How much should you expect to get out of a sound bar, anyway? A lot, judging by the number, variety, and prices of these audio supplements to flatscreen TVs. Vizio, which has made a name for itself delivering value in HDTVs, is aiming to do the same for sound bars.
With sound bar prices ranging from $80 to $1,800, the new Vizio 3.0 Home Theater Sound Bar is a relative bargain at $300. The main idea behind the category is to address the obvious fact that complete surround systems for home theaters have always been a royal pain in the fung shui to set up (even we groan when we have to test another system). A simple, single-cable sound bar would solve this for most folks, and it certainly would be an improvement over the built-in speakers in most sets. On these points, the Vizio 3.0 certainly delivers.
The 3.0 designation means it produces two stereo and one center channel from the bar's three, 3-inch drivers and passive radiators. It can fill a living room with enough jolting gun shots and pounding explosions to create that movie theater experience. Using an upgraded digital signal processor (DSP), the bar essentially remixes sources, such as 5.1 surround, without losing much detail and the DSP gives it the flexibility to manipulate the sound and handle all the major formats, including DTS, Dolby, and others. Such digital signal processing also enables some handy features, such as a sound-leveling control, to automatically bring down the volume on strident commercials while enhancing muffled dialogue. There's also a night mode that cuts the bass end by 10 decibals so you don't wake the dog.
Yielding a full surround effect is a trickier matter. The Vizio 3.0 – like others of its ilk – can synthesize or virtualize the surround sound stage, but don't expect a true surround sound experience. While it can yield a wider soundstage, it can't deliver what dedicated rear speakers can (which is not surprising since it doesn't have any reflective drivers aimed away from the viewer). The degree of virtualization can be adjusted, including bringing the center channel up to improve the audibility of dialogue, such as when we were straining to hear Robert Downey Jr.'s quips over the pyrotechnics in 'Iron Man 3.' The bass end does dip down into woofer territory but, again, a dedicated subwoofer would give explosions more bombast. (A subwoofer output jack is on the back of the bar.)
Soundbars are increasingly being used as ersatz wireless speakers for smart phones and tablets. The Vizio 3.0 uses Bluetooth with the APX compression scheme to get better sound out of such wireless sources. (Consumer electronics companies seem to be shunning Apple's AirPlay lately.) And the company reconsidered the sonic personality of the new model in light of these uses and tuned it to be more favorable, not just to soundtracks but to music tracks as well.
The primary difference is that the speaker doesn't highlight the vocal as much as other sound bars. You can bring it forward if you like via an easy control on the supplied remote. Playing Steely Dan's "Hey Nineteen" revealed that the mid bass end was a little over-pronounced, but instruments and voices are otherwise crisply represented, whether it's James Taylor or Katharine McPhee. The bottom line: It stands up well compared to sound bars costing twice as much.
At 54 inches wide, the Vizio 3.0 is designed to match the proportions of a 55-inch or larger set. There's a full complement of connections and cables included: HDMI, optical, and mini jack inputs, for example, with the necessary cables all supplied in the box. Good thing, otherwise it would obviate the whole point of sound bars: being easy to set up. [$300; vizio.com]