CES 2013: Soundbars

With so many mainstream companies getting into the soundbar biz, much of the action in that category seems to have shifted over to the CEDIA Expo. Still, CES 2013 did reveal a few new soundbar models. Some, like the Vizios shown above, blew away showgoers with their sound quality. Others, like the new Samsung model with vacuum tubes built in, astounded the crowds with their sheer audacity.

Here's a quick roundup of the most important soundbars we saw at the show, with brief descriptions and some listening impressions (at least, for those that were being demoed).

Not too surprisingly, Harman International is launching a line of soundbars under the JBL brand. The flagship of the line is the SB400 (the top model in the photo), which costs $549, includes a wireless sub and Bluetooth capability, and uses the same 11-driver array found in the Harman Kardon Soundbar 30.

LG MB6530A
Yeah, I know, that's not a soundbar, but LG's new ultra-slim speaker form factor just looks cooler in these slim left/right speakers. (You can see the soundbar that uses this same configuration at the right of the photo.) The slim speakers use specially developed, racetrack-shaped drivers that allow the satellites to be just about 1 inch wide and just a little more than 1 inch thick. A wireless sub is included. Not as visually beautiful but technically more interesting was the NB3730A, which has WiFi plus streaming of CinemaNow, Netflix, Pandora, and Vudu. It would make a good match for a TV that doesn't have streaming built in—assuming, of course, you don't already have a Blu-ray player with streaming built in, or a videogame console with streaming built in. It was also announced that some new LG soundbars will use Sontia SPT Lite, a new sound-improving technology first demonstrated at September's CEDIA Expo.

Philips HTL9100
My award for weirdest soundbar of the show goes to the Philips HTL9100—and when you see the 'bar in the next photo, you'll realize what a strong statement this is. The $799 HTL9100 includes left and right speakers that detach from the main unit so you can better spread the sound out. The snap-off satellites are completely wireless. Not only do they have a wireless connection with the bar, they have internal batteries that get juice through an inductive charger when the sats are snapped back onto the main bar. The fully equipped unit includes HDMI and Bluetooth connectivity.

Samsung HW-F750
I never thought I'd see a soundbar that uses vacuum tubes—but I never thought I'd see a member of Motörhead at CES, either. The HW-F750 Wireless Vacuum Tube AirTrack Soundbar's very name pretty much describes what it does. According to Samsung, the tubes are there to lend warmth to the sound; according to everyone else, they're there just to lend some retro pizzazz to the 'bar. The SoundShare function lets you connect your TV's audio to the bar wirelessly via Bluetooth. The 'bar also has an internal gyro that senses its position and adjusts the sound quality accordingly. No price available yet, and I couldn't hear it (or much of anything else) in the packed Samsung booth.

Vizio S4251w-B4
Vizio's past soundbars have gotten rave reviews from S+V (and almost everybody else), but the company's latest models seem to blow those older models away. The showcase model is the S4251w-B4 (the middle bar in the picture), which costs $329 yet includes full 5.1 sound with wireless surround speakers and subwoofer. DTS 5.1 decoding is included. Vizio also demoed a $99 32-inch model that delivers amazingly deep bass for such a slim bar, thanks to a couple of passive radiators tuned to very low frequencies. There was also a 54-inch 5.1 model (no price yet) that includes HDMI input and what I'd consider a "real" sub: an 8-incher that shook the seats in the demo room at the Wynn Hotel. All models also include Bluetooth wireless for streaming from smartphones as well as a slick new remote. "We feel the performance of these will challenge the A/V receiver paradigm," product manager Jason Wehner said. None of the audio press I talked with afterward disagreed.

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