Bay Audio’s TVX soundbar was designed to dramatically improve clarity in the vocal region. The ultimate audio commodity used to be headphones, but these days, that accolade goes to the soundbar. Everyone and their mother makes a soundbar now. Even Maxell, the brand that brought us most of our cassette tapes back in the day, offers one.
Countering this commoditization are truly luxury offerings for custom integrators hoping to impress more discerning clients with hi-fi and aesthetically pleasing audio solutions without taking a hit to their bottom line. But the biggest changes in the category today stem from factors driving sales, particularly the category’s expansion into different rooms and spaces within the home, and the design elements that must be considered, as a result.
For instance, Bay Audio’s TVX soundbar is custom sized to match specific TV widths and features an elegant industrial design and materials.
“Within the CI channel, it is clear that aesthetics are the first criteria that enables a soundbar to be even considered for sale,” said Bay Audio CEO Ira Friedman, noting his company’s use of the same materials and design elements as many TVs, like anodized aluminum a shallow, 2.5-inch depth. “Sound quality, specifically dialogue clarity, is important, but it is a non-factor if the soundbar is unsightly.”
Paradigm hopes to cater to the additional spaces in the home where soundbars are being installed in now. Style and design are at the very core of every soundbar from Leon Speakers, one of the first custom soundbar manufacturers. From the Italian silk grilles to each individual piece customized and notched out to match the TV, Leon president Noah Kaplan describes his company’s work as “half engineering, half art.”
The biggest focus for Leon now involves the quality of materials used in its soundbars. “There’s more and more technology being put into the bar. We’re using the bar as real estate for audio performance,” Kaplan said. “Our new platforms are all about designing ways to incorporate more technology in the bar.”
This means a powered solution with Dolby Digital down-mixing on board and enabling connectivity and dual functionality, like a luxury version of Sonos. Leon has redesigned all the styles of its speakers to accommodate thinner and thinner installations. At CEDIA EXPO, Leon showed a curved soundbar to match new curved flat-panels on the market.
The KEF HTF8003 produces the home theater’s front soundstage from a single acoustically inert aluminium enclosure that re-creates the performance of three discrete loudspeakers. Considering the new spaces where soundbars are being used within the home, Paradigm is focused on the audio quality of its soundbars now, more than ever. “With wireless streaming feature sets on the rise and simplified ease-of-use, the soundbar has changed from a video-only accessory to a dedicated media hub,” said Zoltan Balla, brand manager, Paradigm and Anthem. “While Paradigm adequately addresses the above mentioned traits, our success primarily stems from a strong foundation structured around sonic performance.”
While soundbars seem to be the preference for audio accompanying flat-panel TVs from an aesthetic standpoint, they are finding their way into primary living spaces, according to Jack Shafton, VP of sales and marketing, GoldenEar Technology. “Since in-ceiling or in-wall options are typically limited to new construction or remodel, the soundbar is often the only cosmetically acceptable audio choice,” he said.
The growing recognition by consumers and installers has led to more features being added and a subsequent necessity to include them on a project. “This acceptance and demand for the category, even at high-end price points, has made it absolutely necessary for custom integrators to offer specialty-quality soundbar products as part of their system designs,” Shafton said
Paradigm’s Balla noted how these higher performance units in more primary listening environments are dominated by dedicated multi-channel configurations. Feature sets have shifted from DIY ease of use to more integrator-friendly elements, like discrete commands, IP control, and flexible install configurations.
When it comes to installation ease, Leon has thinned out its brackets by 75 percent. “Anywhere we could shave even a sixteenth of an inch, we did,” Kaplan said. Leon has also added extra structural space, creating extrusions that are thin in the middle with strong bend ratios, so there are more ways to mount the bar to a TV or wall. Also, a wire management system makes for a clean and easy wire run to one location.
Bay Audio offers a universal mounting system using a refined bracket that keeps the soundbar tight to the wall and makes it easy for a single installer to hang. In terms of audio performance, the Vocal Integrity tuning in the TVX soundbar dramatically improves clarity in the vocal region, according to Friedman, “solving the problem of blurred dialogue,” while TransientEdge crossover topology, “gives us the lowest THD (transient harmonic distorition) of any soundbar on the market.” Bay Audio has also introduced an all-weather soundbar for outdoor installations, demonstrating just how adaptable the category has become.
