Insignia NS-SBar-A Soundbar Speaker

Build Quality
Price: $200 At a Glance: 2.1-channel soundbar with bottom-firing bass drivers • Dynamic Volume and other Audyssey features • No surround processing, analog input only

Home theater is the union of big-screen picture and surround sound. Flat-panel HDTVs have made the first half of the equation irresistible even for consumers of modest means. But the sound-related half has suffered in comparison. In fact, it has suffered in response: The thinner the HDTV gets, the less hospitable its pencil-thin enclosure becomes to speakers. Things have gotten to the point where an HDTV’s built-in speakers aren’t even up to the task of delivering a weather report, let alone a high-caliber movie experience or decent music playback. Ultra-flat HDTVs are like anorexic supermodels who starve their puppies because they want pets as fashionably thin as they are.

Soundbars treat some of the symptoms even if they’re not always the most complete cure. Ideally, I’d like every home theater system that has serious cinematic and musical aspirations to use substantial stand-mount speakers or at least a decent satellite/subwoofer set. Alternatively, in-walls and on-walls can do the job less intrusively. Any of those solutions would offer more placement flexibility than a soundbar. Except for those with exceptionally effective faux-surround processing, soundbars are inherently limited by their physical width, which also limits the width of the soundstage.

What if you don’t want to pay a four-figure sum for a soundbar with the very best surround processing? And what if you don’t want any appendages to the soundbar—no separate subwoofer, no surround speakers (wireless or otherwise), and especially no A/V receiver? Finally, what if you don’t want to pay more than you did for your bargain-basement flat-panel HDTV just to outfit it with decent sound? Insignia—Best Buy’s in-house brand—offers the NS-SBar-A for your consideration. It costs just $200 list, less than any soundbar I’ve previously reviewed.

Not Swank, Not Junk
The NS-SBar-A looks neither swanky nor like a piece of junk. The front of its enclosure is neatly framed in gloss black plastic, while the remainder is matte black plastic. At 38 inches in width, it’s suitable for midsized flat-panel HDTVs. Buttons along the top edge control power, volume, and inputs, both wired and wireless. More about the wireless aspect in a moment.

Forget about surround. This is a 2.1-channel product with a 0.75-inch silk-dome tweeter and a 2-inch paper-coned midrange driver at either end of its baffle. For the point-one portion of the sound, you can flip a bass switch on the back to the Internal position, which activates two 3.5-inch paper-coned woofers on the bottom of the enclosure. Or, for extra credit, you can flip the switch to External and install an outboard sub, which the soundbar will feed with frequencies below its fixed 120-hertz crossover. (Be warned that 120 Hz is on the high side, so you’ll want a sub that can play tunefully up to that point.)

What if you want to use the downward-firing woofers in conjunction with table placement? Insignia provides two feet to prevent the drivers from being blocked. The feet fit snugly into rubber grommets on the bottom of the cabinet, preventing any extraneous rattles from being added to the low-cost enclosure’s inherent plastic-box coloration. For wall mounting, Insignia supplies a bracket.

Like many other low-priced soundbars, this one is designed to receive its primary audio input from an HDTV’s two-channel output. It has two analog inputs, one with RCA jacks, one with a 1/8-inch mini-jack (the latter for a portable device). Digital inputs are absent. So is any form of video input: You’ll have to switch all incoming video signals through your HDTV. The probable assumption is that if you have more than one A/V source, you’ll hook them all up to the HDTV, and the HDTV’s analog audio out will feed the speaker. Make sure your HDTV has analog outputs, as some models now feature only TosLink digital for routing the HDTV’s sound to an external amplifier.

To avoid any concerns about audio processing in my HDTV, I deviated from the manufacturer’s script and connected the Insignia directly to the analog stereo outputs of my Oppo BDP-83SE universal disc player. I was careful to instruct the player to downmix all surround signals to stereo, so that center-mixed dialogue and surround-mixed effects would find their way into the two-channel feed.