Letter from America: “Raising the bar”

sony soundbar and TV in living room

A lot has changed since we last discussed the place of the Audio/Video Receiver (AVR) in the broader landscape of the home entertainment eco-system.

It is still my belief now, as it was back in December 2015, that the traditional AVR will always have a place, albeit in the face of declining sales. While HTiB has all but disappeared, in large part to streaming media’s overtaking physical media for many consumers, soundbars remain as a big segment and they cannot be ignored.

“But wait", you may say, “Aren’t soundbars something consumers purchase in warehouse or discount stores, or via on line merchants? Aren’t they low on features and perhaps even lower in sound quality?” And, most critically, “Can they deliver the type of overall performance my clients expect with a professional installation?” The answer to that used to be “yes” to the first two questions and a resounding “NO” to the last one. Be prepared. With some of the new products introduced at CES and one additional product announced just this week on 14 March, things are changing.

Soundbars raise their game

One of the key drivers for soundbars going forward will be the availability of products with one or both of the object-based surround formats, a wide range of not only connected streaming audio services but also the latest multi-room wireless systems and, most importantly, the ability to deliver anything from 3.1.2 audio all the way up to 11.2.4! Oh, and did I mentioned that these products will be priced such that you might actually make some money on them?

At last count, there were over ten of these products, and given the attention they will get in the popular press you need to be able to understand where they are the same and where they differ. Based on that you’ll be able to recommend a soundbar as a credible alternative to an AVR or surround processor/power amplifier/discrete speaker system. As we run down the things that differentiate the various brands as models it is also important that you keep a mental note of how they still differ from conventional systems; we once again reiterate that “Reports of the AVR’s death are (still) greatly exaggerated.” There are room configurations and installation requirements where nothing else will do.

What do the models under discussion this month have in common? All have Dolby Atmos along with the companion Dolby Surround upmixer at a minimum and many also have DTS:X and it’s upmixer, DTS:Neural:X. While consumers associate these object-based formats with the need to have separate “elevation” speakers at the least, or two or four in-ceiling speakers at worse, the benefit of the soundbars is that they contain addition signal processing and specially tuned and aimed speakers that allow the listener to keep to the core soundbar conceit: the need for no additional speakers (save for a subwoofer in most cases).

LG Audio SJ9-2 sound bar

Soundbars vs AVRs: Key questions to ask

That brings us to the first point of comparison: As with AVRs and processors, you need to know if the bar is Atmos only, both Atmos and DTS:X or Atmos with DTS:X upgradeability. With the prices for these units running rom a bit under $1,000 USD to almost $5,000 USD that is something to know. Also on the format front, there are channel combinations at 3.1.2, 5.1.2, 5.1.4, 7.1.2, 7.1.4 and even one with additional DSP horsepower to deliver 11.2.4.

How big, and what shape and configuration is the room. What level of immersive capability is the listener looking for? And, to bring up my old friend the AVR again, what is their current system and anticipated benchmark? Is the size and form factor of a fully integrated soundbar what they are looking for, or do you need to match existing expectations from a 5.1 or 7.2 system?

Comparing the bars to an AVR based on where the system is installed, is room correction needed? Some of the models have it; most do not.

Holding a soundbar, even a high-end one, up against traditional front end system and processing unit you need to look a bit deeper. Some of these products only have one HDMI input while others have three or four. What does the source list look like? Remember, we no longer live in a world where standard sources such as cable or satellite, a disc player and perhaps a video game console or two are all you need to deal with. Today, the plethora of streaming services means that you may been to connect an AppleTV, a Chromecast, a FireTV or a Roku or some other locally available streamer. Are there enough HDMI inputs?

Speaking of streaming services, the capabilities of these products is all over the map and, of course, may vary due to availability in your region. Are the ones needed already available from an outboard streamer, or is having one internal to the soundbar a plus that means you don’t have to waste a precious HDMI input for an external device. Remember, in these price ranges, six, or even eight HDMI inputs is common. Here, four is the maximum.

Is there a need for an optical, coax or USB input for use with a server or outboard DAC? Despite their relatively high cost compared to some AVRs, while some do, some do not. Is the soundbar going to be used primarily for audio content related to video, or is High Resolution Audio (HRA) a requirement? Some bars are compatible without downscaling, some are not.

While most of these products have WiFi and Bluetooth, it is always worth diving a big deeper to see if both are there and if the needed WiFi types up to 802.11ac are onboard. Is there a hardwire jack if that is required?

“What does a soundbar actually need?”

Speaking of connectivity, that brings us to the most current point of comparison. In a world where wireless multi-room systems, led in the market by Sonos, are popular, what does the bar need? Some have Chromecast built in for streaming, some have PlayFi, and some have proprietary systems such as Musicast and others. Indeed, that brings us to the most recent entry in the Atmos soundbar world, the model just announced by Denon.

It has Denon’s proprietary HEOS protocol for multiroom audio, but listening to the product introduction announcement it leads us to a final point of comparison. How is the unit controlled? All have basic remotes and most, if not all, have iOS and Android apps. That’s great, but given that a front panel display is not common in this group, we asked Denon if their product had on screen display capability. The answer was “no” given that they felt that setup and control via an app was sufficient.

Is it? For you? For the customer? When there are multiple surround format choices and inputs, volume and other parameters to be adjusted, how comfortable will the user be with neither a front panel display or OSD. For some, regardless of the space-saving design, ability to do Atmos or DTS:X without additional surround or “height” speakers isn’t enough if they can’t literally see what they are doing. That’s where our old pal the AVR charges back up to the front of the pack.

As a measure for what one spends and then gets for a soundbar in comparison to an AVR, along with the introduction of their “HEOS Bar” at a very competitive price of $899 USD, Denon also announced a line of conventional AVRs including a model at $499 USD that has all the features discussed above, albeit without any speakers. THAT presents an interesting point of comparison to the world of new-generation soundbars.

Final thoughts

That brings us to full circle. Fifteen months on from our initial discussion, AVRs still have more than a bit of life left in them. However, thanks to Atmos and DTS:X without external speakers, more streaming service option, multiple brands with multiroom audio and full HDMI 2.0a/HDCP 2.2, soundbars deserve a great deal more attention than they did on initial examination. Here, a final note to leave us thinking until the next time this comparison pops up in another year and a half or so.

HEOS AVR front view

Along with their HEOS Bar and new “S-Line” AVRs, Denon also introduced the HEOS AVR. It doesn’t have Atmos and is only 5.1, but does have the wireless multiroom system and the option to use HEOS speakers for the surround channels. It does have the latest HDMI connectivity and 192/24 HRA. It does have a very unique and distinctive industrial design.

Great, but what doesn’t it have that all other AVRs have? OSD or a front panel display. Hmm, that puts it in the same feature league as some of the soundbars we just discussed. An interesting concept described by the Denon presenter as a bridge between current AVRs and soundbars. Interesting notion.

At the end of the day both product categories will continue to evolve and serve a purpose if they are selected properly. Both can allow you to tailor entertainment systems that fit the content sources, room acoustics, room interior design, and, of course, budget for a client. They are both valid and even as each category continues to evolve, current product announcements show that everything has, and will have, a place in the market for quite some time to come.