In GoldenEar's short, three-plus-year existence, the company has earned a reputation for delivering high-performance speakers and subwoofers at a more affordable price - products like the Triton Three tower and ForceField 4 subwoofer that we've previously reviewed. With the introduction of the new SuperCinema 3D Array (SC3DA), the company is now tackling that most popular and difficult of product categories: the soundbar. Popular, because a lot of people love a soundbar's minimalist form factor, which combines multiple speakers into a single cabinet that can hang above or below your TV and provide better sound than you can ever hope to get from the TV's speakers. Difficult, because the all-in-one nature of a soundbar presents sonic challenges that speaker manufacturers try to overcome in a variety of ways.
Soundbars fall into two camps: active and passive. The active soundbar puts all of the speakers, amplification, and signal processing in one cabinet; just connect your sources (and often a subwoofer) directly to the soundbar, and you're good to go. The passive soundbar is more like a traditional speaker system that requires connection to an external receiver or pre/pro that will handle the source input and signal processing. GoldenEar has opted for the latter approach with the SuperCinema 3D Array ($999.99), a three-in-one design that houses the left, center, and right channels in one cabinet. To flesh out the system, the company also sent me a pair of SuperSat 3 satellite speakers ($249.99 each) and a ForceField 3 subwoofer ($499.99). The total price for this 5.1-channel system is $1,999.96.
The SC3DA measures 49 inches long by 4.75 inches high by 2.9 inches deep and weighs 20 pounds. Its rounded cabinet has an elegant, high-gloss black finish with a detachable, black-cloth grille. The extruded-aluminum cabinet feels very well constructed and wonderfully inert. Within the 49-inch bar are discrete driver arrays for the left, center, and right channels; each channel gets dual 4.5-inch Multi-Vaned Phase Plug (MVPP) midbass drivers with a High-Velocity Folded Ribbon (HVFR) tweeter sandwiched in between. These are the same driver designs used in the Triton line. As the name suggests, GoldenEar's High-Velocity Folded Ribbon tweeter places a thin, folded ribbon diaphragm between two magnets that squeeze air out of the folds at a very high speed. This approach is designed to be more efficient and produce less resonance than a dome, to create a smoother high end with less harshness.
There's about 35 inches of separation between the left and right channels (from tweeter to tweeter), which is a decent amount for a soundbar but still not as wide as you could get from dedicated left/right speakers. One of the primary challenges of the soundbar approach is that, because the left and right speakers are so close together, there's more crosstalk, where left- and right-channel signals interfere with each other and jumble up the soundstage. The SC3DA employs interaural crosstalk cancellation to help minimize this problem, which is especially beneficial with two-channel music. Within the soundbar's left channel, the outer midbass driver sends out a "minus-right" signal that's designed to cancel out the right-channel info at your left ear. The right speaker's outermost driver does the same for left-channel info, which should result in better imaging and a broader soundstage (we'll talk performance in the next section).
The 3D Array Soundbar's back panel has three sets of gold-plated binding posts that will accept banana plugs (my connection method), spade lugs, or bare wire; be warned, the posts are short and very close together, so feeding bare wire through them could prove challenging. The backside also offers a pair of steadying "feet" that allow the soundbar to sit upright directly on a tabletop (keyhole mounts are also available for wall-mounting); these feet include adjustable screws that change the soundbar's tilt to more precisely aim the drivers up or down at the listening position, depending on whether you place the bar above or below the TV. I began my review with the SC3DA simply sitting on the countertop in front of my TV, which put the soundbar right at my ear height (the center of the speaker sat at a height of about 33.75 inches). Unfortunately, the stand for my Panasonic TV is a bit shorter than average, and the screen area begins at a height of about 4 inches. So, the SC3DA's 4.75-inch height caused the soundbar to block the bottom edge of the screen, as well as the IR sensor along the TV's bottom bezel. GoldenEar sent along an optional mounting bracket, the CSB-3006-BLK by Center Stage Bracket Systems ($99.99), that allows the soundbar to sit on top of a freestanding TV. During the course of my review, I tried this placement, as well.
As for the remaining system elements, the SuperSat 3 satellite is designed to be a perfect sonic complement to the soundbar - sporting the same driver array (two 4.5 MVPP midbass units and an HVFR tweeter) with the same basic rounded, extruded-aluminum cabinet design, measuring 12 (h) x 4.75 (w) x 2.75 (d) inches. The satellite comes with a miniature stand to sit upright on a shelf, but I used the optional SuperStand 3 stands ($149/pair), which put the center of the satellite at a height of about 40 inches (total height 46 inches).
