Editors' note: The rating of the Sony HT-CT100 has been changed since publication to better reflect its value compared to competing home theater systems.
It's a familiar story in consumer electronics: Start with a luxurious, expensive, and exclusive product category, and within just a few years, you'll see a sea of imitators delivering the same basic item with more features, less money, and--ideally--better performance. Take single-speaker audio. Once the exclusive domain of Yamaha Digital Sound Projectors, the category is exploding, with boutique brands (Zvox, Soundmatters), home-audio stalwarts (Polk Audio, Definitive Technology), and major manufacturers (Samsung, Sony) all throwing their respective hat into the ring. But even in this hotly contested category, the Sony HT-CT100 home-theater system is a standout design. The two-part (speaker plus subwoofer) 3.1-channel system is one of the smallest soundbar speakers we've tested to date, and it boasts better-than-average connectivity highlighted by three HDMI inputs. Best of all, it costs just $300, and--considering that modest price tag--it sounds great. And because the HT-CT100 handles power and surround processing, you don't need to buy an AV receiver--just plug in your components and enjoy some powerful audio with more than a hint of faux surround.
To reiterate, the Sony HT-CT100 is a two-part system: a small soundbar designed to sit under the TV, and a modest-size subwoofer that also houses all of the electronics and connections. The skinny speaker is a mere 2.75 inches high and 2.6 deep. Its 31.5-inch width is also smaller than most soundbars and will make a nice match with TVs with 32-inch screens or larger. The speaker sports a satin-finished black plastic cabinet and perforated (nonremovable) metal grille; it's a no-frills look that won't win any beauty contests, but it's unobtrusive enough. The soundbar has three oval-shaped 1.6- by 2.8-inch drivers (left/center/right). You can wall mount the 4.4-pound speaker with its keyhole slots, so long as you account for the permanently attached 10-foot umbilical cable that connects it to the subwoofer. The cable terminates with a 9-pin serial connector that plugs into the subwoofer--if you need to run it a longer distance, check out our related tip.
The medium-density fiberboard sub feels more substantial than the speaker and its black-matte vinyl finish looks a bit more upscale. It's 19.75 inches high and 14.25 deep, and weighs 22 pounds. A black cloth (nonremovable) grille covers the 6.5-inch woofer mounted on the sub's right side. The front edge of the top panel has power, input, and volume controls; the display on the front baffle offers info about volume level, the selected source, and surround processing. There's a bass port smack dab in the middle of the 6.4-inch-wide front baffle. The subwoofer's built-in power amplifiers deliver 50 watts to each of the speakers' three drivers, and 100 watts to the sub's woofer.
All of the system's connections are found on the subwoofer's back panel. There you'll find three HDMI inputs; four digital-audio-only inputs (three optical, one coaxial); one analog stereo input (red/white RCA jacks); and one Digital Media Port connector. However, not counting the DM Port (it's a proprietary connector that works with only a quartet of proprietary Sony accessories), those inputs are really limited to just four AV sources--three audio or HDMI, and one audio only. In other words, you'd use the optical audio inputs (for instance) in lieu of, not in addition to, the HDMI inputs. Obviously, HDMI is the preferred connection, since it allows you to toggle audio and video at the click of a button on the HT-CT100's remote. (And, with the addition of a sub-$50 HDMI switcher, you could more than double the unit's HDMI capacity.) For non-HDMI sources (anything from a Nintendo Wii to a VCR to a non-high-def cable box), you'll use the TV for video switching, and the HT-CT100 for audio.
The unit includes standard Dolby and DTS surround processing modes. For Blu-ray, it can accept uncompressed PCM soundtracks, but it won't decode Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD, nor any DTS HD flavors. (The better Blu-ray players, such as Sony's own PS3, decode those soundtracks internally and output PCM anyway, so that's not going to be a big deal for most folks.)