Rich Warren: Sound bars allow you to drink in better clarity from TVs

Rich Warren: Sound bars allow you to drink in better clarity from TVs

Belly up to the sound bar boys (and girls). A reader asked if the sound bars being marketed for TVs would improve upon the interior speakers:

"Was reading my Sunday paper... and on the back page of the Parade is an ad for the Bose Solo TV Sound System. Not sure if you have had a chance to review anything on this system yet but if you have was wondering what you thought about it. I am using headphones on some TV programs now and wonder if this system would help me hear programs better without the headphones."

First, it would be hard to improve upon using headphones to increase clarity of TV sound, but just about any sound bar, whether from Bose or any other brand name company, will sound better than the speakers in 95 percent of the televisions on the market.

The cost of liquid crystal display panels plummeted over the past five years, along with the source that now illuminates them, light-emitting diodes. The cost of speakers, however, barely budged. Since TV sales grow more competitive, manufacturers shave cost by reducing speaker quality. Technically, creating good sound from the enclosure of a flat-panel display, which might be thinner than 4 inches, is difficult. Most manufacturers assume you'll also buy a home theater sound system. Thus, most TV speakers are vestigial.

Many people loathe the cost, complexity and/or visual distraction of a home theater sound system. This dislike inspired the sound bar, a long horizontal black box that sits below the TV and reproduces the sound missing from the TV. As a bonus, using digital signal processing, stereo sound bars provide a limited illusion of surround sound. They plug into an AC outlet and most require only one or two cables from the back of the TV to the sound bar. Prices range from $200 to $800. Some come with subwoofers, but that defeats the concept.

Since the reader asked about the Bose Solo TV Sound System, I borrowed one for review. Just a reminder here that Bose underwrites my radio program, although that is handled by the radio station and not by me. The Bose Solo measures 2.8 inches high by 20.7 inches wide and just over 12 inches deep. It uses proprietary Bose digital signal processing and Bose speaker array technology.

Bose designed it to sit under TVs with screens from 19 to 36 inches, and many 40- and 42-inch TVs. If you view a larger screen TV, we'll review a larger sound bar for you in the future.

The Bose Solo accommodates most audio outputs you'll find on the back of a TV set and includes the appropriate cables. These include standard analog audio, an optical digital cable, and coaxial digital audio. The latter is less common on American TVs. Bose also supplies a small wireless on/off and volume remote control.

At the dawn of the digital TV age I bought a 20-inch Samsung TV. It displays a good picture but always sounds dreadful. I connected it to the unobtrusive Bose Solo with the optical digital cable, bypassing all of the TV's audio circuitry. It sounds like a totally different TV through the Solo, wide and full without distortion. If there's any flaw with the Solo, it reproduces slightly too much bass.

The Bose Solo retails for what that Samsung TV originally cost me, $400. Of course, the current model of that TV costs about $250. To find out more about the Solo, visit the Bose website at http://www.bose.com or phone 800-444-2673.

I can't promise the reader that the Bose Solo will replace his headphones, but I can say with near certainty it will sound better than his TV, if that TV has a screen smaller than 40 inches. It's likely that he'll understand dialogue more clearly.

Rich Warren, who lives in the Champaign area, is a longtime reviewer of consumer electronics. He can be emailed at hifiguy@mchsi.com.

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