their equipment for review like the others did. But despite the lack of training in those days, I gathered two things about Mac in the less than a year I was there; no company stood behind their equipment like McIntosh, and nothing was built to maintain its like-new appearance and performance like a McIntosh. It was the closest thing in consumer electronics there was to “an investment”.

mc logo A 40 year career in consumer electronics retailing followed, with countless “flavor of the month” products, the introduction of Home Theater, the growth of custom installation, and internet streaming replacing traditional media all serving to keep the paradigm of sound reproduction shifting. I never sold McIntosh in those years. But I now find myself with a McIntosh dealer again, one that believes in product training…so I have reacquainted myself with the brand I started my career with and their legacy. The two things I learned in 1973 at Stereo Sound in Wayne, NJ are still true, but there is a whole dimension to the technology of McIntosh that I was never aware of that has evolved to make the “value proposition” and the “investment grade” moniker truer today than ever. Every high end electronics manufacturer struggles with a few of the same issues. How to switch inputs reliably, how to control the volume without introducing noise, and how to drive the widest variety of loudspeakers and their fluctuating impedances without compromise. In each of these areas McIntosh engineers have patented unique solutions that make their products outperform and outlast the “best of the rest”. McIntosh owners can expect their input switching to be as noiseless and drop-out free after literally decades of use as when new, have the quietest background noise levels on the market at any listening volume, and can freely choose any speaker type knowing their amplifier will deliver in excess of its full rated power, and that if pushed “beyond the limit” will never add audible distortion to the music. It will also withstand having connected speaker wires crossed without sustaining damage. As a consequence of these features, the durability of McIntosh products is legendary. That they design and manufacture their products from the ground up in Binghamton, NY is a source of pride for many owners. Sheet stainless steel and tempered glass are fabricated into their distinctive chassis and faceplates, all the transformers are produced in-house, potted with tar and encased for minimum noise. All circuit boards are cut, etched and stuffed with nothing but the best electronic components, which are used throughout the line for consistency…there is no “cheap” McIntosh where corners are cut. No other high end manufacturer has the know-how and resources to do so much under their own roof.

MR-77
McIntosh MR-77
mc2105
McIntosh MC2105

A few words about the distinctive look of McIntosh components is in order, because the look is a key to maintaining the product’s value over the years. All buttons and controls are labeled with illuminated etching on the reverse side of the glass, so you can read them in low light and so they can never wear off with use. And if an item ever needs a replacement of its faceplate, McIntosh can manufacture an exact duplicate from plate glass, no matter when the item was originally made. If I had the means and foresight to buy an MC-2105, C-28 or MR-77 in 1974, I could purchase an esthetically matched item today and you’d need to pay close attention to tell the old from the new. That continuity of design means you’ll never need to replace anything just to maintain a well-matched system. No other company cares to do this, preferring to change the styling every few years. One quantifiable result of all this attention to quality and value can be seen on resale sites like eBay, and Audiogon. McIntosh components retain more value by far than any other brand of audio equipment. Virtually everything they have produced is in demand on the used market, and some of their vintage items are among the most sought after in the world. Audio Concepts has been recommending McIntosh products for over 17 years. Our founder and president, Don Houde, who is also a certified electronics technician, has seen the value and quality of McIntosh products from the inside out, and chose to build his business by selling the best with integrity…a heritage a new old-timer like myself can applaud…and wish to continue. Thanks for reading! Lewis Dalven