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Three great-sounding affordable sound bars

Sound bars have always just been a step up from the yucky speakers built into TVs; the latest Sony, Vizio, and Sharp 'bars are breakthrough designs.

The Sharp HT-SB60 ultrawide sound bar and subwoofer Sharp

No one can deny the popularity of sound bar speakers, but I've always been frustrated by their sound quality. There were exceptions; the $899 Atlantic Technology PB-235 and $699 SpeakerCraft CS3 are quite good, but in the more popular $300-to-$400 range the 'bars weren't all that great. Granted, they were a big step up from TV speakers, but their sound was still a compromise, compared with what's available from the better $300-to-$400 Emotiva and Audioengine self-powered stereo speakers (they get hooked up from your TV's stereo analog jacks).

A few weeks ago I spent some time working on CNET reviews of the Sharp HT-SB60 (not yet live), Sony HT-CT260, and Vizio S4251w-B4 sound bar-wireless subwoofer systems, and I was thrilled to hear that each one represented an advance in sound quality over what was available even a year ago. They each sell for well under $400 online.

Starting with the Sony HT-CT260, I exercised its home theater muscles to good effect with "King Kong." When the great ape wrestled with dinosaurs in the jungle, I could feel their body slams. The HT-CT260 sounded best at soft-to-medium-loud volume -- pushed louder the sound grew harsh. Sony packed a lot of performance into a small and affordable package. Bass oomph is remarkable for such a small system.

The Vizio S4251w-B4 can be set up as a bona fide 5.1-channel system with separate surround speakers, or without the surrounds as a 3.1-channel sound bar and wireless sub. Here's the cool part, if you use the surround speakers you don't have to run wires across the room from the front sound bar. No, you put the wireless sub in the back of the room, and connect the surround speakers to the sub (with wires).

The S4251w-B4 handles demanding action movies with ease, and adding the surround speakers to the system upped my estimation of its sound quality. While many sound bar speakers use processing to simulate surround effects, the S4251w-B4's rear speakers and onboard Dolby/DTS processors produce improved separation and a more accurate surround experience than even the much more expensive Sonos Playbar/Sub/Play:3 system that uses stereo-to-surround processing to produce effects. It was clear that the Vizio S4251w-B4's bona fide Dolby-and-DTS surround sound is far superior to Sonos' processed surround approach.

Better yet, the S4251w-B4, with the surround speakers, was closer to the sound of an AV receiver and a 5.1-channel speaker system than what's attainable with more conventional sound bars.

The Sharp HT-SB60 sound bar/wireless subwoofer system sounds bigger than any similarly priced sound bar system I've tested. The 54.5-inch wide bar was also a factor, as it means the HT-SB60 projects a wider unprocessed stereo image than the more typical 40-inch bar.

Few sound bars can play rock music as well as this one, and while the subwoofer won't win any awards for bass definition, the HT-SB60 sub blended well with the sound bar. Other music genres were well-served by the HT-SB60. It's the best-sounding bar with two-channel music I've heard in its price class.

I personally don't need surround sound so I prefer the Sharp HT-SB60; if surround is a priority, the Vizio S4251w-B4 is excellent. The Sony HT-CT260 may be in last place in this sound contest, but it's still ahead of every other budget sound bar system of the last few years. It also has the most potent subwoofer of these three systems.