The day may come when I manage to find a better stress test for dialogue clarity than The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring Extended Edition on Blu-ray (New Line), but it is not this day. For those of you who grow weary with me pulling out this disc every time I review a thing that makes sound, though, let's opt for a different scene than my normal go-to--one slightly deeper into the Mines of Moria. Specifically, chapter 36: "The Bridge of Khazad-d�m," the scene in which Gandalf faces off against Durin's Bane, the Balrog of Morgoth, and forbids his passage across the overpass with the lines, "You cannot pass ... You. Shall not. Pass!"
It's what he utters between those commandments that was of particular interest to me, though: "I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the Flame of Anor. The dark fire will not avail you, Flame of Ud�n!" I've heard so many soundbars and smaller speaker systems (and hell, even larger speaker systems) so thoroughly mangle those words that I almost find it unfair to use them as reference. And yet, despite the fact that half of the dialogue is outright gobbledygook, uttered in harsh whispers against a backdrop of crumbling, groaning stone, roaring flames, clashing blades, and the gleaming whine of Gandalf's wizard staff, the HEOS Bar delivered those lines with shocking precision and intelligibility.
My first impressions of the HEOS Bar's performance with this scene were made without the aid of a subwoofer or surrounds; it was simply the soundbar performing on its own. I returned to it time and again on a loop, though, as I added first the HEOS Subwoofer to the equation, then the HEOS 5 HS2 pair as wireless surrounds. Adding the subwoofer definitely necessitated some tinkering, not only in terms of levels, but also via the HEOS app's (admittedly limited) EQ. But it didn't take me too long to find the right balance of bass. Adding the sub brought all of the upsides you might expect ... and few of the downsides. It definitely added more oomph to the combat and chaos of the scene, especially the Balrog's stomping and flaming. I'm also inclined to say that setting the crossover and taking some of the burden of low-frequency delivery off of the soundbar's shoulders improved dialogue clarity a bit, but there wasn't much improvement to be made in this department.
The soundbar by itself delivers usable low-frequency energy down 60 Hz. That's not a published spec, by the way, since no such numbers are available for the unit. But my own testing revealed that to be somewhere in the neighborhood of what honest specs would report. For its size and price, the HEOS Subwoofer digs surprisingly deeper, reaching ably into the mid-30s, with some staggeringly robust output in the neighborhood of 50 Hz, a point at which most subs have a bit of a boost to enhance that feeling of kick or punch. Quite frankly, the sub probably delivers more output in this range than most people need. In my roughly 200-square-foot bedroom, I had to dial the sub down to -7 to tame its ferocity a bit (its range runs from -12 to +12). Adjusting the bass slider on the system's two-band EQ to -3 also went a long way toward bringing things into tonal balance in my room.
No such dabbling was necessary when adding the HEOS 5 HS2 surrounds. A simple level and distance adjustment, and setting the crossover to the Optimized option, was all that was needed to transform the HEOS Bar into a genuine surround sound system, fully capable of keeping up with the most dynamic surround mixes I could throw at it.
I'm thinking specifically of the first chapter of Dunkirk (Warner Bros.) on Ultra HD Blu-ray. If you've seen the film already, you know that the film opens softly, with a heavily front-focused mix. And don't worry, if you haven't seen the film yet, I'm not spoiling anything major for you here ... except perhaps for a brief jump-scare. As the bullets start flying about a minute into the film, I think what surprised me most about the system's handling of the scene was not so much that the surround channels handled the whizzing bangs as well as they did, but rather just how much the combo sounded like a well-integrated surround sound speaker setup. There's not that "screen up front, pinpoints of sound in the back" experience that I've heard with surround-equipped soundbars in the past. There's integrity between the front and rear soundstages here. Or perhaps continuity would be a better word.
The scene also demonstrates a couple of the system's other strengths, including the utterly lag-free connection between the soundbar and surrounds, and it reinforces the authority with which the HEOS Subwoofer pumps out some truly impactful, hard-hitting bass.
