Tech Trends 2012: Soundbars Raise the Bar

In the last couple of years, I’ve heard several speaker manufacturers predict that the increasingly good-sounding $300 products from the likes of Panasonic, Samsung, and Vizio would soon push all the traditional audio companies out of the soundbar biz. But it hasn’t happened. This year’s CES saw the introduction of several new soundbars from respected brands.

Probably the most exciting soundbar demo I heard was of the new GoldenEar Technology SuperCinema 3D Array. So confident was GoldenEar’s Sandy Gross of the bar’s sound quality that he demo’d it playing stereo music instead of 5.1 — and it delivered smooth sound and a big soundstage. The $999 bar uses six 4.5-inch midrange/ woofers, three tweeters that are slightly smaller versions of the company’s acclaimed HVFR tweeter, and crosstalk cancelation circuitry that helps the bar sound much broader than its 48-inch span.
At CES, the new Paradigm Shift soundbar sat idle in the company’s room, but I’m eager to hear it. The bar has dual 4-inch midwoofers, dual 4-inch passive radiators, and dual S-PAL tweeters; the sub has an 8-inch woofer. Get it this summer for $799.
Most active soundbars (meaning models with built-in amps) cost less than $400, but the MartinLogan SLM soundbar takes the category upscale. The SLM has three Folded Motion tweeters (similar to the HVFR tweeter used by GoldenEar Technology) and four midrange/woofers. Unlike those $300 soundbars, the SLM doesn’t come with a wireless subwoofer. Instead, it has a wireless transmitter that’s compatible with any of the company’s excellent Dynamo subwoofers. It uses a virtualizer (similar to SRS or Virtual Dolby) to create surround effects. The company projects a price of $1,300 to $1,400.
Definitive Technology has made several passive soundbars — i.e., the kind that are powered by a separate receiver — but it used CES to intro its first active 5.1-channel soundbar. The Definitive Technology Solo Cinema XTR will include such advanced features as HDMI inputs; decoding of all popular surround formats, including DTSHD Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD; and a 250-watt wireless subwoofer. It’s only 2.25 inches thick, which is kind of a miracle when you consider it packs nine drivers and a total of 200 watts of power.
The Harman Kardon Soundbar 30 uses digital steering technology similar to that found in Yamaha’s well-respected line of soundbars. The $799 Soundbar 30 incorporates six 2-inch drivers, seven 1-inch drivers, 11 amplifiers, and sophisticated digital signal processing that lets it project sound in any forward direction in the horizontal plane. It also has Dolby Volume technology to keep the level where you like it. A wireless sub with a 100-watt amp and an 8-inch driver pumps out the bass.