Choosing a sound bar largely comes down to sound quality and design, with features being far less important than when evaluating other products. That's what makes the Toshiba SBX4250 ($270 street) a bit of a hard sell: it sounds and looks just about average, but has a great feature set. There's built-in Bluetooth, for wireless audio streaming from most smartphones and tablets, plus it has a ton of inputs, with two HDMI, two optical, an analog, and a minijack. And although the sound bar itself is visually lackluster, the included remote is nicely designed.
The question is whether you need all that connectivity or if you'd be better served by using your TV as a switcher, which is a more elegant solution as long as your TV has enough inputs. Still, if you're buying a sound bar now, there's not much competition at the moment at this price. The Vizio SB4021M-A1 sounds and looks better, but it lacks Bluetooth; pedestal-style sound bars have a nicer design, but you need to spend twice as much to get a system that sounds great. We'd recommend waiting a few more months until new 2013 models start to hit store shelves and seeing how the Toshiba SBX4250 stacks up against the newcomers.
Design: Just another sound bar
If you're looking for style, you won't find it in the SBX4250. The design is about as generic as it gets, with an uninspired black plastic cabinet that feels a little cheap when you pull it out of the box. It's not ultrathin at 2.2 inches, but it will fit comfortably in front of your TV.
The front of the sound bar sports a display in the center of its glossy black panel, which is a nice convenience that's often missing on other models. It's not the brightest or biggest display, but it gives you some feedback as to how loud the volume is and what input you've selected.
The included subwoofer is wireless and has the same ho-hum design aesthetic as the sound bar. Toshiba decided to draw attention to the bass port with a bright silver ring, but it's the wrong kind of attention, at least to our taste.
The included remote is quite good. It's a sizable clicker, unlike the thin remotes that come with many sound bars, plus it has separate buttons for adjusting the bass, treble, and subwoofer volume. The directional pad handles volume adjustment and playback controls, which can be used to control a device connected via Bluetooth, such as a smartphone. A dedicated volume rocker would have been nice, but that's a nitpick on an otherwise solid remote. (Despite appearances, that's not a touch pad on the bottom half of the remote.)
Features: Bluetooth and plenty of ports
For the price, the SBX4250 has a surprisingly good range of features.
The big plus is built-in Bluetooth, which makes it easy to wirelessly stream music from most smartphones and tablets. Built-in Bluetooth is a feature worth looking for in a sound bar, since it adds a lot of convenience and can be cumbersome to add after the fact; dongles like the Belkin Bluetooth Music Receiver or Logitech Wireless Speaker Adapter work fine, but they add an extra cable and power cord to your setup.
The SB4250 is also packed with ports, with two HDMI inputs, two optical inputs, one analog input, and a minijack input. All that connectivity isn't exactly necessary if you use your TV as a switcher, but the surplus ports can still come in handy if you have more devices than inputs on your HDTV.
There's also onboard Dolby Digital decoding, which isn't a must-have sound bar feature, but it can be useful in a few instances. One is if you use your TV's internal over-the-air tuner, as TVs send a Dolby Digital signal from their optical output, so you need a sound bar with Dolby Digital decoding to hear audio. The same applies if your TV's built-in Smart TV feature outputs a Dolby Digital signal. And if you end up connecting devices directly to the SBX4250, rather than using your TV as a switcher, it will be able to handle bit stream Dolby Digital audio, if your device doesn't handle decoding.
Setup: Easily tweakable
There's no need for any kind of speaker calibration out of the box, and the wireless subwoofer automatically pairs with the sound bar.
The SBX4250's remote makes it tempting to tweak the sound to your heart's content, with direct control over the subwoofer, bass, and treble levels. There are also preset equalization curves for rock, jazz, movie, and so on, but they can only be engaged when the sound bar is being used in stereo mode.
The SRS TruSurround HD and SRS TruBass sound processing modes can also be adjusted right from the remote. TruSurroundHD opens up the sound, spreading well beyond the speaker's 37.5-inch width, while the TruBass mode (predictably) adds more bass. Listening in stereo the speaker sounded too small, so we used the TruSurround HD processing for all of our listening tests.
Sound quality: Good, but unexceptional
The SBX4250's sound is a big step up from what you'll hear from your TV's built-in speakers. It gives more bass, greater dynamics, more detail, and a bigger and wider stereo image.
It fared less well when we compared it with other sound bars in the same price range. We started with a Blu-ray of "The Hunger Games," and scenes in the jungle populated with a dense mix of insects and birds sounded fairly clear, but dialogue lacked body, and voices were slightly sibilant. When Katniss Everdeen runs through the forest as it erupts in flames, the bass was lightweight, nowhere as full and visceral as we heard during the same scene from the (now discontinued) Haier SBEV40-Slim. The SBEV40-Slim also projected a bigger, broader sound stage, although the SBX4250 earned points for its sonic clarity.
The SBX4250's weak link is its subwoofer, which isn't as powerful as most sound bar subs, although it certainly makes more bass than you'll get from the Bose Solo ($400) pedestal sound bar, which lacks a separate subwoofer.
With jazz singer Diana Krall's "Live in Rio" concert DVD the SBX4250's superior clarity again stood out when we compared it with the SBEV40-Slim, but Krall's voice at times sounded a little harsh. CDs sounded even less convincing, but few sound bars, even ones that sell for a lot more than this one, ever really cut it with two-channel music.
What are the alternatives?
Most new 2013 sound bars haven't been released yet, so the SBX4250 doesn't have much current competition at the moment. The Vizio SB4021M-A1 ($270 street) is a solid alternative, with better sound quality and a nicer design, but it lacks built-in Bluetooth. Zvox's Z-Base 420 ($300 street) and the Bose Solo ($400 street) are also compelling options if you're more focused on style, as their pedestal design results in a cleaner look than the SBX4250's more traditional sound bar design. And the Speakercraft CS3 ($600 street) offers good looks, built-in Bluetooth, and great sound quality, but it's twice the price.
If you're in the market for a sound bar, your best bet right now might be to wait until the new 2013 models come out in the spring. Bluetooth will be much more common and you'll likely be able to find a sound bar with similar features that looks and sounds better than the SBX4250.
Conclusion: Buy it for the features, not the sound
If you can't wait for new sound bars to come out, the main reason to choose the SBX4250 over its competitors is its better-than-average feature set. The Toshiba SBX4250 is a good value at $270 for those who are looking for lots of connectivity and built-in Bluetooth. However, it's hard not to think that most buyers would be better off waiting, or sacrificing features for a sound bar that looks or sounds a little better.