Sound bars review

Fewer boxes, easier connections, compromised sound.
 
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01 .Introduction

Sound bar

Test results for eight sound bars, priced from $999 to $3299

A sound bar is a box with a number of speakers in it. It's designed to sit just below your TV screen, and uses clever technology to approximate some of the effects of having speakers placed around the room. Some of the products tested also come with a separate subwoofer, which look after those deep rumbles and loud bangs that make movies more exciting.

If the idea of a room full of speakers and wires puts you off buying a surround sound system, a sound bar may be an attractive alternative. This test reveals which models produce a similar experience to a surround sound system – but unfortunately, none can replace a 5.1 surround sound system for immersing you in sound.

See our home theatre section for more information.

Please note: this information was current as of March 2009 but is still a useful guide to today's market.


How they work

There are two types of technology the products tested use to give you a sense of sound coming from a particular direction.

Beam forming

This creates narrow beams of sound that can be directed to reflect off the walls or ceiling and give the impression of sounds coming from different places in the room. These sound bars often have a lot of small speakers (The Yamaha YSP-4000 has 42) and are best used in rooms with hard surfaces. Too much sound-absorbing material in the room can result in the beams not appearing in the right places.

Head related transfer function (HRTF)

HRTF technologies tend to have fewer speakers in the sound bar. They rely on creating auditory signals we associate with different sound locations, to "trick" us into thinking the sound is coming from a specific position. This means they are less affected by the surfaces and will probably work best in rooms with lots of soft furnishings and carpets.

The sound bars were assessed on:

  • Their overall sound quality and whether they could replace a 5.1 surround sound system.
  • How they performed on technical tests such as frequency response, total harmonic distortion, subwoofer integration.
  • How easy they were to use.
  • Energy consumption of the main unit and subwoofer on standby.

Brands tested

  • Denon DHT-FS3
  • Denon DHT-FS5
  • Samsung HT-X810
  • Sony RHT-G900
  • TEAC SB03iDV
  • Yamaha YAS-71
  • Yamaha YSP-600
  • Yamaha YSP-4000

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The following models scored the best results in our test.

What to buy
Brand Price
Sony RHT-G900 $1499
Yamaha YSP-4000 $3299
Yamaha YSP-600 $1099

Results table

Full results for all models are shown in the table below.

Performance Cost
Brand / model (in rank order) Overall score (%) Listening panel score (%) Technical sound quality score (%) Ease of use score (%) Standby energy score (%) Price ($)
Sony RHT-G900 69 66 71 64 83 1499
Yamaha YSP-4000 65 73 72 70 0 3299
Yamaha YSP-600 64 66 76 71 0 1099
Denon DHT-FS5 60 50 64 70 51 999
Denon DHT-FS3 56 57 61 66 6 1999
Samsung HT-X810 55 49 73 60 0 999
Yamaha YAS-71 55 49 70 58 15 999
TEAC SB03iDV 54 48 70 62 0 999


Features
Brand / model (in rank order) Wall mountable / hardware included Tuner HDMI inputs iPod dock Video switching
Sony RHT-G900 - /na FM radio 3
Yamaha YSP-4000 • / - FM radio 2
Yamaha YSP-600 - /na 2
Denon DHT-FS5 • / • 0
Denon DHT-FS3 • / • 0 (A)
Samsung HT-X810 • / • FM radio 0
Yamaha YAS-71 • / - FM radio 0 (A)
TEAC SB03iDV • / • AM/FM radio 0


Specifications
Brand / model (in rank order) Subwoofer model Subwoofer speaker orientation Multichannel claim Internal speakers Soundbar size (cm, HxWxD)* Subwoofer size (cm, HxWxD)* Soundbar Weight (kg) Subwoofer Weight (kg)
Sony RHT-G900 na Left & right ns 6 50 x 112 x 40.5 Inbuilt 52 Inbuilt
Yamaha YSP-4000 YST-SW225 Down 5.1 42 19.5 x 103 x 14 35.5 x 29 x 35 15.7 11.2
Yamaha YSP-600 YST-SW030 Down 5.1 18 12 x 61 x 22 36 x 29 x 31 8.3 10.3
Denon DHT-FS5 na na ns 6 12 x 75 x 13.5 na 5.1 na
Denon DHT-FS3 DSW-FS3 Right 5.1 6 10 x 85 x 13 38 x 10.5 x 36 4.6 5.4
Samsung HT-X810 PS-WX810 Right 5.1 2 19.5 x 100 x 16 41.5 x 26 x 33 8 9.1
Yamaha YAS-71 YAS-71SPX Right 7.1 6 11 x 80 x 10 45.5 x 20 x 41.5 4.9 12.5
TEAC SB03iDV na Left 5.1 10 19.5 x 94 x 14 Inbuilt 11.4 Inbuilt

Using the table

Scores The overall score is made up of:

  • Listening panel: 30%
  • Technical sound quality: 30%
  • Ease of use: 30%
  • Standby energy: 10%

Features See What to Look For, for details on these and other features.

