Everyone likes surround sound, but everyone also hates the extra wires and speakers required in a typical home theater system. That's where the niche of sound bars come in, promising faux-surround sound from just a single long speaker. Yes, the claims are too good to be true, but for many people it's good enough.
Canton's new CD 90 SB ($650 suggested retail price) is a different kind of sound bar. At first glance the sleek design doesn't look so different than sound bars from Polk, Definitive Technology, or Zvox, but the CD 90 SB is, essentially, a three-channel speaker. Canton doesn't claim it's any sort of single-speaker surround system. Peek through the perforated metal grille and you'll see the CD 90 SB's left, center, and right speakers arrayed across its front baffle. And unlike most single-speaker surround systems, the CD 90 SB isn't self-powered, so you have to hook it up to an AV receiver. That may be one of the reasons this Canton sounds better than your average sound bar, and it's right up there with the very best sounding ones for music.
Design and features
We liked the CD 90 SB's clean design. It's a sleek 39.9-inch-long bar, coming in at 3.5 inches high and just under 4 inches deep. It's available in silver or black brushed aluminum, with matching perforated metal grilles. The CD 90 SB comes with a metal wall mount bracket and small rubber pads for buyers who prefer shelf mounting. The rubber pads are better than nothing, but we would have preferred a more substantial cradle, like the ones included on the Polk Audio SurroundBar 360.
Fit and finish standards are high, and the extruded aluminum cabinet feels remarkably inert. The Canton CD 90 SB contains three--Left, Center, and Right--speaker channels, internally isolated from each other. All three speakers are two-way designs; the left and right channels each use a 0.5-inch aluminum dome tweeter and a 3-inch aluminum woofer; the center channel section features two 3-inch aluminum woofers flanking a single 0.5-inch tweeter. The speaker's backside is fitted with three pairs of all-metal spring connectors that accept bare wire ends, or wires terminated with pins or spades; banana plugs won't fit. As much as we liked the exterior design, we found the recessed speaker connector frustrating to deal with.
Our review sample didn't come with an owner's manual, just a small sheet that listed the CD 90 SB's specifications. That's unfortunate, as we expect that a product this expensive should at least have some basic setup and usage guidelines. Lacking setup information, we plunged ahead, experimenting by treating the speakers as either "Large" and "Small" in our receiver's setup menus. For "Small," we set the Denon AVR 1909's bass management's subwoofer crossover at 80Hz and also 100Hz. But we preferred the CD 90 SB's sound when we treated it as a "Large" speaker, so that's how we listened to the speaker. (A passive filter circuit blocks unwanted low-frequency signals that might otherwise damage the CD 90 SB's drivers or produce distortion.)
We set the front left, center, and right speaker levels to "0 dB." If you're using the CD 90 SB in its standard three-channel mode we recommend turning off your AV receiver's surround channels; that way, any sound mixed into the surround channels will be redirected to the CD 90 SB's left and right channels.
Canton doesn't claim that the CD 90 SB is a full-range speaker, but it certainly provided adequate bass when used without a subwoofer. That said, the CD 90 SB can be matched with any of Canton's AS line of active subwoofers. We didn't have an AS series sub on hand, so we briefly auditioned the CD 90 SB teamed with the subwoofer from a Canton Movie 150 QX.
Upgrading to full 5.1 or 6.1 or even 7.1 surround is also possible by adding Canton's compact CD 10 satellite speakers for a complete surround home theater system. The CD 90 SB is one of the few sound bar systems that allow a full upgrade to bona fide surround sound.
Our first impression with the CD 90 SB was entirely positive, mostly because it didn't sound like a sound bar. By that, we mean it didn't have the sort of overtly processed and fuzzy sound we associate with sound bars that try to create a facsimile of surround sound. The CD 90 SB's sound is essentially stereo, though movie dialog is heard over the center channel speaker. Still, the sound is confined to the 39.9-inch width of the speaker, without even the slightest hint of surround sound. If you crave a large, spacious sound, the CD 90 SB won't cut it.
We weren't thinking about surround when we played the 24, Season 2 DVD. The CD 90 SB's three-channel sound was confined to the size and width of the Samsung LN46A950 LCD it sat under. In that sense, the picture and sound were perfectly scaled to each other. As we mentioned, the CD 90 SB contains three two-way (tweeter/woofer) speakers, which is definitely a step up from the usual tweeterless sound bar speakers. Dialog sounded clear and natural and the CD 90 SB kept our attention on the story. But like most small speakers, the CD 90 SB has volume limitations and it will sound best up to a moderately loud level. Played too loud, the sound becomes harsh.
Across the Universe, the Beatles musical, sounded fabulous on Blu-ray, and the gospel choir belting out Let It Be was a highpoint. The singers' voices filling the church had a scale and power that few single-speaker systems can match.
We briefly listened to the CD 90 SB with a subwoofer, and yes, the sub freed up the CD 90 SB's dynamic range somewhat. The sound was closer to what you'd get from a typical 5.1-channel Canton package. But even after we disconnected the sub, we still felt that the CD 90 SB's bass was perfectly acceptable.
Piano jazz trio The Bad Plus added a vocalist for its new CD, For All I Care. The band reworked Kurt Cobain's Lithium to great effect, and the way the CD 90 SB nailed the sound of Ethan Iverson's piano was especially nice. Reid Anderson's stand-up bass had just the right balance of low-down oomph and taut pitch definition.
The CD 90 SB can also be considered a "TV speaker," similar in concept to Boston Acoustics' TVee Model Two ($400 suggested retail price), though the Boston comes with a wireless powered subwoofer. We didn't have the TVee Model Two on hand, but according to our notes (and memories) about the two systems, the Canton is the better-sounding choice, especially on music. Still, the Boston's lower price and sub might be deciding factors for some buyers.
As good as the Canton CD 90 is, the best sound bar we've heard that works with AV receivers was Definitive Technology's SSA-50. That speaker outclasses the CD 90 SB on every count, and produces a more spacious, room-filling sound. However, it also has a $1,100 suggested retail price, which is much more expensive than the Canton.