I was very excited. A brand new LED TV. Huge, super thin, almost no bezel around the screen, outstanding picture, eye-popping colours, stunning picture quality, deep contrast and fantastic 3D too. I had it wall mounted and it barely came out an inch from the wall. This was a 65-inch masterpiece, pure art, a stunning showcase of just how much TV technology had progressed. I set up my favourite movie, popped the popcorn, placed a pitcher of ice tea on the side and hit the play button – all set to be dazzled.
The opening sequence started, the visuals were big and beautiful and the sound was... Huh? The sound was like a pipsqueak! The lion’s roar was like a mouse bellowing in constipated pain, the deafening roll of thunder was a wimpy gasp and that amazing loud thump of gunfire – nothing more than little blips. The sound was pitiful. Not being one to give up – I fired up the menu and went right into the audio section. There it was – the problem. Bass and Treble were almost zero, Loudness was switched off and it wasn’t in Movie mode either. There – all done. Time to rock the room! Restart executed, deafening sound awaited, the movie starts from the beginning, the visuals are again stunning and the sound is a muffled jumble of nothing. The constipated bellowing and the pipsqueaking had only become worse. This wasn’t a problem with just this TV, this was a universal phenomenon. Welcome to the world of stunningly thin, amazing visual and terrible audio TVs.
No space for sound
TV technology has advanced dramatically. From the time of those thick, fat CRT clunkers to today’s thin wall art-style displays – everything has improved. Except for one thing – the sound! Today’s anorexic and painfully thin TVs have neither the space nor the technology to pull off good sound. Inside those thin frames, there’s barely enough space to put in all the screen components – sound is always an afterthought. Which is why your state-of-the-art TV still sounds worse than your R500 computer speakers. TV audio sucks and sucks big time.
A New Journey
Which is why it was time to embark on another quest. I needed great sound in my room to go with this great albeit sound-challenged TV. What I didn’t need was a plethora of extra AV equipment, nor ugly wires transversing all across. It was time to enter the domain of the sound bars. Now this is a category on fire! It didn’t exist till a few years ago and has only come about due to TVs going thin in size and sound. Ironically most sound bars are made by the very companies that make TVs and refuse to put in better sound inside. Without cribbing and whining about the fact that I was going to be paying extra for what should have come built in, I embarked on my new audio adventure.
Let’s keep this simple. Despite the fact that most companies will try and dazzle you with a lot of techie jargon and rocket science features – sound bars are basically speakers encased in a single box and come in two categories. Active; which basically means that the amplification is built in and all you have to do is plug in your TV and off it goes. And Passive; where you do need an amp or a receiver for it to fire up the sound. Then there are those that come with a subwoofer and those that have that built into the same box. Drilling down further, subwoofers can be wireless or wired. My quest was already in place and thus it had to be an active sound bar (can’t imagine having a huge AV receiver in my bedroom), with a serious subwoofer (I need my bass to thump and my gunfire to rattle my ribs) and if external – the subwoofer had to be wireless. Most companies claim that a single box will give you fantastic surround sound that is equal to having a 5.1 or 7.1 speaker system planted all over your room by throwing sound off walls and the roof as well as adding artificial delays. Take that claim with a pinch of salt. At best – you can get great sound with the central dialogue enhanced. Here’s where my quest led me.
Pioneer SB510: Speakers and the subwoofer inside the box, HDMI plus a USB port, and even an acoustic calibration system built in with supplied microphone. Sound was good, the bass was okay and the HDMI is a great idea.
Yamaha YHT-S401: This is the company that started the whole idea of simulated surround sound from a single box. But most of the time you need an external amplifier with a Yamaha sound bar. This one is a bit of a compromise as a digital amp is part of the package, and has the subwoofer in it too. It claims 7.1 pseudo surround, but I was happy that it sounded clean and true.
Boston Acoustics TVee Model 30: Boston Acoustics adds a twist to its 3.1 speaker bar. It adds Bluetooth – so you can pair any phone or tablet and play all your music directly from it. Also great is an optical audio in, a separate setting for music and movies, and a great thumping bass from its wireless subwoofer – with no muddiness.
Polk Audio IHT 3000: A nice-looking bar with a solid wireless subwoofer; this one gave some fantastic sound and a tight clean bass. It also tried its best to generate some real surround. Can be wall-mounted or kept on a table.
Samsung HW-D570: This box is bigger and longer than most and also has a separate wired iPhone dock. The subwoofer is pretty big and is wireless. Only two speakers inside the box, thus the centre channel didn’t have very clean separation.
Finally, the lion truly roared, the thunder was thunderous and the gunfire thumped my chest hard and true. This is what my big, beautiful TV should have done in the first place. Still, a sound bar is great for much more than just attaching to your TV – as I also play music and Internet radio off it. Now which one of these ‘test’ pieces am I going to keep? I’ll let you know after the movie is over!
Rajiv Makhni is managing editor, Technology, NDTV, and the anchor of Gadget Guru, Cell Guru and Newsnet 3. Follow Rajiv on Twitter at twitter.com/RajivMakhni
From HT Brunch, October 21
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