When considering or shopping for a soundbar you have one of two choices: first, an all-in-one left, center, right loudspeaker in a single cabinet powered by traditional electronics or second, an all-in-one loudspeaker with internal amplification and DSP processing capable of creating a faux surround sound performance. The SLIMstage30 reviewed here is the latter of these two choices. The SLIMstage30 is a powered soundbar with internal DSP distributed by Aperion Audio as part of their Signature Series of products.
• See the award HomeTheaterReview.com gave to the SLIMstage 30 by Soundmatters.
• Read more reviews of soundbars by HomeTheaterReview.com's staff.
Soundmatters, a research and development company based out of Reno, Nevada designs and manufactures the SLIMstage30. However, the units delivered to Aperion Audio go through several alterations including revisions to voicing, preset EQ and surround modes, according to Aperion. I didn't have a SLIMstage30 straight from Soundmatters for comparison so I have to take Aperion at their word with regards to the changes made by Soundmatters at their request. Aperion is very upfront with consumers about the origins of their new soundbar; they don't even bother to hide the fact that it is made by another manufacturer, for the Soundmatters name is not only on Aperion's website but also on the product itself. Normally, when a more established company uses an OEM product, they re-badge it and charge a premium for the brand recognition. In the case of the SLIMstage30, Aperion has done the opposite – they've lowered the price from $699 to $599 retail. I've never heard of that happening before.
The SLIMstage30 can be purchased from Aperion Audio's website in one of two configurations; first as a stand-alone soundbar and second as a soundbar subwoofer combo. This review will focus on the SLIMstage30 and 8A Subwoofer combo, which retails for $799 (a savings of $119 if you were to purchase the two units separately).
The SLIMstage30 is a compact, modern looking powered soundbar measuring in at 31 inches wide by three and a half inches tall and nearly four inches deep. The SLIMstage30 is designed to compliment HDTVs ranging in size from 30 to 40 inches diagonally and can be wall mounted or can sit on a table or entertainment center thanks to its EZ-tilt leveling feet. The SLIMstage30 is finished in a combination of black surfaces ranging from high gloss for the outer enclosure to matte black for the speaker grill and underside. The face of the SLIMstage30 features a moderately large display that is readable from across even a large room and lets the user see information such as input/source, signal, EQ and volume. To either side of the display rests the SLIMstage30's manual controls of which there are mute, source and volume up and down. The SLIMstage30 also has front mounted inputs for a pair of headphones as well as portable MP3 players such as an iPod.
Around back the SLIMstage30 has a variety of inputs and outputs that allow it to be connected to a range of sources. It has a single digital coaxial input along with two optical digital inputs and two analog audio inputs that are of the 3.5-millimeter variety. The SLIMstage30 also has a 3.5-millimeter output to connect to a pair of powered rear channel speakers as well as a 3.5-millimeter output for a subwoofer. Aperion Audio goes the extra mile in this regard by supplying you with ALL the necessary cables to take full advantage of the SLIMstage30's unique input and output options.
Inside the SLIMstage30 features four 50x50 millimeter high requency/midrange drivers with LMD Neo-sandwich magnets mated to two Active High-Energy 3 inch LMD Neo-sandwich magnet woofers with dual three-inch passive bass radiators for each. The soundbar's unique
drivers and their arrangement inside the SLIMstage30 allow for the maximum SPL output in a standalone, compact chassis. How loud you ask? Try a 103dB maximum SPL rating. The drivers are powered by internal Class-D amplifiers generating a total of 80 Watts to the high
frequency/midrange drivers and 60 Watts to the woofers for a total of 140 watts of power (RMS at 0.8% THD), giving the SLIMstage30 a reported frequency response of 55Hz-20kHz.
The SLIMstage30 by Soundmatters can decode Dolby Digital and DTS surround sound formats. It can also convert two channel analog signals to a faux five-channel surround sound thanks to its internal Euphony HD 5.1 surround sound processing. The SLIMstage30 has four surround sound modes: Stereo/Bypass (no surround sound effects), Wide Stereo, Movies and Games. Along with its various surround sound modes, none of which require the use of reflections off of sidewalls or rear speakers, the SLIMstage30 also features a digital EQ, allowing you to manually tailor the speaker's sound to your tastes and listening environment.
