Sound bars have a reputation for being a cheap and convenient home audio option that may not wow you with their sound, but hit that critical level of "good enough."
Sony's new HT-ST7 ($1,300) wants nothing to do with good enough. It's marketed as a high-end, performance-driven system that offers serious sound quality for those who still want the simplicity of a sound bar. Visually the HT-ST7 is a stunner, with brushed metal details and a heft that clearly differentiates it from plasticky budget bars. It's also packed with features, including three HDMI inputs, built-in Bluetooth, and NFC pairing -- although curiously AirPlay support is missing, despite AirPlay's superior sonic fidelity.
As much as the HT-ST7 has the attitude of a true luxury sound bar system, I found it didn't quite have the performance. It excels at creating a wide soundstage for movies, sounding much larger than the width of the sound bar, but couldn't quite match the level of visceral power of the competing, cheaper systems we pitted it against. And while it's a decent performer with music, it still wasn't impressive enough to warrant the price.
If you've got deep pockets and have been disappointed by most sound bars' lack of aesthetic flair, there's no denying Sony has set a new standard with the HT-ST7's style. But even if you're willing to pay big bucks for a sound bar that sonically trumps its rivals, the HT-ST7 doesn't quite qualify.
Design: Sleek, heavy, metal
The Sony HT-ST7 looks and feels like a serious piece of equipment. The metal, angled cabinet gives it a refined, slightly futuristic look, spoiled only by the plastic back, which would typically not be seen anyway. It felt like a solid piece of metal in the hand, and weighs in at 17.41 lbs. It's also anything but petite, at 42.63 inches wide, 5.13 inches tall, and 5.13 inches deep.
The 5-inch height means there's a good chance it will block your TV's remote sensor, which is why Sony includes IR-repeating functionality, as the company does in its entry-level HT-CT260. However, instead of the built-in IR repeated included in the HT-CT260, the HT-ST7 has separate, physical IR blasters that you connect to the bar. The separate IR blasters definitely allow more precise placement, but they also create more wire clutter. A built-in repeater, combined with the option to add separate IR blasters if needed, would be a better solution, especially at this price.
Behind the speaker grille, the HT-ST7 features a front-panel display that gives you useful feedback when adjusting the volume and selecting inputs. The display remains lit by default, but you can change the settings so it only illuminates while in use. The speaker grille itself is also removable, letting you expose the drivers for a more in-your-face style. There are nine total drivers (seven 2.56-inch woofers and two 0.79-inch tweeters) driven by seven discrete amplifiers. The low end is handled by the 100-watt wireless subwoofer, which sports a 7-inch driver and a passive radiator.
The included remote has a striking design as well. It has an unusual sticklike shape, with triangular rocker buttons that are set off by indents and the volume buttons marked by plus and minus nubs. Slide the bottom down to reveal more controls, including one to adjust the subwoofer level. Despite the unorthodox shape, the remote is better than most included with sound bars. If you like to make a lot of on-the-fly adjustments, however, note that the buttons under the slide-down panel are particularly small.
Features: 3 HDMI inputs, plus Bluetooth and NFC
Most modern sound bars go light on connectivity options, expecting you to connect all your devices directly to your TV via HDMI, then connect your TV's optical audio output to your sound bar. Our take is that's usually a smart bet, leading to less remote fumbling and overall simpler setup.
One unfortunate downside is that many TVs "dumb down" incoming audio signals to plain old stereo, theoretically robbing you of a true surround-sound signal and some of the extra bits high-resolution soundtracks (Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio) provide. That's why the HT-ST7 features three HDMI inputs plus Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD MA decoding, so you can connect your devices directly and get your audio signal undiluted. Considering the HT-ST7 actually has seven discrete channels, there could be some gains from using the full multichannel soundtracks.
On the other end of the fidelity spectrum, the HT-ST7 has built-in Bluetooth with the cool capability of pairing via NFC. Bluetooth is great because it's compatible with nearly every smartphone and tablet, letting you wirelessly stream audio from any app on your mobile device. Upping the convenience factor even further is the HT-ST7's Bluetooth standby functionality, letting you wake up the sound bar simply by connecting via Bluetooth. And NFC makes the initial pairing process even easier on supporting devices, letting you simply place your device on the HT-ST7's angled edges to pair. Altogether, it makes the HT-ST7 great for casual, instant-gratification listening, although there's some audio fidelity lost with Bluetooth compression.
That loss of audio quality, especially on a performance-oriented sound bar, is what makes the HT-ST7's lack of AirPlay so puzzling. AirPlay doesn't suffer from the same loss of audio fidelity when wireless streaming, although it's not as compatible with as many devices. Perhaps that's putting too much emphasis on sound quality when most users will be streaming compressed audio from Spotify, Pandora, or their own MP3 collections in the first place, but for $1,300 the lack of AirPlay feels like an omission if you own iOS devices.
Rounding out the connectivity options are three digital inputs (two optical, one coaxial) and an analog audio input.
Setup: Simple, with room to tweak
We had the HT-ST7 up and running in no time, with setup relegated mostly to placing both the sound bar and the subwoofer. Unlike most sound bar systems, the HT-ST7 requires you to plug a small wireless transceiver module into receptacles in the sound bar and subwoofer, but it takes less than a minute. Although you can technically place the subwoofer anywhere in the room, it generally sounds best within a few feet of the sound bar.
