Energy makes some of the best, affordable speakers on the market, so naturally we were thrilled when the company announced its first sound bar, the Power Bar ($400 street price). Sound bars are obviously a compact and simple home theater option, but they're not known for hi-fi sonics, so Energy's a natural fit to deliver some serious audio performance in a small package, even if its name suggests a workout granola bar more than a home theater system.
But as we've seen in the past, success at making speakers doesn't necessarily carry over to sound bars, and the Power Bar is a bit of a letdown. Its chunky-looking design is average at best and it requires you to program your TV's remote to control the Power Bar (there's no remote included), which can be a problem with some TVs. It's not a bad-sounding speaker, especially with music, but it's uninspiring with movies, which is hard to accept given its relatively high price. Energy makes lots of great speakers, but the Power Bar misses the mark.
Design: Slim this is not
Sound bars are getting slimmer, but the Power Bar has more of a traditional design. It's essentially a jumbo cylinder, which means you'll need to use the included rubber feet to stop the Power Bar from rolling back and forth on its curved bottom. There's no display on the front, aside from a single LED that blinks when it receives remote commands. The lack of a display is an annoying omission, now that more sound bars are finally including one. The handful of buttons that run down the center of the sound bar are mostly used for programming the Power Bar to respond to your TV's remote -- we'll get to that later.
The subwoofer is wireless except for the power cord, and it's essentially a big gray box. It's tough to make a subwoofer look good, but the reserved look of the Energy's sub makes doesn't draw attention to itself, in a good way.
Setup and features: No remote, no problem?
Energy doesn't include a remote with the Power Bar, which actually isn't unusual. Instead, you're expected to program the Power Bar to accept commands from your TV's remote control. That arrangement works well in theory -- hey, just one remote to control your TV and sound bar -- but in practice it can be more problematic.
Programming the Power Bar's operation isn't complicated. Just press and hold the sound bar's source and mute buttons until the status light flashes, and you'll then have to quickly press the button you wish to program, say volume-up, on the TV's remote. After all the buttons are programmed, you need to turn off your TV's internal speakers in the setup menu or else you'll wind up hearing the TV speakers and the Power Bar at the same time.
That's where the problem comes in. If the TV receives any kind of remote command after you've disabled its speakers, it displays a message reminding you that the speakers are disabled. (Our TV's message was "Not available.") So when you press volume-up on your TV remote to increase the volume on the Power Bar, your TV still receives that command and you'll get the error message on your TV -- every time you adjust the volume. Not every TV displays the message, but the last time I took a survey of the TVs in CNET's lab, about half of them showed an onscreen message.
Connectivity options on the back are minimal. There's just a single optical audio input and and a stereo analog input. That's enough if you connect everything to your TV first, then use its audio output to connect to the Power Bar, which makes sense since you'll be using your TV's remote to control the sound bar.
One quick note: the Power Bar doesn't decode Dolby or DTS soundtracks, so you'll need to make sure you're not trying to send it bit stream audio. If you're not sure what all that jargon means, don't worry, it likely won't be an issue, as most TVs output stereo PCM, or you can always default to using the analog connection.
The Power Bar can be wall-mounted with the keyhole slots on its rear panel. The speaker doesn't have any speaker calibration requirements, and the sound bar/wireless subwoofer "pairing" was totally automatic. As always, we recommend placing the sub within 5 or 6 feet of the sound bar for best sound quality. The subwoofer has a volume control on its back panel. That's fine, but the rear volume control isn't as convenient as on other sound bar systems that control the bass/subwoofer balance with the remote.
Performance: More power, please
The Power Bar has fewer features than most of the sound bar/subwoofer systems we've tested. There are no surround-processing modes, late-night dynamic range compression schemes, or dialogue enhancements. It's strictly a stereo, 2.1-channel system, and other than adjusting the subwoofer volume level, there are no fine-tuning or sound-balancing options available to the user. While the bare-bones approach worked well for the
The Power Bar's laid-back sound balance is easy on the ears, but a little bland for our tastes. We watched a bit of the "Wall-E" Blu-ray and the textures of the little space-age robot's motors and beeps lacked detail. The film's expansive orchestral score sounded reined-in and flat.
That constricted quality was even more evident when we compared the Power Bar with
The film "5 Days of War," a drama set during the five-day war between Russia and Georgia in 2008, didn't alter our opinion of the Power Bar's home theater prowess. The sounds of Russian tanks crushing everything in their paths and jet planes' missiles blowing up buildings lacked oomph; the Power Bar's dynamics were missing in action. Dialogue sounded fine in the quieter scenes, but it was much harder to follow when the action heated up.
Rock music on CD reveals the limitations of most sound bar systems, but we felt the Power Bar was unusually competent with music. The subwoofer/sound-bar sound jelled, and while the sub's performance still wasn't anything special, it blended unusually well with the sound bar. The Black Keys' blues rock came to life over the Power Bar.
The speaker's sound with movies left us cold, but it was somewhat better with two-channel music. That's fine, but the prime mission of a sound bar is home theater, and the Power Bar faces stiff competition in that area.
Conclusion: There are better sound bars for the money
Energy makes truly outstanding compact speakers -- the Energy Take Classic 5.1 system is one of our favorite products of all time -- but the Power Bar just isn't in the same league. It's relatively expensive and, at least in our listening environment, its performance doesn't justify the cost. The Energy Power Bar will sound better than your TV's built-in speakers, especially with music, but you can find a better value.