Sound Bars – how wrong I was.

Now and again I get to have a root around in the R&D labs of obscure Chinese factories. The sales manager is holding out a piece of kit “we are developing this for the (insert continent here) market, what do you think?” Most of the gear I see is a rework on an existing concept and you know the main difference to its uptake will rely on its price vs how heavy it feels and whether it’s available in sliver. Now and again I come across something that is actually different and this day was going to be one of those days.

About 5 years ago we were about to head off for that lunch in a foreign country (that kind of day where someone else is calling the shots and you just pray that there won’t be anything wriggly on the plate) when my man pulled out a long rectangular box with five speakers in it.

Now I’m a home theatre man through and through and where I went to school, speakers must sit around the listener in as close to a circle as possible. Time is actually spent with a measuring tape gauging the distance from the listener to each speaker and inputting this data into the receiver to calibrate the delay times – anyway back to the story…

ME: OK, what is it?
SM: It’s a sound bar.
ME: A what?
SM: A sound bar.  You sit it under the TV and it creates a 5.1 surround sound effect from the front of the room.
ME: Hahahahahahahahaha, you’re funny, good luck with that. How do you feel about burgers for lunch today?

There is no way you can make sound come from behind you when the speaker is in front and that’s that. Fast forward 5 years, and about 20 different people telling me how great sound bars are and we really must get into them, all the time I give them the same response I gave my Chinese sales manager, sometimes with the bit about the burgers, sometimes not.

Over the intervening time, LCD panels gave way to LED panels, the prices plummeted and they got thinner and thinner, but here’s the problem, so did the speakers inside them. Our audience is enjoying a 40” plus HD picture but listening to it on speakers worse than airline headphones.

Recently I was coerced into installing one of these “Bars of Sound” from Definitive Technology in a showroom in College Hill in Auckland. After tightening the last screw I sat back with a smug air to watch the device fall flat on its face.

First the left and right channels came up very nicely, a clear sound, much more bottom end and mid range than from the LCD which was to be expected, what wasn’t expected was the “sound stage” somehow the sound appeared to be wider than the sound bar itself.

Next I added in the centre channel, the dialogue intelligibility came way up, I could hear every syllable the news reader uttered. This fools toy was sounding pretty good now but finally it was time to connect the two “rear” channels, this was where the marketing hype would be revealed for the rubbish it was.

I put on a Kings of Leon Blu-ray, and bugger me, the audience applause sounded like it came from the side and back of the room. It turns out that by using clever placement of the drivers and the full depth of the bar to pack a lot of speaker into a little space that a well made sound bar can mimic the effects of a properly constructed theatre without all the hardware and cabling.

If you want to improve the sound on that sexy slim screen, or you’re renting and can’t cut holes in the wall or perhaps you’re trying to create a budget video conferencing system in a boardroom using skype then these are well worth looking into.

I was wrong, I take it all back, Sound Bars do have a place in the AV world after all. It must be nearly lunchtime, perhaps a burger…

If you’re looking for a sound bar, or wondering what your options are for audio, give the friendly experts at Automation Associates a call on 09 377 3778.