Step Up to the Bar
Sound Bars are a hot product category these days, as proud owners of sleek new flat screens seek to break free of the typically awful performance of standard TV speakers and do for their audio what their high-def LCDs and plasmas are doing for their video. The best Sound Bars can respectably conjure the illusion of immersive surround sound while sidestepping the space requirements, complicated setup and cost of a traditional multichannel home theater system. In January of this year, Sharp introduced their first-ever 2.1-channel Sound Bar, the HT-SB200. Its successor is the more elaborately featured, only slightly more expensive HT-SB300 Sound Bar, subject to review here.
Both models are quite slender and house extremely compact left- and right-channel drivers, in addition to four tiny woofers. Small metal brackets, drywall anchors and a handy paper template pattern are included to help position and mount the Sound Bar on the wall, while a set of adjustable rubber feet allow the unit to placed on a tabletop or stand directly beneath the TV: Break out the tape measure because depending upon the specific girth of your display, the few-inches-short-of-a-yard HT-SB300 could be a perfect fit for your 32" TV, and it certainly won't protrude beyond the edges of larger screen sizes.
At a mere $300 (list) for a complete audio solution, less than five minutes to set up and with virtually idiot-proof controls, the HT-SB300 shows a keen understanding of its target market and clearly puts affordability and convenience above all else. That being said, for this review we hit it with a bevy of home theater challenges to provide our readers with a specific evaluation of the performance they should expect. While comparisons to the reference standard of a discrete 5.1-channel home theater might be made along the way, keep in mind that a single-box Sound Bar is by design a very different animal.
What Can One Speaker Do?
The powered 32-watt HT-SB300 incorporates HDSS (high-definition sound standard), TBI Audio Systems' technology built upon the Embedded Transmission Line module, which passively processes sound waves, maintaining constant pressure without standing waves on the driver's diaphragm, thereby reducing noise and distortion for clearer sound reproduction. Of at least equal importance, as I would find out during my many demo's, is the inclusion of SRS Labs' WOW HD Sound, a suite of complementary audio solutions that work together to widen the soundfield in three dimensions, deepen the bass response and ensure clear dialogue.
The principal step-up from the 200 is the HT-SB300's slew of audio decoding/processing options, including DTS, Dolby Digital, Dolby Pro Logic II and Dolby Virtual Speaker. DTS and Dolby Digital decoding work to preserve the original integrity of movie soundtracks: a perfect fit for DVD. But don't you worry about compatibility with Blu-ray as all Blu-ray players will pass a standard DTS or Dolby Digital track out their S/PDIF digital outputs, even on discs encoded with the new lossless HD surround codecs (DTS-HD and Dolby TrueHD). Sure it's not the full lossless surround of which these formats are capable, but to appreciate that difference, you'd have to spend a bit more than $300.
Dolby Virtual Speaker seeks to simulate the sound of three additional speakers (a dedicated center and two rears) plus a subwoofer, and Dolby Pro Logic II meanwhile has long been a convincing way to bridge the gap between two-channel content and a 5.1 system, so performing its alchemy within the confines of a 2.1 system is certainly a new wrinkle.
Although only the familiar red/white stereo cables are packed in the box, the rear panel provides ample connectivity. In addition to the RCA-type analog stereo is an analog stereo mini-jack for quickly patching in an MP3 player or other portable device, as well as both Coaxial and Optical digital audio. Impressively, a Subwoofer Pre Out is also supplied, when we are ready to add an outboard sub. Depending upon where and how we set it up, we'll need to figure out what to do with the wires, directing them out of the way and likely hiding them somewhere inconspicuous.
The quasi-credit-card-sized remote efficiently packs dedicated controls for the subwoofer, "Bass/Treble" adjust to further tweak the sound, and can even handle the basic functions of a Sharp AQUOS LCD right out of the box. There is also a "Dimmer" button and ample on-speaker controls in the center, with a simple LED readout and additional lights.
