OK, we're calling it: this is the year of the sound bar, those long, slender speaker boxes that you see freakin' everywhere. (Today alone we mentioned three companies introducing a total of six new models!) When our very own Brian Lam was at CES this past January, he heard the editor-in-chief of a top home Audiophile/Videophile magazine tell one of his lead sound gear writers "audio is just dead." That kind of talk is not unexpected—it's about as shocking as a French wine critic calling Australian shiraz "the end of civilization." We all know sound bars have a place, but what have they done to 5.1? As you may have noticed, not all sound bars are surround bars. Here's the breakdown of most currently available models:
Active surround sound: Plug and play, no external amp needed
Philips Ambisound ($1,000) - You get a lot for your money with this one. Not only is it an active surround system, but it comes with an iPod dock and has a built-in DVD player.
">Yamaha YSP series ($900 to $1,800) - Real deal audio projectors rely on reflection against back walls and a particular sweet spot, but often do very well to convey the 3D sound feel. The new flagship does video upscaling via HDMI and can handle iPods and XM radio.
Yamaha YAS-70 ($600) - This is very promising, for the money. It's meant specifically for smaller rooms, but promises the same surround as its siblings. And like the YSPs, it also requires a separate subwoofer.
SoundMatters SlimStage (Still "Under $1,000") - A powered sound-bar billed as slim yet so powerful and rich in frequency range, it doesn't even need a separate subwoofer. Too bad it hasn't shipped yet. When it does, it will succeed the $429 MainStage HD.
Denon DHT-FS3 Active Surround Sound System ($1,200) - 5-channel built-in amplifier for surround, plus a powered 50-watt subwoofer. (Three digital inputs, one analog one.)
Passive surround sound: Needs a little juice
Polk SurroundBar50 ($1,100) and SurroundBar ($950) - Delivers true five-channel sound, but does it the old fashioned way: It requires a 5.1 amplifier, like an A/V receiver or a home theater in a box. Also, you still need to supply a subwoofer.
Stereo sound bars: Not true surround, but you can fool some people some time
Boston Acoustics TVee Model Two ($400) - Today's Boston Acoustics entrant promises just 2.1, with a wireless "woofer" for middle to low-end fillout.
ZVOX ($200 to $600) - A bit chunky and stereo all the way, this all-in-one speakerbox has a cult following because of how much it eerily mimics surround sound with nothing more than stereo source. Great for people who just don't care about things creeping up from the rear.
A few of you audiophile folks might be wondering where some of your favorite sound bars are, like the Paradigm 3-in-1, the Mirage Uni-Theater or the Atlantic FS-5000 Flat Screen Speaker. These are all pretty awesome speaker bars, but they don't fulfill the specific goal of the others: they don't keep you from installing surround speakers behind your couch. Anyone who buys one of these and not use it as a complete surround system (in some cases, by buying a second to mount in the rear) is just dumb, or at least should have probably stuck with that tasty ZVOX.
Well, are they the end of the world? I don't think so. As you can see, there are just too many different types at work here, some are bound to be good, others not so much. The most important takeaway for all of us, including that stuffy editor, is that in the coming year there will only be more, not less, of these. So it's good to know what we're in for.