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How much would you spend on a surround-sound system? A thousand dollars, perhaps? While multiple speakers and a receiver would get you "there" in terms of performance, the biggest downside is that it can take up a lot of room.
In contrast, a sound bar is both cheaper and occupies less of your living space. You can buy great sound bars for $500; heck, Sony's own HT-XT1 costs only $250, and that's with HDMI switching! So despite the fact it will still cost less than a full system, is there any point in spending more? Say $1,000?
The Sony HT-ST5 doesn't quite answer this question, but it hopes to distract you instead with its good looks and hefty feature count. In terms of sound quality, however, this Sony is solid but not spectacular for the money.
For a bit less, we actually preferred the sound of Polk's Omni SB1 for movies, and for quite a bit more the Definitive Technology W Studio beats them both. But if all you're looking for is an easy-to-set-up, decently performing movie system, then the Sony HT-XT5 is not a bad choice.
As the price of sound bars approaches $1,000 and beyond, you start to see some improvements in build quality -- plastic replaced by real metal, for example -- and this is the case with the HT-ST5. Like the HT-ST7 before it, the ST5 is a striking-looking sound bar with a cabinet composed of a steel grille, brushed-aluminum top and plastic sides. While not quite as stylish as the Definitive Technology W Studio with its solid aluminum billets, this is nonetheless an attractive sound bar.
The Sony is quite tall, too, at 4.75 inches and as such may block your TV's IR sensor (or screen!) if placed in front. However, Sony addressed this issue, like Yamaha before it, with an IR repeater on the rear of the device -- but it isn't enabled by default. The sound bar is 40.6 inches wide and will suit TVs of 46 inches and above.
Behind the nonremovable speaker grille, the HT-ST5 features a LED display that lists the input and volume level and can be adjusted in brightness. While the ST7 has nine drivers, there are seven on the ST5, though they are still powered by seven discrete amplifiers.
The separate, wireless subwoofer is a large rectangular box measuring 9.6 inches wide by 14 inches high and 16 inches long that hides a 7-inch bass woofer.
The remote control is out of the ordinary for a sound bar. It's a long thin wand that slides open like a Pez dispenser to reveal further controls. Unfortunately it's not the most ergonomic design, with some oft-used commands hidden under the sliding flap.
When CNET attended briefings for this product back in September 2014, Sony told us the the ST5 was a "cut-down" version of the ST7 with a slightly less fussy build and fewer drivers, but similar in sound quality. That's basically true.
In essence, the ST5 offers a 7.1-channel system with a claimed 380W of power though all of the channels are front facing, not surround. The bar can decode both Dolby TrueHD sound and DTS Master Audio streaming from its three 4K/UHD-compatible HDMI inputs -- one with ARC -- plus it also includes two optical inputs and a pair of RCA jacks.
If you prefer wireless convenience, Sony offers Bluetooth pairing with your phone plus NFC. Bluetooth also enables control via the SongPal app for iOS and Android, though the unit, just like the ST7 before it, lacks the Wi-Fi capabilities of Sony receivers. Sadly it misses out on streaming from other apps like Spotify Connect or Play-Fi -- something devices like the cheaper Polk Omnis offer.
The HT-ST5 sounded natural with straight dramatic fare like "Homeland" and "Mad Men" on Blu-ray. Dialogue was clear and clean -- no complaints here -- but once we upped the ante with more demanding program material, the HT-ST5 proved no match for Definitive Technology's W Studio sound bar system.
The Def Tech was dramatically clearer sounding; bass went deeper, and high frequencies were more extended. The soundstage width and depth on Peter Gabriel's "New Blood: Live in London" concert Blu-ray with the W Studio system totally trumped that of the HT-ST5. The Sony's soundstage dimensions were smaller, and never let us forget we were listening to a sound bar. Gabriel's vocals were thin, and the low-end bass weight we heard from the orchestra over the W Studio was lacking over the HT-ST5. The bells and light percussion instruments on Gabriel's "Mercy Street" that floated free on the W Studio were speaker-bound over the HT-ST5.
Frankly, we were surprised at the differences. The HT-ST5 uses seven 2.4-inch drivers and two 0.75-inch tweeters; and features lossless Dolby TrueHD and DTS Master Audio processors, so it should have been competitive with the W Studio, but it was not.
Next we put the HT-ST5 up against Polk's less expensive Omni SB1 sound bar system , and the Polk sounded more authoritative on high impact movies like "Avatar" and "Black Hawk Down." Explosions and combat scenes' dynamic oomph were less convincing over the HT-ST5. We heard no difference between lossless Dolby TrueHD (over HDMI) and standard Dolby 5.1 (via the optical digital input). In both cases we sent bitstream audio from our Oppo BDR-105 Blu-ray player to the HT-ST5.
The Sony system did quite well with 2-channel music, and sounded sweet with jazz saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom's superb "Sixteen Sunsets" 5.1-channel Blu-ray.
With R.E.M.'s "Drive" from "Automatic For the People" the Sony was able to deliver more of Michael Stipe's expressive tenor and the "hall" he was singing in, and while the Polk sounded fuller in the bass, it was more vocally constrained and less airy.
Just as it's midway between the Polk Omni and the Definitive Technology in price, it's closer to the Polk in terms of musicality. While the W Studio is the best sound bar we've heard, the Sony is only "very good." While potentially a better deal than the even more expensive ST7 -- which also got a 7 in sound quality -- the ST5 isn't our go-to choice for a sound bar at this level. If you're really keen on this style of speaker, save up and get the Def Tech, which will also give you better-quality music streaming.