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Creative Stage review: Crazy-cheap sound bar is good for small TVs, great for desktops

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Computer speakers = terrible. $80 computer speakers = still pretty terrible. Right?

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8.3

Creative Stage

The Good

The Creative Stage offers more features than other budget sound bars, including HDMI and a separate subwoofer. It plays clearly, and the subwoofer sets it apart from "all-in-one" sound. It's perfectly suited to desktop listening and also performs well with rock or dance music. The onboard display makes it easy to tell which input you're on.

The Bad

It's not as successful as a TV sound bar due to the physical length restrictions of the cabinet, with little stereo separation. It doesn't play as loud as you might want in a living room environment.

The Bottom Line

The Creative Stage sound bar and subwoofer combo sets the standard for a desktop gaming system on a budget and can even work with small TVs.

Creative's excellent 2.1-channel system, the Stage, begs to differ. This stylish sound bar delivers a compelling mix of sound quality and features -- including HDMI and a subwoofer -- at an ultra-affordable price. It achieves something Creative has strived for over the last 20 years: to transcend the PC and enter the living room. 

In other words, it's also great for smaller rooms and TVs if you're on a tight budget. Its sound will trounce the built-in speakers of just about any TV.

That said, it's better as a PC desktop or gaming system than a TV sound bar due to its tiny size. I found it difficult to tell left from right when sitting on the couch, and I only felt the full brunt of the small sub when it was placed at my feet. If you're looking to supplement your TV sound and have the space for it, the Vizio SB3621 is worth the extra money over the Stage.

The stage is set

Sound bars like the excellent Vizio SB362An-F6 have drawn the map for sound bars under $100: it should have Bluetooth, an optical input and an internal subwoofer. 

The Creative Stage not only lights this map on fire but then eats the smoldering map bits. The sound bar includes both a separate subwoofer and an HDMI ARC input.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Connections also extend into the obligatory Bluetooth wireless and an optical input, and Creative throws in a USB port for playing MP3s from an external drive. Though it still betrays its desktop roots, the Stage is unlike similar multimedia systems in that it won't act as a USB sound card -- you'll still need to use an auxiliary output from your computer.

This is a very compact system. The sound bar is 21 inches across, but it doesn't look out of place with large screens, due to its likable industrial design. And unlike the inscrutable dots of the Vizio, the Creative has a two-symbol display that makes selecting the input a breeze.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Like the sound bar the 40-watt subwoofer is small;  at 18 inches tall,  it's the size of slimline desktop PC. At this price you can't expect wireless connectivity and it's tethered by an 8-foot cable that enables the sub to sit at your feet or by the TV.

The system comes with a comprehensive remote control, which includes four sound modes and independent volume of the sub. If you lose the remote, there is a three-button panel on the side of the sound bar. If you tap the power button it changes the input.

Let the players play

When I hooked the Creative up, I wasn't prepared for the amount of competition it was going to give the $100 Vizio SB362An-F6. The Creative's separate sub, which the Vizio lacks, really helps bring out the best in movies and video games. It may not be the most articulate model, but it's relatively deep.

I started with a few albums though -- from early, obscure David Bowie to modern pop and  rock. I quickly confirmed the Vizio is more engaging for music. It unravels the music in a better way -- it teased out the brass section in Blur's Country House -- and the sound is bigger. When heard from the couch the Creative is all vocals and mostly mono. It did have a better bass kick from the sub, though. The Creative ensured the bass line of The Lemonheads' Straight To You sounded like it was being played on a bass guitar -- a difficult feat for a compact speaker. Switching to the Vizio showed that there were also other instruments in there -- a snare and an ethereal, barely feeding-back guitar. It was still not an engaging song from either speaker but it was a bit more fleshed out by the Vizio.

The Creative gives Spoon's Hot Thoughts the bass slam it missed on the Vizio, but as the song progressed the competitor gained ground. The last few seconds of the song can fill the room with swirling sound -- as it does with the Vizio, but it just sounds muddled on the Creative.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Given Creative's PC origins, it's not too difficult to tell that this system is designed to perform at its best as part of a desktop system. It goes plenty loud enough for near-field listening and there's a better stereo image at three versus six feet.

I played some Apex Legends and found this Creative system -- when set to gaming -- was able to keep up with the gunfire, explosions and spatial cues without folding into a hard ball of distortion. If you share walls or floors with neighbors you might want to turn the bass down, though. At -3 it was pretty much perfect. In contrast, when the Vizio was awkwardly balanced in the same position under our monitor, the sound bar couldn't compete. It's too wide for gaming like this and there were not enough positional queues or "feel it in your gut" explosions.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The Vizio is great at music, but it is outclassed by the Creative when it comes to movies. The Vizio lacked the dynamic punch of the creative in Chapter 9 of Rampage -- it sounded a little flat. The sub sounded best when it was placed nearby the listening position, though it's thwarted by that that captive lead. While it's a perfect length for going under a desk, it's not long enough to rattle your trousers alongside the coach.

So the Creative does well against a system without a sound bar, but how about some tougher competition? The "king of budget sound bars," the Vizio SB3621, is now available for a ridiculously low $100. Put on your big kid pants, Creative, this is gonna get interesting.

The Vizio sounded more confident with Ready Player One. It could go much louder without losing control, and its sub was able to shake the room in a way that the Creative just couldn't. At 1:33:40, the bombardment of the Orb of Osuvox buzzed and boomed, with each projectile sizzling across the sound stage. The supporting dialog was clear and I found the Vizio simply more involving overall than the Creative.

Should you buy it?

Creative has tried sound bars before, but either they were too ostentatious (Katana) or prohibitively pricey (Sonic Carrier). The Stage achieves the perfect balance of price, features, design and performance. 

If you're a PC gamer on a budget and want to make every penny count, get this. For TV watchers it's less clear-cut. If you have the choice between the Stage and the Vizio SB3621 at the same price, get the Vizio. It may not have all the features, but it sounds better and caters more ably to volume needs of a living room. 

01-the-creative-stage-soundbar
8.3

Creative Stage

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 8Sound 7Value 10