Wishing for better sound quality than your TV can deliver but reluctant to embrace a full-scale home theater system? These days, there are plenty of alternatives, from soundbars to Bluetooth tabletop speakers to powered bookshelf speakers. Quietly incorporating elements from all those designs is the humble soundbase.
It's not a glamorous product category, to be sure. These flat, black, rectangular boxes are designed to be tucked in a cabinet under your TV--or even set directly underneath the TV itself. The soundbase (aka speaker base or sound platform) is generally a one-box solution, designed to have better midrange and bass performance so that you don't need the two-piece soundbar/subwoofer combination. The category certainly isn't as popular or crowded as the soundbar and Bluetooth speaker categories. When it's done right, though, a soundbase can deliver all the convenience of its soundbar cousin while overcoming the inherent sonic challenges of the skinny soundbar design.
Canada-based speaker company Fluance recently earned positive praise from Brent Butterworth for its $699/pair HFF tower speakers. The company's stated mission is to show that "serious performance" doesn't have to come at a high price, and it offers a variety of reasonably priced tower, bookshelf, and surround speakers, as well as Bluetooth tabletop speakers and some interesting-looking all-in-one music systems. Fluance has now entered the soundbase category with the brand new AB40 ($249.99). This two-channel soundbase features dual two-way speakers, each of which uses a one-inch silk dome tweeter and dual three-inch aluminum cone drivers. All six drivers are powered by a 120-watt Class D amplifier.
The AB40's cabinet measures 26 inches wide by four inches high by 14 inches deep and weighs 24 pounds. Its front face is very slightly curved, as each channel's outer three-inch driver is angled outward to help broaden the soundfield. The cabinet is constructed of real wood, with a port located to the rear of each side panel. A non-removable plastic grille covers the speaker array, and four capacitance-touch buttons run along the top panel (for power, source, and volume up/down).
The cabinet feels very sturdy and inert, and it's designed to support a TV that weighs up to 150 pounds--although with a cabinet width of only 26 inches, it wouldn't be super stable to put a screen larger than maybe 40 to 45 inches on top of the speaker. I mated the AB40 with a 65-inch LG OLED TV whose TV stand measures about 31 inches long--too long to set safely atop the soundbase, even though the TV itself weighs nowhere near 150 pounds. I simply set the soundbase on a short TV stand in front of the LG for my audition.
Like a soundbar, this soundbase houses the electronics and input panel, so you can directly connect your sources without the need for an external audio receiver. Unfortunately, the input panel is limited to just one optical digital audio input and one 3.5mm mini-jack analog input. That's pretty sparse, even for a budget soundbar. There's no coaxial digital audio in, no stereo RCA in, and no HDMI pass-through. The AB40 does have built-in Bluetooth with aptX support, so you can wirelessly stream any Bluetooth-friendly audio source in that manner.
The sources I planned to connect directly to the AB40 included a Dish Network Hopper 3 DVR, an Oppo BDP-103 Blu-ray player, and a Roku 4 streaming media player. All three of those devices have an optical digital audio output, so I could've connected each of them--one at a time, of course--directly to the AB40. However, the easier route was just to connect them all to the LG TV via its HDMI inputs and then feed optical digital audio output from the TV to the AB40.
Given the AB40's limited input options, I suspect that's how most people will set up the AB40. Pretty much every newer HDMI TV has an optical digital audio output. You'll need to go into your TV setup menu and switch the audio from the internal speakers to the digital audio output, and you'll probably have to tell the TV whether to output PCM, Dolby Digital, or (sometimes) DTS. You'll want to select PCM output for your TV, cable/satellite box, or Blu-ray player, since this soundbase does not have built-in Dolby Digital or DTS decoding.
Once I had my sources connected, I powered everything up and grabbed the AB40's supplied IR remote control. This little remote has all the necessary buttons arranged in a logical, intuitive way, and the textured black finish on the front gives it nicer feel than many of the plasticky remotes that you get in this category. The remote has buttons for volume, mute, source, Bluetooth pairing, play/pause, track forward, track reverse, and two processing functions: 3D Audio and Bass Boost. The soundbase will function in basic two-channel stereo mode unless you engage the 3D Audio function that uses DSP to create a bigger, more enveloping soundstage. Bass Boost, meanwhile, does exactly what you'd expect it to do.
There's no front-panel display on the AB40 (nor would I expect there to be one), but you do get a single LED light that blinks or changes color to provide helpful feedback about the soundbase. For instance, each source is designated by a different color: blue for Bluetooth, white for optical digital, and green for 3.5mm aux in. The light slowly blinks white when you've muted the soundbase, it blinks blue when it's in Bluetooth pairing mode, and it blinks once or twice to let you know if the 3D Audio mode is off or on. All of these functions are described in the short but sweet user's manual.
I had no trouble pairing my iPhone 6 and my MacBook Pro with the AB40 via Bluetooth, and the connection proved to be very reliable. I never lost the signal when I was within the 30-foot range, even during long music-playback sessions. My Hopper 3 DVR also supports Bluetooth output, and I experimented with that connection method, too--and it worked great.
Click over to Page Two for Performance, The Downside, Comparison & Competition, and Conclusion...
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