Soundbars have continued to advance in both features and performance to the point where they now offer a cost-effective and far simpler alternative to a full-blown TV audio system. And for many people, soundbars are the go-to solution for TV and movie watching, especially in secondary viewing areas.
However, as good as many of these bars sound, one thing still eluding most of them is true surround sound. Even with multiple drivers and phasing trickery or DSP steering to achieve pseudo-surround, you can’t truly have “surround sound” without speakers located behind the listener.
Definitive Technology’s W-Studio Micro Soundbar and subwoofer
With its heritage in digital surround sound, when DTS jumped into the wireless multiroom distribution game with Play-Fi, it seemed like only a matter of time until Play-Fi systems started supporting true surround sound.
While first demonstrated at CES 2016, it took a bit of time for Play-Fi wireless surround to make its way to market. Fortunately, many existing Play-Fi products are now firmware upgradeable to support wireless surround sound.
Unlike competing products such as Bluesound, HEOS, and Sonos, one of the most impressive things about the Play-Fi ecosystem is that it is largely an open sandbox, letting users mix-and-match products to match budget, style, and performance needs. Play-Fi products are currently available from Anthem, Arcam, Definitive Technology, DISH, Fusion Research, Klipsch, Integra, Martin Logan, McIntosh, Onkyo, Paradigm, Pioneer, Polk, and Thiel.
To experience wireless Play-Fi surround, I asked Definitive Technology to send its W-Studio Micro Soundbar and two W7 compact surround speakers.
By far the most difficult thing about setting up the W Studio Micro is unboxing it and the subwoofer. While likely terrific for protecting the components from shipping damage, the large, L-shaped box seems designed to foil opening at every turn, and elicited several choice curses during removal. Once freed from its cardboard and Styrofoam prison, I wall mounted the bar beneath my bedroom TV, opened the Play-Fi app on my iPhone and added the devices to my network. At only 1.75 inches tall, the bar’s ultra-svelte profile also makes it ideal for tabletop installations where it won’t impinge on the screen. To keep the bar ultra-thin, Definitive removed the power supply. So, in wall-mount installations, you will have to find a way to conceal the power brick.
Once added to my network, I performed the necessary firmware updates on all the speakers and then used the app to create a surround sound configuration. The app walks you through the process of identifying the soundbar and surrounds, setting the distances from the listening position, and setting the levels of the surround speakers. The whole linking process is simple and takes about one minute. Conversely, you can unlink the surround speakers to use as Play-Fi music speakers in any room in about a minute. When in surround mode, the rear speakers create a direct wireless link with the bar, and for optimal surround performance Play-Fi recommends either connecting the Surround Master–the soundbar–to the network via Ethernet or via 5GHz.
While this review focuses on the surround aspect of the system, the W Studio Micro bar is a full-fledged Play-Fi product and supports all of the music streaming features. Play-Fi currently supports Internet Radio, Amazon Music, Deezer, iHeartRadio, JUKE, KKBOX (Asian markets only), Pandora, Napster, SiriusXM, Spotify (Connect), and Tidal. You can also play music stored on the Android/iOS device (provided it isn’t older DRM-wrapped content), and stream content from an attached media server. Hi-res fans will appreciate that Play-Fi supports FLAC files up to 192kHz/24-bit resolution.
Interestingly, music playback is my biggest criticism with the system because when in surround mode, the rear speakers aren’t utilized at all for music playback. Many users like to employ an all-channel-stereo mode for room-filling music listening, and not making this an option seems like a tragic waste and oversight–one that hopefully can be rectified in a future firmware update.
The bar features two Toslink optical and one mini-jack analog input. Since my Samsung TV does not pass a Dolby Digital or DTS bitstream, I wired my DISH Joey satellite and local Blu-ray directly to the bar. (Unfortunately, my bedroom Kaleidescape M300 does not have an optical output.) Definitive smartly included an LED that indicates what kind of signal it is receiving, lighting white for PCM, blue for Dolby Digital, and green for DTS.
