HDTVs have come a long way in recent years. The big bulky things that did nothing more exciting than display your cable channels have transitioned into slim, stylish entertainment appliances capable of displaying digital media including home videos and images streamed across a home network. Some even deliver basic Internet access.
Unfortunately, the transition from projection and CRT TVs to LCDs and plasmas hasn’t been purely an improvement. While big and bulky projection and CRT TVs had plenty of space for large drivers, and adequate air space and room for separate tweeters for built-in speakers that were able to output a full range of audio frequencies, flat-panel TVs are limited to tiny speakers that can only emit higher frequencies. This leaves much to be desired for the mid and low range of HDTV audio.
Enter the sound bar.
A couple years ago companies began selling sound bars, or single-speaker solutions that cater to the flat-panel demographic. The concept is simple yet very effective. Sound bars consist of a single speaker enclosure. They are typically placed below the TV on a TV stand, or they are easily wall mounted. Sound bars are expected to deliver superior audio quality, when compared to built-in TV speakers.
While the concept is simple, there are many different types of sound bars available on the market. The two main types of sound bars are passive and active. Passive sound bars require separate amplification from a home theater receiver and are available with complete single-speaker surround sound or a front and center configuration that combines three speakers into one. Active sound bars are plug-and-play with all amplification built into the sound bar itself or a subwoofer.
There are many types of active sound bars available on the market, including basic two-channel sound bars for stereo audio, and enhanced sound bars with virtual surround sound technology.
Today our focus is primarily on sub-$500 active sound bars designed to improve TV audio for broadcast television, gaming, movies and music. We’ve gathered four different sound bars from Boston Acoustics, Panasonic, Sony and Vizio to evaluate and decide which sound bar is the ideal companion for enhancing TV audio.
The quartet of sound bars includes the Sony HT-CT350, Boston Acoustics TVee Model 20, Vizio VHT210 and Panasonic SC-HTB10 systems. Each sound bar has different features and uses, but each manufacturer intended its sound bar to improve the TV audio experience. We’ll be the judge of that.
The criteria used for judging the sound bars is purely subjective. We selected a variety of content that we believe is a good representation of what our readers would watch and used it in our tests. For TV content, we watched only HD video from a Tivo HD with Comcast cable and flipped through a variety of channels to get a wide variety of live television audio sampling including sitcoms, movies and news. We conducted Blu-ray movie playback using a PS3slim and Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen – the PS3 audio mode was changed to accommodate each sound bar’s capabilities. Game performance was tested using an Xbox 360 with “Red Dead Redemption” using optical or HDMI connectivity, depending on the sound bar tested. All sources were connected to a Samsung PN50B560 plasma TV.