Once you have it set up, you can toggle through several sound modes: Movie, Music, Football, and STD. Movie did a particularly good job of generating a wide soundstage that filled the front wall of the CNET listening room. Music sounded a little less spacious with CDs and concert videos, and STD was essentially stereo. However, STD produced the most natural, least processed and hollow sound, which means you typically have to pick between a wider, more "processed" sound versus a narrower but more natural sound.
The HT-ST7 has a few more adjustment options. The Voice button on the remote boosts movie dialogue in three steps, while the 12-step subwoofer volume control makes it easy to fine-tune movies and music bass levels. The three-step Sub Tone adjustment seems to add weight and oomph to the bass, although it's hard to pinpoint exactly the sonic changes it's making. Despite all these tweaking opportunities, it's surprising that the HT-ST7 lacks simple bass and treble controls, which would have been nice for adjusting tonal balance of the system.
Sound quality: Impressive cinema sound, not-so-much with music
Right from the start, the HT-ST7 proved itself with unusually impressive sound for movies. The sound is very un-sound-bar-like, and with the lights turned down it's easy to forget that you're not listening to a larger system. That might be credited to the fact that the HT-ST7 is one of the very few sound bars that decodes true multichannel Dolby TrueHD and DTS Master Audio soundtracks.
Still, the HT-ST7's sound bar-subwoofer blend was only fair, so the sound balance was leaner than we'd like. As we played Blu-rays and CDs we became increasingly aware of the HT-ST7's overemphasized treble detail. It was more annoying in some movies than others.
Listening to "Stoker," which has an especially good sound mix, the HT-ST7 did a superb job of putting the viewer inside the film. For example, the scene where the niece moves from the kitchen into a large room where a party is taking place was especially effective. Even though the HT-ST7 doesn't have true surround speakers (like the Vizio S4251w-B4), it makes you feel like you're in that bigger space. The conversations and laughter of many guests in the large room were nicely separated, and that level of soundstage specificity is rare from sound bar systems.
Peter Gabriel's excellent "New Blood: Live in London" concert Blu-ray was more revealing of the weaknesses in the HT-ST7's sound. First, the sibilants of Gabriel's vocals were emphasized to a larger degree than what we heard with Harman Kardon's SB 16 sound bar system. The HT-ST7's sound also had a hollow-ish quality in Movie and Music sound modes and that sort of processing artifact was less apparent with the SB 16. Using the HT-ST7's STD mode eliminated the hollow effect, but reduced the soundstage to the width of the sound bar.
The hollow quality was also evident with "Black Hawk Down" on Blu-ray, where we pitted the HT-ST7 against the JBL Cinema SB400 ($550). The HT-ST7's subwoofer was no match for the SB400's sub when we cued up the helicopter crash scene, with the SB400's visceral, room-shaking powers far exceeding the HT-ST7's. On the other hand, the HT-ST7 trounced the SB400 in soundstage width and depth, doing a better job of filling the room with sound. Turning up the volume a little more, we found the SB400 maintained a clearer sound, with the HT-ST7 sounding best at low to moderate volume levels.
Sound bars typically suffer with stereo music, but part of Sony's pitch for the HT-ST7 was that it would satisfy music lovers too. Listening to a few CDs, played in STD mode, the HT-ST7 sounded fine, but not quite up to the standards we were expecting for the price. Belle & Sebastian's "The Boy With the Arab Strap" sounded crisp and very immediate, but the sound with acoustic jazz CDs was too thin and bright. Queens of the Stone Age and other hard rockers' music sounded undernourished and lean over the HT-ST7. Pumping up the sub volume and Sub Tone helped a bit, but here again the JBL SB400's gutsier sound carried the day. The HT-ST7 certainly doesn't sound anemic like many sound bars with music, but the blend between the subwoofer and sound bar really kept it from standing out.
What are the alternatives?
In terms of style and cost, the Sony's HT-ST7 feels similar to Sonos' Playbar ($700), which ends up in a similar price range when you include the Sonos Sub (also $700). In terms of features, they're actually quite different, with Sonos including its excellent streaming music system, while the HT-ST7 relies on Bluetooth. We didn't have the Sonos Playbar system on hand for a direct comparison, but based on our previous review, we'd have to give the nod to the HT-ST7's less-processed sound.
Perhaps the most interesting sound bar on the horizon for audiophiles is Pioneer's upcoming SP-SB23W ($400). It's much less expensive, but the system is designed by Andrew Jones, the engineer behind the outstanding SP-PK52FS ($630) budget speakers. If you were intrigued by the notion of a sound bar that performs well with music, it's worth waiting to see how the SP-SB23W sounds.
In the meantime,
And perhaps no sound bar in recent memory calls out for a comparison to a traditional stereo speaker system more than the HT-ST7. For $1,300, you can put together an awfully nice 2.0 or 2.1 speaker system that will undeniably trump the HT-ST7 and any other sound bar we've heard. There's no doubt that Sony's HT-ST7 is a sleek, convenient sound system, but at this price range, it's not tough to find good-looking speakers and a great AV receiver that will perform much better.
Conclusion: An elegant sound bar, but keep your expectations in check
With the HT-ST7, Sony is trying to carve out space for a true high-end sound bar in a market that's dominated by budget systems. The HT-ST7 gets that about half right; the build quality and design feel first-class, with a feature set that's almost there, minus AirPlay. But the sound quality doesn't feel commensurate with the price tag, especially if you're planning on listening to a lot of music or love to feel the impact of a dynamic action movie.