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Klipsch SB 120 review: Natural sound, boxy looks

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Got a big-screen (55-inch or thereabouts) TV, but looking to juice up its uninspiring speakers? You could go for a sound bar like the excellent Pioneer SP-SB23W . But if you're not wall mounting, that traditional sort of design doesn't suit all TVs or media furniture: it can block the IR port and sit awkwardly on your TV's base.

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7.4

Klipsch SB 120

The Good

The Klipsch SB 120 offers a solidly constructed speaker base that sounds good with music and also offers detailed dialogue. It will decode Dolby Digital soundtracks and comfortably support TVs that weigh up to 100 pounds. It also supports streaming from Bluetooth devices.

The Bad

The speaker lacks a display and it's almost impossible to know what the volume and bass levels are set to; the internal "subwoofer" doesn't offer much in the way of deep bass; "3D mode" offers no real soundstage improvement; lackluster styling, dinky credit-card remote.

The Bottom Line

If you favor performance over convenience and good looks, the natural and musical Klipsch SB 120 speaker stand is a decent buy.

Instead, you might want to seek out a pedestal-style sound bar, like the Klipsch SB 120 reviewed here. Instead of sitting in front of your TV, it sits underneath it. It's designed to house up to 55-inch models with ease. It's a little boxy and lacking in true style or convenience, but it makes up for this with a solid performance in both music and movies. If you want something that just "works" -- and you have the compatible optical output on your TV -- then the Klipsch is definitely one to consider.

Design

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Sarah Tew/CNET

While speaker manufacturers have gotten a handle on how to make Bluetooth speakers and docks consumer-friendly, the "speaker stand" is still a new enough design that most companies haven't worked out how to make them look cool yet. While LG pretty much cracked this nut with its svelte SoundPlate designs, the Klipsch SB 120 is stuck in "boxy Zvox clone" mode.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

While there are some concessions to styling, along the lines of a Sony Xplod-style "X" in the middle of the fascia, this is largely a Klipsch tower speaker on its side -- minus the fancy metal drivers. Sadly, this large box also lacks any sort of display -- apart from a blinking LED -- and one downside of this is that guessing the volume is a tricky process.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

A decided trend among speaker manufacturers is that of providing dinky, credit-card style remotes with their sound bars. It comes with separate controls for volume and sub, for all it's worth. Thankfully, you can always opt for a universal remote (like the Harmony family) instead.

Features

There are two different approaches when it comes to making a sound bar: make it tiny and fill it with gizmos, or make it huge and fill it with drivers. While the Sonys and LGs of this world have opted for the former approach, Klipsch has gone about making a big (ugly) box with speakers in it -- hang the pretense.

The Klipsch features a stereo setup with two aluminum tweeters, two 3-inch midrange drivers and two ported 5-inch woofers mounted in the front of the enclosure. Despite missing a subwoofer -- either onboard or externally -- the company claims the speaker can get down to 55Hz. Sadly, there is no option to add a sub, either.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Connections are limited to digital optical and an analog RCA stereo (red and white) input; no fancy HDMI switching here. The optical input will decode a Dolby Digital stream, which is handy if your TV supports it. But again, this is not a 5.1 system, emulated or otherwise.

In happier news, the SB 120 does offer Bluetooth support, so you can wirelessly stream any audio from your smartphone or tablet.

The SB 120 is rated to support flat-panel TVs weighing up to 100 pounds.

Performance

We put the Klipsch SB 120 through its paces versus the LG LAB540W SoundPlate. On paper, they're close in price -- the Klipsch lists for $499 in the US and £449 in the UK (Australian pricing wasn't immediately available, but that's roughly equivalent to AU$532, not including any fees), the LG for $600 -- but in the real world, you can get the Klipsch for almost half the price of the LG. (To be fair, though, that latter model includes a built-in Blu-ray player and an outboard subwoofer.)

When pitted against one another head-to-head, Klipsch's attention to enclosure and woofer size pays dividends in the form of greater naturalness and midrange detail. The trade-off is that the Klipsch isn't able to do the plumbing in the deepest parts of Lucifer's house, if you will, due to the lack of an external subwoofer. It's into the first few seconds of the bridge scene in "Mission: Impossible III" that the LG is able to demonstrate the benefits of a sub with the low rumble of road noise easily heard, whereas it's notably lacking from the Klipsch.

But it was the larger woofers of the Klipsch that saw it win out overall as the LG sounded a little constrained with midrange effects -- physically smaller when what you want from action movies is sonic largess! The larger woofers of the Klipsch are able to push more air and provide more midrange detail -- sounds like the drone passing overhead and the cries of injured civilians were much easier to hear on the SB120 -- plus it kept the naturalness to dialogue that some other products, like the $300 Sony HT-XT1 , can miss.

Klipsch SB 120 soundbase

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As this is strictly a stereo speaker, it misses the surround effect drivers of competing products; to compensate, it does come with a 3D mode. But the result is not the most compelling faux-surround I have ever heard, and almost not worth troubling with. When engaged I was offered a little more "wideness" but only, say, an extra inch past the speaker. The trade-off is that the sound loses a little of its warmth, but the difference is so subtle it's hard to know when it's on or not.

Broadly speaking, when it comes to music replay it's the bigger boxes that seem to provide better performance. Though it's not able to get all that deep, the Klipsch's even response across the frequency range means it also has an even performance with music. While the ethereal "Myth" by Beach House evoked a wider stereo field on the LG it was more natural-sounding on the Klipsch. When compared against the Klipsch the hole in the bottom of LG's midrange is really apparent and its treble and upper mid range could sound a little too hyped. Meanwhile Father John Misty's whimsical acoustic ditty "Writing a Novel" might have sounded a little thin through the Klipsch but it was so much more musical and detailed than the LG.

Lastly a word on the "sub control": it's hard to know how much or how little the effect is as there's no display. However, there are eight steps and you'll need to count the number of presses to work out which level you are at. Experimenting with the control during Beta Band's sub-bass heavy "Life" did make a difference: too much made the bass overwhelming -- but unless you have really deep bass material you won't hear a difference during most music or program material.

Conclusion

While $499 is a pretty hefty price for a sound stand of this type take a look online, you'll find some merchants are selling it for as little as $350. At this price it comes up squarely against designs such as the Sony XT-T1 and outdoes it for naturalness and musical capabilities. But if you want conveniences like HDMI switching and also favor good looks, then the Klipsch comes up rather short.

In the end, this is a musical-sounding speaker which can render movies appropriately well, but if you're looking for out-and-out action then you will miss the lack of a subwoofer.

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7.4

Klipsch SB 120

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 6Sound 8Value 6