AudioSource S3D60 Soundbar Page 2

The next night, my family settled in to watch the "cancer comedy" 50/50, which we rented in HD from the FiOS video-on-demand library. The film turned out to be much better than we expected, and we were able to enjoy it in spite of the S3D60, whose muffled sound actually reduced the intelligibility of the clever but profanity-laced dialog between Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and his best buddy Kyle (Seth Rogen). My wife and teenage daughters repeatedly asked me to "turn it up," even though the level was already very hot, and I lost count of how many times we needed to jump back to repeat a muffled snippet of dialog. This is when I realized that the S3D60's volume control moves in unusually coarse increments, which made dialing in just the right level a hit-or-miss proposition.

I turned next to my Panasonic Blu-ray player. I've been using the Omaha Beach Landing scene from Saving Private Ryan as review material since it became available, and even though I've seen it dozens of times, it hasn't lost one bit of its shocking impact.

Unfortunately, the S3D60 did not fare any better with this source than it had with the FiOS DVR. Everything seemed dynamically compressed, rounding off the jarring acoustic transitions that occur every time the camera cuts back and forth between deafening, above-surface action shots and eerie, nearly silent underwater scenes. The many shouted instructions and orders, which are mixed to be crystal clear even in the midst of the battle noise, were muffled and hard to understand.

I also know that this scene contains some breathtaking surround-sound effects, although you wouldn't realize this if all you had ever heard was the S3D60's rendition. I spent a long time flipping between the three available surround modes, trying to convince myself that I could hear some widening of the stereo spread, much less any surround effects. I was eventually able to detect some widening of the soundfield using other material, but the difference between the Music, Movie, and Normal modes is subtle, and I had to concentrate hard to detect it at all.

Finally, it was time to listen to some music. Again, I have certain favorite tracks I've been using as review material for many years; I've heard these recordings played back on a huge range of equipment and know them like the back of my hand.

First up was my trusty CD of John Eliot Gardiner's breathtaking performance of the Monteverdi 1610 Vespers (the Vespro Della Beata Vergine, to be exact), which was recorded live in the magnificent acoustics of Saint Mark's cathedral in Venice, Italy. The piece begins with a tenor soloist intoning the Latin "Deus in adiutorium," immediately followed by the sudden fortissimo entrance of the entire ensemble, which in this recording is spread out in the same choir lofts on either side of the vast space that the musicians occupied when the piece debuted there over 400 years ago. This passage is musically intense and heavy on the midrange, but if the audio-reproduction system is up to snuff, the vocal and instrumental choirs should be crisply delineated and clearly located within the acoustic soundscape.

However, when the ensemble made its entrance this time around, the perfectly recorded voices and instruments were hazed by audible distortion. Dismayed by what I was hearing, I lowered the level and tried again. Same thing. I disconnected the optical cable I had been using and tried an analog connection. Same thing. I dragged an old Sony DVD player out of the garage and hooked that up. Same thing.

As one final check, I put on Mark Knopfler's excellent CD, Sailing to Philadelphia, and cued up the title track, which features sparkling clean vocals by Knopfler and James Taylor. As soon as they began to sing, I knew the jig was up—these simple but intense male vocals were audibly distorted.

At this point, I called Online Editor Scott Wilkinson and told him what I was hearing, and that I suspected (hoped, actually) that I had a defective unit on my hands. He sent me a second sample, but my hopes were dashed when it exhibited the exact same colorations and distorted sound as the first unit. Scott was able to hear this for himself when he visited my home a few days later.

Bottom Line The soundbar category is red hot and growing rapidly. There are many excellent options available, including some that sound very good indeed. At $350, the AudioSource S3D60 is not the cheapest by any means, and given its poor audio performance, relative lack of features, and ergonomic issues, I recommend you look elsewhere.