When Sony released the HT-CT100 sound bar back in 2008, the company was way ahead of the competition, offering HDMI connectivity and surprisingly good sound quality at a budget price. Four years later, the Sony HT-CT550W ($400 street price) faces a much different market. It's a premium-priced sound bar that's packed with connectivity, including three HDMI inputs, but that's considerably less valuable now that newer HDTVs have an ample selection of ports. The bigger problem is that the HT-CT550W doesn't sound good enough to live up to its price, especially since its unconventional design is more cumbersome than the standard budget sound bar.
If you need a lot of connectivity on your sound bar system, the Sony HT-CT550W is worth considering, but most buyers will be better off with less-expensive (and better-sounding) options like the
Most modern sound bar systems consist of a sound bar and a wireless subwoofer, but the HT-CT550W also includes a head unit, which powers the sound bar and handles AV switching duties. That makes the HT-CT550W not quite as slick as its competitors, with extra wires between the sound bar and the head unit.
The bulk of the head unit itself is a factor, too, coming in at 10.75 inches wide, 2.38 inches high, and 11.38 inches deep -- you'll need a pretty deep cabinet to accommodate it.
Because the head unit houses all the amplification, you'd think the sound bar itself would be pretty light, but it's heavier than you'd expect. The weight actually gives it a reassuring heft hinting at good build quality, which is amplified by its stiff metal speaker grille. There's nothing else to the sound bar (since the front-panel display is on the head unit), which gives it a refined, simple look that outdoes much of its glossy black plastic competition.
On the back, there's proprietary speaker cabling that needs to be connected to the head unit, and there are keyhole slots for wall-mounting. Sony also offers the WS-CT550B40/46 Speaker Attachment Bracket that secures the speaker to some models of Sony TVs.
The subwoofer has an interesting look, with a large box that hovers over a smaller base, held up by supports in the middle. It helps the sub look a little different, although the Haier SBEV40-SLIM's sub is still more stylish (and smaller.)
If the Vizio VHT215 has the perfect minimalist remote, the HT-CT550W's clicker is the opposite of that. There's a bewildering array of buttons, especially when a sound bar really only needs volume control, power, input selector, and mute buttons. Sony recycles its remote design for a lot of its home theater products, and this remote looks better equipped to handle an AV receiver or a Blu-ray player than a sound bar. Yes, you could conceivably program the HT-CT550W's remote to control other devices, but you're much better off just investing in a quality universal remote.
The HT-CT550W's sub is wireless, but unlike every other wireless subwoofer we've tested, it doesn't have wireless functionality built in. The HT-CT550W comes with two identical wireless transceivers: one to plug into the subwoofer, one for the head unit. It's dead simple and pairing is automatic, but it's strange that the wireless capability isn't built-in.
The need for a separate head unit may be annoying, but it does allow the HT-CT550W to house considerably more inputs than a more traditional sound bar.
There are three HDMI inputs, plus three digital inputs (two optical and one coaxial), and a stereo analog input. All that connectivity is nice, although the benefit is considerably lessened if you end up using your TV as a switcher, as you'll end up using only one of the HT-CT550W's inputs.
On top of connecting all your home theater gear to the head unit, you'll also need to connect the sound bar's proprietary (and permanently attached) speaker cabling to the head unit. After that, you're good to go, as there's no further setup or calibration necessary.
We started our HT-CT550W's auditions with the "Quincy Jones: Live in Montreux 2008" DVD. The big band's music was clear and bright, but the sound was lacking the natural warmth we've heard from this DVD on other systems. We turned up the subwoofer volume with the remote, and that didn't make much of a difference, so we tried turning up the bass control and that helped somewhat. We continued to experiment with the tone controls, but the bass "gap" between the sub and sound bar remained.
The HT-CT550W is a 2.1 system, so we weren't surprised that it didn't create much of a faux surround effect in the Sound Field menu's Standard and Movie settings. The sound stage never developed any depth or spread much wider than the sound bar's actual dimensions. The sound had a hollow or recessed quality, and once we noticed it, it was hard to ignore.
We used a Western, "3:10 to Yuma," to check the HT-CT550W's ability to handle highly dynamic action scenes. This Blu-ray had lots, with bad guys robbing stagecoaches and shooting off guns. The soft-to-loud parts of the soundtrack sounded lifeless and compressed, so turning the HT-CT550W's Audio DRC (Dynamic Range Control) on and off didn't really make much of a difference. On the upside, dialogue was clear and articulate, and the subwoofer's deep bass was average for a small sound bar system.
When we compared the HT-CT550W with the Haier SBEV40-SLIM, the sonic contrast between the systems was immediately obvious. Where the HT-CT550W's tonal balance was lean, the SBEV40-SLIM was full. It was also more dynamically alive, so it sounded more like a large speaker/subwoofer system. Neither one produced room-filling surround effects; they're both 2.1 channel systems. The SBEV40-SLIM sounded more natural with dialogue, but the HT-CT550W's subwoofer was more powerful.
We preferred the SBEV40-SLIM because with the lights turned down, it was easier to forget we were listening to a skinny sound bar and just enjoy the movie. We never felt that comfortable with the HT-CT550W, as we found that its lean balance and hollow character were too distracting. Listening to CDs didn't alter our impressions of the HT-CT550W -- there are better-sounding choices on the market.
Sony's smaller HT-CT150 has been a popular budget sound bar option for years, but the bigger HT-CT550W isn't as attractive. The bulk of the separate head unit eliminates a lot of the simplicity of a sound bar system in the first place, plus the larger size (not to mention the higher cost) doesn't result in better sound. For $400, a sound bar needs to deliver premium sound, and the HT-CT550W is just average.