Tuesday, July 01, 2014

The Simple Joy of the Sound Bar

Pick a TV — a 1080p HDTV, a 4K Ultra HDTV, a Curved TV — and try and find what is similar about them. If you answered “the sound system,” you’d be right, but only partially. A stand-alone speaker needs room for the audio drivers to be placed inside, room for them to resonate through the cabinet and room for a decent (or better) sized amplifier to drive them; none of which occurs in the majority of flat panel TVs on the market. It’s not the TV’s fault because it’s just a function of the form-factor with the slight bezel and thin chassis that’s holding the panel in place (not to mention the electronics inside). This doesn’t leave much room for putting in speakers or allow for upping the size of the internal amplifier.

This is not to say that there aren’t exceptions: for example, Sony has 4K TVs with embedded speakers in them that do an excellent job of providing dynamic audio. But such TVs are in the minority. And no matter how good the picture, without a quality sound emanating from it, it’s just not going to be as impressive or immersive an experience, despite how big a screen.

Until recently, the only solution was to have a stand-alone amplifier powering a set of speakers — and to go through all the necessary means of physically positioning them in the room so that they could perform effectively. That didn’t leave out having to run wires from the amplifier to each speaker either, or to having to find a way to conceal or at least minimize the wiring so that it didn’t stand out or cause mishaps among children or pets (or adults either). Not even counting the cost, some rooms just don’t have the physical space to place speakers so as to have a surround effect or even the room for just a pair of speakers in front for stereo with another speaker handling the center channel. And yes, even just talking about it can get a bit confusing. There must be a better answer.

There is — a sound bar. By definition, a sound bar is its own device, equipping the audio drivers with a case surrounding it akin to that of a speaker — only now you have multiple “speakers” inside the single enclosure. A sound bar is thick compared to that of a flat panel’s bezel — which makes it deep enough to hold audio drivers that are definitely not tiny. The space also provides room for the electronics, of course, but most importantly for the amplifier which will drive the audio coming out. And which will be controlled independently of the TV, although most remotes can serve double duty and handle both a TV and sound bar together. Plus you can get one that matches your budget as well as the size of your TV.

Setting up a sound bar is easy and only requires placement in front of the TV or, if desired, mounted to the wall beneath the wall mounted TV — some sound bars providing a “pass through” for the IR remote that obviates the worry that it is covering up the IR receiving panel of the TV. Additionally, the lightweight nature of both allows for DIY work here, although there are services that will can take mounting to the level of professionalism that will display your TV/sound bar at their best. In most cases all that’s needed is to run an optical cable from the TV to the sound bars optical input and that’s that — the internal decoding of the audio sent by the TV being done by the sound bar. Of course there are other inputs for use — HDMI letting you connect Blu-ray players and other video source devices (like a cable box) on through to the TV and so also take advantage of seeing the sound bar’s menu on the screen. Analog RCA are there too, as is a coaxial input and sometimes a mini-jack for plugging in mobile devices. Of course with Bluetooth built into most models, any BT-equipped device (like a smartphone or tablet) can connect without wires to stream music.

But the big advantage of the sound bar is that you now get the kind of volume and speaker response that makes watching a pleasure. Add to that special features that will pre-configure the sound to match what is going on — be that listening to music, watching a TV show or a movie. And as an added fillip to the speakers that are already doing a yeoman’s job, most sound bars include a subwoofer to give that added depth to the low end of the frequency chart (i.e., making explosions sound like they’re too darned close). Plus most of these subs are wireless too — place them in a corner or under the couch, turn them on and forget about them since they auto-sync with the sound bar and turn on/off in concert.

So when you go out to get your new TV — or even if you already have one that is bringing you the picture you deserve — don’t forget the sound. Which is kind of another way to say, don’t forget to get a sound bar.


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