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Editors' note: The rating of the Sony HT-CT100 has been changed since publication to better reflect its value compared to competing home theater systems.
It's a familiar story in consumer electronics: Start with a luxurious, expensive, and exclusive product category, and within just a few years, you'll see a sea of imitators delivering the same basic item with more features, less money, and--ideally--better performance. Take single-speaker audio. Once the exclusive domain of Yamaha Digital Sound Projectors, the category is exploding, with boutique brands (Zvox, Soundmatters), home-audio stalwarts (Polk Audio, Definitive Technology), and major manufacturers (Samsung, Sony) all throwing their respective hat into the ring. But even in this hotly contested category, the Sony HT-CT100 home-theater system is a standout design. The two-part (speaker plus subwoofer) 3.1-channel system is one of the smallest soundbar speakers we've tested to date, and it boasts better-than-average connectivity highlighted by three HDMI inputs. Best of all, it costs just $300, and--considering that modest price tag--it sounds great. And because the HT-CT100 handles power and surround processing, you don't need to buy an AV receiver--just plug in your components and enjoy some powerful audio with more than a hint of faux surround.
To reiterate, the Sony HT-CT100 is a two-part system: a small soundbar designed to sit under the TV, and a modest-size subwoofer that also houses all of the electronics and connections. The skinny speaker is a mere 2.75 inches high and 2.6 deep. Its 31.5-inch width is also smaller than most soundbars and will make a nice match with TVs with 32-inch screens or larger. The speaker sports a satin-finished black plastic cabinet and perforated (nonremovable) metal grille; it's a no-frills look that won't win any beauty contests, but it's unobtrusive enough. The soundbar has three oval-shaped 1.6- by 2.8-inch drivers (left/center/right). You can wall mount the 4.4-pound speaker with its keyhole slots, so long as you account for the permanently attached 10-foot umbilical cable that connects it to the subwoofer. The cable terminates with a 9-pin serial connector that plugs into the subwoofer--if you need to run it a longer distance, check out our related tip.
The medium-density fiberboard sub feels more substantial than the speaker and its black-matte vinyl finish looks a bit more upscale. It's 19.75 inches high and 14.25 deep, and weighs 22 pounds. A black cloth (nonremovable) grille covers the 6.5-inch woofer mounted on the sub's right side. The front edge of the top panel has power, input, and volume controls; the display on the front baffle offers info about volume level, the selected source, and surround processing. There's a bass port smack dab in the middle of the 6.4-inch-wide front baffle. The subwoofer's built-in power amplifiers deliver 50 watts to each of the speakers' three drivers, and 100 watts to the sub's woofer.
All of the system's connections are found on the subwoofer's back panel. There you'll find three HDMI inputs; four digital-audio-only inputs (three optical, one coaxial); one analog stereo input (red/white RCA jacks); and one Digital Media Port connector. However, not counting the DM Port (it's a proprietary connector that works with only a quartet of proprietary Sony accessories), those inputs are really limited to just four AV sources--three audio or HDMI, and one audio only. In other words, you'd use the optical audio inputs (for instance) in lieu of, not in addition to, the HDMI inputs. Obviously, HDMI is the preferred connection, since it allows you to toggle audio and video at the click of a button on the HT-CT100's remote. (And, with the addition of a sub-$50 HDMI switcher, you could more than double the unit's HDMI capacity.) For non-HDMI sources (anything from a Nintendo Wii to a VCR to a non-high-def cable box), you'll use the TV for video switching, and the HT-CT100 for audio.
The unit includes standard Dolby and DTS surround processing modes. For Blu-ray, it can accept uncompressed PCM soundtracks, but it won't decode Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD, nor any DTS HD flavors. (The better Blu-ray players, such as Sony's own PS3, decode those soundtracks internally and output PCM anyway, so that's not going to be a big deal for most folks.)
After we had everything hooked up and ready to go, we couldn't get any sound out of the thing. The controls on the sub brought the HT-CT100 to life, but it didn't respond to the remote's commands. We changed the remote's batteries; still no luck, so we thought the remote was defective. Turned out our mistake was pointing the remote toward the subwoofer--the sensor is in the speaker. With that hurdle out of the way setup was easy, and the remote allows for adjustment of the speaker's center channel and subwoofer volume levels. The remote can also control Sony Bravia televisions.
The HT-CT100 strutted its stuff when we fired up the Blu-ray version of ZZ Top's Live From Texas disc. The band's sound filled the CNET listening room, so we could hear the hometown crowd was clearly having a great time, Billy Gibbon's trademark guitar thrash was in fine form, and Frank Beard's drums kicked pretty hard. Clearly, the Sony soundbar's gutsy sound was a force to be reckoned with. Surround ambiance was huge, extending well into the room. And when we stood up and walked around, the surround held up pretty well. That's not true with most single-speaker surround systems; their surround collapses back into the speaker for listeners not seated directly inline with the speaker.
We next popped on the Talladega Nights Blu-ray and pummeled the HT-CT100 with a full dose of pedal-to-the-metal NASCAR horsepower. Between that and the heavy metal score, we expected the HT-CT100 to cry uncle. But no, it sounded awesome! Dynamics and power were on par with some of the better budget priced 5.1-channel home-theater-in-a-box systems, and ahead of some far more expensive soundbar systems. The HT-CT100 didn't hold anything back when the cars smashed into the racetrack's retaining walls.
We did notice one important key to maximizing the surround effect: beyond the overall volume, you can control the subwoofer and center channel levels. The more you crank the center up, the narrower the soundfield became. In other words, keep the center channel level at the baseline "zero" setting or below for the most pronounced surround effects.
CD sound was also far better than average. The acoustic tunes on Cat Power's Jukebox CD were natural and clear, which was all the more impressive when we stopped to remember the speaker doesn't have any tweeters! The HT-CT100's refined sonics with the orchestral score to the movie Birth were again beyond what we've come to expect from soundbar systems. True, the score's big bass drums didn't have their full weight and impact, but the Sony's low bass oomph was respectable. Not quite the equal of much pricier soundbar/sub systems, but not at all bad. Stereo imaging stretched out beyond the edges of the speaker.
In the final analysis, we suspect that the Sony HT-CT100 may not have the gravitas to anchor a primary home theater--don't expect it to deliver the same pronounced surround effects you'll find on the Yamaha Digital Sound Projectors, which use a sophisticated beam system. But those systems cost two, three, or even four times as much. The Sony is certainly well-suited for smaller dens and bedrooms, and it easily trumps rival soundbar/subwoofer models, including the Yamaha YAS-70 and Boston Acoustics TVee Model Two, delivering better sound and more features than both for less money. As such, the HT-CT100 is an easy pick for the best sub-$300 soundbar/subwoofer system we've heard to date.