ACCORDING to a salesman at a local store, there are two main buyers of soundbars: people who live in units and apartments where space is tight; and people, especially older people, who want good sound but don't want complex speaker systems.
Yamaha introduced the soundbar seven years ago with its YSP-1, a big lump that contained no less than 40 four-centimetre full-range drivers and two 11-centimetre woofers. It beamed the sound in five directions, bouncing it off walls and ceilings to create the impression of surround sound. And it cost $2500.
Other manufacturers were quick to see the potential of Yamaha's idea and jumped on board with their own readings of the concept. Soundbars are now an established category in home-theatre sound. And a popular one, too.
Most soundbars come with a separate subwoofer that can be placed anywhere in the room; my local salesman was especially enthusiastic about the current Yamahas because the sub can be used either vertically or horizontally and thus, he assured me, it could be placed out of the way on a shelf or in a cabinet.
I'm uncomfortable with this advice for a couple of reasons. The first is that a sub vibrates, and unless it is mounted very solidly in a cabinet, it can resonate like your phone does when it vibrates on the table. Even if mounted solidly in there, it could shake your cabinet to bits in the long term. The second reason is that you'll need to have the relevant cabinet door open when the sub is firing.
But placing the sub horizontally under a couch or coffee table shouldn't present a problem. Some subs, like the JBL here, are down-firing, meaning the driver has to be pointed at the floor, so obviously they can only be used top-end up.
Soundbars rely on walls and ceilings for a surround effect (and it's only an effect - it's not as good as the real thing), so if you're using them in a big, open-plan area, the effectiveness of the simulated surround diminishes markedly.
Most are compact enough to fit under a flat-panel television on its factory stand or they can be wall-mounted. But some, such as Yamaha's $3000 YSP-5100, are substantially bigger.
$1259 (spotted for $997)
3 out of 5 stars
James Bullough Lansing wrote the book on cinema sound and you can't miss his famous initials on the fascia of this unit, nor on the vaguely pyramid-shaped down-firing subwoofer, which can only be used with the pointy end uppermost. It sounds pretty good until you listen to the other two, which have more presence, accuracy and definition, but this one has an excellent surround effect and a nice wide sound stage. The subwoofer is operated wirelessly, so only needs a power cable, and being the biggest here (at 483 millimetres high), it certainly provides the strongest bass. The biggest disappointment is that there are no HDMI terminals, meaning it requires more cables than the other two to achieve the same end. It's 1162mm wide x 92mm high x 76mm deep. ehifi.com.au
$1499 (spotted for $1398)
4 out of 5 stars
It's by far the most expensive here but has the best overall sound quality and remains distortion-free, even at high volumes. It comes with a subwoofer that can be used horizontally or vertically and a separate iPod dock. It's slim enough to fit under most flat-panel screens when they're on the factory stand and it has removable, height-adjustable feet for fine tuning the mount, which is why its height can vary. The aesthetics are nicely muted to help it disappear from your consciousness. There are 11 built-in sound modes for music, movies and games, including a stereo mode, and there's a music enhancer to improve compressed MP3 music. There are three HDMI inputs and a single HDMI output. It's 944mm wide x 79-89mm high x 145mm deep. yamahamusic.com.au
$999 (spotted for $877)
4 out of 5 stars
It's packed with features and the value pick here. LG is doing a nice job with sound lately and the sound quality of this unit is good enough to make you wonder if the Yamaha can really justify another $500. Unless you're a dedicated music lover, probably not. But the simulated surround sound is less effective and it has a much larger footprint given the built-in Blu-ray player, so mounting is less flexible. Again, the sub can be used horizontally or vertically. It's a good-looking unit and it has internet connectivity through wi-fi. There's also DLNA to hook up wirelessly to compatible equipment elsewhere in the home. You get an FM tuner and an iPod cradle, along with two HDMI inputs and a single HDMI output. It's 999mm wide x 130mm high x 190mm deep. lg.com.au