A lot of soundbars use all kinds of interesting techniques to try to generate surround sound. But all the techniques I've seen so far have been electronic. Philips' one is physical and really, really clever: a 191mm section on each end of the soundbar just pulls right off and becomes a left or right surround speaker. These sections each have a rechargeable battery, good for several hours, and a Wi-Fi connection to the main unit. You put them behind you and you have real surround sound. When you're finished, you plug them back on to recharge and form part of the soundbar.
There's more to the system than just that of course. The Philips Fidelio HTL9100 also has a separate subwoofer that connects wirelessly and with two HDMI inputs along with optical, coaxial digital and a pair of analog audio inputs, acts as central control unit for your home-entertainment equipment. The HDMI output, which is normally used to pass on the video from your Blu-ray player or PVR, supports the Audio Return Channel, which means that when you're watching a TV channel on your TV, it can pass the sound back down the same HDMI cable to the soundbar for higher quality sound. It also supports Bluetooth.
With the surround extensions attached, the bar measures 1035mm long and when put on a bench in front of the TV, only 73mm tall. Apparently the unit senses whether it is 'desk' mounted or wall mounted by its orientation and applies different internal processing to the sound accordingly. Wall mounting brackets are supplied.
The subwoofer is rather unusual. It has a 165mm driver in the bottom, firing downwards, and its footprint is not much bigger than a square sufficient to encompass that. Yet it has a reasonable amount of internal volume by means of being over 500mm tall. It is bass reflex loaded.
Unlike most soundbars, this unit comes with a mid-sized remote control, well populated with keys for selecting inputs and adjusting things.
One word of warning. A section on the carton has the logos for a bunch of Internet media services: Spotify, TuneIn, Napster and the like, preceded by "works with". When I saw those I assumed that the unit was network enabled, capable of streaming some of that content. No it isn't. No, it doesn't "work with" them. If you have a smart device (Android, iOS, possibly Windows 8) with appropriate apps installed, then you can stream their audio to the unit via Bluetooth, but that's a very different thing. Otherwise the tiny AU$40 Bluetooth speaker I use to listen to podcasts when I'm shaving can be said to "work with" Spotify et al.
Now do be aware that to get the most out of this system you're going to have to be prepared to move the surround speakers. And it's not just so that they can be charged up from time to time. Stereo music comes from them, in addition to the soundbar, when they are disconnected. That can be good if you're having a party or something. But there's no way of switching it back to the front bar only, so if you want to listen properly to stereo music you should plug them back in. I'd be inclined to just leave them plugged in the whole time, except when I want to sit down and watch a movie. Then I'd put them in place for surround.
I spent quite a bit of time fiddling with the subwoofer. The problem I had was that the subwoofer, placed in the usual corner of my room, was too loud. With the bass control reduced to the minimum it was maybe six decibels too loud on stereo music, and ten on the LFE channel. On the centre position of the bass control, it was 12dB too loud on stereo. That's thunderous. I should note that it was also surprisingly clean and tight.
I experimented with putting it in near the soundbar and with the control set to minimum that more closely balanced the bass, but then it lost some of the depths it had produced in the corner. That would be due to room acoustics. In the end I learned to live with the louder bass. Being clean it was fairly tolerable.
I have to say outright that this is the most effective surround bar I've heard because by allowing physical surround speakers, there can be no doubt where the rear sound comes from. It did not, however, cast the left and right front channels wide; they were confined to the width of the bar itself. So transitions in the perceived location of sound down the sides of the room was only so-so, jumping a bit from front to back. But that's pretty picky given that no other sound bars come close.
With stereo music delivered via Bluetooth, the unit sounded extremely natural and well balanced. Aside from the deeper bass being forward, there was no emphasis in any frequency band, and distortion was low. The unit sounded stressed when turned up quite loud. It produced reasonably room-filling volumes quite well, but I wouldn't recommend it to the headbanger.
Only one Bluetooth device can be paired to the unit at a time.
Philips says that the system will go down to 20 hertz within a +/-3dB band. Why they would say such a thing I don't know. A claim of 20 hertz for the bass is ridiculous. But the subwoofer still did very well, almost coming to within an octave of it. What with the peak between 50 and 80 hertz, the sub was perfectly balanced with the rest of the sound at 43 hertz in my room. But at 37 hertz, it was producing nothing useful.
The Philips Fidelio is a rare soundbar able to produce excellent surround sound and also act as a control centre for your home-entertainment system.