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All sound bars are about simplifying the home-theater experience, but the Philips HTB3525B goes a step further than most, packing a sound bar, a Blu-ray player, and a streaming video player into a single box.
Even more impressive is that Philips has managed to keep the price down to a reasonable $300, hundreds less than the similar LG LAB540W SoundPlate ($550 street). And the HTB3525B isn't a slouch when it comes to sound quality either, holding its own against the excellent Sony HT-XT1. It's far from sonically perfect -- the bass tends to distort when you crank the volume -- but the Philips definitely passes muster for less critical listeners.
If you're looking for an ultra-simple, all-in-one, home-theater system that combines a sound bar, Blu-ray, and streaming into a reasonably stylish box, the Philips HTB3525B is an excellent value. It may not the best-sounding system, but it will fit the bill for anyone looking to upgrade beyond the built-in speakers on their TV.
Though many have tried, most of the speaker bases we've seen in the CNET offices have been unable to disguise what they are: ugly, black rectangles. The Philips suffers a little from this problem, but makes the best of a bad lot by dressing up in a black ash vinyl wrap and dark gray speaker cloth. Combined with the transparent LED display, the design has a charmingly '80s feel to it.
Its construction is solid, and unlike most competitors, it seems to be constructed entirely from wood -- probably MDF. The unit houses two 20W woofers accompanied by mylar tweeters, while underneath the unit is a ported 40W "subwoofer."
Unlike the dinky, credit-card remotes that ship with its competitors, Philips has thrown a full-strength clicker into the box. It's friendly and ergonomic, and it includes shortcuts to Netflix and YouTube. Not all the buttons work as you'd expect, however, but that's more a problem with the player than the remote -- more on that later.
The menu system is friendly, and all of the most-used sources ( Target's Ticket on-demand service notwithstanding) are on the main page. Overall, it's an easier interface to navigate than most competitors' systems.
Given that you're paying a relatively small sum for a full Blu-ray system, the number of additional features is surprising. For under $300, the Surround Base fits includes Bluetooth and NFC pairing, and this is particularly remarkable because many Bluetooth-only speakers sell for $200. Built-in Wi-Fi only sweetens the deal.
While not as fully-featured as the LG SoundPlate's smart TV offering, the Philips offers arguably the most important apps, including Netflix, YouTube, and Pandora. The rest of its suite is rounded out by Vudu, Target Ticket, Picasa, AccuWeather, Twitter, and Facebook. Spotify would have been nice, but it's not essential since Bluetooth gives you access to all the streaming audio services on your mobile device.
Where the Philips more noticeably trails the LG sound plate is the lack of a separate subwoofer. Sure, there's a "built-in sub," but the LG SoundPlate's wireless subwoofer undeniably delivers more overall low end. On the other hand, the HTB3525B does have one old-fashioned trick up its sleeve: an FM tuner!
In the specs, the Surround Base is listed as having DLNA capability, but in the current firmware this is nowhere to be found, with only playback from a USB drive allowable. The device is able to decode most consumer audio and video formats.
Connectivity includes an HDMI out and coaxial video out, plus a number of inputs including analog stereo, minijack, and two digital inputs (one coaxial, one optical). There's also Ethernet and the aforementioned USB port.
It's worth pointing that the Philips does have a few "quirks" that can affect usability. For instance, the Source button doesn't actually let you select Blu-ray as a source. The only way to play a Blu-ray is to press the Home button and "Play Disc." Additionally, while I can see that the designers probably intended this for audio purity purposes, the fact that the OSD doesn't work while you're using an audio input is just annoying. There should at least be the option to turn the display on or off.
I was impressed by the Philips' sonic performance on a "per-pound" basis; a separate sub can give you better bass performance, but it's not reasonable at this price. The Philips' closest competitor is the Sony XT1 in terms of both price and size. The Sony doesn't have Blu-ray playback or smart TV functionality, but it does have three HDMI inputs. I compared the Philips against both the Sony and LG LAB540W SoundPlate and found it competed very favorably.
When playing "Spider-Man 2," the Philips' sound quality was very similar to the Sony HT-XT1's. Both systems lack a separate sub and exhibited an eerily similar bass response. During the rooftop chase scene between Green Goblin 2 and Spider-Man, you see the Goblin descend on his glider and its engines create a low-end thrum. While the LG SoundPlate and its dedicated sub did a better job of capturing this, both the Sony and Philips were able to create a sense of the jet engine's power.
Though it promises 5.1-like effects, the Philips' surround mode wasn't much more than a "widener." When Spider-Man shoots his web directly into and behind the audience, neither the Sony nor the Philips were able to convince that they were leaving the screen at all. Sadly, I can recall only two pseudo-surround systems that have ever been able to trick me into physically turning around during scenes like this -- the Sonos Playbar and the Bose VideoWave -- and they are much more costly devices.
Watching "Mission: Impossible 3," there was plenty of midrange and high-end detail on the Philips -- something that the tiny drivers of the LG struggle with. When the front windshield of a car cracks during a collision, the Philips rewards with a satisfyingly brittle sound, and during the numerous instances of rockets exploding, there were no obvious sounds of compression or "chuffing" from the rear port. The HTB3525B also made the dialogue perfectly understandable as well, from whispers to shouts.
Given the price and the good showing in movie reproduction, I wasn't expecting anything special in the music department, but the Philips was surprisingly capable. Though the LG sounded crisper on Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" not to mention being more "present," the lack of a subwoofer on the Philips wasn't too much of a loss, though it did lead to a looser bottom end. But the track was still danceable, and that's what matters most, right?
Putting on something even bassier, the Philips didn't lose the plot as I anticipated it would. The Beta Band's "Life" features a super-deep synth line that can stick out like gawky elbows on less-capable systems. On the Philips the line was parsed successfully without any particular note sticking out.
But the news isn't all good. With the right music (or wrong music, depending how you look at it), the bass could distort when set at anything over a polite listening volume. When set to 24 (it goes up to 40) the combination of bass guitar and bassy vocals on Nick Cave's "Red Right Hand" would cause distortion in a similarly flatulent way to what I've heard on some TVs. I also heard some occasional weirdness with bass effects like the aforementioned jet engine from "Spider-Man," but it wasn't consistent.
When it comes to video though, the results were as pristine as any other player you could buy. Whether it was upscaling DVDs or watching Blu-rays, the synthetic and real-world tests failed to find any problems with the device's video output.
Operationally, the speaker acts like a cheap Blu-ray player in terms of speed and responsiveness with an 18-second delay from cold to playing the "Mission: Impossible" Blu-ray. A "higher-end" player such as the Samsung BD-F5900 could accomplish this in 6 seconds. Starting up Netflix was about average, with a 17-second wait.
At this price, there's nothing I've seen so far that can touch the Philips for the combination of performance and features. Sure, there was some occasional bass "weirdness," but it was worth the trade-off in instantly better TV sound and Blu-ray/Netflix capability on the cheap. If you're looking for an all-in-one system, get the Philips; otherwise, the Sony HT-XT1 is a better pick to work with existing components.