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As televisions get slimmer and less "audio friendly," the demand for a separate sound system has increased significantly. Sound bars have been around for a while and have quickly become popular as an easy step-up over a TV's built-in speakers. But they don't always work seamlessly in every setup; many traditional sound bars end up blocking your TV's remote control sensor or worse, part of the screen. That's why many manufacturers have started to introduce sound stands, like Sony's HT-XT1, which let you place the speaker under your TV, rather than in front of it.
For $300, the Sony offers a ton of features, including HDMI connectivity and Bluetooth, plus the sound quality is pretty good too. Like a traditional sound bar, it's easy to hook up and simple to operate with a better-than-average remote. The HT-XT1 also looks better than its competitors, with sleek aesthetics that nicely compliment most flat-panel TVs. Sure, a separate subwoofer would help beef up the sound's bottom end, but there's no other complaints you could make for such an attractive price.
While most sound stands sit flat on the ground, the Sony HT-XT1 is perched on small half-inch feet. These are intended to allow some breathing space for the dual 100mm bass woofers beneath the unit.
While the Sony boasts a surround-like effect with movies it doesn't actually have side-mounted woofers like the Onkyo LS-T10 . Instead you get two oval, full-range drivers mounted on the front protected by a metal mesh. This grating also hides a front panel display, which gives visual feedback on the chosen input and volume level. It's a particularly nice perk, as many sound bars don't have a display at all.
The top of the unit is a tempered glass shelf, which can support up to 55-inch televisions weighing less than 66 lbs. (30kg), and it includes touch-sensitive controls for power and input selection.
Unlike the thin credit-card remotes that are common on these systems, the Sony includes the neat wand-style remote that's included on the $1,300 Sony HT-ST7 . The remote includes the usual volume and mute controls, with additional controls for subwoofer level and the menu system hidden beneath the slide-out panel.
For the price, the Sony has an embarrassment of riches in the feature department, including Bluetooth and NFC support, which allows you to touch compatible phones to the speaker to instantly pair them. I found that Sony's quick Bluetooth near-field communication (NFC) pairing worked well and eliminated some of the annoyance of the usual searching and connecting procedure.
When it comes to other connections, three HDMI inputs and one output is unusual in an entry-level sound bar. While you may not need the HDMI connectivity if you use your TV as a switcher, the HDMI connectivity is still a nice bonus, especially if you have a TV that's short on HDMI connections. The other inputs include an optical digital and an an analog jack.
The Sony has a menu system which is another rarity for speakers of this type, but unfortunately it doesn't display on your TV using the HDMI output. That means you'll have to navigate on the cramped single-line menu system on the unit itself; luckily you won't need to access the menu often.
Although the HT-XT1 doesn't have any network connectivity, like Wi-Fi or an Ethernet port, you can control it via Sony's Song Pal app. That's because the app can connect to the HT-XT1 directly via Bluetooth, which is a neat work around that's not available on other sound bars. The Song Pal app lets you select inputs and adjust the volume, as well as organizes several third party apps like Spotify. Selected a third-party service merely launches the apps, but having it all under in one interface is actually quite handy.
Sound bars tend to sit in one of two camps: great with music or great with movies. There are very few products that can do both well, and while the Sony is good with movies, it is slightly better with music. Compare this to the Onkyo LS-T10 , which really only sounds decent with movies.
The Sony has a very open and bright sound which sounds good with rock and pop in particular. The HT-XT1 managed a well-balanced, if a little forward, presentation of Daft Punk's "Get Lucky", but when confronted with a bright recording like Spoon's "You Got Yr Cherry Bomb," surprisingly it didn't fall apart. Instead it sounded full, with the distinct tambourine not overpowering the slightly recessed vocals. Switching to something more bass-intensive and the Sony handled the soul-rattling synth line in the Beta Band's "Life" very well with no particular frequencies sticking out and the vocals still sounding intelligible.
If you're looking for a device that can go loud without obvious distortion, even at maximum volume, the HT-XT1 can do it. There is some trickiness at play here, though; the volume control may go up to 50, but it stops getting louder after 35. However, it's not much of an issue, since even at 35 the Sony was able to fill CNET's test room with sound.
Switching to a couple of movies, the Sony had a very mid-range heavy sound in Movie mode but it wasn't as focused as the Onkyo when it came to dialogue. During the bridge scene of "Mission: Impossible III," the Sony was better at picking out sound effects like the breaking glass of windshields than the whispered forewarnings of a fellow agent. While you can certainly get more low end out of a sound bar with a dedicated subwoofer, the HT-XT1 managed to convey the explosions of incoming missiles without sounding anaemic. Still, it would be nice if there was an option to add a subwoofer.
Compared against the Speakercraft CS3 , the Sony had a larger, wider sound, which made audio seem larger than life -- perfect for special-effects laden movies. The Speakercraft had a more natural tone, which was a better fit for dialogue-driven films and music. Given that both units are now the same price you can choose which you prefer, but overall the Sony is a better pick than the older Speakercraft model.
Apart from the lack of a subwoofer, there is very little missing from the HT-XT1 package: it's got a decent number of HDMI ports, built-in Bluetooth, and sounds good with both music and movies. Add stylish looks, a better-than-average remote, and a budget price, and there's no reason you should put up with the sub-standard sound coming out of your TV anymore.