Cannons, Muskets and Slow-Motion Bullets
The Samsung BD-P1600 Blu-ray Disc Player was my primary source component during my evaluation, an ideal choice because it affords so many different media options. I began with a Blu-ray movie, our bread and butter, namely the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World via the Digital Optical output. While quieter sounds in Chapter 4, "Under Attack," are reproduced with a natural delicateness, directionality is clearly lacking in a sequence that is loaded with it, the whizzing cannonballs being an obvious example. There is definitely a low-end presence, particularly when cranked up to "5" as during my most of my tests, but no palpable kick.
With Dolby Virtual Speaker engaged, the audio was more room-filling, more enveloping, with slightly more convincing directionality. One of my own personal barometers when testing any audio gear is how well it renders the scurrying on the deck on the H.M.S. Surprise. I'm not sure how the sound designers achieved it, but it actually sounds like the footsteps are coming from the deck all around and above us, and the HT-SB300 achieved it! Switching to SRS WOW HD enhanced the perception of directionality even further, and made everything in the mix seem more somehow more believable.
The Patriot Blu-ray features an Uncompressed PCM 5.1 track, which the Samsung player can conveniently re-encode to a high quality multi-channel DTS track for transmission over the player's fiberoptic digital output. And Chapter 7, "Gabriel's Rescue," is one of my all-time favorite demo scenes for both surround and LFE. SRS WOW HD imparted a sense of depth in front of me, with fine, detailed resonance, and the simulated directionality was actually rather effective for all the muskets firing every which way. Here again, the massive bass was of course conspicuously absent in all listening modes.
During the 360-degree "Bullet Time" in the roof battle, the HT-SB300 is pumping out enough audio info to almost trick the brain into believing the swirling sensation. I found this perceived effect--as well as the overall dynamic range--to be enhanced even further when I selected SRS WOW HD. At that point, to me, this was another step closer to how this movie should sound, and all from a single speaker cabinet! Later, there were a couple of seconds when bullets were ricocheting off of the fire escape as Neo is on the run, or the mechanical Sentinels are breaching the hull of The Nebuchadnezzar, and I was pretty darned close to being fooled that there were sounds surrounding me and not just emanating from the vicinity of the screen.
Let's not forget the music lovers, either. Connecting the stereo cable now (the digital cable works too, but the sound can be harsher on lower-quality signals such as MP3, plus this change was the simplest way to test Dolby Pro Logic II decoding), I soon discovered that even the compressed tune-age of Pandora sounds great over analog, natural and detailed with an enjoyable kick even at lower volume. Pro Logic II is automatically applied in the Dolby Virtual Speaker mode, definitely transforming music into a fuller, more immersive "Stereo+" although some clipping could still be heard in the high end. The musical benefit of SRS WOW HD is simple but effective, not gimmicky or distracting. CDs sound fabulous at low/medium volume, while maximum volume does not distort per se, rather the artificiality of the processing algorithms becomes apparent. Low end is remarkably solid on music, while the high end is missing just that touch of verve.
The very nature of a Sound Bar combined with the striking slimness of the Sharp HT-SB300 specifically led us to expect certain limitations, but I did not expect the many available listening modes to make such an appreciable improvement in the final sonic results. While I can't say that this affordable, easy-to-set-up-and-use unit can substitute for true 5.1, it can provide genuinely enjoyable home theater audio to complement the high-def video. This is particularly true when budget or space constraints preclude the purchase of a true 5.1-channel system. I'd recommend the Sharp HT-SB300 to anyone who wants a taste of the home theater experience without the expense and complexity of multiple speakers, but do yourself a favor and add a powered subwoofer to push the experience to the next level.
Where to Buy:
And How About a Nice Subwoofer to Go With it?
HT-SB300 Manufacturer's Specifications
What's in the Box?
Manufacturer Contact Information:
Sharp Electronics Corporation
Mahwah, NJ 07495
ph: 1-800-BE-SHARP (1-800-237-4277)