By Tim Hoogenakker
My day job is as a re-recording mixer and sound editor working on long-form projects, so when I attended this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, I honed in on the leading trends in home audio playback. It was important for me to see what the manufacturers are planning regarding multi-channel audio reproduction for the home. From the look of it, sound bars seem to be leading the charge. My focus was primarily with immersive sound bars, single-box audio components capable of playing Dolby Atmos and DTS:X as close as they can in their original format.
Now I must admit, I’ve kicked and screamed about sound bars in the past, audibly rolling my eyes at the concept. We audio mixers are used to working in perfect discrete surround environments, but I wanted to keep an open mind. Whether we as sound professionals like it or not, this is where the consumer product technology is headed. That and I didn’t see quite the same glitz and glam over discrete surround speaker systems at CES.
Here are some basic details with immersive sound bars in general:
1. In addition to the front channels, they often have up-firing drivers on the left and right edges (normally on the top and sides) that are intended to reflect onto the walls and the ceiling of the room. This is to replicate the immersiveness as much as possible. Sure this isn’t exact replication, but I’ll certainly give manufacturers praise for their creativity.
2. Because of the required reflectivity, the walls have to be of a flat enough surface to reflect the signal, yet still balanced so that it doesn’t sound like you’re sitting in the middle of your shower.
3. There is definitely a sweet spot in the seating position when listening to sound bars. If you move off-axis, you may experience somewhat of a wash sitting near the sides, but considering what they’re trying to replicate, it’s an interesting take.
4. They usually have an auto-tuning microphone system for calculating the room for the closest accuracy.
5. I’m convinced that there’s a conspiracy by the manufacturers to make each and every sound bar, in physical appearance, resemble the enigmatic Monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey…as if literally someone just knocked it over.
My first real immersive sound bar experience happened last year with the Yamaha YSP-5600, which comes loaded with 40 (yes 40!) drivers. It’s a very meaty 26-pound sound bar with a height of 8.5 inches and width of 3.6 feet. I heard a few projects that I had mixed in Dolby Atmos played back on this system. Granted, even when correctly tuned it’s not going to sound the same as my dubbing stage or with dedicated home theater speakers, but knowing this I was pleasantly surprised. A few eyebrows were raised for sure. It was fun playing demo titles for friends, watching them turn around and look for surround speakers that weren’t there.
A number of the sound bars displayed at CES bring me to my next point, which honestly is a bit of a complaint. Many were very thin in physical design, often labeled as “ultra-thin,” which to me means very small drivers, which tells me that there’s an elevated frequency crossover line for the subwoofer(s). Sure, I understand that they need to look sleek so they can sell and be acceptable for room aesthetics, but I’m an audio nerd. I WANT those low- to mid-frequencies carried through from the drivers, don’t just jam ALL the low- and mid-frequencies to the sub. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out as these products reach market during the year.
Besides immersive audio, most of these sound bars will play from a huge variety of sources, formats and specs, such as Blu-ray, Blu-ray UHD, DVD, DVD-Audio, streaming via network and USB, as well as connections for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and 4K pass-through.
Some of these sound bars — like many things at CES 2017 — are supported with Amazon Alexa and Google Home. So, instead of fighting over the remote control, you and your family can now confuse Alexa with arguments over controlling your audio between “Game of Thrones” and Paw Patrol.
Finally, I probably won’t be installing a sound bar on my dub stage for reference anytime soon, but I do feel that professionally it’s very important for me to know the pros and the cons — and the quirks — so we can be aware how our audio mixes will translate through these systems. And considering that many major studios and content creators are becoming increasingly ready to make immersive formats their default deliverable standard, especially now with Dolby Vision, I’d say it’s a necessary responsibility.
Looking forward to seeing what NAB has up its sleeve on this as well.
Here are some of the more notable soundbars debuted:
Sony HT-ST5000: This sound bar is compatible with Google Home. They say it works well with ceilings as high as 17 feet. It’s not DTS:X-capable yet, but Sony said that will happen by the end of the year.LG SJ9: The LG SJ9 sound bar is currently noted by LG as “4K high resolution audio” (which is an impossible statement). It’s possible that they mean it’ll pass through a 4K signal, but the LG folks couldn’t clarify. That snafu aside, it has a very wide dimensionality, which helps for stereo imaging. It will be Dolby Vision/HDR-capable via a future firmware upgrade.
The Klipsch “Theaterbar”: This another eyebrow raiser. It’ll release in Q4 of 2017. There’s no information on the web yet, but they’re showcasing this at CES.
Pioneer Elite FS-EB70: There’s no information on the web yet, but they were showcasing this at CES.
Onkyo SBT-A500 Network: Also no information but it was shown at CES.
Formosa Group re-recording mixer and sound editor Tim Hoogenakker has over 20 years of experience in audio post for music, features and documentaries, television and home entertainment formats. He had stints at Prince’s Paisley Park Studios and POP Sound before joining Formosa.