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

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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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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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. 

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