The Power of One: Five Soundbar Speaker Systems What Do You Think?

What Do You Think?

I was surprised to learn that most of these units actually replace the typical A/V receiver and further simplify setup. I ranked the Denon DHT-FS3 as my first choice. It is compact and comes with a subwoofer, and the sound quality should be acceptable to someone who doesn’t want to set up an entire 5.1-channel surround system. Isn’t that the whole point of these systems?

By far the best-sounding unit was the passive Polk soundbar. Unfortunately, you would need to purchase a quality A/V receiver and a subwoofer to have a complete system, which would make it one of the more expensive solutions.

None of the units was able to provide convincing surround-channel audio, although the Yamaha HF horizontal line array did the best at steering audio to the extreme left and right. If the wall surfaces and locations were optimized to reflect the sound toward the back wall, you could probably begin to mimic surround channels. —Scott Messler

In the interest of full disclosure, I must reveal the fact that I sleep with the Face Off moderator… which is only proper, as she is my wife. What this means in the scope of the Face Off is that I’ve heard my share of surround systems as they make their way through our house for review and then, sadly, go right back on the truck to the manufacturer. I’ve learned to keep my emotional distance when these objects arrive, but there is that rare instance when an item so endears itself to us or fits a need that we are able to justify its purchase and placement in our household. Such was my hope coming into this Face Off, as we do have a secondary entertainment space that would welcome a simple but elegant speaker solution.

I approached this exercise like a kid at a magic show—ready to suspend my disbelief, willing to be fooled, and wanting to be amazed by the promise of sound that surrounds from a single source. I left feeling heartbroken, yet wiser in the knowledge that nothing amazes like the real thing. All of the wires and complex speaker arranging that come with a 5.1-channel system are worth the trouble. Rather than spend the money on one of these systems, I’d look for a comparable 5.1 system and live with the aesthetics, no matter how visually unappealing or inconvenient that speaker cable might be.—Dano Holmquist

As someone with a completely untrained ear for such things, I found the entire process quite engaging as I began to appreciate both the obvious and subtle differences between these systems. I found that I was able to adopt much of the descriptive language common to such evaluations surprisingly quickly and use it to express my impressions reasonably well.

Of course, the aesthetics and value were easiest to assess. From an aesthetic standpoint, I definitely favored the systems that were clean and visually understated. I liked those that left me with the impression that they had plenty of horsepower under the hood but didn’t need to squeal the tires at every stoplight to prove it. A Ferrari knows it’s fast. Great lines. Plenty of power. A vehicle of substance.

Ultimately, my decision to choose the Polk came down to the quality of the audio experience and how well the system achieved what it was built to do. While the Polk certainly wasn’t the least expensive, I concluded that, if one is in the market for this type of product, they are at least somewhat sophisticated in their A/V tastes and would appreciate a system that delivers a full, rich audio surround experience. In the case of the Polk system, you definitely get what you pay for; and, to the discriminating ear, that is what matters most.—Johnny Hyde

I didn’t find any of these soundbars to be a worthy substitute for a good 5.1-channel system. These days, you could find a better-performing HT ensemble for similar money. At best, the soundbar is a second-room solution, a nice step-up product for your living room or bedroom system. With that in mind, I think Philips is the only company that got the price just right, but the sound quality was lacking.

Purely from a performance standpoint, I preferred the Polk SurroundBar 50 because it rendered the most natural, least processed sound. While I wouldn’t describe its soundfield as enveloping, it was certainly big and three-dimensional, and I didn’t feel I was missing any part of the surround-sound experience. However, the fact that you need to add an outboard subwoofer and A/V receiver (which adds to the bottom line) and set the system up as you would a standard HT ensemble misses the point of the soundbar genre.

Ultimately, Denon’s DHT-FS3 was the best example of the soundbar form in this group. Its $1,200 asking price includes everything you need: speaker, subwoofer, amplification, and a well-rounded connection panel. It’s extremely easy to set up, has a small and attractive profile, offers solid performance, and produces a convincing surround field with minimal effort. It’s the most consumer-friendly choice.—Adrienne Maxwell