Tech Tuesday: Budget Sound Bars – Not All Created Equal

The rate at which the quality of TV screens has increased over the last several years has been absolutely phenomenal. Screen size has been on an explosive growth both in terms of  physical size and resolution. At the same time, manufacturers are figuring out ways to produce these incredible quality pictures in thinner and thinner sets with smaller and smaller bezels. Unfortunately, one thing that simply hasn’t improved, and in many cases has actually regressed, is audio quality. With less physical room for the speakers, or awkward positioning necessitated by the lack of a bezel, many TV’s now have mediocre sound. This is not any concern of course when the TV is part of a home theater system. However, when space, budget or other personal considerations preclude hooking up your TV to an amplifier and speaker system, a sound bar can be an excellent way to dramatically increase audio quality.

This week we’ll take a look at a great budget sound bar: the Yamaha YAS-101. After recently participating in a small Google research project, I was rewarded with a $250 gift certificate to spend on literally hundreds of online stores. I figured it was a perfect time to finally get the sound bar that I had been itching to buy to upgrade the sound on my TV. There are scores of sound bars in the $200 – $300 range and I figured they’d all give a pretty decent sound and major upgrade to the horrendously under powered, tinny, small sounding speakers in my TV. Boy was I wrong. After purchasing and returning two, I nearly gave up before finding a superior product with excellent sound.

[Yamaha YAS-101 Sound Bar]

Normally, I am pretty good at reading reviews and doing research before dropping coin on a gadget, device, speaker or anything electronic. Yet, with the “free money” that I received from Google, I neglected to do much research and just bought one of the first sound bars that I came across on Crutchfield.com. Sadly, the first sound bar that I picked out and received was quickly boxed back up and returned. The LG NB2420A ($179.99) seemed to offer a lot: 160w offering decent power, six speakers including four mid-range and two tweeters, Bluetooth connectivity and plenty of other connection options including analog, digital and optical. Yet the sound was horrible. It sounded muffled, muted and as if it was coming out of a pair of tin cans. Not only didn’t it offer much, if any, upgrade over the existing speakers in my TV, it actually made it worse. The sound bar blocked the IR sensor for my TV making it difficult to use my remote for simple things like turning the TV on. Not only that, the remote for the sound bar itself was very unresponsive and difficult to adjust the volume unless the remote was precisely pointed at the exact spot needed on the sound bar. So despite a quick connection (just power cord and optical cable for sound), and sharp looks, this sound bar was a total failure and returned the following day.

My next purchase was Samsung’s HW – E551. This sound bar was a little different from the LG that I had just returned. Like many budget sound bars now, the Samsung had a subwoofer unit to provide additional bass. But while the sound was more impressive than the one I had just returned, I still felt that it was lacking “oomph” and it still left me craving better sound. The volume was better than my TV but I was having a difficult time justifying the more expensive price of $297.

Sound bars, like speakers or most other pieces of audio equipment, range all the way up the many thousands of dollars. I figured that the sound I was craving was much deeper into the price category than the roughly $250 I wanted to spend. Yet, I decided I’d give one more a spin before giving up. Thankfully, patience was a virtue.

Technology Tuesday Pick for Budget Sound Bar: Yamaha YAS-101 [$249]

Wow!

After failing at picking out two previous models, I didn’t expect much but was I sure blown away. The sound is spectacular and a major upgrade to my TV’s speakers. Not only is the volume impressive, but the clarity, “punch”, bass, and overall tone is fantastic. Streaming YouTube music videos, concert videos or movies with a decent soundtrack through this sound bar made a REMARKABLE difference from what I was accustomed to. Additionally, voices have much more clarity and I find myself not having to hit the rewind button anymore with a “what did he just say?” moment.

[YAS-101 Side Angle]

Here’s a few things I really love about this sound bar:

  • There is a sub-woofer but it is built right into the bar itself not requiring a separate unit taking up more space.
  • It has an infrared “pass through” that allows your TV remote to work normally if the bar is positioned in a way that would normally block the TV’s remote sensor. This is incredibly handy and overcomes  a major inconvenience of many sound bars that are not wall mounted and simply sitting in front of the TV.
  • Fantastic overall sound. Again, even $5,000 sound bars are never going to replicate the true experience of surround sound, but this sound bar gives a great imitation offering full room sound and great stereo separation. Concert videos, movies, TV shows and everything else I played through it had immensely better sound than both the previous sound bars I tested as well as the existing speakers on my TV.
  • The sleek, clutter-free design of the front panel is very attractive and simply looks great.
  • The learning function allows you to use your existing TV or Cable remote for easy operation. This makes a HUGE difference in convenience without having to reach for a separate remote every time you want to change volume. Without either a universal remote that could handle a sound bar or this learning function built into the YAS – 101, I frankly would not even want to have a sound bar.
  • Quick and Easy set-up. Without a separate sub-woofer, or anything else to configure, simply power on, connect to TV, and you are off and running in 30 seconds.

A couple of Drawbacks:

  • Some sound bars, including the LG I tested, have Bluetooth connectivity so you can not only use with your TV but stream audio from a tablet or MP3 player. Similarly, some have USB ports so you could stream music from a flash drive. I have enough devices to listen to music and would never want to listen through a sound bar but if you do, that would be a consideration.
  • Fewer connection options. There’s no HDMI or Analog input options. You’ll connect your TV with one of the two optical inputs that most HD TV’s offer or the coaxial input. You won’t be able to directly connect devices like game consoles that only have analog connections. (Though of course you can always connect to TV first and then use the digital input from TV). So again, not a major short coming but worth mentioning.

Bottom Line This sound bar is an outstanding choice for those wishing to markedly increase the fidelity, clarity and overall sound of their flat screen TV without the expense or hassle of running wires and installing a traditional surround system. The sound bar is stylish, will work with your existing remote and is easy to use right out of the box. There’s tons of sound bars in this price category but some of them offer mediocre sound and don’t warrant the investment at any price. The Yamaha YAS-101 will not disappoint and offers fantastic sound.

Yamaha YAS-101 $249 Amazon

MSRP $299
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We had yet another give-away last week in our review of great earphones from British company RHA. Congrats to John Vantine (@w00t) who was randomly picked. Feel free to get in touch with me with the email below to get shipping info.

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Hidden Track Technology Tuesday

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