If sound bars are the everyman's home audio system, the Sony HT-CT260 feels like the everyman's sound bar.
It starts with excellent sound quality, topping last year's sonic champ, the Haier SBEV40-Slim, and holding its own with the best we've heard this year, too. There's built-in Bluetooth, making it easy to wirelessly stream audio from just about every tablet and smartphone, and it throws in decoding for Dolby Digital and DTS for good measure. It has a signature, geometric design that's compact enough to unobtrusively sit under most TVs, but it also has a built-in remote signal repeater in case it does block your TV's remote sensor. Altogether, it does everything you'd want a budget sound bar to do in a flexible design that works well in most home theater configurations.
There are better-sounding systems (Sharp HT-SB60), and ones with more neat features (Vizio S4251w-B4) or a better-looking design (SpeakerCraft CS3), but none of them will appeal to as many buyers as the HT-CT260, which has balanced all the necessary trade-offs quite well and lacks a deal-breaking flaw. We haven't reviewed enough 2013 sound bars to crown an Editors' Choice yet, but it will be tough to top Sony's HT-CT260.
Design: Not your typical tube
Sound bars all start to look the same after a while, but the HT-CT260's funky design makes it stand out from the crowd. It still uses the standard long tubelike cabinet, but the hexagonal shape gives it a unique style. The look may not be for everyone -- CNET editor Ty Pendlebury was immediately turned off -- but we think it's an attractive spin on the familiar sound bar design.
The HT-CT260's sound bar stands 4 inches tall, which means it runs the risk of blocking the remote sensor on some TVs, which can make changing inputs on your TV a real pain. However, Sony has a nifty solution to the problem: a remote signal repeater that receives remote commands in the front, then shoots them out the back. Sony isn't the first company to include a remote signal repeater, but if you have a TV with a low-hanging remote sensor, this feature is reason enough to favor the HT-CT260 over the Vizio S4251w-B4, which has a large, remote-blocking cabinet and no built-in workaround.
The included wireless subwoofer is small, rectangular box that can be placed nearly anywhere, as long as it's plugged in. It's relatively discreet for a subwoofer, although it has an annoying front-facing LED that glows green when it's on, red when it's off. (Nothing a little bit of black tape can't fix, though.)
Sony has a habit of using a stock remote design for its home theater products, and the one that comes with the HT-CT260 is no different. It's a pretty good remote as far as sound bars go, although its ability to control TV produces a lot of button clutter. (Why are there TV volume buttons when you have a sound bar? How many people are using the TV's channel up/down function these days?) The HT-CT260's remote would be a lot easier to use if it ditched some of the less frequently used buttons, but it's still better than most, with a full-size design that sits nicely in your hand and a prominent volume rocker.
Features: Bluetooth, Dolby, and DTS
The HT-CT260's connectivity options are basic: optical, coaxial, and analog minijack. That may not seem like much, but, as with most sound bars, Sony expects you to use your TV to switch between devices -- connect all your gear directly to your TV, then use your TV's optical output to connect to the sound bar. It's a much simpler configuration, assuming your TV has enough inputs for all your gear. (If not, an HDMI switcher and universal remote combo is a low-cost way to add more inputs.)
The HT-CT260 also features built-in Bluetooth, which is essentially a must-have feature this year. Bluetooth streaming makes it possible to wirelessly stream audio from any app on nearly every smartphone and tablet, which means it's easy to stream, say, Pandora straight from your phone. There is some audio quality lost with Bluetooth, but it's generally harder to notice that on a sound bar system versus more detailed full-size speakers.
Finally, the HT-CT260 has onboard decoding for both Dolby and DTS. In the vast majority of cases, that decoding won't actually be used, since most TVs downmix all audio to two-channel PCM over their optical outputs. Still, it's nice to know the decoding is there in case you end up in one of the few scenarios that requires it.
Setup: Plug and play
To get the HT-CT260 set up, you have to plug the included wireless transceiver modules into receptacles in the sound bar and subwoofer. Most wireless systems don't have plug-ins like the Sony's, but the modules don't need any attention after you plug them in. Subwoofer pairing is automatic, so you can have the system up and running in minutes.
