Ultrasleek budget sound bar, wide sound
It doesn't take an expert to understand the appeal of the Philips HTL5120 ($250). It's one of the sleekest-looking sound bars there is, with a distinctive, slim design that easily sits under a TV. Its sound quality immediately gets your attention, too, creating a much larger sound stage than you'd expect from a single speaker enclosure. Even the spec sheet impresses right away, with two HDMI inputs (comparable sound bars have none) and built-in Bluetooth.
Once you get past those first impressions, there are some disappointments. Sound quality purists will notice that the HTL5120's built-in subwoofer doesn't make sound nearly as deep or refined as systems with a separate subwoofer. Similarly, the Philips' sonic charms don't quite extend to music, which can sound a little flat on the HTL5120. And the included remote never feels natural to use, as the button layout is far from conventional.
Still, it's hard to have too many complaints for $250, especially if you like the ultrasleek design and its expansive sound quality. Those who put a premium on sound will do better with the Vizio S422w-C4 ($250), but it lacks some of the flair that makes the HTL5120 worth checking out.
The HTL5120 looks as if it was designed to perform well in a wind chamber, with a sleek, winglike design that's much flatter than most sound bars. It measures just 3.19 inches high, which means it's unlikely to block your TV's remote sensor as many other sound bars do.
Inside, there are two 1-inch tweeters as well as an integrated "subwoofer," which is really just a woofer responsible for the low frequencies. The HTL5120 can be positioned to lie flat on a tabletop or mounted vertically so it's positioned flat against a wall. There's an integrated orientation sensor that allows the HTL5120 to adjust its sound depending on how it is positioned.
The included remote is more confusing than it needs to be. Directional pads are typically used for navigating menus and pressing "OK," but on the HTL5120's clicker the D-pad is used for choosing inputs. Unless, of course, you want to choose an HDMI input, in which case you'll want to use one of the three separate buttons arranged at the top. Worse, what looks like a volume control right in the center of the remote actually controls lip-sync, while the volume control is lumped in with bass and treble controls at the bottom. (It is nice that bass and treble controls are available on the remote.) You'd be wise to replace it with a quality universal remote.
The HTL5120 is particularly well equipped when it comes to inputs. That's largely thanks to the two HDMI inputs, which are two more than you'd typically find on a sound bar. HDMI connectivity isn't typically that big of a perk if you end up using your TV as a switcher, since most HDTVs have an optical audio output. However, HDMI makes more sense on the HTL5120 because of its focus on virtual surround sound, and because many TVs don't pass a true surround-sound signal when being used as a switcher.
The rest of the connectivity is solid as well, with two digital inputs (optical and coaxial), an analog stereo input, and a minijack input. There's also built-in Bluetooth, so you can wirelessly stream audio from just about every mobile device.
We'll start by saying that Philips' Virtual Surround Sound processing does a great job. While it can't make truly immersive surround sound, the processor generates a massive front sound stage. It reminded us of the Sonos Playbar ($700) in this regard, and although we didn't have a Playbar on hand for a direct comparison, it felt like the surround effects were comparable. The sound stage is broad and deep, and it even suggested a sense of height so the sound seemed to come from the TV that was located right behind the HTL5120. We preferred to have the Virtual Surround Sound turned off for CDs and Bluetooth, but it was pretty impressive with movies.
We also felt the HTL5120 made a good amount of bass without the aid of a subwoofer, but the quality of the bass wasn't anything to write home about. It was mushy and thick, and when we played a few battle scenes from "Black Hawk Down," the HTL5120 sounded like we had thrown a blanket over the speaker. Dynamic impact was nil, and dialogue intelligibility went south when the onscreen action heated up. Listening at lower volume levels helped the HTL5120 regain its composure. CD and Bluetooth sound quality was spotty; quiet acoustic music was enjoyable, but anything that needed volume to come alive fell flat.
For example, Cream's "Royal Albert Hall '05" Blu-ray was dull and lifeless-sounding. That's why we were pleasantly surprised when we next checked out a few Season 2 "Lost" episodes on DVD. Dialogue sounded natural; the scenes on the beach had realistic surf ambience, and the HTL5120's big sound stage dramatically elevated sound quality over what's available from a TV's built-in speakers. As long as the program material doesn't make big demands on the HTL5120, or you keep the volume down to a moderate level, the sound is fine.
Switching over to the Vizio S4221w-C4 brought a wealth of new detail and clarity to the sound of movies and music. The one area where the HTL5120 was better was its generous sound stage size, but the S4221 w-C4's bass oomph, midrange clarity, dynamic power, and dialogue intelligibility were superior.
Music from CDs and Bluetooth, with the volume in check, was perfectly acceptable. It's a pleasant-enough-sounding system, and a big step up from a TV's built-in speakers, but it's not the system for sound quality purists.
The price and the styling are certainly right for the HTL5120, so the buying decision largely comes down to your listening preferences. If you like the idea of big sound stage for a small system -- and maybe you're an apartment dweller who doesn't want that much bass -- you'll be really impressed with the HTL5120's sonic sleight of hand. But if you're more of a sound quality purist, you'll be better off with a more traditional system, like the similarly priced Vizio S4221w-C4.