In a strange sort of way, Charlotte-based AV supplier SnapAV has become something of a shibboleth for me over the past few years. If you've heard of the supplier at all, I can make a reasonable assumption that you're one of my people - a client, proponent, or practitioner of the arcane art of custom AV integration. Snap AV's diverse line of products includes everything from cables to power products to custom-friendly installation tools to amplifiers and speakers - the latter coming primarily from Episode Speakers. If you've not only heard of SnapAV but also count yourself as a fan, I can also be reasonably sure that you value tried-and-true design principles over marketing hype, and you don't mind saving a buck or two when you can.
Take the new Episode 500 Series Thin Design three-channel passive soundbar (Model ES-500T-SNDBR-50), for example. Remove the "Thin" bit from the equation (and with a depth of just 1.83 inches, that would be quite a significant design element to overlook), and what you're left with is wonderfully designed, horizontally arrayed integrated LCR speaker with no real gimmicks to get overly excited about: no channel processing technology or extra tweeters to widen the front soundstage, and no custom-fit grilles to match the width of your TV (although at just under two inches wider than my 50-inch Panasonic plasma in the bedroom, the bar still made for a nice aesthetic match).
That isn't to say there's nothing nifty or interesting about the ES-500T-SNDBR-50's design; pull off the grille, and you'll notice that its drivers (four 4-inch anodized aluminum midbass woofers, with two for the center and one each for the left and right channels; four 4-inch anodized aluminum passive radiators with the same distribution; and three 1-inch titanium dome, neodymium-driven, ferrofluid-cooled tweeters) are arranged in a raised-tweeter configuration similar to that of better two-way horizontal center speakers. The benefit of raising the tweeter above the plane of the midbass drivers is that it improves horizontal dispersion and minimizes interference between the drivers in the crossover frequencies. It's surprising to me that Episode doesn't tout these advantages in its marketing. Instead, the company focuses on the rigidity of the ES-500T-SNDBR-50's extruded aluminum cabinet (a big bonus, to be sure) and its numerous installation-centric features (which are also a pretty big deal).
In terms of setup, I wouldn't call the ES-500T-SNDBR-50 the single easiest-to-install of all the soundbars I've auditioned, but it is one of the easiest to get right, thanks to a flexible wall-mount bracket that has plenty of wiggle room in terms of leveling. It's easily a one-Wookiee job. And if you prefer not to wall-mount the soundbar, it also includes a pair of adjustable kickstands that let you lean the cabinet forwards or backwards for the purposes of aiming the sound toward the listening position. Speaker connections come in the form of a phoenix connector that makes wire management tidy and compact, and I didn't have any trouble at all using it with my 14-gauge speaker wire in the bedroom. Back around the front, beneath the grille, you'll also find a little knockout panel that you can use to mount an IR receiver within the soundbar's cabinet, which could come in handy if you're using the ES-500T-SNDBR-50 with a hidden AV receiver and aren't relying on an advanced wireless control solution. It's also handy if you're using the soundbar in conjunction with Episode's EA-MINI-3D-35, a 3.1-channel, 35-watts-per-channel mini amplifier with remote learning capabilities. The company sent an EA-MINI-3D-35 along for review with the ES-500T-SNDBR-50, so that's where I began my listening. Although I was quite impressed with its capabilities (especially with the amount of oomph you get for the mere 35x3 watts of power), it's worth noting that this isn't a receiver or processor and, as such, won't accept a Dolby Digital or DTS signal. Instead, the EA-MINI-3D-35 is designed to accept a stereo analog input from a connected source or two-channel PCM from the digital optical output of your TV. It does feed the ES-500T-SNDBR-50 with a three-channel signal (and also extracts a subwoofer output) from that stereo source by way of advanced DSPs that render a nice, rock-solid center-channel signal without diminishing the stereo integrity or channel separation of the left and right channels.
The sound was surprisingly nice; but, given that I'm spoiled by surround sound in my bedroom, I quickly swapped out the EA-MINI-3D-35 amp for Anthem's MRX 710 AV receiver, added a pair of SnapAV Episode 700 Series monitor speakers I reviewed a few years back as surround channels, and threw my GoldenEar ForceField 3 subwoofer into the mix. The ES-500T-SNDBR-50's frequency response as listed at 100 Hz to 22 kHz, but in practice I found 100 Hz to be far too low as a crossover point between the soundbar and sub. Both my ears and the MRX 710's ARC 1M room correction agreed that a crossover of 140 Hz resulted in a superior blend between the two.
With that set, I sat down to listen to a few of my favorite go-to demo scenes on Blu-ray, which confirmed almost immediately that the raised-tweeter design of the ES-500T-SNDBR-50 is far from a gimmick. Dialogue clarity stands out as particularly excellent, but perhaps more impressive is just how tonally consistent the soundbar remains as you move around the room. The soundbar exhibits none of the lobing or combing typical of horizontal speakers (in other words, as you move left to right, it doesn't sound as if you're listening to the speakers through a picket fence). Even as you move outside the extremes of the front soundstage, to the point where imaging falls apart, the ES-500T-SNDBR-50 remains wonderfully tonally consistent.
Despite the fact that dynamics really come into their own at or near reference levels, I also found that the ES-500T-SNDBR-50 was quite articulate and a pleasure to listen to at much lower levels. Stereo music, as you might expect, wasn't as impressive, but that has more to do with the fixed width of the soundbar (I typically place my satellites about a foot outside the outer reaches of the ES-500T-SNDBR-50). When combined with the Episode 700 monitors and GoldenEar sub, though, I found the soundbar sounded quite striking with surround sound music - perhaps not as dynamic as I would hope for in a good set of bookshelf speakers, but still appreciably impactful and nicely balanced in terms of frequency response. What the soundbar lacked in width of the image, it made up for with nice depth.
Comparison and Competition
The $1,000-ish passive integrated LCR market isn't quite as packed as the active soundbar market is, but two products in particular stand out to me as direct competitors for the $999 ES-500T-SNDBR-50: TruAudio's SLIM-300-G Slim LCR soundbar and GoldenEar Technology's SuperCinema 3D Array. The comparison between the Episode and the TruAudio is perhaps a fairer one, since both soundbars are explicitly designed for the custom-installation market. Overall, I found the TruAudio easier to install and loved its cable-management options, but I definitely preferred the performance of the Episode, especially with multichannel music. The GoldenEar, on the other hand, isn't quite as easy to seamlessly integrate, but in terms of performance the SC3DA is absolutely in a class all of its own.
SnapAV also has a bit of competition from its own ES-500-SNDBAR-50-BLK, a non-thin soundbar of otherwise identical dimensions, which boasts much deeper low-frequency extension.
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If you're in the market for a surround sound system, can't (or don't want to) abide the extra space and aesthetic impact that separate LCR speakers bring to the credenza, and can't be bothered with the often dinky sound delivered by powered soundbars, there's a lot to love about the Episode ES-500T-SNDBR-50. Anyone who knows anything about speaker design will look at its raised-tweeter configuration and say, "Yeah, duh, of course that's the right way to design an integrated LCR speaker," but the fact remains that so many speaker manufacturers don't, and the sonic results speak for themselves.
Granted, you're not going to find the Episode 500 Series Thin Design three-channel passive soundbar on the shelves of your local big-box store; but, if you're willing to put in a bit of effort to find your local SnapAV dealer, the ES-500T-SNDBR-50 is certainly worth a look...and a listen.
Check out our gallery of 7 Hot Soundbars below . . .