A soundbar is nothing but a fake, an impostor. It's not a real surround-sound speaker system.
Maybe it's time to applaud the fraud.
For those with the money but not enough space, Harman Kardon's SB 30 soundbar with wireless subwoofer is a two-piece alternative to a conventional six- or seven-piece home theater surround-sound speaker system. It doesn't need a home theater's audio-video receiver, either. It connects directly to a television, cable/satellite set-top box,Blu-ray player or gaming console.
At $799, the SB 30 costs as much as some actual surround systems. But slip a movie disc into a Blu-ray player, close your eyes, and it might be hard to tell the difference. Actual surround effects from the side, and even behind, the listener are not there. (You can only fool the ears so much.) The weight and breadth of a small surround-sound system are, in fact, there.
The SB 30's faux-surround ruse collapses with music, the tiny remote control demands considerable contemplation and Harman Kardon somehow forgot an HDMI connection. Otherwise, this is one of 2012's big-time soundbar-subwoofer combos.
The soundbar itself, almost 4 feet long and less than 4 inches tall and deep, is full of deception and misdirection. In that shiny, black didgeridoo frame are a half-dozen 2-inch woofers, seven 1-inch tweeters and 11 amplified channels. The big fake-out is Harman Kardon's triple-core digital signal processing technology. The algorithms bend, twist and regurgitate the incoming signal into stereo or surround modes, three room sizes, a wall-or-table setting for soundbar placement and Dolby Volume, which keeps volume (notably, big-mouth commercials) at a consistent level.
It's not ideal and it's not real, but it's better than an HDTV's speakers.
The wireless subwoofer contributes to both the package's cost and success. The sub's 8-inch driver, powered by a 100-watt amplifier in a glistening black, sealed enclosure, adds essential low frequencies. The soundbar and sub each have a set of four wireless codes. On the first try, they paired within 30 seconds.
The soundbar adjusts to placement on a wall (mounting brackets are included) or, in my case, on a table after adding snap-on rubber feet. Be careful with the sub, though. In a corner, it might sound boomy. Against a sidewall in my room, a test disc revealed a bump, or accentuation, in the upper-bass. Placing it closer to the soundbar, near a back wall, should work in most cases.
The soundbar has some limitations. It accepts two digital connections, neither HDMI, and one analog. Let's say a cable box and Blu-ray player call for reservations. Suddenly, it's a full house. Where's HDMI? Some soundbars half the price have multiple HDMI inputs. Harman Kardon says HDTVs have enough HDMI connections for all your equipment.
With no display, the soundbar uses an awkward system of Morse Code-type status LEDs. If you want to hear the cable box or Blu-ray player, hit the remote's (or soundbar's) source button and watch for one light (digital connection), two lights (the second digital) or three lights (analog).
Most disappointing: The only remote the SB 30 answers to is its own, unless you track down instructions (not included, or hinted) for your cable or TV remote to "learn' the Harman Kardon's infrared codes.
It didn't take long to find the sweet spot with the SB 30: the Harman Wave surround mode and the large-room setting produced the biggest, widest soundstage for movies. The illusion was uncanny, with sound extending 6 feet above, to the sides and in front of the soundbar and room-quaking bass. It had everything except the most obvious, behind-the-listener surround-sound effects.
Soundbars simply aren't built for music. The SB 30's stereo mode sounded the most natural, though lacking distinct stereo imaging, and the subwoofer frequently became overbearing. The surround modes sounded synthetic and overly processed.
I'd still prefer a $799 soundbar with an HDMI option and a setup guide that shows how to make a cable or HDTV remote compatible with it. But if movies, and space, matter most, I'd take this fake.
What: Harman Kardon SB 30 soundbar-wireless subwoofer
Price: $799, harmankardon.com
Hot: Superb, almost-surround sound for movies.
Not: Music doesn't sound as good as movies; can't use TV or cable remote to control soundbar volume.