Aperion's SLIMstage30 by Soundmatters Soundbar System Reviewed

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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.

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.

The Downside
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.

Conclusion
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.

Additional Resources
• See the award HomeTheaterReview.com gave to the SLIMstage 30 by Soundmatters.
• Read more reviews of soundbars by HomeTheaterReview.com's staff.

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HTR Product Rating for Aperion's SLIMstage30 by Soundmatters Soundbar System

Criteria Rating

Performance

5

Value

4.5

Overall

5

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