The SC3DA has a rated frequency response of 35 kHz down to 60Hz, while the SuperSat 3 has a rated frequency response of 35 kHz to 80 Hz. Obviously, a subwoofer is a necessary addition if you want some real meat at the low end of your movie and music tracks. The ForceField 3 is the baby of GoldenEar's well-reviewed trio of subwoofers. This is a fairly compact unit that measures about 11.5 (h) x 11.38 (w) x 15.75 (d) inches and weighs 26 pounds. It uses one front-facing 8-inch long-throw bass driver and one 9x11 down-firing passive radiator, with a 1,000-watt digital amplifier. The connection panel includes both a direct LFE input (my connection method) and high-level inputs and output, with a crossover dial and a master volume control. I placed the subwoofer in the front right corner of my listening room, about 1 foot from the front and side walls.
I conducted my evaluations in my large family/theater room, which measures about 18.75 x 12 x 7.75 feet. For most of my movie demos, I used the full 5.1-channel array, but I did experiment a bit with a no-surrounds 3.1-channel setup, too. I mated the system with an Onkyo TX-NR515 receiver and an OPPO BDP-93 BD player. I performed a manual speaker setup of level, distance, and crossover - opting for a GoldenEar-recommended crossover of 120Hz for both the soundbar and the SuperSat 3s. I did not activate any room correction or other Audyssey tools found in the Onkyo receiver for my tests.
Read about the performance of the GoldenEar SuperCinema soundbar on Page 2.
Before I ran the ensemble through my standard demos, a snow day gave my family a chance to take in some Blu-ray movies through the GoldenEar system: Brave and The Dark Knight Rises. At the start of Brave, when young Merida and her family first encounter the black bear, the bear lets out a deep, guttural roar, and the music builds to a crescendo then cuts to silence. In that moment of silence, my husband - who is used to our giant RBH towers and some hefty bookshelf surrounds - let out a, "Wow, that's pretty impressive." And indeed it was.
Through both of these action-heavy movies, the 3D Array ensemble served up a big and impressively broad soundstage, with better dynamic ability than most would ever expect from a soundbar and two small satellites. Yes, I did have to push the volume a little higher on my receiver to obtain those dynamics, but the GoldenEar speakers seemed to welcome the higher volumes, not shrink from them. Dialogue was clean and clear, and male voices (including Christian Bale's almost comically deep Batman voice) did not sound thin or hollow; they had real meat to them. The little subwoofer can really roar and rumble, to the point where I actually moved it a little farther out from the wall. It certainly didn't need any help from the boundaries to boost the bass presence.
When I moved to demo tracks that I'm more familiar with, it was more of the same. One of my standard movie demos is the lobby shooting spree and ensuing helicopter rescue from The Matrix (chapters 29-32). These scenes are loaded with higher-frequency effects (bullets whizzing, shoe soles squeaking, shell casings dropping to the tile), all of which came through with excellent precision and attack. Underneath those effects is a pulsing, bass-heavy techno soundtrack that is often buried or at least anemic through smaller sub/sat systems. That was not an issue here. The music came through loud and clear, and the scene felt balanced across the frequency range. The five-channel soundstage was encompassing and seamless. When I closed my eyes and took in the multichannel experience, it certainly didn't sound like all of the front-channel information was jumbled together in the middle of the room; effects still seemed to come from wider spots to the sides and above the SC3DA.
Another favorite demo is chapter 15 of "Immortal Beloved." The female narration at the start of the scene sounded full and natural, not thin and over-processed as I've often heard it through active soundbars. This scene also gave a hint of good things to come with music, as the soundstage came alive with "Ode to Joy" in Dolby TrueHD: clear, high-frequency cymbals and bells, rich strings, clean vocals, meaty mids, and deep, controlled bass from the sub. Speaking of the sub, when I busted out the old classic subwoofer demo, the depth-charge scene from U-571 (chapter 15), the ForceField 3 showed its muscle in reproducing the deep bass explosions. The bass wasn't quite as deep and room-filling as my normal subwoofer that's more than twice the size, but it was still an impressive performance for such a small sub in such a large room. In this scene, the bursting pipes and shattering glass can often become very harsh and grating, which makes you want to turn down the volume. The GoldenEar system kept that brightness in check; the high-frequency effects were jarring and tight, but never harsh.
For those who may not want to invest in the SuperSat 3 surrounds, I also tried out some movie demos in a 3.1-channel setup. Of course, you lose the discrete sound effects that fill in the soundstage to the far sides and rear for a sense of full immersion, but you don't lose the big, wide soundstage up front. I sit almost ten feet back from my TV stand; and, with the same Matrix scene in only three front channels, the system still had great dynamic ability, and bullets and other effects still reached far and wide throughout the room. While I recommend the surrounds, you could most certainly save $500 and go without, at least until the budget allows for the next home theater purchase.
I then turned my attention to music, cutting the number of channels to 2.1 and really testing the dynamic prowess and frequency response of the soundbar. Frankly, this is where I moved from being pleasantly surprised to thoroughly impressed with the system's performance. The 2.1-channel ensemble had no trouble producing a large, balanced sound, with a good blend between speakers and sub. Peter Gabriel's "Sky Blue" makes for a great demo because it's a very dense track that works the high, mid, and low frequencies - and all were well-represented and well-blended here. As the many vocals and instruments built to a crescendo, the various elements didn't sound condensed in the middle of the room. Rather, the stage was impressively wide and deep. Gabriel's vocals had a clear location in the center, while the background singers and instruments held their own space off to the sides, where the mix puts them.