The menu on the sound bar's small display lets you adjust subwoofer volume, (phantom) center-channel volume, night mode, and bass/treble levels. We especially liked the center-channel volume adjustment capability, as it's a big plus for buyers who need a little help hearing dialogue in movies. Navigating the menu layers on the single-line display can be confusing, but you get the hang of it; reading the smallish display across a room is harder. Direct access to channel-level buttons on the remote would be more useful than the rockers Sony does include at the top, especially for center-channel and subwoofer level adjustment.
The HT-CT260's remote does have direct access to its six sound field modes, and "Movie" did a good job of generating a wider soundstage, though we found that the less spacious "Stereo" mode on movies and music worked well, too. It's easy enough to toggle through the modes and see which works best for a given movie.
Sound quality: Excellent, but not the best
The HT-CT260 sounded quite nice without any fussing on our part. Action movies had good impact, thanks in large part to the powerful subwoofer. It had significantly deeper bass extension than the SBEV40-Slim or Vizio S4251w-B4 subs. The HT-CT260's bass oomph is remarkable for such a small system.
The now-discontinued SBEV40-Slim was our favorite budget sound bar system last year, but it fell far short of the HT-CT260's performance on every count. The HT-CT260's soundstage was wider, with much-improved detail and clarity compared with the duller SBEV40-Slim.
The HT-CT260's superiority was even more apparent when we played the Rolling Stones "Some Girls: Live in Texas '78" Blu-ray; the SBEV40-Slim wasn't as credible a rock-and-roller. It lacked the HT-CT260's excitement, and the HT-CT260 also sounded more expansive with acoustic jazz and pop. But the HT-CT260 has its limits; the much larger, 54.5-inch-wide Sharp HT-SB60 sound bar could play louder with less strain. The HT-CT260 sub's deep bass was more potent than the HT-SB60's, but the Sony sound bar couldn't match the Sharp bar's ability to rock out at a loud volume without strain. We also tested the HT-CT260's "Night" mode, which effectively tamed movies' soft-to-loud volume shifts for late-night listening.
With the "King Kong" DVD, the HT-CT260 regained its composure, and when Kong battled dinosaurs in the jungle, we could feel their body slams. The sound bar sounded best at soft to medium-loud volumes; pushed louder, the sound grew somewhat harsh. Lighter fare, like Mychael Danna's lush score with strings, vocals, and percussion on the "Life of Pi" DVD, sounded beautiful. Sony packed a lot of performance into a small and affordable package.
What are the alternatives?
The Sony HT-CT260's sound is unambiguously great for a budget sound bar, but there are some better-sounding alternatives in the same price range. Vizio's S4251w-B4 includes rear speakers, enabling it to deliver a much more immersive experience, especially on movies. Sharp's ultralong HT-SB60 is stereo-only, but it sounds even better than the Sony. (Vizio is also planning on offering a 2.1-channel version of the S4251w, but it doesn't have an official release date yet.)
The catch with the better-sounding models is that none of them will work in as many home theater layouts as the HT-CT260. The Vizio's S4251w rear speakers add more clutter than some buyers may want, plus it does have the drawback of sometimes blocking a TV's remote sensor. Sharp's sound bar is really quite huge, which means it won't work in many layouts. If they work for your space, they're worth considering, but the HT-CT260 has a very flexible design that works almost anywhere.
If you're looking for an even sleeker option, SpeakerCraft's CS3 is worth considering. Its pedestal design makes it even sleeker than a traditional sound bar, plus it packs Bluetooth and powerful sound without a separate subwoofer. But at $600, it's double the price of the HT-CT260, which will be perfectly suitable for most buyers.
Conclusion: Our go-to basic sound bar
The sound bar reviewing season is young, but the HT-CT260 is our early favorite. It's not the absolute best-sounding option, but it still sounds very good and better than our top budget pick last year. It may not have the neat rear speakers of the Vizio S4251w-B4, but its simple stereo design and practical remote pass-through feature will make it a better fit for most living rooms. It's just hard to imagine many buyers being disappointed with the HT-CT260, especially at $300.