All (sound)bar none

Even the most ardent multichannel fan can have their head turned by a top-notch soundbar

I have been turned. Having being derisive and scathing about soundbars for as long as I can remember, my opinion has been massaged by the performance and spousal acceptance of one of the breed. You see, soundbars have not and never will deliver proper home cinema sound. They are too small, the left and right channels are too close together and those that do try to integrate rear effects never quite succeed. Yet they are damn popular with the proletariat. The UK soundbar market has been doubling in value every year for the last five years and in 2013 is expected to crest the key £100m mark. That is a whole lot of soundbars.

By and large they are far from perfect. They don’t match up cosmetically with your TV and often look like they have to be hung on the wall as an afterthought (which they mostly are). And the performance has been up there with the sort of sound quality that chunkier TVs could achieve about 15 years ago. So much for progress.

Knowing my opinion, UK distributor RedLine bravely suggested I try out a Studio 39-SB soundbar from the US brand Artison. Being the sceptical sort, I said no thanks. Quite a few times actually, but they were insistent. The trouble is the only suitable TV for soundbar installation is in my living room, which is the wife’s sanctuary from the chaos of AV hardware. She’s strict on that too, making one of my wedding vows ‘I promise to love, honour, obey and keep the living room free of electronics.'

Eventually I succumbed, and set about the high-risk strategy of installing the Studio 39 while she was out. The Artison came with mounting hardware that attaches to the TV bracket, meaning no holes or drilling required, and a custom-made grill was supplied to match the exact width of the TV. This is a £95 add-on to the soundbar's £800 ticket, but resulted in seamless integration. It looked just like the TV was designed with an area at the bottom covered with speaker cloth.

Now, here's the controversial bit: the Studio 39-SB is a passive 'bar. It offers individual left-, centre- and right-channel speakers in a single box, each with rather serious Vifa tweeters and carbon midrange drivers. As such it requires a separate amplifier. I concealed a Pioneer VSX-922 in a nearby cabinet, with speaker leads threaded through the existing trunking, and slipped a compact sub down beside the sofa. After running the setup on the Pioneer we were ready to go.

Performance wise, it provided a small step on the ladder to home cinema heaven and a giant leap for soundbar kind. It sounded rich, punchy and powerful with fabulous dialogue articulation. Blimey, a soundbar that actually thrills! But that was not the only revelation. Cautiously introducing the missus to the install she was immediately impressed by its discreetness, which allowed me to remove my rolling-pin-proof hard hat. I switched on the TV and amp to give her a demonstration and she was, frankly, blown away. I left the house, leaving her playing Take That’s Progress Live on Blu-ray at serious volume. Ironically, I could hear the strains of Let Me Entertain You as I pulled out of the drive.

Two weeks later and she fires up the 'bar by default when watching TV. EastEnders at over 90dB I can personally live without but this whole episode demonstrates why the soundbar market is booming – non AV enthusiasts just love convenience and discreet design – and that even those sniffy about performance can have their misconceptions blown away, albeit by an atypical offering.

Have you installed a soundbar in your house?
Let us know: email [email protected]