While the SLIMstage30's bass output is impressive given its dimensions and driver compliment, it still requires a dedicated subwoofer for true, full-range sound reproduction. Enter the Bravus 8A subwoofer from Aperion Audio. The Bravus 8A is a powered sub featuring an internal 100 watt amplifier powering a single eight inch Aluminum driver. The Bravus 8A has a reported frequency response of 36Hz to 160Hz, allowing it to blend beautifully with the SLIMstage30. While not as compact as the SLIMstage30, the Bravus 8A is far from a monster at 15 inches high by 13 and a half inches wide and deep. The Bravus 8A's gloss piano black finish is first rate and makes the sub appear far more expensive than it really is. The Bravus 8A subwoofer retails on its own for $319; however when purchased in tandem with the SLIMstage30 it's asking price is a cool $200.
Before I get into installation, I have to take a moment to point out that no one packages their products better than Aperion Audio. That's a fact. Upon opening the box for any one of their products, the SLIMstage30 and Bravus 8A subwoofer included, you'd never guess you'd just purchased budget conscious home theater equipment. The pride of ownership factor is off the charts when it comes to Aperion Audio products and it begins way before you ever integrate them into your system or listening environment.
The entire system came packaged in two boxes, one for the SLIMstage30 and the other for the Bravus 8A subwoofer. The SLIMstage30 comes complete with all the necessary mounting hardware and cables needed to integrate it into your existing system. When I say "all the necessary hardware and cables" I do mean ALL the necessary hardware and cables, and it's not the cheap stuff either. All the cables were substantial but still pliable and were finished in décor friendly white. The Bravus 8A subwoofer was wrapped in a Velvet bag keeping it free of unwanted fingerprints and smudges from the factory.
I installed the SLIMstage30 system in my master bedroom, which features a 46-inch Samsung LCD HDTV, AT&T U-Verse HD DVR, Sherwood Blu-ray player and an AppleTV. I placed the SLIMstage30 in front of my Samsung HDTV, letting it rest on its adjustable feet atop my Sanus Accurate Series TV/AV stand. I connected the SLIMstage30 to my Samsung's digital optical audio output via the supplied optical cable from Aperion. I connected the Bravus 8A subwoofer to the SLIMstage30 via the included 3.5-millemeter to RCA cable and ran it down the back of my stand to the sub which I placed on the floor to the left of the stand. In terms of time I had the whole system unpacked and connected in less than ten minutes.
Click to Page 2 for The High Points, The Low Points and The Conclusion.
I powered up the Aperion Audio SLIMstage30 and began cycling through the menus visible on its front mounted display via the SLIMstage30's remote. Without having to consult the manual I was able to navigate my way through the SLIMstage30's various settings and configuration options with ease. I played with the SLIMstage30's manual digital EQ but opted to start my listening tests using the factory defaults, for I thought that was how the vast majority of customers were going to listen to the SLIMstage30. While the average consumer may never touch the manual EQ controls on the SLIMstage30, I applaud Aperion Audio and Soundmatters for including it as an option.
In my primary listening position, AKA the center of my bed, my ears were roughly 11 feet from the SLIMstage30, which sat about two feet out from my front wall, dead center in the room with about eight feet between it and my side walls on either side. I mention my room dimensions because my bedroom is a great environment in which to test soundbars that use reflective surfaces to obtain their surround sound-like performance. However, Aperion Audio and Soundmatters both claim that the SLIMstage30 doesn't rely on sidewalls or reflective surfaces to create its surround sound performance.
I know soundbars are primarily designed to be used as a home theater solution; however, since the SLIMstage30 has two unique stereo or two channel settings I decided to start things off with some two channel music courtesy of my AppleTV. Beginning with the Blue Man Group album Audio (Virgin) and the track "Shadows" I found that in my master bedroom the SLIMstage30's "stereo/bypass" setting was a bit muted and closed in overall in terms of sound. There was tremendous midrange and bass presence. However, the high frequency detail and extension was virtually non-existent. I was able to combat my room issues by engaging the SLIMstage30's internal EQ to produce a pleasing and far more engaging sound - but I can't imagine the average user doing this or knowing where to begin, though I applaud Aperion for allowing me the opportunity to 'tune' the SLIMstage30 to my room. The dead sound I found with the SLIMstage30 in "stereo/bypass" mode was absolutely the result of my room (master bedroom), for when I relocated the SLIMstage30 to my living room/reference system, which is more balanced between reflective and absorptive surfaces, the sound changed dramatically. However, switching over to the SLIMstage30's "stereo wide" setting was a whole other animal and allowed the soundbar to sound and perform more like a pair of independent monitor speakers than a single chassis loudspeaker in my master bedroom, whereas in my living room the "stereo wide" mode sounded a bit to sharp in the high frequencies and anemic in the midrange and bass.
