Insignia NS-SBar-A Soundbar Speaker Page 3

The downmixed audio stream was reasonably clear with most voices, although protagonist Cuba Gooding Jr.’s gentle rasp was noticeably unfocused. All voices betrayed a cupped-hands vocal coloration that persisted through the other movie demos—my brain never quite processed it out completely. There was also a modest high-frequency rolloff. It wasn’t pronounced enough to smother vocal clarity or prevent the telling of the story.

The first movie hadn’t taxed the soundbar’s dynamic capabilities, so it wasn’t until The Green Hornet (Blu-ray, DTS-HD Master Audio) got underway that I invoked Audyssey Dynamic EQ/Volume. I started at the Medium setting and graduated to Heavy when the swooshing effects got a little strident (although the system isn’t strident at more modest volume levels). The internal woofers were effective enough to suggest the basic shape of rhythm sections, giving the bass line of the Rolling Stones’ “Live with Me” a modest but pleasant lift.

In Thirst (DVD, Dolby Digital), surround effects are especially conspicuous in their absence. Supernatural effects just weren’t super, undercutting the dramatic thrust of this Korean vampire story as it modulates from quiet solemnity to merry mayhem. The climactic scene, surrounded by surf, came off two-dimensional. Of course, this had less to do with the product’s performance than its conception. Do you really want to do movies in 2.1? That’s up to you. (I’ll take mine in surround, thanks.)

Dynamic Volume Terrain
I wanted the music demos for this soundbar to be suitably undemanding CDs, with no fussy high-resolution content or steep dynamic hills to climb. So I started with Complete Works for Piano Four Hands by Erik Satie, performed by the Duo Campion-Vachon. Bad move. I had completely forgotten about Satie’s mischievous sense of humor. The first piece, “Parade,” features a loud siren as well as other effects, such as a revolver, typewriter, and spinning lottery wheel. A hasty switch in Audyssey Dynamic EQ/Volume settings from Off to Heavy saved the day. This altered the artistic intention, but it had to be done. Even in later pieces, when the dual pianists pounded away at full strength, Dynamic Volume (Light) helped prevent hardness from setting in without distorting timbre or space in any grossly obvious way. Some may consider it almost sacrilegious to use low-volume listening modes to tamper with musical dynamics, and in a receiver-based system, I might avoid it. But with an inexpensive soundbar, you do whatever works.

My modest expectations for soundbars led me to indulge in Thelonious Monk: Genius of Modern Music, Vol. 2, part of his collected Blue Note works. These 1951–52 recordings were made on lacquer disc, inevitably in mono, and originally released as 78s—but they have been brilliantly restored by Rudy Van Gelder for this second-generation CD release. With some tracks, the cumulative rolloff of the content and the soundbar produced a gauzy distancing effect. But other tracks had an unexpected sparkle. Everything felt raw and immediate, with muscle beneath the gauze. I got more pleasure out of this demo than I’d expected.

The Grateful Dead’s One from the Vault is a 1975 performance recorded in analog 16-track. Vocals were surprisingly natural, with little of the coloration that seemed so persistent in the movie demos. The 3.5-inch woofers didn’t give the lower notes of Phil Lesh’s bass as much profundity as they needed—in fairness, few systems do—yet there was still enough mid- and upper-bass response to make his presence felt.

Frankly, for $200, I expect a speaker system to be garbage. And I won’t make any secret of my conviction that two-point-anything channels aren’t enough for today’s movies. But I liked this product more than I’d expected, especially its treatment of music. With the combined talents of Audyssey’s and Insignia’s design teams, this little plastic soundbar is voiced as cleverly as its materials and dimensions allow. The integration of Audyssey Dynamic EQ/Volume into a soundbar is inspired—it really does help with a variety of content, and when it doesn’t help, the remote makes it easy to turn down or off.

Does the Insignia NS-SBar-A give the audio half of the home theater equation the proper weight? Well, if you’re looking to complement a top-flight display with top-flight audio, you should set your sights higher. A lot higher. But if you want to outfit an entry-level flat-panel HDTV with listenable sound for the least possible investment, this intelligently and pragmatically designed product is just what you’d want.