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Onkyo SBT-A500 review: Atmos sound bar looks pretty, sounds pretty plain

This is a 3.1.2 system, which means it has three sets of front-firing drivers, plus two ceiling-pointed drivers for overhead effects and a (wireless) subwoofer. The bar connects to the receiver via a proprietary "multichannel audio cable," so there's no upgrading your speaker later.

Aside from the HDMI ports the Onkyo also includes an RCA stereo input, optical digital and Wi-Fi and Ethernet.


We were initially satisfied with the SBT-A500's clarity with movies, but as we listened more and more, we noted it wasn't all that much better than we've heard from much more affordably priced sound bars.

With the heavy-duty special effects that supply a lot of the "Gravity" space drama's excitement the SBT-A500's subwoofer's deep bass was plentiful, but definition was just good, not great. We've used "Gravity" in a lot of our reviews of Atmos surround products because the film's sounds of the astronauts floating around the listening room do a good job highlighting Atmos' spatial effects. The SBT-A500 was a disappointment in that regard; we heard little of Atmos' height effects, and this sound bar failed to project much soundstage stereo width. The SBT-A500 sounded like a little speaker, so we checked again that we were in fact listening with Atmos processing turned on -- we were. It was that hard to tell Atmos was engaged.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Switching over to the Samsung HW-K950 ($1,400 at Crutchfield) Atmos sound bar system, the sound bloomed, and thanks to its separate wireless surround speakers "space" returned to the "Gravity" soundscape. The sound was indeed a lot closer to what you'd get from a bona-fide multichannel home theater system. The Onkyo and Samsung systems are both pricey, but the SBT-A500's performance lagged far behind the HW-K950's.

With "The Revenant" Blu-ray the SBT-A500's sound fared a little better with scenes where American frontiersmen on a fur trading expedition fight for survival in the wilderness. The ambience of the forest, the wind, and rustling of the trees sounded clear, but even so we still missed the room-filling sound of the HW-K950. Back with the SBT-A500, dialogue sounded fine, and you can separately raise its volume via the remote control to improve intelligibility somewhat. The scenes where the Indians battle the fur traders the SBT-A500 played loud with ease.

We next played Bruce Springsteen's 2007 concert "Live in Dublin" DVD. The sound was dull -- and not a lot better after we adjusted the tone controls and turned the treble up. The all-acoustic concert's sound lacked get up and go.

David Bowie's final album "Blackstar" was even more hemmed in by the SBT-A500. It sounded like a table radio with muddied bass. The HW-K950 did a much better job with music.

Final thoughts

The Onkyo SBT-A500 promises a lot. After all, this svelte sound bar features the latest Dolby Atmos and DTS-X object-based surround sound, and more features than even the best flagship sound bars of just a few years ago offered. The SBT-A500 is a premium priced sound bar system, so we expected spectacular sound, but our enthusiasm took a nosedive when we started listening to it. Only with a deep discount would this sound bar make sense because against competitors over $500 at the moment it simply doesn't right now.

For the same price as the SBT-A500 you could buy, for example, the Onkyo SKS-HT594 5.1.2 speaker package plus the TX-SR575 receiver. Sure there's more wires to contend with but a better feature set and true surround this combo are sure to stomp all over the sound bar in terms of performance.

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