Technology

Philips SoundBar: Sounds Like a Winner


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Editor's Rating: star rating

The simulated-surround-sound system is a good choice for small-apartment dwellers who want a big movie soundtrack experience

Suppose you've hooked up a new high-definition television, popped the popcorn, and suddenly discovered that the sound being pumped out of the set's built-in speakers just doesn't do justice to the audio on HD recordings. Audiophiles will run out and spring for a fancy new multimedia receiver and speaker system, but those who hate the idea of running wires around the room and dealing with the complicated setup will simply make do.

Philips' SoundBar HTS8100 is one of a growing number of devices coming to market aimed at solving this problem. The SoundBar—which lists for $800 but can be found for less than $600—is a single, stylish, horizontal black speaker designed to deliver a simulated, no-fuss, no-muss, surround-sound experience.

Better yet, the SoundBar comes with a built-in DVD player that's hidden behind a nifty sliding front panel in the middle of the unit. While it's not a Blu-Ray or HD-DVD player, it can convert standard video all the way up to the full HD resolution of 1080p. While all that processing can't produce the same image quality as a high-definition player, it makes the picture look better and does so without creating significant artifacts that can mar the viewing experience.

Streamlined Setup and Sound

The minimalist approach extends to the controls, which amount to just a few silver buttons toward the top of the right-side panel. A red light on the bottom right of the speaker turns blue when the unit is powered on. There's also a USB port on the left-side panel to play photos and music directly from a portable flash storage drive.

Philips has taken big strides toward making setup easy, even for technophobes. You simply place the device where you want it and connect a couple of clearly marked cables (you hook the output up through a single HD multimedia interface or a component cable).

The device, measuring 5.8 inches high by 36.8 in. long by 5.4 in. deep, can either be mounted on the wall under your set or sit on a horizontal surface. The one downside for those trying to avoid a tangle of wires is SoundBar's accompanying subwoofer, which is too large to be wall-mounted and requires a longish cable that you can't really hide unless you tear out walls.

There's also little worry about adjusting settings to get optimal sound performance. An on-screen guide lets you provide three key pieces of information about the SoundBar's location: how high the speaker is positioned relative to the audience, where in the room it's placed, and whether there are any walls in the way. This information is important because the SoundBar simulates surround sound. That's different than a typical surround-sound system, also known as 5.1 channel, where you position five speakers and a subwoofer in front, beside, and behind you to produce the desired effect. By contrast, the SoundBar uses five amplifiers and the sophisticated algorithms in Philips' multichannel AmbiSound technology to "bend" sound waves from the front-facing speaker to create the same impression.

It works, too. I watched two movies, Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events and The Bourne Supremacy. Sound boomed out of the box, even at very low settings. Many of the effects actually sounded like they were coming from a particular side of the room or from behind, even though the speaker was in front of me.

Not Just for TV Audio

The SoundBar can also play music from regular and MP3 CDs, but it didn't offer quite the range as more robust audio systems, especially when it came to classical and jazz recordings. Still, the sound was good enough for serving up background music to listen to while you're doing other things.

You also can feed the sound from your TV to the system using a stereo audio jack on the main unit, or with the stereo and coaxial digital jacks on the subwoofer. But this gets a little more cumbersome than using a larger multimedia stereo system since you have to use two different remotes: the TV's remote to control the video and the SoundBar's for the sound.

Philips throws one more goody into the package—an iPod dock that lets you control your Apple (AAPL) handheld device through SoundBar's remote control and on-screen interface. The dock even features a video output to show video and photos on your TV, though again, the extra wires may strike some as aesthetically annoying.

While the SoundBar isn't superior to what you'd get buying a larger speaker system and stringing wires, it serves as a perfectly acceptable substitute for those who'd like a great but easy way to accessorize their big-screen television viewing.

Edwards is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Silicon Valley bureau .

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