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Sony HT-ST7 review:

A stunning sound bar but not quite for audiophiles

Sony HT-ST7
There's a small slot on the back of the subwoofer for the wireless transceiver. Sarah Tew/CNET

Once you have it set up, you can toggle through several sound modes: Movie, Music, Football, and STD. Movie did a particularly good job of generating a wide soundstage that filled the front wall of the CNET listening room. Music sounded a little less spacious with CDs and concert videos, and STD was essentially stereo. However, STD produced the most natural, least processed and hollow sound, which means you typically have to pick between a wider, more "processed" sound versus a narrower but more natural sound.

The HT-ST7 has a few more adjustment options. The Voice button on the remote boosts movie dialogue in three steps, while the 12-step subwoofer volume control makes it easy to fine-tune movies and music bass levels. The three-step Sub Tone adjustment seems to add weight and oomph to the bass, although it's hard to pinpoint exactly the sonic changes it's making. Despite all these tweaking opportunities, it's surprising that the HT-ST7 lacks simple bass and treble controls, which would have been nice for adjusting tonal balance of the system.

Sound quality: Impressive cinema sound, not-so-much with music
Right from the start, the HT-ST7 proved itself with unusually impressive sound for movies. The sound is very un-sound-bar-like, and with the lights turned down it's easy to forget that you're not listening to a larger system. That might be credited to the fact that the HT-ST7 is one of the very few sound bars that decodes true multichannel Dolby TrueHD and DTS Master Audio soundtracks.

Still, the HT-ST7's sound bar-subwoofer blend was only fair, so the sound balance was leaner than we'd like. As we played Blu-rays and CDs we became increasingly aware of the HT-ST7's overemphasized treble detail. It was more annoying in some movies than others.

Sony HT-ST7
Sarah Tew/CNET

Listening to "Stoker," which has an especially good sound mix, the HT-ST7 did a superb job of putting the viewer inside the film. For example, the scene where the niece moves from the kitchen into a large room where a party is taking place was especially effective. Even though the HT-ST7 doesn't have true surround speakers (like the Vizio S4251w-B4), it makes you feel like you're in that bigger space. The conversations and laughter of many guests in the large room were nicely separated, and that level of soundstage specificity is rare from sound bar systems.

Peter Gabriel's excellent "New Blood: Live in London" concert Blu-ray was more revealing of the weaknesses in the HT-ST7's sound. First, the sibilants of Gabriel's vocals were emphasized to a larger degree than what we heard with Harman Kardon's SB 16 sound bar system. The HT-ST7's sound also had a hollow-ish quality in Movie and Music sound modes and that sort of processing artifact was less apparent with the SB 16. Using the HT-ST7's STD mode eliminated the hollow effect, but reduced the soundstage to the width of the sound bar.

The hollow quality was also evident with "Black Hawk Down" on Blu-ray, where we pitted the HT-ST7 against the JBL Cinema SB400 ($550). The HT-ST7's subwoofer was no match for the SB400's sub when we cued up the helicopter crash scene, with the SB400's visceral, room-shaking powers far exceeding the HT-ST7's. On the other hand, the HT-ST7 trounced the SB400 in soundstage width and depth, doing a better job of filling the room with sound. Turning up the volume a little more, we found the SB400 maintained a clearer sound, with the HT-ST7 sounding best at low to moderate volume levels.

Sound bars typically suffer with stereo music, but part of Sony's pitch for the HT-ST7 was that it would satisfy music lovers too. Listening to a few CDs, played in STD mode, the HT-ST7 sounded fine, but not quite up to the standards we were expecting for the price. Belle & Sebastian's "The Boy With the Arab Strap" sounded crisp and very immediate, but the sound with acoustic jazz CDs was too thin and bright. Queens of the Stone Age and other hard rockers' music sounded undernourished and lean over the HT-ST7. Pumping up the sub volume and Sub Tone helped a bit, but here again the JBL SB400's gutsier sound carried the day. The HT-ST7 certainly doesn't sound anemic like many sound bars with music, but the blend between the subwoofer and sound bar really kept it from standing out.

What are the alternatives?
In terms of style and cost, the Sony's HT-ST7 feels similar to Sonos' Playbar ($700), which ends up in a similar price range when you include the Sonos Sub (also $700). In terms of features, they're actually quite different, with Sonos including its excellent streaming music system, while the HT-ST7 relies on Bluetooth. We didn't have the Sonos Playbar system on hand for a direct comparison, but based on our previous review, we'd have to give the nod to the HT-ST7's less-processed sound.

Pioneer SP-SB23W sound bar
Audiophiles and budget-minded buyers should keep their eyes peeled for Pioneer's upcoming sound bar. Pioneer

Perhaps the most interesting sound bar on the horizon for audiophiles is Pioneer's upcoming SP-SB23W ($400). It's much less expensive, but the system is designed by Andrew Jones, the engineer behind the outstanding SP-PK52FS ($630) budget speakers. If you were intrigued by the notion of a sound bar that performs well with music, it's worth waiting to see how the SP-SB23W sounds.

In the meantime, JBL's Cinema SB400 ($550) may be the most audiophile-friendly sound bar that's currently available. It surprised us in our direct comparisons with the HT-ST7, giving better performance at a fraction of the cost. CNET's full review is coming soon, but it's on target to become our new reference system for sound bar audio quality, replacing the Harman Kardon SB 16.

Sony HT-ST7
Even cheap tower speakers, like the Pioneer SP-FS52 ($250 per pair), will offer better sound. Sarah Tew/CNET

And perhaps no sound bar in recent memory calls out for a comparison to a traditional stereo speaker system more than the HT-ST7. For $1,300, you can put together an awfully nice 2.0 or 2.1 speaker system that will undeniably trump the HT-ST7 and any other sound bar we've heard. There's no doubt that Sony's HT-ST7 is a sleek, convenient sound system, but at this price range, it's not tough to find good-looking speakers and a great AV receiver that will perform much better.

Conclusion: An elegant sound bar, but keep your expectations in check
With the HT-ST7, Sony is trying to carve out space for a true high-end sound bar in a market that's dominated by budget systems. The HT-ST7 gets that about half right; the build quality and design feel first-class, with a feature set that's almost there, minus AirPlay. But the sound quality doesn't feel commensurate with the price tag, especially if you're planning on listening to a lot of music or love to feel the impact of a dynamic action movie.

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