Sticking with the SLIMstage30 in "stereo wide" mode and in my master bedroom system, the sound quality was surprising. I can't say the SLIMstage30 sounded like a pair of huge floorstanding speakers but it didn't sound like a three and a half inch tall soundbar either. Like Goldilocks, the SLIMstage30's presence was just right for my medium sized master suite. The soundstage was equal parts width and depth with a shocking amount of air between the various performers. I was not expecting the SLIMstage30 to image as well as it did, again acting more like a pair of medium sized bookshelf or monitor speakers than a soundbar. The midrange was ever so slightly on the cool side of the spectrum but not so much that it made for a clinical or lifeless presentation. The high frequencies were quite nice, though a little rolled off at the extremes, which I actually prefer in budget-oriented gear for I find a lot of design-on-a-dime speakers can become to harsh or aggressive when they attempt to reproduce sound(s) above their pay grade. In "stereo wide" mode the SLIMstage30's high frequency performance had very good extension as well as air and decay, far more than what I was expecting, to be honest. The lower midrange was, again, a bit on the lean side, however it was still able to blend nicely with the Bravus 8A subwoofer which added the necessary low-end punch for the boys of blue. In terms of bass the Bravus 8A subwoofer is quite a capable performer especially considering its asking price; it was able to energize and load my room with rich, tuneful bass that had both impact as well as quick reflexes. If you don't go overboard with the Bravus 8A's rear mounted volume controls and set the crossover accordingly, it is one hell of a musical sub. However if you take it just a bit too far, it can and will overpower the SLIMstage30.
I experimented with the SLIMstage30's "game" setting, which according to the manual provides the greatest surround sound effect; it just didn't hit the right cords for me. I found it to be a bit artificial sounding with a strange audible delay that produced a sort of echo-like sound at times. I'm not certain if the "game" setting is meant for video games or for sporting broadcasts, however since I'm not a gamer I went ahead and fired up the latter. With my AT&T U-Verse DVR set to the NFL Network I watched NFL Replay and their presentation of this year's Super Bowl. In "game" mode the additional reverb did add a bit of ambient scope to the Superdome, however that was about it. I actually found the SLIMstage30's "movie" setting to be far more enjoyable, not to mention natural, when watching a HD sporting event then the "game" setting.
Next, I cued up Season Five of the Fox series 24 (Fox) starring Keifer Sutherland on my AppleTV. I set the SLIMstage30's internal DSP to "movie" for I wanted to see how it handled transforming a stereo signal into one that sounded like a native surround sound signal. In "movie" mode the SLIMstage30 gained a bit of midrange weight over its "stereo wide" mode, which was a bit surprising. This extra oomph gave the actors more presence and weight, especially Keifer whose voice is decidedly deep and worn. The high frequency performance between my two tests went largely unchanged, again exhibiting roll off at the extremes but possessing ample detail and air within its limits. The Bravus 8A subwoofer seemed to blend more smoothly with the SLIMstage30 in "movie" mode thanks to its added midrange weight, especially in the lower midrange. The SLIMstage30's sound was dynamic and at times surprisingly explosive. The soundstage was deeper in "movie" mode than with its stereo counterpart and the width did extend a good foot or more on either side as well. Did the SLIMstage30 manage to recreate a surround sound performance from a stereo signal? No, however it got close at times, though I don't fault it for not doing so, for no soundbar that I've encountered has been able to realistically recreate a 5.1 surround sound performance from a native two channel source. True 5.1 systems have a hard enough time converting a stereo signal into a multi-channel one that sounds convincing and natural. I don't expect a single chassis soundbar to do it. What I do expect is for a soundbar to be enjoyable and to be easy to use, and I found the SLIMstage30 and Bravus 8A subwoofer combo to be both.