In recognizing the expansive nature of the soundbar category for custom integrators, here’s a rundown of some of the latest offerings from major manufacturers.
The Definitive Technology W Studio soundbar ($1,299) is a wireless sound bar with accompanying 8-inch wireless subwoofer that blends high-performance 5.1 theater sound with high-resolution musical reproduction, ideal for family rooms and home theaters. The soundbar’s slim design–at only 3.5 inches deep–is complemented by its sleek, contemporary finish with solid aluminum end caps and has HDMI switching for both audio and video purposes. It also uses Definitive Technology’s proprietary spatial array technology that engulfs listeners in lifelike surround sound without the clutter of five separate speakers. Lastly, the system is made even more impactful due to the rich bass produced by the downward firing subwoofer.
The Visual Performance Series Sonance Soundbars utilize a three-way speaker design. Each channel features a coaxial 1-inch powder-coated aluminum tweeter and a 4-inch laminated Kevlar and Nomex midrange, paired with dual 4.5-inch laminated Kevlar and Nomex high excursion woofers. This combination delivers clear dialogue, defined channel separation, and a wide sound stage. The LCR configuration and passive design will allow the system integrator to utilize the amplifier or AV receiver of their choice. Both soundbars feature a shallow construction and will be shipped complete with hardware for VESA display mount, key hole wall mount, and table-top installation.
The Triad OnWall MiniSat 3.0 is a slim-profile three-channels-in-one TV speaker that measures less than 3-inches deep with available widths up to 82-inches. Made of the finest MDF materials, each enclosure is fully braced, glued and cured. The MiniSat is outfitted with three 4-inch proprietary fiber-blended paper cone drivers and three 1-inch cloth dome tweeters. The organic fibers in the midrange/woofers increase stiffness with lower mass and reduced spurious resonances. The result is greater accuracy and lower distortion.
The Artison Studio Series features the Studio 39, 46, and 55. These numerical designations reflect the width of the actual speakers although the grilles are custom fitted to match the dimensions of the individual display. The Artison Studio Series’ “Easy Match Custom Grilles” are cosmetically matched for both the width and color of a user’s flat panel TV. Featuring extruded aluminum bass reflex cabinets that are only 2.25-inches deep, the Studio Series also includes long-throw, carbon-fiber mid/woofers and stage tweeters that fire out the sides of the enclosure to enhance the width of the sonic image.
The design of the Dolby-certified Niles Cynema Soundfield in-wall soundbar is a thin metal bracket that goes into the wall and can hold three 100- Watt dual-speaker modules and an amplifier. By tapping into the empty space behind the drywall, the Niles Cynema Soundfield delivers improved sound quality and amplification. Niles has also introduced a wireless kit that makes it easy to connect its SW series of compact subwoofers. The Cynema Soundfield comes in 48-inch, 55-inch, and 60-inch models; the 48-inch is available without an amplifier for those that want to use separate amplification.
Phase Technology’s Teatro TSB3.0 has high performance left, right, and center channels paired with two SFE Spatial Field Expanders for wide, dynamic, and enveloping front stage in an attractive, slim enclosure. The unit’s passive 8 ohm design allows users to integrate the soundbar seamlessly into their existing AV system. The Teatro TSB3.0 incorporates dual 3-inch mineral filled polypropylene, ultra-long throw woofers with rubber surrounds per channel, and a 0.75-inch silk/ synthetic blend soft dome tweeter per channel. SFE 1-inch full-range inverted aluminum drivers are mounted on the sides. Enhanced voice technology, is available via a front panel switch. When the switch is engaged, frequencies associated with human speech are accentuated to provide clear dialogue.
