The classic home theater setup -- with front left, center, and right, surround speakers, and a subwoofer -- was the de facto sound standard. High-end home theater buyers still use multichannel systems, but the multichannel home theater-in-a-box system is almost dead. Up until recently, I reviewed 12 or more home theater-in-a-box systems every year for CNET, but now sound bars are the most popular solution.
Altec-Lansing introduced the very first sound bar/subwoofer system -- the Voice of the Digital Theatre -- in 1998. Even today, it still looks like a fully contemporary design, but as far as I can tell, Altec didn't follow up with other models. I recently chatted with Zvox founder Tom Hannaher about the history of the category, and he recalled the Cambridge SoundWorks TVWorks 250 'bar from the late '90s, but that one also flopped.
SoundMatters introduced the MainStage in 2003, and when I reviewed it I wasn't terribly impressed with its sound. Another company, Niro, made a few 'bars starting in 2003. They were very expensive and sounded pretty good, but Niro dropped out of sight after a few years.
Home theater-in-a-box systems were big sellers, so the market wasn't ready for a single speaker solution in the early 2000s. A lot of HTIB owners of the era lined up their five tiny satellite speakers in a row, making do-it-yourself sound bars!
The first 'bar to eventually catch on was the $199 Zvox 315, and in 2003 that speaker sounded amazing. It was a breeze to hook up; bass power was so good a sub wasn't required; and dialogue intelligibility was excellent. Sales were slow, so Hannaher's startup faced rough times early on. But since he was the company's only employee, and he wasn't drawing a salary, Zvox stayed the course. Looking back, you might wonder why it was so hard -- all of the 5.1 channel HTIBs came with a bunch of wires, and hooking up those systems was always a time-consuming ordeal.
Zvox went on to introduce a range of sound bars that were favorably reviewed here at CNET and elsewhere. Zvox is still in the game, and still making superb 'bars.
In retrospect, it looks like it was Zvox's winning combination of easy setup and excellent sound that separated its speakers from the competition's. I'm amazed that, even today, most TV buyers put up with the lousy speakers built into their sets. And thanks to the market's insatiable appetite for ever skinnier TVs, their built-in speakers are worse than ever. Apparently buyers never choose TVs based on sound quality, so manufacturers have zero incentive to make better-sounding displays.
I'll credit Altec with inventing the sound bar, but Zvox was the first to perfect it. If you have memories of early sound bar systems, share them in the comments section.