Specifications

  • Subwoofer freestanding model supplied separate from the sound bar.
  • Inbuilt means the subwoofer function is within the bar itself.
  • Subwoofer speaker orientation is the direction in which the subwoofer points, which may limit where you can put it in your room. Subwoofers that face down output sound in all directions (except up).
  • Multi-channel claim is the number of channels the sound bar can mimic according to the manufacturer.
  • Internal speakers gives you some indication of the type of system.
  • Dimensions are rounded up to the nearest half centimetre.

(a) discontinued but may be available in some stores.

Price Recommended retail, as of March 2009.

Table notes

* Rounded to the nearest half centimetre.
(A) Available as an optional extra.
na Not applicable.
ns Not stated.

How we test

Technical sound quality Our testers place each sound bar in an anechoic chamber and measure its frequency response, total harmonic distortion, subwoofer integration and channel separation. Reflecting panels are used to simulate walls where necessary.

Listening panel The sound bars are also placed in a typical small lounge room with furnishings and calibrated according to the manufacturer's instructions. Our panel of three expert listeners appraises them for their ability to cope with stereo and 5.1 channel music, as well as 5.1 movies. They pay particular attention to the sound bar's ability to produce an immersive surround sound experience in comparison with our reference 5.1 system, which is worth approximately $3000.

Ease of use Our testers assess the remote control, connections, calibration options, on-screen and front panel displays, as well as the manual and any other instructions that come with the product.

Standby energy They measure the amount of power the sound bar uses when in standby mode.

Profiles - what to buy

Sony RHT-G900

Sony RHT-G900Price: $999

Good points

  • Supplied with a TOSLINK cable.
  • HDMI output.
  • Very easy to connect to TV, DVD player and other equipment.
  • Front panel display can be set so that it is usually off, and only illuminates when muted, protected or when the remote control is used.
  • FM tuner.

Bad points

  • Requires multiple people to carry (suggests four) and unpack (suggests two).
  • Many of the remote control buttons and labels are small and closely spaced.
  • On-board controls have low contrast labels.

Yamaha YSP-4000

Yamaha YSP-4000Price: $3299

Good points

  • Supplied with a TOSLINK cable.
  • Auxiliary input accessible from the front.
  • Three composite video inputs.
  • Two component video inputs and one output.
  • HDMI output.
  • iPod dock.
  • Very easy to connect to TV, DVD player and other equipment.
  • Very good user manual.
  • FM tuner.
  • Two-year warranty.

Bad points

  • Remote control has some low contrast labels, and the VCR/DVD playback control buttons have a striped background.
  • On-board controls limited to on/off, source and volume.
  • Front panel display is not dimmable.

Yamaha YSP-600

Yamaha YSP-4000Price: $1099

Good points

  • Supplied with a TOSLINK cable.
  • HDMI output.
  • Very easy to connect to TV, DVD player and other equipment.
  • Very good user manual.
  • Front panel display is dimmable.
  • Two-year warranty.

Bad points

  • On-board controls limited to on/off, source and volume.

Profiles - the rest

The remaining models - not included in the What to buy list - are profiled below in rank order.

Denon DHT-FS5

Denon DHT-FS5Price: $999

Good points

  • Supplied with a TOSLINK cable.
  • Single lightweight component is very easy to unpack and position.
  • Very easy to connect to TV, DVD player and other equipment.
  • Two-year warranty.

Bad points

  • Most of the remote control buttons are small, and the labels are low contrast.
  • On-board controls are limited to a power button only.
  • Front panel display is not dimmable.

Denon DHT-FS3

Denon DHT-FS3Price: $1999

Good points

  • Supplied with a TOSLINK cable.
  • Headphone jack.
  • Very easy to connect to TV, DVD player and other equipment.
  • Two-year warranty.

Bad points

  • Many of the remote control buttons are small, and some of the labels are very small.
  • On-board controls limited to on/off, source, surround mode and volume.
  • Front panel display is not dimmable.
  • The cable between the sound bar and subwoofer uses an uncommon plug type and is limited to 3m in length.

Samsung HT-X810

Samsung HT-X810Price: $999

Good points

  • Supplied with an HDMI cable.
  • Wireless subwoofer.
  • AUX input and USB port accessible from the side.
  • Component video output.
  • Built-in DVD player (at front, slot-loading).

Bad points

  • User manual layout is a little confusing, and illustrations are too small to be able to see details.
  • Many of the remote control buttons are small, and closely spaced. Labelling is mostly small and grey on black, but some are very small.
  • Sound starts to distort at relatively low volume, best suited to small rooms.

Yamaha YAS-71

Yamaha YAS-71Price: $999

Good points

  • Front panel display is dimmable.
  • Two-year warranty.
  • Bad points
  • All inputs are at the rear of the subwoofer, not the sound bar, which may make it difficult to easily position components within the room.
  • There are two cables between the sound bar and subwoofer using uncommon plug types and both are limited to 3.9m in length.

