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Bose SoundTouch 300 review: Bose takes on Sonos and (mostly) wins

Setup

The SoundTouch 300 has hands-down the weirdest setup routine we have ever experienced -- even managing to top the "Touch your Phantom" urgings of this Devialet speaker.

Like most receivers these days the SoundTouch comes with a calibration microphone. Nothing weird there -- except... it's a headset. This headband device features a microphone at the top and is connected by a long, thin wire to the back of the sound bar. To calibrate your device you need to press a preset key and sit very still as tones play through the system (trust us, it's tough to not look around at the sounds whizzing about your room). Then you'll sit through this five times, in a different position each time, or it scolds you to move to somewhere new.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

We tested the Bose SoundTouch 300 with and without the separate Acoustimass 300 and Virtually Invisible 300 speakers. As a direct comparison we used the Sonos Playbar with the Sonos Sub and a pair of Play:3s as rears. We fed them both signals from the new Oppo UDP-203 Blu-ray player.

Performance

The Bose is capable of very good sound quality, and its standout characteristic is a superwide sound stage. While you wouldn't expect this to be compatible with music replay, it sounds just as good with indie rock as it does with a revisionist western. Music and movies sound suitably immersive, especially if you add surrounds and a sub.

We started things rolling with just the sound bar by itself. We popped "Avatar" in the disc tray and pressed the Go button on the Thanator Chase. As Sam Worthington wanders through the underbrush of Pandora's jungle we hear flies buzz about him as the scientists he's sworn to protect bicker in the background. Compared to the Playbar, the Bose was able to better communicate dialog while also generating a better sense of the ambience of this alien world. But as the scene progressed, neither sound bar generated enough bass to be convincing once the beastie attacked.

In order to see what a single (subwoofer-free) sound bar was capable of, we then connected the rival Zvox SB500. It may also lack a sub but it subsequently destroyed both the Bose and Sonos with an incredibly visceral performance. The Zvox's bass had slam where the others didn't, but even so dialog was perfectly elevated from the sonic background. While the Zvox doesn't do wide effects -- though it has a fake surround mode -- it wasn't even missed in this comparison.

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We then proceeded to hook up the sub and rears of both the Bose and Sonos systems to see how they could handle the lobby sequence from "The Matrix." While we enjoyed the width of the sonic image, in each case it was the rears that really tied both systems together. Both times we appreciated being able to hear the bullet casings fall away in the rear speakers. It really helped with the sense of envelopment. Which one was better? It was too close to call, but again it was the Bose's greater ambient detail that won through.

Comparing sub against sub here we found that the Acoustimass 300 was a little more agile delivering the boom of the shotguns and the synth bass line that underpins the action. The Sonos sub was a little tardy in comparison and not as punchy or deep.

Almost any sound bar can do home theater, however, so that's not really a challenge. In order to really test the SoundTouch 300 we moved onto music. We tried the larger-than-life track "Yulunga (Spirit Dance)," which true to form filled the room with the sound of Lisa Gerrard's alternately chanted and soaring vocals. With the Bose we felt that the shakers were coming from the walls themselves -- even when we turned to look at them.

Of course if you have stuff lining your own walls it will interfere with the effect. We also found that moving back into the CNET listening room created a very phasey, confused sound.

With the Sonos, we also got wall-bouncing effects but had to be very close to the unit -- about 4 feet -- and the effects lacked the same presence and didn't stick to the walls when you turned to look at them. When we moved to a sensible 8 feet away -- or in the same seated position as the Bose -- they almost disappeared.

Most material, however, isn't as extreme with its use of hard left/right effects. Sticking with the Sonos, "Frankie Sinatra" by The Avalanches sounded almost mono in comparison. Although the tuba's bom-bom bassline sounded deep and full, and Chris Brown's wilfully obnoxious rapping came through clearly.

The Bose wasn't as overwhelming in the bass department, but MF Doom's turn at the microphone was a little more discernible than the Playbar had made it. Where on the Sonos the sound was one-dimensional the Bose made effects come from everywhere -- mariachi horns out of the left wall, waves from above us and on the right. It almost sounded like a different song. We had to check that the surrounds had been turned off and indeed they were. Again not hi-fi but immersive in a fresh way.

The bottom line

The SoundTouch is a likable product with a huge sound and attractive design, and it offers a degree of insight into material that the Playbar can't. That said, it doesn't break sonic ground in the way that others have done before it. Yamaha's YSP-1600 can also do room-filling effects, but it costs less and includes a sub. Furthermore, as far as "bass without a sub" is concerned, the $400-$500 Zvox SB500 runs subsonic rings around the Bose.

As we said with the Sonos Playbar before it: This sound bar is really for people who already have (Bose) products and want to extend multiroom listening to the living room. But be prepared to pay $1,700 to get the sound you want.

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