To confirm that I was indeed getting discrete surround–and that the bar decoded DTS–I ran a channel call out from a DTS demo disc and the speakers responded correctly. I tweaked the volume levels a bit and queued up some content.
I went with some classic surround scenes that I’m very familiar with, including the ZF-1 scene from The Fifth Element, the opening surprise attack from Master and Commander, and the pod race from Episode I: The Phantom Menace and the bar admirably delivered all the swirling, discrete effects that I’m used to. Bullets ripped past me, wind billowed and ruffled sails as cannon shots blasted and wood splintered, and Pods raced around me with crowd cheers filling the room.
Unpairing the W7 rear speakers caused the sound to collapse to the front of the room. And while the soundbar delivers fairly wide imaging on its own, pairing the W7 rear speakers added a massive amount to the movie watching experience, turning my bedroom into a mini theater with virtually zero fuss and effort. There definitely wasn’t as much surround surround information when TV watching; whether this is due to the DISH output or whatever, it was hands down less when watching TV or movies on DISH vs. Blu-ray.
With such a thin cabinet, the Micro’s drivers are considerably smaller than normal. To deliver full-range sound in such a small space, Definitive incorporates multiple oval-shaped drivers with Neodymium magnets to increase bass response and driver output. The Micro utilizes four 1x3-inch oval midbass drivers and three 1-inch aluminum dome tweeters. Two of the woofers are tasked to center channel duties to improve dialog intelligibility, an area where this bar really excels. Further, bass notes are shared equally among all four midbass drivers in a feature Definitive calls “Full Compliment Sub Bass Drive.”
One thing that never slacked off was the included subwoofer. Judging solely by the specs 8-inch driver with 50-watt amplifier–you might not expect much, but this little trooper dug deep and delivered, creating bass waves capable of rattling furniture in my room! An incredibly seismic bass note occurs in the very opening of Live Die Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow and this pint-sized sub did its level best to plumb the very deepest of these notes and delivers a terrific bass foundation for the system.
The only operational issue I experienced was that the rear speakers seemed to occasionally disconnect from the bar. I would be watching something and notice no audio was coming from the rear speakers. This was usually resolved by just a soft power cycling of the bar, but occasionally I had to hard power off the bar, or hard power cycle one of the W7s.
This W Studio Micro typically retails for $899, but Definitive occasionally puts it on sale for as low as $699, making it an absolute steal. Adding the rear speakers transforms it into a true discrete surround system for little more than the price of a mid-level AV receiver. Additionally, once the W Studio Micro is installed, it opens listeners to an entire world of Play-Fi housewide distributed audio, making this system a complete win.
Wireless surround sound! Simple setup, Play-Fi house audio, great sub performance
No music surround support; rear speakers occasionally drop off
► DTS Play-Fi app currently supports Internet Radio, Amazon Music, Deezer, iHeartRadio, JUKE, KKBOX (Asian markets only), Pandora, Napster, SiriusXM, Spotify (Connect), and Tidal
► MP3, M4A, AAC, WAV, FLAC up to 192/24; Dolby Digital and DTS surround formats
► 2.4 and 5 GHz 802.11g/n Wi-Fi
► W-Studio Micro includes (4) 1 x 3-inch mid/ woofers, (3) 1-inch aluminum dome tweeters with 96-watts total power
► Subwoofer features 8-inch, long throw downward firing woofer with 50-watt amplifier
► W7 includes front firing 4-inch mid/woofer, (4) 1-inch aluminum dome tweeters, (2) 4-inch bass radiators; 1 x 30-watt amplifier (woofer), 2 x 15-watt amplifier (tweeters)
► Inputs: (2) Toslink optical digital, 3.5mm analog, USB-A (for firmware updates or optional Ethernet adapter), 3.5mm infra-red; Outputs: 3.5mm infra-red emitter, 3.5mm subwoofer connection