Don't buy a sound bar, unless. . .

Sound bars have found a ready market with home theater buyers seeking to avoid the hassles of running wires and placing speakers around the room. But what are they giving up sound-wise?

Steve Guttenberg
Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
Steve Guttenberg
2 min read

Can one speaker really sound better than five?

There's no shortage of new sound bars to review, and I still believe they're a great solution for some home theater buyers. They simplify setup chores, and eliminate the hassles associated with placing five or more speakers and running wires to all the speakers. Some self-powered sound bars offer a range of inputs, including HDMI connectivity, so there's no need to buy a receiver.

The best ones get close to the room-filling sound of a bona-fide 5.1 system. The latest Yamaha Sound Projectors like the YSP-4100 and YSP-5100 do a better job at creating a passable facsimile of a surround experience than most, but those two models are priced around $2,000! And those substantial MSRPs don't include the price of a subwoofer. So figure another 300 or more dollars for a sub.

For that kind of investment you can buy a significantly better-sounding 5.1 channel component-based system. If sound quality takes priority over ease of setup and installation, check out Aperion's Intimus 5B Fusion SD satellite/subwoofer system ($1,559) mated with an Onkyo TX-SR507 receiver ($399).

It'll trounce the YSP sound bars on every count, with dramatically better, more-enveloping surround sound, greater dynamic impact--plus, the Aperion/Onkyo system will sound better with music. That last one is a common failing; few sound bars cut it with two-channel music. So if you intend to play CDs in your home theater, steer clear of sound bars.

Most of the better-sounding sound bars don't even try to do virtual surround; for example Canton's and KEF's models handle just front left, center, and right channels, and sound better for it, but those two need to be used with a receiver, so figure in that additional expense.

A better and cheaper way to go are traditional 5.1 channel HTIBs. Two recent systems I've tested, the Samsung HT-C6500 and Sony BDV-E770W, both produce a more satisfying home theater experience than the three (or more) times as expensive Yamaha YSPs. And both HTIBs feature built-in Blu-ray players, saving you more money (the Yamahas do not). The complete Samsung and Sony CNET reviews (not Audiophiliac) will be posted soon.

And if you don't want to run wires to surround speakers and still want the best possible sound quality don't buy a sound bar. For those applications I recommend investigating stereo home theater (HT 2.0 or HT 2.1).