5 simple TV sound systems

Soundbars may not sound quite as good as more complicated systems, but they make things a lot simpler.

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By Sonia Zjawinski, Money Magazine contributing writer

The Sony RHT-S10 was our soundbar Field Test winner.

(Money Magazine) -- So you're one of the 49 million Americans who own a flat-panel TV. Great! But unless the sound measures up to the visuals, you're only halfway there.

If you want a home theater that truly rivals the local megaplex - minus the braying laughter and sticky floors - the next step is getting serious about audio. And that means surround sound.

Problem is, the current standard - so-called 5.1 surround sound - requires a receiver, at least six components and usually a tangle of wires. (What 5.1 refers to is the separation of audio into five channels: two speakers in the front, two in the back and one in the center. The 0.1 is the subwoofer, which produces the lowest bass.) You get wrapped in sound from every direction. But you also get a room stuffed with unsightly electronics.

Enter the soundbar. Measuring about five inches high and 36 inches across, it usually packs multiple speakers, along with a receiver and at least one internal woofer, into a single piece of equipment. The bar can go either inside a media cabinet or on a wall.

Because you have to plug in only one device (two if you add an external subwoofer), setup takes just minutes. You can also play CDs through these babies and plug in MP3 players, as you can with 5.1 surround systems. A soundbar costs about the same as a low-end 5.1 system: roughly $500 to $900.

So how exactly does a soundbar work? According to manufacturers, it pumps out audio in specific directions, altering the sound waves and bouncing them off the walls to trick your brain and ears into thinking that what you're hearing is coming from the front, sides and back of the room. It's not really surround sound, in other words - it just seems that way.

To find out how well soundbars deliver, Money Magazine asked New York City audio engineer Jessica Thompson to help us try out five models. In our tests, we heard good sound in front of and beside us, but it was tough to sense much coming from behind.

A soundbar's quality is highly dependent on the space it's in - the makers say they work best in rooms that are completely walled off, with no open windows or doors - so we even tried each in different locations. No great improvement.

Our results didn't surprise Rob Enderle, analyst at tech research firm Enderle Group. "Soundbars aren't as good at moving sound around as separate speakers are," he says - not yet, at least. "But they're a heck of a lot more convenient."

Bottom line: If you're looking for a bit more oomph than your TV's built-in audio provides, you refuse to cramp your aesthetic, and your TV is in a room you can close off - not, say, a family room/kitchen combo - a soundbar may be for you. Specifically, consider the Sony RHT-S10, which gave the closest approximation to surround sound in our tests.

But if you really want to hear Iron Man crush his enemies, shop for a traditional 5.1 system - you'll get more surround for your money. Be sure to get an amplifier, and buy speakers from the same brand and line for a more even sound.

Those less tech-savvy might consider "home theater in a box" systems (packaged sets of matched components, usually reasonably priced), suggests Enderle. He recommends the Onkyo HT-S7100 ($800).

How we tested: Audio engineer Jessica Thompson - whose job involves mastering and archiving sound tracks with depth, clarity and frequency spectrum in mind - to listen as we played action flicks and TV shows, as well as rock CDs.

Field test
  • Sony RHT-S10 $620 - Field test winner
  • Size: 44.5"x6.8"x5.5"
  • What's inside: Three speakers featuring mids and tweeters (for mid- and high-frequency sound), plus an internal woofer
  • Sound quality: The RHT-S10 delivered "more dimension" than the rest, Thompson says. A powerful internal woofer hit bone-rattling lows. And Thompson heard some noise from behind - not a lot, but more than from the other models. This one doesn't allow you much customization - say, sending more sound to one speaker - but nontechies may prefer the automatic setup. Overall, it was the most similar to 5.1 sound.
  • Grade: B+
  • Samsung HT-X810 $699
  • Size: 39.3"x7.5"x6.4"
  • What's inside: Two tweeters (left and right), four woofers (two left, two right) and an external wireless subwoofer
  • Sound quality This bar took advantage of left and right speakers to deliver audio that swooped in from the sides - but the "surround" effect was minimal. The external subwoofer proved a bit overwhelming (though it's adjustable via remote). The audio is far better than your TV can provide, but don't expect to be enveloped by it. It's more like having regular stereo sound.
  • Grade: B-
  • Yamaha YSP-900 $699
  • Size: 31.5"x6"x4.5"
  • What's inside: 21 (two-watt) speakers, which handle highs, and two built-in woofers for lows
  • Sound quality: That's right, the YSP-900 has 21 speakers(!) - all very low wattage - meant to beam sound at slightly different angles. Even so, Thompson felt it was "a bit too center-focused" and lacked the dimension and bass of the Sony. (That after we used the feature promising to calibrate it to our room.) We tried adjusting the speakers manually, but it didn't help. Another strike: The woofers didn't deliver much bass.
  • Grade: C+
  • Soundmatters SLIMstage40 $899
  • Size: 39"x3.5"x3.7"
  • What's inside: Four speakers that handle both mids and highs (two left, two right), three woofers and two bass radiators that boost lows
  • Sound quality: The slimmest of the bunch, this one comes in different lengths to match your TV. Nice looking. But while it did better than the TV alone, Thompson noted its "small sound" and overall lack of dimension. You can adjust how much audio goes through the speakers and how heavy the bass is, but the improvements weren't huge.
  • Grade: C
  • Philips HTS8100 $599
  • Size: 36.8"x5.4"x5.7"
  • What's inside: Two tweeters, six mids and an external subwoofer
  • Sound quality: The sleek styling might almost make you forget that you can't quite hear the surround sound you paid for. You tell the soundbar its placement in the room, its height and its distance from the viewer, which is supposed to help calibrate the system. Yet the audio isn't drastically better than that from a TV's built-in speakers. In "virtual surround sound" mode, audio seemed synthetic. This one delivers more style than function.
  • Grade: C-

Note: Prices as of Aug. 19 from BestBuy.com.

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