Whether it's because our lounge rooms are getting smaller, or our significant others are getting fussier: home theatre in a box systems are getting tinier. With systems such as the Philips SoundBar and Yamaha YSP-1100 you no longer need to have wires trailing across your room, or even rear speakers -- one box magically takes the place of five.
The Philips SoundBar is a virtual 5.1 system with subwoofer that also includes an upscaling DVD player onboard. With so much natural goodness, is it time to ditch your living room clutter?
If you feel that you don't have enough piano black in your life then the Philips SoundBar has come to the rescue, with a shiny black sub and a semi-translucent DVD door. At 935mm wide, the main unit didn't fit very well in our TV cabinet, but it will nestle quite happily against most TV stands.
What at first seems like haphazard socket design makes sense once you mount the SoundBar on the wall -- all of the video outputs are on the SoundBar so they are close to the TV, and all the audio inputs are on the subwoofer.
Of course, you still have to run the thick power/interconnect cable between the two units, so hiding that poses its own challenges. It also means your subwoofer needs to be near the rest of your components and not near your seating position, which is usually optimal.
It's funny how much of a difference a remote can make to your experience, and we're happy to say that the Philips SoundBar includes a very good one. It's very expensive-feeling, and all of the necessary functions are within easy reach -- the scroll-wheel like navigation buttons are also very welcome. Pity there's no backlight, though.
The centrepiece of the SoundBar concept is the series of six angled drivers in the unit itself -- these are driven by a multi-channel amplifier to simulate 5.0 effects. These are designed to enable surround-sound without wires, while the 0.1 in the equation is dealt with via the dedicated sub.
For the price you're paying, the SoundBar certainly shoehorns the features in -- for starters there's the upscaling DVD player featuring Faroudja DCDi deinterlacing. The unit will upscale to 1080p, and from our testing below it does a very good job.
For better integration with your portable devices, the SoundBar features an external iPod dock, which features a video-out connection. There's also a USB connector for attaching a compatible hard disk/MP3 player, and a 3.5mm jack for the rest.
File compatibility is good, with support for most flavours of DivX and DVD media, but it lacks support for Blu-ray or HD DVD, obviously. Outputs consists of either HDMI, component, or AV-out.
Central to the experience of most set-ups is the menu, and we were impressed by the ease of use of the SoundBar -- the menu, in most cases, is easy to navigate. Even if it isn't that powerful
We were slightly disappointed, for example, by the lack of an automated set-up procedure, or even the ability to manually adjust the output of the speakers and subwoofer. Instead what you get is a limited number of room placement options eg wall on the left, wall on the right, centre of room. Users with long rectangular rooms or even square rooms may end up scratching their heads trying to fit their set-up with the variables given.
The other options are more straightforward though -- speaker height, room acoustics (hard or soft), and the distance from you.
All of the 5.1-speaker-in-one units on the market operate by tricking our ears to believe sounds are coming from behind us. They do this by changing the behaviour of midrange sounds so that they mimic the way that the human ear hears sounds behind it.
The SoundBar features six angled speakers to better deliver "surround-sound-like" effects, but in truth you never experience more than a "wide" effect.
iPod integration is very good, and we were able to control the Apple player through a very straightforward interface. The SoundBar also allows videos to be viewed though this necessitates the use of an extra RCA video cable from the dock to your TV -- similar to other solutions we've seen.
As a movies machine the Philips is very believable -- at loud volumes the subwoofer is able to spit out plenty of low-end support and dialogue is very intelligible. Watching the final scene from King Kong we were almost convinced that the planes were flying from front to back, but this was the only time the surround effect was noticeable.
As a music maker, the SoundBar is able to go very loud indeed and -- unlike a device like the Logitech Pure-Fi Anywhere -- it can easily power a small party. Sound quality isn't as convincing as in movie mode though -- there is a lack of vocal presence and no real stereo focus (as you'd expect from a system so small). But the results were likeable enough.
The Ambisound setting is where the multi-channel amplifier kicks in and we're a little disappointed by the results. Movies and music alike were rendered thinner though "wider", and while this may be desirable for action movies due to higher immersion levels, music was almost unlistenable.
Where the SoundBar wears its badge of distinction is in its reproduction of movies (maybe they should have called it the VideoBar?) Connecting the HDMI cable to our reference Pioneer PDP-5000EX television the Philips put in a beautiful performance -- King Kong in particular was rendered in a naturalistic fashion. There was very little trace of noise in any of our test disks, though there was a certain amount of softness at times, due to the amount of processing involved. One idiosyncrasy we found is that though you can change the level of upscaling -- all the way to 1080p -- and receive very good results, the option is buried deep in the "Advanced Pic" menu. Most competitive DVD players offer a dedicated button on the remote or the unit itself.
Things aren't as rosy for the component connection picture though -- while the output benefits from the deinterlacing capabilities of the Faroudja DCDi chipset there is no upscaling ability, and the picture is decidedly worse than the HDMI output. During Blade II the picture was noticeably softer, and there was even some red colour haloing during the nightclub scene.
Despite some of its flaws, though, the Philips SoundBar HTS8100 is good value for money, and is able to deliver powerful movie soundtracks and excellent video quality via the HDMI output. One of the better and most convenient HTIB units available at this price.