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.
I began my evaluation of the AB40 by doing the primary activity for which the soundbase is intended: TV watching. From SportsCenter to football broadcasts to my favorite prime-time dramas like This Is Us and Marvel's Agents of Shield, I auditioned a variety of content and was very pleased with what I heard.
You might feel differently, but the two things I want from a speaker when I'm watching TV are dialogue clarity and a good balance between dialogue, music, and other effects so that I'm not constantly reaching for the remote control--turning it up to hear dialogue and quickly turning it down when the effects kick in. I don't usually want to hear a lot from my subwoofer during TV shows, and I often find soundbar/subwoofer combos to be too bass-heavy with TV content. That's because the soundbar cabinet and drivers are so small that a lot of midrange content needs to be directed to the subwoofer. At best this produces unneeded boom in your TV shows, and at worst (depending on how high the crossover is) you'll hear vocals coming from the sub.
The AB40, in contrast, delivered just what I wanted. Dialogue, be it male or female, was very clean and clear. I chose to listen to TV shows in stereo mode, with the 3D Audio function turned off, and I liked the natural, unprocessed quality of the sound. The soundbase's four three-inch drivers and larger cabinet volume allowed it to deliver a fuller midrange and thus a richer, fuller sound presentation overall ... without any unnecessary boom coming from a subwoofer. The front soundstage wasn't huge in basic two-channel mode, but it was certainly broader than what the TV speakers delivered, and the overall dynamic ability was excellent.
To really test dialogue reproduction, I watched an airing of Black Mass on HBO. The film consists primarily of male dialogue in various ranges, mixed with music--and again the balance between the two kept me from having to adjust the volume. Johnny Depp's vocals did have a slightly chesty quality to them, but otherwise the dialogue clarity was good.
Next I switched over to Blu-ray movies to see how the AB40 would fare with denser, more bombastic action sequences. I decided to audition the same content that I recently used to test the VIZIO SB-4551 soundbar/subwoofer system--which consists of a very skinny soundbar, an eight-inch sub, and tiny dedicated surround speakers for $500. While the VIZIO system has some positive performance attributes, I wasn't wowed by its performance with movies. In demo scenes from The Matrix (chapter 29) and Ironman (chapter eight), I could barely hear a lot of the music and background effects that I know should be more prominent, and the soundbar sounded pretty compressed during big explosions.
In contrast, I liked how the AB40 handled these same scenes. The underlying music in The Matrix's Lobby Shooting Spree came through with good energy, while all the bullets and shell casings rang out with a nice clarity and openness. No, the AB40 couldn't deliver the deeper bass in the explosions, but enabling the Bass Boost function did result in a surprisingly effective sense of bass. To be honest, I'd rather sacrifice those few moments of deep bass rumble to get the fuller midrange, the less compressed sound, and the better overall dynamics that the AB40 offered. I just felt like more of the movie was coming through with the AB40 compared with the VIZIO.
For these scenes, as well as chapter 13 of Insurgent that's filled with swirling and enveloping effects, I tried out the 3D Audio mode, and it really did a nice job of expanding the front soundstage and bringing it further out into the room. Of course it doesn't trick you into thinking you've got surround speakers, but with movies it does create a bigger canvas where it's easier to hear effects moving around and across the stage. The tradeoff is that the dialogue sounded a little less natural in 3D Audio mode.
I ended my evaluation with music (AIFF and AAC files from my MacBook Pro, streamed via Bluetooth), and this is the area where, for me, the AB40 really distinguished itself from the run-of-the-mill soundbar. Because it's basically dual two-way bookshelf speakers in a single cabinet, without a lot of DSP divvying up the sound between a lot of tiny drivers, it presents music in a natural-sounding way. I thought it did a nice job with all the different genre types I threw its way, from classical to jazz to pop to rock.
Steve Earle's "Goodbye" presents two challenges for speakers: the bass notes can sound either overly boomy and monotone through a mediocre sub or non-existent through a small speaker, while Earle's wailing vocals can break up and sound harsh. Neither of these was an issue with the AB40. Earle's vocals were crisp but not harsh or bright, and the bass notes, while not as deep as you'll get through a good sub, had good presence and decent meat on their bones, and the notes were clearly defined.
