How much is too much to pay for a soundbar? "Anything over $500" seems like a fair answer for most buyers. But a few are willing to fork over much more for better audio quality without having to deal with multiple speakers.
If you do find yourself in the lofty post-$1,000 sound bar stratosphere, there is some stunning sound to be had. Until we heard the $1,299 Definitive Technology W Studio, our favorite was the $1,499 Paradigm Soundscape. Despite costing less than the Soundscape, the W Studio trumps it in features, fit and finish, and performance.
The W Studio offers discreet looks and packs a real wallop with movies and deep bass music tracks alike. It is also one of the first sound bars -- alongside the Polk One -- to feature Play-Fi wireless streaming, and after a year of false starts it seems that this technology is finally ready.
Yes, you can get a very good sound bar for a thousand dollars less than this, but it won't sound anywhere near as good. While the Paradigm is a step above most sound bars, the Definitive W Studio is the best we've ever heard. A good dedicated multi-speaker will still outperform it, but if you're looking for ease of setup and "best in class" performance, the Definitive W Studio is the way to go.
Prices for the UK and Australia are not yet available for the W Studio, but the US price of $1,299 converts to around £815 or AU$1,475. The sound bar will be released in Australia in mid-November with the UK as-yet undetermined.
If there was one word to describe Definitive's design aesthetic it would be reserved, but there are touches of flair that help it stand it out. While the main speaker might look nondescript, it is finished on each end with two weighty, brushed-aluminum caps. There is seemingly no plastic to be found anywhere on this sound bar, and the chassis is constructed from steel.
At 43 inches (1.1 meters) across, it is designed to sit flush with your typical 50-inch TV. If you're not wall-mounting, be sure the speaker's 3.3-inch (8.3cm) height doesn't block your TV's remote control sensor or screen.
The top of the unit houses a couple of controls including power, volume and wireless setup. Meanwhile the display is a series of LEDs across the front of the unit. It's not helpful in telling which source you're using, but is able to indicate the volume setting at a glance.
The subwoofer that attends it is a little more flashy, with a large silver Definitive stamp on the side. It's a relatively compact 8-inch (20cm) subwoofer at 14 inches tall by 12.5 inches wide and 12.8 inches deep (35.5 by 32 by 32.5cm).
The remote control that the company pops in the box is a welcome change from the slim credit card-style numbers you usually get. This is a proper remote! It has a simple, almost nursery-school-style layout and it's likewise fun to use.
As the W Studio has an HDMI output and impeccable build quality it's reasonable to expect it has a decent menu system. Sadly it doesn't deliver. It's a blue on black affair and very stripped down. Thankfully you probably won't need to use it much beyond setting the unit up.
In another design incongruity, you can't use the menu to set up the Play-Fi component -- it must be done via an app. No mention if made of this omission in the menu itself.
The Definitive W Studio is a 5.1-channel "pseudo-surround" sound bar with a separate 200-watt subwoofer. The sound bar itself features six 3-inch (7.6cm) woofers in addition to three 1-inch (2.5cm) aluminum-dome tweeters for left, right and center.
The sound bar includes the company's Solo Surround Array (SSA) technology to simulate surround effects, and the amount of surround effect is controllable via the menu.
Unlike many sound bars, which offer only optical inputs for "simplicity," the Definitive delivers a broader set of connections. It includes three HDMI 1.4a inputs plus one output, the obligatory optical input and analog 3.5mm mini-jack.
The device also includes a USB port for firmware updates and phone charging.
Note the lack of Bluetooth wireless audio streaming, a standard feature on most sound bars and a major omission here. Definitive seemingly feels that it must force users to go with Play-Fi's lossless streaming instead. We'd definitely prefer the option to use Bluetooth as well, and it's worth noting that some other products, like Phorus' PR1 , support both wireless audio streaming schemes.
The W Studio sound bar forms part of Definitive's new Wireless Collection of Play-Fi products, which also includes speakers and an adapter for existing systems.
While you can use the Phorus app to control the streaming component, Definitive has its own app called simply "Definitive Technology" for iOS and Android.
The very first thing we noticed about the W Studio's sound was its transparency; the clarity was remarkable. The next thing that stood out about the sound was the bass. The W Studio's wireless sub's 8-inch (20cm) woofer generated remarkably deep and clearly defined bass. The solidity provides a real foundation for the sound that's unmatched by other sound bar/subwoofer systems we've heard.
Thanks to the W Studio's onboard Dolby and DTS processors we were able to send bitstream, rather than PCM audio from out of the Oppo BDP-105 Blu-ray player. That's a good thing, because bitstream audio almost always sounds better than the PCM digital we usually use with sound bars that only have Dolby or DTS decoders.
We compared the W Studio's sound quality using HDMI vs. the optical digital connection and heard no difference. In either case the W Studio projected an unusually spacious and wide, yet sharply focused sound field. True, it's not bona-fide surround sound, but since most sound bars are two- or three-channel devices with no rear channels, true room-filling surround isn't possible. Yamaha's digital sound projector sound bars are the only ones that produce some semblance of room-filling surround, but even those can't match a separate receiver-5.1-speaker subwoofer system.
If you have a hard time hearing or understanding dialogue, you can raise the W Studio's center channel volume via the remote.
Two-channel music from CDs was clearer, more transparent, and more room-filling than what we heard from even Paradigm's flagship Soundscape. Focal's Dimension sound bar might give the W Studio a run for its money, but the Dimension's subwoofer would be no match for the W Studio's.
A face-off between the W Studio, Polk Omni SB1 and Sony HT-ST5 sound bars with the helicopter crash scene on the "Black Hawk Down" Blu-ray revealed major differences. The W Studio packed a bigger wallop and the bass plumbed deeper, dialogue sounded natural and clear. Our only real complaint with the W Studio was that it can't play as loud as an AV receiver mated with a decent 5.1 speaker/subwoofer system. If you crave the best possible home theater experience, separates still have the edge.
As Definitive Technology is just the third company to release a Play-Fi product, alongside Polk and Phorus, it's worth breaking out the performance of the Play-Fi component -- especially as the performance of the Phorus products was so underwhelming.
Based on our experience of the Definitive W Studio we can say that the performance is now much more stable than it was 12 months ago -- even in the crowded Wi-Fi environment at CNET's lab. We were able to listen to whole albums with only a couple of minor playback hiccups in these tough conditions, and that's about the same experience we had with the rock-solid Sonos.
Using Play-Fi to stream lossless, The Flaming Lips' "Spoonful Weighs a Ton" sounded great. The subwoofer effortlessly moved the couch around underneath me like a psychedelic massage. I'm sure Wayne Coyne would be pleased.
Unfortunately there was one issue. At low levels the "surround" effects on extremely located instruments can be louder than the main music. I found this very disorienting especially as the effect can pulse in and out, as I found on "The Spiderbite Song."
Moreover I couldn't figure out how to disable the effect. The manual isn't much help, and even the -10 setting had some audible effects. We have contacted Definitive for further clarification on how to minimize the SSA effect.
While tech enthusiasts may be interested in the Play-Fi angle, it's not the focus of this sound bar. This is an excellent-performing movie and music machine with exacting build quality and a luxury feel. If you're looking for next-level sonics in a sound bar form factor, the Definitive Technology W Studio would have to be near the top.