Niles Cynema Soundfield CSF55A In-Wall Soundbar System Page 2

Of course, I don’t mean to minimize the effort involved in installing the CSF55A. Depending on the extent of your system, you’ll need to run inside the wall some input cables from A/V sources, as well as an HDMI cable to the TV. Once installed, though, the CSF55A is as easy to use as, and maybe easier than, nearly any other active out-of-the-wall soundbar. When an audio signal is present, the system automatically turns on and selects the correct input—and the appropriate processing mode (Dolby Digital for DD signals or DSP virtual surround for non-DD signals to the digital inputs, DSP virtual surround for analog)—with priority always given to the HDMI input. The few manual control buttons on the front of the amp module (power, source, volume, mute, and LCR levels) aren’t accessible with the grille in place. Niles provides RC command codes compatible with most learning remote controls, but the CSF55A can learn commands for power, volume, and mute from the TV’s or another A/V device’s remote control. In my case, I taught the CSF55A some codes from my Dish Hopper with Sling DVR. It worked quite well, although the volume-up command was a tad more sensitive than I would have liked.

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I Cut a Hole in My Wall for This?
I’m convinced that the people tasked with marketing soundbars are psychoacoustipaths (technically, socioacoustipaths, I suppose) who quit political speechwriting gigs because even remotely adhering to the vaguest vestiges of truth was too constraining. When these folks purport that $130 soundbar/sub systems provide “true-to-life surround sound without extra speakers,” you know we’re no longer inhabiting the same multiverse. Niles, though, is refreshingly low-key about the CSF55A’s sound quality, preferring to emphasize the system’s convenience, versatility, and unobtrusiveness, all of which it has in spades. On the other hand, when the extent of the hype trumpeting its audio performance is along the lines of “it sounds better than TV speakers,” that does little to entice my lustful desires for new aural entertainment—especially when I have to slice through drywall.

But, it didn’t take long after the sheetrock dust had settled to discover that, despite the fact that the Niles CSF55A mounts flush in the wall, it clearly stands out as an active soundbar. The front soundstage was incredibly wide, and there were times when the faux surround effects were stunningly organic and engaging. With Pacific Rim, the CSF55A did a phenomenal job re-creating the spaciousness and the reverberations in the huge bunker where the last remaining Jaegers are being prepared for battle. While the CSF55A never convinced me that it was raining behind me during the thunderstorm scenes in Ratatouille, it was wildly successful in swirling around the room the maelstrom of sewer water that Remy (with his cookbook) nearly drowns in after the rat colony’s exodus. The most significant flaw I could find? Although the CSF55A was extremely impressive at expanding the noise of the crowd during broadcasts of this past World Series, it proved unable to provide even a simulated Cardinals victory.

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To assuage my baseball disappointment, I turned to music and quickly morphed my sighs of despair into sighs of delight. A fairly small, relatively low-powered, three-speaker system mounted in a wall (i.e., the Niles CSF55A) simply shouldn’t sound this good. In terms of clarity and detail, the CSF55A was astonishingly good at playing back the various tracks featuring resonant marimba, bells, and crotales on Kuniko’s Cantus disc. By far, though, the CSF55A’s most sensational moments occurred with Derrick Hodge’s genre-fusing “The Real” from Live Today. While the horns remained locked solidly in the center, a mind-bending series of textured sounds moved about the room, emerging and disappearing in all directions. The CSF55A maintained a stereo image (albeit a much narrower one) even when I was sitting some 35 to 40 degrees off axis. It also exhibited little noticeable comb filtering between the center and the left or right drivers. In this particular regard, as a matter of fact, the CSF55A ranks among the top soundbars I’ve listened to. Although the spatial processing isn’t defeatable, the system’s performance with two-channel sources never gave me cause to wish I could turn off the processing.

The CSF55A by itself can’t be expected to produce much useable bass, so it really goes without saying that for serious movie or music performance, the soundbar demands a subwoofer—and the Niles SW8 worked beautifully in extending the reach of the CSF55A. The combo blended smoothly, and despite the fact that I had the crossover on the SW8 set at 100 Hz, I never noticed shifting or smearing in low voices or effects. Of course, with the wireless kit, the SW8 add-on comes to $797; but when you hear how much larger and more authoritative it makes the CSF55A sound, it’s almost impossible to resist putting them together.

Conclusion
The Niles Cynema Soundfield in-wall, active soundbars are the only creatures of their kind at the moment, so it’s difficult to make comparisons and value judgments. But I can say this: The Niles CSF55A has all of the simplicity and easeof-use that make most soundbars such an attractive option. In terms of sound quality, there are a handful of traditional soundbars selling for less that outperform it—Atlantic Technology’s $799 PB-235 Powered Soundbar comes to mind, for example. But the PB-235 is hefty by soundbar standards, and the CSF55A is damn near invisible. That’s a feature most other soundbars would give their left channel for. You’ll have to make your own decision about whether the “in-the-wall and out-of-mind” aspect is worth the extra money (plus the install time/cost). Unlike the case with most soundbars, though, the Niles CSF55A’s low profile is an ergonomic bonus rather than a performance-wrecking compromise, so there’s virtually no sonic penalty for being concerned with appearances. Niles should win an award just for accomplishing that.

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