Sound bars have come a long way, and some sound perfectly decent, as long as you never compare them to stereo or home theater speaker systems. Their performance advantages over sound bars are so overwhelming I was confident a $380 stereo system consisting of a pair of speakers and integrated amp would trump the sound of a much more expensive sound bar/wireless subwoofer system.
Sound bars' size and design compromises manifest themselves with limited dynamic range, imprecise imaging, bloated bass and a general lack of oomph compared with the sound of "real" speakers. Even some of the very best sound bars we've tested here at CNET, like the Definitive Technology W Studio ($1,299 MSRP), are bound by those design limitations.
It's an excellent sound bar, but how would it perform in a face-off with a set of ELAC Debut B6 ($280/pair) bookshelf speakers hooked up to one of the least expensive integrated stereo amplifiers I've tested, the Lepai LP7498E (currently $100 while listing at $200). It's a tiny thing, just 4.5 inches x 8.4 inches x 1.6 inches, but power output is rated at 160 watts per channel for 4-ohm speakers, and 100 watts per channel for 8 ohm speakers. True, the no-frills chassis and laser engraved metal faceplate won't win any beauty contests, but it's attractive. The LP7498E has just two inputs, stereo analog RCA and aptX Bluetooth, accessible via the toggle switch on the front panel. The speaker output connectors accept banana plugs or bare wire ends. No remote control is included or available, the LP7498E is strictly a hands-on affair. If you want remote control, or need more inputs, I strongly recommend the Onkyo TX-8020 stereo receiver, which currently sells for $178 on Amazon.
The W Studio vs. B6/LP7498E contest in the CNET listening room in New York City was a breeze to set up. I had the B6s on floor stands flanking a TV, with the W Studio sound bar sitting on the shelf in front of the display, and its 8-inch wireless subwoofer on the floor near the left wall.
I started listening to music with the LP7498E/B6 combo with CNET editor Ty Pendlebury playing the tunes from his phone via Bluetooth, and we were both pleasantly surprised by the sound quality. Ty said, "I hate Bluetooth, but this sounds so good you wouldn't know it was Bluetooth." The W Studio doesn't have Bluetooth, so we couldn't do a direct comparison.
Moving onto the wired analog connection on the LP7498E amp, and digital audio via HDMI to the W Studio sound bar, the B6 was more refined and clear sounding. The B6 also produced a wider and more spacious soundstage than the W Studio. The subwoofer's bass on the latter was more powerful than the B6's, but not by all that much.
When I played Roger Waters' "The Wall" concert Blu-ray, the W Studio rocked harder, and I'd credit the subwoofer for the edge here. But if room-shaking bass is a priority then add a sub to the LP7498E/B6 system.
Continuing with other Blu-rays I felt the LP7498E/B6's sound was more relaxed, dialog clarity improved and stereo imaging was better. Returning to the W Studio the sound was closed-in, and dynamically compressed. It was a clear win for the LP7498E/B6. With CDs and files the LP7498E/B6's performance lead grew larger.
Remember, I performed this face-off with a cheap little amp. I'm sure the B6 speakers would sound even better with my NAD C 316BEE ($380) amp, and the sound would be better again with the ELAC Debut F5 tower speakers ($560/pair). Then the W Studio's sound would be left even further behind. If the LP7498E/B6 combo's $380 price is just out of reach, substitute in the ELAC Debut B5 speakers, and they will bring the system price down to $330.
Now sure, sound bars may be a better fit with your lifestyle and room decor. However if you want the best possible sound without spending lots of money, consider one of these stereo system alternatives.