As with movies, the AB40's larger cabinet allowed it to present denser music tracks, like Rusted Root's "Back to the Earth" or Peter Gabriel's "Sky Blue," in a full, big way without sounding overly compressed or falling short in the mids. Naturally the front stage isn't super wide, since the drivers are so close together, but the slightly angled design of the front face helps it to be larger than you might expect, and the quality of sound was consistent as I moved around the room.
The AB40's connection panel is quite limited. The lack of HDMI pass-through is common at this price for both soundbars and soundbases, but it would be nice if there were at least one more digital audio input to accommodate two digital sources (like a cable/satellite box and Blu-ray player) at the same time. Plus, the lack of a subwoofer output means you can't add on an optional sub if you really want to--again, that's a common omission at this price.
Most of the competing soundbases include Dolby Digital decoding, which is absent here--that means your sources or TV must handle the decoding. The only time this was an issue for me was with a direct optical digital connection from my Hopper 3 DVR. There is something wrong with my Hopper; even when I set it to output PCM and not Dolby Digital, it keeps outputting Dolby Digital. So, I would not get any sound from the AB40 on channels where DD was being output. It's not the AB40's fault that my Hopper isn't working right; but, if the soundbase had Dolby Digital decoding, I wouldn't have even noticed the problem.
It would be nice if the AB40 could automatically turn on when it senses a signal, as other similar products I've tested can do. The capacitance buttons on the AB40's top panel are sluggish to respond, and oftentimes it seemed like the volume up/down buttons really weren't working at all.
Comparison & Competition
As I mentioned in the intro, the soundbase category isn't as crowded as the soundbar category. ZVOX is a major player in this space, with soundbases ranging from $130 up to $500. The direct competitor, price-wise, would be either the Soundbase.350 at $200 or the Soundbase.570 at $300. The 570 features five two-inch full-range drivers and a larger 5.25-inch sub, built-in-Bluetooth, and more connection options (three analog, three digital).
Another competitor is the Yamaha SRT-700 at $199.95. It uses two full-range drivers and dual three-inch "subs," and it has two digital audio inputs (plus one analog) and Bluetooth connectivity. Sony offers the $300 HT-XT1, a 2.1-channel design that distinguishes itself with three HDMI inputs and one HDMI out, as well as Bluetooth with NFC.
Bose has offered soundbases in the past but seems to be moving away from the category, as it no longer lists any models on its website. Sean Killebrew reviewed the $299 Cambridge Audio TV2 speaker base last year and really liked it. The company has since introduced an updated version.
The question of soundbar versus soundbase really depends on what you value in an all-in-one TV speaker solution. If you want a super-thin form and a dedicated subwoofer, then obviously the soundbar is the way to go, but you have to accept certain sonic limitations--especially at the sub-$250 price point. The Fluance AB40 omits the subwoofer and has a larger form factor, but it's still a convenient all-in-one solution that, to my ears, is more pleasing to listen to with a wider range of movie, TV, and music content. Its fuller midrange and better overall dynamics are important for both movie soundtracks and music reproduction.
I was sitting through a press briefing the other day, and the manufacturer's rep was discussing soundbars in the lower price categories. Their research showed that people really didn't prefer the two-piece soundbar/subwoofer solution--that having to find a place for the sub was a turnoff, and that people like the idea of a real one-piece solution. If that's true, then maybe the soundbase category is poised to take off. The AB40 clearly illustrates the strengths of the soundbase approach. It's a good upgrade for anyone who wants better audio performance than their TV speakers can deliver but doesn't need or want the excessive rumble of a subwoofer--maybe you live in an apartment or a dorm, or perhaps you're looking for a good bedroom solution for your smaller TV.
Fluance sells direct from its website and offers a 30-day in-home trial and a lifetime warranty on its products. If you're tired of lousy TV speakers and want to hear more from your favorite TV shows and movies, maybe you should audition the AB40 and hear for yourself the difference that a good soundbase can make.
• Check out our Soundbars category page to read similar reviews.
• Fluance HFF Floorstanding Speaker Reviewed at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Visit the Fluance website for more product information.