The explosion of flat-panel and microdisplays has multiplied the number of manufacturers and products on the market. Unfortunately this happy profusion leaves a performance gap on the audio side. My Sharp AQUOS LCD HDTV has excellent speakers—by TV-speaker standards—but I don't depend on them for movies. And the sound on a typical no-name LCD set is simply wretched for any content, even sitcoms. So what do you do when you've uncrated your new display only to discover that the other half of the home theater equation is a shaping up to be a big zero?
The answer is: You buy a surround receiver and a good set of speakers. But there will always be people who don't want the wiring and setup hassle, just as there will always be people who don't take their vitamins. The next best thing is to look for technology that finesses the issue, providing the largest possible fraction of the surround experience. Enter soundmatters with a flat single-piece speaker console and cunningly designed flat sub. Put the MAINstageHD ($399) and SUBstage100 ($299) together and you have the FULLstageHD ($649). Wow, my CAPS LOCK key is getting a good workout today.
The MAINstageHD measures 2.75 inches high by 16.5 wide by 9.3 deep. It has two drivers in front measuring 2 by 2.75 inches and a four-inch "subwoofer" (let's just say woofer) on top. The main drivers get 20 watts RMS of Class D power each and the woofer gets another 40 watts. The best place for the unit is atop a microdisplay or on a rack below any other kind of display. soundmatters (go easy on the shift key) also suggests a bracket mount above a wall-mounted flat panel though such an arrangement would have the MAINstageHD's nine-inch-plus depth jutting well beyond the screen surface.
To my mind, the star of the system is the SUBstage100. It lives in a steel enclosure measuring 8 inches high by 16.7 wide by 4.5 deep with grille. On one side is a 6.5-inch cone woofer. On the other side are a pair of square 6 by 6 inch passive radiators that are actually steel plates. I delighted in tapping them with my fingertip—they let out a small but solid bonking sound. These two steel walls, coated and suspended in rubber, are set in motion by neodymium magnets, and together they form a 14-inch piston. You might stick the unit at the bottom of the rack, but it might also mount on the wall behind the display, or mount behind your sofa if it's close to the wall, or sit under the sofa.
Hookup options abound. The MAINstageHD accepts digital coaxial, digital optical, RCA analog stereo, or mini-jack stereo line inputs, the latter variable with a back-panel knob, so you may feed it with as many as three signal sources, including an iPod. The sub has level, crossover, phase, and attenuation controls. For better surround effects, you might add a second MAINstageHD in the back of the room, though a single front unit can synthesize surround effects to a limited degree.
Adjustments on the remote include two major options in addition to volume and bass controls. There are two buttons that turn the dialogue mode on and off. It adds a midrange peak that emphasizes vocals, though it also boosts instrumental parts with significant midrange energy around the same frequency, like the chugging electric guitars in Metallica's "Enter Sandman." The surround on/off button opens up the soundstage a bit though I'd say it's no substitute for a real five-speaker soundfield. Using the two in combination produces a distinctly artificial sound that emphasizes vocals too much. One track, Mountain's "Mississippi Queen," sounded best with both controls off. Usually, though, I was happy using one or the other, most often opting for the surround control.
Bass from the SUBstage100 is cleaner than anything you'd hear from all but the best HTiBs. It isn't as powerful as, say, a similarly priced HSU Research sub, but it's got some oomph. And there's more to it than mere oomph. There's some real bass extension and a tonal purity absent from most subwoofers outside the megabucks high end. I cranked it up high with some tracks and backed it off with others, thankful for the bass up and down controls on the remote.
The soundmatters FULLstageHD is a brilliant product. The MAINstageHD and SUBstage100 are both movie-worthy and the latter really isn't comparable to anything else on the market.
Mark Fleischmann is the author of the annually updated book Practical Home Theater. For links to the latest edition, visit www.quietriverpress.com.