Panorama 2 features completely new Bowers & Wilkins engineered drive units, which deliver a dramatically enhanced acoustic performance. The low frequency drivers have improved linearity for greater dynamic performance and lower resonance for deeper extension. The midrange drive units have wider dispersion characteristics, which helps to improve the virtual surround performance. Of the nine drive units housed within the Panorama 2’s casework, five are utilized in the active center speaker: two bass woofers, two midrange drivers and an aluminum dome tweeter featuring Bowers & Wilkins Nautilus tube-loaded technology. The other four drive units provide the rest of the sound, and each one is located within its own enclosure to maintain a purity of performance. All the drive units are powered by six class D amplifiers, providing a combined power output of 175Watts.
The GoldenEar Technology 3D Array XL is a larger version of the 3D Array, suited for 65-inch and up TVs. The XL incorporates special 3D image optimization technology to achieve lifelike, wide, deep, and immersive 3D playback when used with or without rear/side surround speakers. The SuperCinema 3D Array XL (SC3DAXL) incorporates left-, center- and right-channel speakers, plus a second set of drivers that utilize 3D Array Technology to effectively cancel out crosstalk distortion between the left and right channel. All this is contained within a 2.7-inch thin enclosure that complements the latest thin flat panel TVs.
Reproducing the front soundstage with realism, the KEF HTF7003 soundbar features a stylish enclosure. Each of the three channels contains dual 50mm (2in.) woofers and a 19mm (0.75in.) HF driver. For convenience, it comes supplied with a wall mount bracket and table stand. The HTF7003 was designed to match 32-inch and larger screens.
Only three inches high, the Yamaha SRT-1000 offers a wood enclosure that produces excellent sound quality and a solid pedestal for TVs as large as 55 inches without blocking the screen. It comes with Bluetooth streaming, Yamaha Home Theater Controller app support for Apple iOS and Android devices, and a TV remote learning capability.
The Polk Omni Wireless Music System integrates DTS’ Play-Fi technology to wirelessly control and stream audio from popular music services, Internet radio stations, or personal music libraries. The Omni SB1 with VoiceAdjust Technology is a voice optimizing soundbar that utilizes a three-speaker array with controllable voice channel level to reproduce clear, crisp dialogue at all volumes. SmartBar technology allows the bar to learn a TV’s remote control, and the included 8-inch wireless subwoofer gives the system a rich bottom end while eliminating wire clutter.
The Klipsch Reference R-20B two-way soundbar features two lightweight horn-loaded textile dome tweeters for distinctive high-frequency detail, and four 3-inch polypropylene woofers that round out the enhanced sound with crisp vocal and dynamic soundtracks. Included with the soundbar is a 10-inch side-firing wireless subwoofer that is housed in a MDF cabinet with a slot-port design. There is a Dolby Digital decoder onboard. The subwoofer pairs automatically with the soundbar. The Reference R-20B soundbar is compatible with most Bluetooth wireless enabled devices and also offers aptX audio coding technology for lossless, high-quality music streaming.
The design of the Sonos Playbar combines exposed aluminum with high performance speaker fabric for a look that’s understated. Built-in sensors help Playbar automatically adjust EQ and channel orientation, so it can lie flat on the TV stand or rotate for low-profile wall-mounting above or below the TV. Under the hood, Playbar gets its punch from nine individually amplified speakers: six mid-woofers and three tweeters. Playbar’s speaker array technology combines hardware and software to create a wide soundstage beyond the physical soundbar while maintaining crisp, centered vocals.
The Energy Connoisseur CS-30 soundbar hosts Dolby Digital decoding, 3D surround mode, and streaming capabilities using Bluetooth wireless technology. The soundbar’s acoustic performance stays true to Energy sound principles, presenting flat on-axis frequency response, wide and constant dispersion, as well as minimal levels of distortion and resonance. The two-way soundbar utilizes premium drivers and two lightweight textile dome tweeters to distinctive high-frequency detail while two 3-inch polypropylene woofers round out the enhanced sound with crisp vocals and dynamic soundtracks. The soundbar delivers simulated 3D surround mode for immersive listening. Included with the soundbar is a commanding 8-inch side-firing wireless subwoofer that is housed in a MDF cabinet with a slot-port design.
Lindsey M. Adler is associate editor of Residential Systems and Systems Contractor News.