September 2, 2008

Samsung’s Satisfactory Sound Bar

Anybody who's set up a home theater system knows a thing or two about clutter. Unless you pay money to have wires hidden behind walls, you'll need to contend with a Hydra of cords connecting multimedia receivers, Blu-ray disc players, game consoles, and other devices to your big-screen television.

Samsung's HT-X810 Sound Bar aims to clean up some of that clutter. The unit includes a single horizontal speaker connected wirelessly to a subwoofer that can be placed out of the way, anywhere in a room. Like Philips' HTS8100, Boston Acoustics' TVee Model Two, and Yamaha's many sound bar models, the Samsung unit uses sophisticated programming to simulate surround sound from a 2.1 Dolby system.

The $600 HT-X810 is one of the more stylish sound bars I've reviewed. It boasts an all-black finish, black perforated front metal grille, and molded plastic accents on the bottom meant to complement similar accents on the company's Touch of Color HDTVs. There's a neat slot-loading drive hidden behind a drop-down door on the top edge. To the left of that, there's a small readout display [a little too small, for my taste], and touch controls for the player, volume, and power on the right.

The subwoofer, for delivering those low-frequency sounds, offers a black gloss front and top panel, and automatically connects wirelessly to the system via 5.8Ghz technology. That frequency is shared by cordless phones and microwaves, but during my month or so of testing I didn't detect any interference.

Some Upsides Setup for the HT-X810, measuring 39.3 in. wide by 6.43 in. deep by 7.5 in. high, takes just minutes. I plugged in the Sound Bar, then the wireless subwoofer, and finally connected the device to a Pioneer Elite television via an HD multimedia, or HDMI, interface. Samsung also includes a wall mount, which would extend setup time by at least 30 minutes.

The unit also comes with a remote control similar to those found on lower-cost Samsung sets, with additional features that let you adjust center channel and subwoofer volume.

While it's not a Blu-ray player, the HT-X810 can convert standard video all the way up to the full HD resolution of 1080p. No, that doesn't result in the same image quality as a high-definition player, but it sure does make the picture look better.

Overall, the Samsung unit offers fairly impressive video upscaling. I slipped in a rented DVD of Twin Peaks and was happy with the quality. While HDTVs also do some of the work in determining picture quality, on the giant 60-in. Pioneer I expected to see slightly jagged edges brought on by the processing. I was pleasantly surprised to see little that would bother an average viewer.

Unchanged Reputation So what didn't I like? Samsung is not necessarily known for delivering great sound systems, and the HT-X810 doesn't do much to improve that reputation. In a quiet room, you can expect decent audio even at low volumes, but when I slipped in Men in Black and cranked up the volume, I never really got the surround-sound, knock-your-socks-off feeling I experienced when playing the same movie back through a dedicated 7.1 surround system I tested in another room.

The Sound Bar can also play music from regular and MP3 CDs. Listening to the latest Coldplay CD, the sound was crisp, but it didn't offer quite the range that more robust audio systems do.

There's also a USB port on the left-side panel to play photos and music directly from a portable flash storage drive. Unlike the Philips unit, there's no iPod adapter for controlling the device. But Samsung adds a neat bonus feature: the ability to transmit music stored on portable music players to the system via stereo Bluetooth.

Samsung jumps into the sound bar market with a solid performer and good-looking system. While I prefer more brawny 5.1 channel speaker setups, when the HT-X810 is connected to a Blu-ray player, the device is a good choice for users looking for less clutter and simple and easy connections to an HDTV.