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HolidayBuyer's Guide

SpeakerCraft CS3 review:

Sound bar packs super sonics, low-profile looks

The CS3's connectivity is minimal, with just three inputs: optical, coaxial, and analog. That's fine by us, as you don't need many ports if you use your TV as a switcher.

The standout feature is built-in Bluetooth connectivity. That makes it possible to wirelessly stream music from just about any smartphone, any iPad, and many other tablets. You'd think Bluetooth would be a standard feature in sound bars by now, but it's frequently missing, especially from higher-end models.

Setup: Dealing without Dolby
Like most pedestal sound bar speakers we've tested, the SpeakerCraft CS3 doesn't have or need any speaker calibration. The speaker has front and rear bass ports, so you'll want to leave at least a few inches of clearance between the back of the speaker and the cabinet. Bass, treble, and subwoofer levels can also be tweaked via the remote, to help compensate for room sound and adjust based on personal taste.

One stumbling block a minority of buyers may run into is the lack of onboard Dolby decoding. This won't matter in most cases, as TVs typically convert all signals to a compatible format (PCM) when using the optical output. The major exception is when using a TV's internal over-the-air tuner, as TVs output a Dolby Digital signal from their optical output, which is incompatible with the SpeakerCraft CS3 -- you just won't hear any audio. The easy workaround is to use your TV's analog output if it has one, but not all do. If you don't have analog output, you're pretty much out of luck without a more elaborate workaround. Still, for the vast majority of buyers, this won't be a problem.

Sound quality: Sound worth putting on a pedestal
The SpeakerCraft CS3 sounds poised and clear in ways that elude most sound bars -- especially pedestal sound bars, which tend to sound somewhat worse than traditional sound bar/subwoofer systems. It handles the high-impact demands of action movies with ease, so the sound doesn't turn strident or harsh, and dialogue intelligibility never falters, even when there's a lot going on in the soundtrack.

The CS3's clarity is its strongest suit, but bass oomph and low-frequency extension are also outstanding. The CS3's bass outshines Zvox's Z-Base 420 pedestal's sound, and although the Atlantic Technology PB-235 sound bar has slightly better deep bass power and dynamic impact than the CS3, they're still close.

Many sound bars claim to create "virtual surround sound," but the CS3's surround mode is more successful than most, producing a more sharply defined wide stereo image. The unprocessed stereo sound was a little fuller-sounding, but even so we preferred listening to the CS3 in surround mode. The shoot-out scene in the rain on the "Inception" Blu-ray didn't upset the CS3's composure in the slightest, nor did the cannon fire exchanges in the "Master and Commander" Blu-ray. Dialogue remained articulate and clear. The CS3 plays loud enough to fill a moderately large room with sound, but (unsurprisingly) it won't play as loud as our full Aperion 5.1 subwoofer/satellite reference system.

Few sound bars sound their best playing CDs, but the CS3 was an accomplished performer on rock, jazz, and classical music. It didn't exhibit the hollowness and harshness so typical to sound bars when they play CDs. No matter how you look at it, the CS3 is an exceptional performer for music and movies.

Conclusion: Best high-performance sound bar
The SpeakerCraft CS3 is undeniably pricey, but it's worth it if you appreciate all it brings to the table. You can get better sound (Atlantic Technology PB-235), better looks (Bose Solo), or a better price (Zvox Z-Base 420), but the CS3 does the best job of balancing those competing factors, resulting in an excellent sound bar.

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