The Sound Bar Conundrum: Commentary

Will sound bar popularity put the brakes on multi-channel surround sound?

Sony HT-ST7 Sound Bar and Wireless Subwoofer System Package
Photo of Sony HT-ST7 Sound Bar and Wireless Subwoofer System Package. Photo © Robert Silva - Licensed to About.com

DATELINE 2/10/14:
UPDATED 3/06/15:

In an article posted in 2014 CNET, noted audio expert and reviewer Steve Guttenberg discussed his observations on the state of surround sound music and home theater applications, centered mostly on the topic that no surround sound music format has gained broad acceptance, and that a good two channel stereo setup was preferred for music listening.

However, what stood out to me more in the article is that he also briefly alluded to the possibility that multi-speaker surround sound systems may be on their way out as well.

Of course, since I make my living on writing and reporting on the topic of home theater, I was definitely put off at first with that possibility. However, I want to take this opportunity to explore Steve Guttenberg's point a little further.

The Home Theater Audio Experience

First, let me say, that there is nothing like a good 5.1 or 7.1 channel audio system to bring the movie theater experience home. In fact, with the right selection of components and room, a home theater experience can sometimes rival a local movie-going experience, especially when compared to those smaller screen cinema multiplexes (and you don't have the sometimes noisy crowd and sticky floors).

Economic Downturn and Consumer Buying Trends

However, two things, in my opinion, have changed many consumers' attitude in purchasing,  installing, and setting up home theater in recent years: the great recession and the sound bar.

Obviously, the economic downturn that occurred in 2007, and the continued economic stagnation to this day, has resulted in the reduction in the demand for custom home theater dealers and installers (partially reflected in the decrease of attendees at the annual CEDIA EXPO - the primary annual home theater dealer and installer trade show).

On the other hand, those that have survived are doing a good business with a smaller, but "wealthier" clientèle.

Enter The Sound Bar

However, the soundbar, in my opinion, has made an even greater impact on the current state of home theater - as consumers have found both an affordable and no-hassle way to get better sound for TV viewing without the need for a lot of speakers and wire clutter.

At first, the sound bar was just a convenient way to get better TV sound for that bedroom or second room TV, but you wouldn't want to incorporate it as part of a full home theater setup.

Upping The Sound Bar Ante - Audio Quality

An interesting thing happened to the sound bar. Instead of just settled for a second-rate audio solution, some manufacturers started incorporating better amps and speakers in their sound bars.

One manufacturer, Yamaha, shook things up a bit with the introduction of the Digital Sound Projector that could (and can), just as the name implies, project sound to specific points in a room, producing a credible surround sound effect without the need, necessarily, for extra speakers on the side or back of the room (read my previous review of the Yamaha YSP-2200).

This concept was further fleshed out by companies such as SRS (now a part of DTS) that marketed virtual surround sound technologies that, although not as immersive as full multi-channel, multi-speaker surround sound system, none-the-less many consumers are opting for these types of sound bars as their home theater audio solution.

However, what really seals the deal for the success of sound bars, in terms of audio quality, is that even higher-end speaker makers who have for years made their money on selling lots of speakers (every fully-realized home theater needs at least five or seven), have also jumped onto the sound bar bandwagon with some pretty impressive sounding units (read my review of the Martin Logan Motion Vision and Sony HT-ST7).

Upping The Sound Bar Ante - Flexibility

In addition to upping the sound quality, many sound bars now feature the ability to access music content from compatible Bluetooth devices, bringing the portable audio experience into the home theater environment.

Expanding the flexibility of the soundbar concept is also well-illustrated by Sonos, makers of a popular whole-house wireless audio solution, which as upped the ante even further by integrating the sound bar (Sonos refers to their product as the PLAYBAR) into their whole-house wireless music system architecture.

This not only provides a platform for accessing better sound for TV viewing but can deliver full 5.1 channel home theater-style listening by adding the same wireless speakers that it uses in its multi-room audio system solution for use as wireless surround speakers but can also provide access to streaming content from a variety of online sources. In essence, an easy-to-use take on a network-enabled multi-zone home theater receiver without all the bulk and with all of the speakers you need (they are all self-powered) - and its all wireless - and it can all be controlled via compatible iOS and Android devices.

For more perspective on how this type of audio solution might affect how consumers approach home theater audio, read the article: Is The Home Theater Receiver Dead? by Grant Clauser for Electronic House (Posted on 03/06/2015).

The Future of Home Theater Audio

So what does all this mean for the future of home theater? A sizable consumer base will always want the most comprehensive solution, so there will continue to be a market for both custom and DIY home theater setups - and the cost continues to come down for such setups.

However, it is hard to neglect the fact that sound bars are becoming increasingly popular and have crowded out home theater-in-a-box systems on store shelves and many consumers' homes.

In fact, just looking at the product reviews I have written in the past, and what lies ahead  - I have reviewed a lot of sound bars. I now always have a sound bar in my review queue. For a look at sound bars that I previously reviewed that are available, check out my current listing (periodically updated).

So, now that I have put down my own thoughts on Steve Guttenberg's and Grant Clauser's points regarding the possible future of home theater surround sound, what do you think?

Undoubtedly, the sound bar is making an impact consumer home entertainment buying choices.

However, does that necessarily mean the sound bar will eventually spell doom for the future of home theater or is the whole idea of the sound bar actually eliminating the demand for a traditional home theater system just unnecessary alarmism?

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