Samsung HT-BD8200 Sound Bar - home theater system review: Samsung HT-BD8200 Sound Bar - home theater system

The HT-BD8200's connectivity is limited, even by the already skimpy standard of sound bar home theater systems. There's only a single optical input for external devices. That's somewhat understandable considering the HT-BD8200 has a built-in Blu-ray player, but even a simple home theater with a cable box and a Nintendo Wii will be out of luck. (Unless you use your TV as a switcher, but that involves all kinds of remote juggling.)

Other connectivity
Ethernet Yes SD card slot No
USB ports 1 Headphone jack No

The rest of the HT-BD8200's connectivity is standard. We were pleasantly surprised that the system includes an FM tuner, which isn't included on many other sound bar home theater systems. Although the HT-BD8200 technically does have a USB port on the back, it's likely it will be occupied by the USB Wi-Fi dongle.

Audio setup
The HT-BD8200 is a 2.1-channel system, so the good news is there's not a lot of speaker calibration to do. We're not sure why the onscreen setup menu even has distance settings, but we dutifully entered the distances from the speaker and subwoofer to the CNET listening room's couch. We put test tones through the left and right channels and the subwoofer, and noted that the subwoofer was a lot louder than the speakers, even when both were at their "O" settings.

Once we played a few movies we thought that the sub was too loud, so we lowered it to -2, then -4, and finally to -6. That was better, but the HT-BD8200's sound was still very bassy. That's our taste--a lot of listeners prefer a bassy sound--so if that's what you want the HT-BD8200 may be just right for you.

The sub itself doesn't have a volume control, and you can't control its level from the remote. The only way to change its volume is to delve into the HT-BD8200's setup menu. The sub may be wireless, but that doesn't mean you can put it anywhere in the room; if it's too far away from the speaker you'll start to notice that all the bass is coming from the sub. Try to keep the sub within 5 or 6 feet of the speaker.

Audio performance
We guessed the HT-BD8200's sound bar speaker and subwoofer's larger-than-average sizes would produce a rich sound, and that's exactly what we got. The warm tonal balance is pleasant, but lacking in detail and clarity. Some of that could be attributed to the HT-BD8200's over-eager subwoofer, but we acknowledge some buyers prefer a bassy sound.

The HT-BD8200 is equipped with high-resolution, lossless Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD processing, but you'd never guess that from listening to this sound bar. The sound is somewhat muffled at low to moderately loud levels; when played loud it can sound strained and harsh.

Checking out the "Star Trek" DVD, the HT-BD8200 communicated the deep throbbing power of the Enterprise's engines. The battle scenes' dynamic impact was acceptable, but not great. The sound improved when we engaged the HT-BD8200's "Smart Sound" DSP processing. Smart Sound added some detail, and though it compressed the DVD's dynamic range, the movie sounded a lot better with Smart Sound turned on.

Smart Sound was also useful in terms of getting more volume out of the "Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis Play the Music of Ray Charles" DVD. With Smart Sound turned off, the DVD wasn't loud enough, even with the volume set to Max. The live concert DVD sounded warm and natural, and since it has 2.0 and 5.1 mixes, we listened to both and much preferred the stereo for its improved clarity over the HT-BD8200.

That didn't surprise us--the HT-BD8200 is a 2.1-channel system after all. We did try using the system's "Virtual Sound" feature, but its effectiveness was minimal. That said, the stereo sound never felt confined to the dimensions of the HT-BD8200's cabinet, the soundstage was slightly wider than the speaker.

Next, we watched the "Batman Begins" Blu-ray disc, which gave the HT-BD8200's subwoofer ample opportunity to strut its stuff. The tank-like Batmobile's rumbling power was plenty visceral; and when the chasing police cars crash and burn, the subwoofer let us feel each impact. Dialogue sounded fine overall, but we noted that in action scenes, intelligibility suffered.

Finishing up with a few CDs didn't change our opinion of the HT-BD8200's sound. Bass was prominent, though definition was only fair. Rosanne Cash's "The List" CD sounded fine, though Cash's vocal and guitar were a little too recessed in the soundstage. Rocking out with John Hiatt was better, mostly because the gutsy sub added a kick to the sound that eludes a lot of sound bar speakers.

We liked the HT-BD8200 for its rich tonal balance, but it fell short in clarity and dynamic oomph. It's not an inexpensive system, and for this much money we expect better sound.

Blu-ray performance
The HT-BD8200 debuted in 2009, so we expected its Blu-ray performance to lag behind 2010 standalone Blu-ray players. We were pleasantly surprised to find that this wasn't the case, with the HT-BD8200 passing the most-important test patterns and program material tests we threw at it. Image quality purists can find minute benefits offered by our reference Oppo BDP-83 Blu-ray player, but the vast majority of movies look identical on the two players.

We were even more surprised to find that the HT-BD8200's operational speed was comparable with 2010 Samsung standalone Blu-ray players. That's somewhat because this year's Samsung Blu-ray players are on the slow side, but the HT-BD8200 offers perfectly acceptable disc-loading performance, especially for a built-in drive. The overall CNET speed rating was a 78, which is actually a tad faster than the Samsung BD-C6500. (A full spreadsheet of our testing of standalone Blu-ray players can be found here.)

Though we were impressed by the HT-BD8200's performance on traditional Blu-ray player tests, most of our enthusiasm was deflated by the player's operational quirks. For example, if the HT-BD8200 is turned on with a disc player already in the drive, it becomes impossible to play the disc, with the onscreen interface allowing you to browse the folders on the Blu-ray disc but not letting you play the movie. The only way to fix the problem is to eject the disc, turn off the player, and turn it back on. We ran into other issues where the unit would refuse to play and discs--showing a "Disc could not be played" error--only to play the same discs after the unit was restarted. We love the simplicity of a single unit that handles nearly all your home theater needs, but you'll need a lot of patience to put up with the HT-BD8200's quirks.