I ended my evaluation of the SLIMstage30 with Avatar (20th Century Fox) on Blu-ray. Since the SLIMstage30 can decode a Dolby Digital signal, that's precisely what I fed it. With the SLIMstage30 still set to "movie" mode I hit play. What a difference a format can make. While I was impressed with the SLIMstage30's handling of 24 in "movie" mode it was nothing compared to how handled and presented Avatar. Across the board the sound was richer (though still a touch cool), full bodied, more dynamic but also larger. The high frequency performance had a bit more refinement and seemed to go a bit higher than with my previous tests. It also had a tad more extension that helped in the SLIMstage30's surround sound presentation, but I'll get to that in a minute. The midrange too improved, gaining even more weight and detail. Dialog was presented front and center and far more forward than with my previous two tests. The lower midrange and bass performance was very good, adding tremendous depth and impact to film's insane action sequences. The entire scope of the SLIMstage30's soundstage seemed to come forward into my room versus back. As for recreating a surround sound performance from a soundbar the SLIMstage30 came dangerously close to achieving the impossible; bringing elements of the surround sound mix up to and to the side of my listening position. Did the sound envelope me in a full 360-degree arc? No, however elements of the sound, especially during the flying sequences, did manage to come close. When I re-installed the SLIMstage30 in my living room/reference system, the addition of more reflective surfaces aided in helping to bring the surround sound performance closer to my listening position and at times allow it to almost wrap around me, however both Soundmatters and Aperion state that the SLIMstage30 doesn't rely on sound reflection to achieve its surround sound performance. While this may be true, there's no getting around the fact that reflective surfaces can and do help soundbars pull off the illusion of sounding like a discrete 5.1 channel system. Regardless of whether your room is a combination of absorptive and reflective surfaces like my living room or almost purely absorptive like my master bedroom the SLIMstage30 with its internal DSPs will provide you with a wholly enjoyable cinematic experience.
I found the SLIMstage30 to be quite enjoyable and one of the better soundbars out there today, however there were a few issues that I took note of. First, the SLIMstage30 is small in terms of overall width making it ideal for displays 37-inches or smaller in my opinion. When mated to a 50-inch plasma it looks down right puny and not visually appropriate, which may or may not be a deal breaker for some of you. Aperion Audio has informed me that they do plan on releasing larger models that will visually "mate" better with larger displays, however at this time the diminutive SLIMstage30 is the only option. I found the SLIMstage30 to be ideal for secondary or smaller systems such as the one I keep in my master bedroom, which is in line with what Aperion Audio views the average SLIMstage30 customer to be looking for.
On another note, I didn't really jive with the SLIMstage30's remote control. It's not horrible but its layout isn't entirely intuitive and the fact that it's not backlit is a bit of an oversight. There are two sets of controls on the remote itself that feel almost identical to each other, though they do vastly different functions: one handles volume while the other handles setup, and in a darkened room they're easily confused.
Speaking of remotes, I also found the SLIMstage30 to be rather receptive to other remote signals, for instance chaptering ahead on my AppleTV would cause the SLIMstage30's display to light up each and every time, which was kind of annoying. In a few instances when I changed the channel on my DVR using its remote, it would increase the volume on the SLIMstage30. This was an intermittent issue but an issue nonetheless. I recommend getting a universal remote and programming the SLIMstage30's controls into it in order to circumvent this problem.
The SLIMstage30 with the Bravus 8A subwoofer from Aperion Audio weighs into the soundbar battle with guns ablazing, providing exceptional performance at the right price ($799). While the SLIMstage30 may be a bit small for HDTVs over 37-inches in size or in rooms larger than say a bedroom or den, it's still a capable performer. Its stereo or two-channel music performance is impressive but make no mistake - the SLIMstage30 was designed for television and movies. Its ability to decode both Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks make it the ideal candidate for the home theater enthusiast on a budget or with space constraints. The SLIMstage30 and Bravus 8A subwoofer combo is a match made in affordable audio heaven and one I strongly urge you to check out for yourself if you're shopping for or considering purchasing a soundbar.
• See the award HomeTheaterReview.com gave to the SLIMstage 30 by Soundmatters.
• Read more reviews of soundbars by HomeTheaterReview.com's staff.