TEAC SB03iDV

TEAC SB03iDVPrice: $999

Good points

  • Two composite video inputs.
  • HDMI output.
  • Component and S-video video output.
  • Single component is very easy to position.
  • Very easy to connect to TV, DVD player and other equipment.
  • Pedestal stand included.
  • Built-in DVD player (at side, slot-loading).

Bad points

  • No digital audio inputs.
  • Paper advertising label attached to front of sound bar is very difficult to remove.
  • All the remote control buttons are small and closely spaced. Much of the labelling is low contrast grey on grey. Navigation buttons too small and cluttered with other controls. Volume control too small and inconspicuous.
  • On-board controls are located at the side of the unit.

When speakers distort sound it's unpleasant:

  • High notes sound harsh.
  • Low notes sound boomy.
  • Voices sound indistinct or unnatural.

Most people begin to hear some distortion at quite low levels and the bigger the room the louder the volume required to fill it. Unfortunately, as the volume is increased the more likely it is that a speaker starts introducing distortion.

The best models in this test for loud undistorted sound at a distance of two metres are the Yamaha YSP-4000, Yamaha YAS-71 and TEAC, and the worst is the Samsung. The Samsung starts to distort when the sound isn't much louder than a loud conversation (69dB), but the better ones can be very loud (89dB) before distortion begins.

The listening panel was impressed with the Yamaha YSP-4000 because it can project sound so it appears to come from an area much wider than its physical size. They also like its clarity and even response across frequencies. Unfortunately, it is let down by its subwoofer, which lacks power. The Sony also impressed most listeners, but one panellist found the bass a little too intrusive. It scored well in technical tests and would also be a practical solution if you're looking for a piece of furniture on which to put your TV.

The panel was not impressed with the Samsung, Yamaha YAS-71B and TEAC because they don't provide a surround sound experience. The Samsung bass is boomy even when turned down, and the TEAC has a noticeable hum when it's on. The panellists described them as almost mono or lacking in a sense of space.

The Denon models sit somewhere in the middle. Their sound is clear and they provide some separation in stereo mode, but they're not nearly as good as a 5.1 surround sound system - see Setting up a sound bar.

Loud isn't everything

If the sound bar is not providing a balanced and accurate representation of the recording in the first place, distortion will only detract from an already poor listening experience.

Although the technical testing includes lots of measurements, such as channel separation and frequency response, it cannot measure a subjective response. Our panel was looking to be surrounded by sound, warmth and clarity; if they were left flat, they marked accordingly. See how we test.

Setting up a sound bar

Neither of these technologies is very effective in large, open-plan rooms, although the HRTF products may cope a little better. Beam formers are best suited to reasonably symmetrical rooms with hard floors and walls. Regardless of the room type, we found the sweet spot - the point where you get the best sense of sounds coming from different directions - was small for all models. Move away from this position, and sounds can become weird.

The Yamaha YSP-4000 and YSP-600 have automated calibration which involves placing a microphone in the listening position and running a short set-up procedure. During our test set-up these models had trouble coping with rooms where the doors positioned behind the unit were open; both placed to the left some of the sound that should have appeared to come from the right. However, once the set-up was done with the doors closed, opening the door didn't appear to cause a problem.

Both Denon models produce sound that is biased to the right. We couldn't find a way of compensating for this (and Denon couldn't help either). Most of the others on test only needed the room size or listening distance to be entered using the remote control and front panel display.

Positioning the sound bars is quite straightforward, but you should make sure you have enough space in front of or below your screen. If you use a subwoofer, make sure there's enough cable length to allow you to put it in the best position in the room. The Denon DHT-FS3 and Yamaha YAS-71 have proprietary cable connections, which means you can't buy a separate longer cable in your local electronics store to give you more latitude when positioning the subwoofer. The Samsung has a wireless subwoofer connection, so you don't have to worry about wires at all.

See our video guide to setting up a home theatre system.

  • Connections The Denon, TEAC and Yamaha models have a dedicated subwoofer connection, even if they don't come with one. The Sony subwoofer is built-in, and all the Samsung's connections are on its subwoofer. All have both an optical (TOSLINK) and RCA input, so you can connect a DVD player. The Sony, Yamaha YSP-4000 and YSP-600 also have HDMI inputs and outputs, while the TEAC has HDMI output only.
  • Video switching allows you to pass the video signal through the sound bar to your TV. This is only available on sound bars with HDMI connections, and reduces the number of wires from the DVD player to the sound bar to one and one from the sound bar to the TV.
  • Built-in DVD The Samsung and TEAC have a DVD player incorporated into the sound bar, which saves space.
  • A front panel display is very handy when you want to listen to music without turning on the TV to see the settings for the sound bar. Look for one that allows you to dim or turn it off when you don't need it; they can be distracting if they're too bright. The Yamaha YSP-600 and YAS-71 are dimmable and the Sony can be set to turn off when not in use.
  • Wall mountable All except the Sony and Yamaha YSP-600 can be mounted on a wall. See the table, for those that come with a kit.
  • Tuner An incorporated AM/FM radio tuner will save on space and connection clutter.
  • An iPod dock is handy if you like to keep all your music on one device.
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