I made a point to move around the room during my two-channel demos. The speaker sounded great from a variety of locations, but I did feel there was a sweet spot in the center where the sound was the cleanest and most focused. When I moved off to the sides, vocals in particular sounded a little less crisp, got a little more buried in the mix. As I slowly moved from the side back to the center, I could hear that moment, in the middle, where everything just snapped to that higher degree of clarity. It wasn't anything excessive, but I did hear a subtle difference.
At a 120Hz crossover setting, the sub is asked to do a fair amount with music, and the ForceField 3 exhibited nice control during the quick bass line of Ani DiFranco's "Little Plastic Castle," and it kept the potential boominess in check during Steve Earle's "Goodbye" and Tom Waits's "Long Way Home" (from the Big Bad Love soundtrack). I also experimented with a 100Hz setting to take some responsibility off the sub, and the SC3DA still had solid midrange prowess at this setting. Ultimately, though, I felt 120Hz was the ideal blending point. The soundbar's high frequencies were consistently smooth and clean. Steve Earle's wailing vocals in "Goodbye" and the very dirty, bright guitar solo in the blues track "Junior's Place" (also from Big Bad Love) can break up and turn harsh very easily, but those HVFR tweeters maintained control yet again.
Ultimately, whether I fed the system something gritty and attacking from Rage Against the Machine, something dense and drum-heavy from Rusted Root, or something simple and bluesy from Lyle Lovett, the system proved itself a more worthy musical performer than you'd ever expect a soundbar could be.
For a system of this size and price, I can find very little fault with the 3D Array ensemble in the performance department. If I had to nitpick, I would say that the ForceField 3 doesn't have as much precision and definition with music as some (generally larger and/or more expensive) subwoofers I've tested. As I mentioned above, the sub had good control over bass notes, but each individual note in "Little Plastic Castle" and "Long Way Home" wasn't quite as defined as I've heard elsewhere. Hey, with many subs, these notes are just a monotone/boomy mess, so the ForceField 3 was still above average in this respect.
I tried placing the soundbar above my TV on the optional stand that GoldenEar provided, using the adjustable feet to tilt the bar down at the listening position. The stand is very easy to attach to your TV: It's basically just a flat pedestal that sits atop the TV, with three adjustable feet that brace against the TV's backside to hold the stand in place. In my particular setup with a fairly tall TV stand and a 55-inch TV, I felt this speaker placement was far too high. The front soundstage just didn't seem as focused and cohesive; and, with a bunch of open space behind the speaker and TV, the midbass presence wasn't as strong. Everything sounded a little thinner. I think the SC3DA benefits from having a boundary behind it, be it the TV itself or the wall on which you choose to mount it.
A passive soundbar isn't as plug-and-play as an active soundbar that has its own amplification and signal processing. With the 3D Array Soundbar, you still need a receiver or pre/pro, you still need to run wire, and you still need to add surrounds if you want the complete multichannel experience. Also, many new active soundbars come with a wireless subwoofer to make them even more plug-and-play. GoldenEar doesn't currently offer a wireless subwoofer.
Competition and Comparison
The majority of the soundbars we've reviewed have been active models; in the higher-end realm, we've looked at the $800 Outlaw OSB-1 and the $1500 MartinLogan Motion Vision. In terms of passive soundbars, you can check out our review of the $600 Episode ES-300-SNDBAR-40-BLK, which is also a three-in-one bar. Other high-end passive options include the Artison Studio Series, the PSB Imagine Series, and the Definitive Technology Mythos Series. To learn more about soundbars and see many more reviews, please visit the HomeTheaterReview.com Soundbar section.
Saying that the SC3DA is an excellent soundbar almost seems like an unfair limitation. Rather, let's say that the SC3DA is an excellent L/C/R cornerstone for a high-performance sub/sat system. I have no qualms about recommending this product to the A/V fan who values music as much as movies. Yes, this $1,000 product is more expensive than the vast majority of active soundbars, but its price is actually on par with (and, in some cases, lower than) other passive soundbars. The truth is, active and passive soundbars are completely different animals, carrying different price and performance expectations. If all you're looking for is an easy all-in-one solution that provides a step up in quality from your TV speakers, then there are plenty of lower-priced active soundbars at your disposal. If, on the other hand, you're shopping for a sub-$2,000 speaker system that delivers outstanding all-around performance, then the 3D Array ensemble is a system you simply must hear. The fact that the front three channels just so happen to be placed in one sleek, elegant, low-profile cabinet that can blend stylishly into just about any décor ... well, that's just gravy.