The SpeakerCraft CS3 is a handsome, excellent-sounding sound bar that's largely worth its lofty price.
The SpeakerCraft CS3 ($600 street) is the best high-performance sound bar we've tested. For one, it features a "pedestal" design, letting you place it under your TV rather than in front, which we prefer, for a sleeker look. It's also a top-notch performer, which is unusual for a pedestal sound bar, as they tend to sound thinner than sound bars with a separate sub. And just for good measure, the CS3 features built-in Bluetooth, which is frequently left out of sound bars, despite adding a lot of convenience.
The CS3 has its faults, such as no front-panel display and a lousy remote, but they're relatively minor compared with what it gets right. The biggest drawback is its price. Budget-minded buyers will prefer the Zvox Z-Base 420 ($300), which is a very similar product, albeit with lesser sound quality and less refined looks. And those looking for great performance will get better sound by pairing up a cheap AV receiver, like the Onkyo TX-NR414 ($275), with some inexpensive tower speakers, like the
But the SpeakerCraft CS3 is for those who want a simpler, unobtrusive home audio system that still delivers excellent sonics. You'll have to pay for its charms, but the SpeakerCraft CS3 is a worthwhile investment if you want a great-looking sound bar that will serve you well for years.
Editors' note (November 1, 2013): The price of the SpeakerCraft CS3 reviewed here has been lowered to $399, making it an even better deal.
Design: Low profile, refined look
Aesthetically, the CS3 is a blend of the boxy Zvox Z-Base 420 and the more elegant Bose Solo. While it has the same large footprint as the Zvox, the CS3's nicely curved edges and solid-feeling build quality give it a more refined appearance. The CS3 may be expensive, but it has a commensurate high-end feel.
Tug on the speaker grille and it comes off easily in your hands, since it's held in place only by magnets. Even better, without the grille you can see that the CS3 has a serious set of drivers: two 1-inch tweeters and four 3-inch midrange drivers. There are also two 5.25-inch subwoofers mounted on the bottom.
The only considerable misstep in the CS3's cabinet is the lack of a front-panel display. That means you don't get any visual feedback when you're adjusting the volume or making bass/treble tweaks. The competing Zvox 420 includes a display that's cleverly hidden behind its speaker grille.
For all the thoughtful work that's been put into the CS3, it's a shame it's stuck with lousy remote. The remote is of the thin, credit-card style variety, with unsatisfying, mushy buttons. The button layout is mediocre, too; you can't tell at a quick glance how to adjust the volume. We get the impression that sound bar manufacturers often don't put a lot of effort into the included remote since they expect many buyers will use a universal remote, but that's a weak excuse, especially when the Bose Solo includes a nice clicker at nearly half the price.
The CS3's connectivity is minimal, with just three inputs: optical, coaxial, and analog. That's fine by us, as you don't need many ports if you use your TV as a switcher.
The standout feature is built-in Bluetooth connectivity. That makes it possible to wirelessly stream music from just about any smartphone, any iPad, and many other tablets. You'd think Bluetooth would be a standard feature in sound bars by now, but it's frequently missing, especially from higher-end models.
Setup: Dealing without Dolby
Like most pedestal sound bar speakers we've tested, the SpeakerCraft CS3 doesn't have or need any speaker calibration. The speaker has front and rear bass ports, so you'll want to leave at least a few inches of clearance between the back of the speaker and the cabinet. Bass, treble, and subwoofer levels can also be tweaked via the remote, to help compensate for room sound and adjust based on personal taste.
One stumbling block a minority of buyers may run into is the lack of onboard Dolby decoding. This won't matter in most cases, as TVs typically convert all signals to a compatible format (PCM) when using the optical output. The major exception is when using a TV's internal over-the-air tuner, as TVs output a Dolby Digital signal from their optical output, which is incompatible with the SpeakerCraft CS3 -- you just won't hear any audio. The easy workaround is to use your TV's analog output if it has one, but not all do. If you don't have analog output, you're pretty much out of luck without a more elaborate workaround. Still, for the vast majority of buyers, this won't be a problem.
Sound quality: Sound worth putting on a pedestal
The SpeakerCraft CS3 sounds poised and clear in ways that elude most sound bars -- especially pedestal sound bars, which tend to sound somewhat worse than traditional sound bar/subwoofer systems. It handles the high-impact demands of action movies with ease, so the sound doesn't turn strident or harsh, and dialogue intelligibility never falters, even when there's a lot going on in the soundtrack.
The CS3's clarity is its strongest suit, but bass oomph and low-frequency extension are also outstanding. The CS3's bass outshines Zvox's Z-Base 420 pedestal's sound, and although the Atlantic Technology PB-235 sound bar has slightly better deep bass power and dynamic impact than the CS3, they're still close.
Many sound bars claim to create "virtual surround sound," but the CS3's surround mode is more successful than most, producing a more sharply defined wide stereo image. The unprocessed stereo sound was a little fuller-sounding, but even so we preferred listening to the CS3 in surround mode. The shoot-out scene in the rain on the "Inception" Blu-ray didn't upset the CS3's composure in the slightest, nor did the cannon fire exchanges in the "Master and Commander" Blu-ray. Dialogue remained articulate and clear. The CS3 plays loud enough to fill a moderately large room with sound, but (unsurprisingly) it won't play as loud as our full Aperion 5.1 subwoofer/satellite reference system.
Few sound bars sound their best playing CDs, but the CS3 was an accomplished performer on rock, jazz, and classical music. It didn't exhibit the hollowness and harshness so typical to sound bars when they play CDs. No matter how you look at it, the CS3 is an exceptional performer for music and movies.
Conclusion: Best high-performance sound bar
The SpeakerCraft CS3 is undeniably pricey, but it's worth it if you appreciate all it brings to the table. You can get better sound (Atlantic Technology PB-235), better looks (Bose Solo), or a better price (Zvox Z-Base 420), but the CS3 does the best job of balancing those competing factors, resulting in an excellent sound bar.