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Home Theater: Sound Bar Round Up

Home Theater: Sound Bar Round Up
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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.

The Contenders

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.

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  • 0 Hide
    hardcore_gamer , July 31, 2010 7:53 AM
    nice review
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , July 31, 2010 10:25 PM
    Should have included yamaha's sound projector in the review. They are the king of the mountain for sound bar/sound projector
  • 0 Hide
    rpgplayer , August 1, 2010 3:37 PM
    in the article you gave the sony a score of 3 on connectivity, but in the conclusion you gave it a score of 5.
  • 0 Hide
    rpgplayer , August 1, 2010 3:39 PM
    which of course would change the overall score to 19 ending as a tie with Vizio's offering
  • 2 Hide
    BlackPearl , August 2, 2010 12:31 PM
    The Boston Acoustics soundbar with its "fantastic, full-range sound quality unmatched by the other competitors" is gets next to last place because it doesn't do fake surround?
  • 1 Hide
    tuanies , August 2, 2010 7:31 PM
    @rpgplayer the score in the conclusion is correct. Thanks for pointing that out, we've fixed it.

    @BlackPearl - we've fixed the math, the Boston and Vizio should be tied.
  • 0 Hide
    pender21 , August 2, 2010 8:08 PM
    Not even one Yamaha YSP was reviewed. It would have been nice because they are available everywhere.
  • 1 Hide
    tuanies , August 2, 2010 8:11 PM
    We were focusing on new sub-$500 sound bars. The cheapest Yamaha sound projector starts at $1400 while the Air Surround YAS-71 starts at $600.
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , August 2, 2010 8:18 PM
    When you do get around to the higher-end bars, please try to include a Niro system. The sound quality is fantastic.
  • 2 Hide
    jeroly , August 2, 2010 9:33 PM
    I'm definitely with BlackPearl on this one. This has to be the STUPIDEST review I've ever seen on Tom's. The most important quality of a speaker is sound quality, and it's given equal weight with the least important quality. Moreover, I have to question any review of any feature of a Sony product that gives it high marks as I haven't seen a high-quality Sony product in about 20 years including the ones I've been fooled into buying.
  • 1 Hide
    tuanies , August 2, 2010 9:41 PM
    Usually I would agree with you, but the target market for the sound bars are not audiophiles and just your average end user who wants to use it to watch TV and movies.

    Yes they can spend a lot of money on a high-end system, but not everyone can have a 5.1 system or desire to run the wires associated with it. The sound bars present an alternative, that improves sound for the tasks they desire.

    The Boston excels in audio quality, which is why we gave it 5's across the board. The Sony is just a better all-in-one solution that does everything.

    And in the end it is all about value, all the sound bars in the round up are sub-$500, and the Sony can even be had for under $350. When you want convenience, features with a huge improvement over TV speakers with little hassle, you can't really go wrong with a sound bar.
  • 1 Hide
    noware , August 5, 2010 3:18 AM
    I normally don't comment on these things BUT you should have had a ZVOX unit or two in the review. They have a few that are under $500 and would blow the sound quality and surround function of any of the reviewed items out of theater. I'm talking first hand seeing as I have compared the ZVOX and a Vizio unit and there is no comparison. Save your self some time and just buy a ZVOX. Real speakers in a real wood enclosure for real sound.
  • 0 Hide
    noware , August 5, 2010 3:19 AM
    I normally don't comment on these things BUT you should have had a ZVOX unit or two in the review. They have a few that are under $500 and would blow the sound quality and surround function of any of the reviewed items out of theater. I'm talking first hand seeing as I have compared the ZVOX and a Vizio unit and there is no comparison. Save your self some time and just buy a ZVOX. Real speakers in a real wood enclosure for real sound.
  • 0 Hide
    mdeland , August 5, 2010 5:45 PM
    I agree. ZVOX makes great products that these picks cannot hold a candle too. What a faux pas!
  • 0 Hide
    GearUp , August 13, 2010 5:51 PM
    Unless space is a consideration, a real 2.0 or 2.1 system at this cost would be better. Extra speakers and connectivity have increased real costs so add $200 to what you spent for a receiver 20 years ago. Otherwise you get one offering 2-room capability that can't do it.
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , August 15, 2010 2:37 AM
    Agreed on Zvox, makes the article a "don't bother reading" piece when they miss the best bang-for-the-buck on the market. I own Bose and Zvox and, while Bose is great, the latter is the better value by far.

    I recommend Zvox to everyone I know.
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , September 7, 2010 8:34 PM
    I just want a review on the Panasonic SC-HTB10. Thought that was what I was supposed to get here?
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