Switching to music, I found all of the above to be true still, but what struck me more was just how wonderfully tonally balanced the HEOS Bar is, especially in the midrange frequencies. Spin up something like Traveling Wilburys' "Handle with Care," and it's immediately obvious that the HEOS Bar beautifully captures the timbre of George Harrison, Roy Orbison, and Bob Dylan's unique voices. It also handles the driving percussion and jingle-jangle guitars as well as you could hope for from a soundbar, although oddly enough it isn't exactly the last word in soundstage width. I say "oddly enough" because, at 43.3 inches wide, the bar is pretty wide as soundbars go. There's nice depth to the soundstage, which is certainly appreciated, but don't expect wall-to-wall sound when relying on the soundbar alone for music delivery.
That same overall lack of soundstage width is pretty apparent when spinning something like Beastie Boys' "Hey Ladies," which relies heavily on a phase-shifted sample of The Commodores "Machine Gun" as its driving riff. That extra-wide rhythmic element seemed a little constrained here, but in every other respect the HEOS Bar knocked it out of the park, especially when paired with the HEOS Subwoofer.
One neat little trick that you can access in the settings is Multi-Channel Stereo, which adds the surround channels into the mix when streaming music. I hesitated to use this at first, having been turned off by similarly named DSP settings found on receivers in days gone by, but here it actually worked well. It more than made up for the lack of width coming from the soundbar itself, and the resulting mix wasn't so whacky as to be distracting.
I burned through the better part of my music library on my phone testing out Multi-Channel Stereo, listening for any DSP weirdness, and never found any. Is it correct? No. But I still quite enjoyed it, especially when listening to the "Relaxing Sounds of Nature: Thunderstorm" track that my wife and I listen to as we're falling asleep every night.
There are really only two things that keep the HEOS Bar from being elevated beyond "wow, this is impressive" status into full-blown "screw the receiver and component speakers; this is all I need" territory. The first, as I alluded to above, is its rather limited EQ. Given Denon's relationship with Audyssey, I really just cannot for the life of me understand why there isn't some form of room correction incorporated into the HEOS Bar. Given the recent release of the MultEQ iOS app, the omission of such is doubly disappointing.
The second issue is really more of an extension of the first. I mentioned above that the HEOS Subwoofer delivers truly astounding performance in the 50-Hz range. The problem? Its output really takes a nosedive in both directions leading away from that apex, and the cliff only gets steeper as you increase the volume. The bottom line? The HEOS Subwoofer tends to be a bit one-notey in its performance, especially at higher listening levels. Again, you can tame this to a degree with the bass slider in the EQ setup screen, but it's just not precise enough to really completely overcome the subwoofer's strong emphasis in this one particular region. To be perfectly blunt, this thing resonates with my room in a way that I'm just not accustomed to hearing, and it's a bit of a shame that such an otherwise-capable subwoofer is held back by a lack of proper EQ or room correction. It's also a bit of a bummer that Denon didn't equip the HEOS Bar with an LFE output for use with third-party subs.
Comparison and Competition
Looking over the entirety of what the HEOS Bar does, how it does it, and all of the ways you're likely to interact with it, it's hardly controversial to say that the Sonos Playbar is its biggest competitor. The Playbar does sell for a little less, at $699, although that's somewhat balanced out by the fact that its sub is a bit more expensive (also at $699). The Sonos does, of course, have the benefit of being in a shared ecosystem with the most popular multiroom wireless music streaming system on the market. On the other hand, it doesn't come with HDMI connectivity, and therefore it lacks the support for TrueHD and Master Audio that the HEOS Bar boasts, not to mention its UHD-compatible video switching.
The Paradigm PW Soundbar and MartinLogan Cadence Soundbar (both $1,299) also deserve recognition as worthy competitors, despite the significant price delta. Both feature HDMI connectivity, and both can be configured to operate with wireless surround speakers by way of the Play-Fi ecosystem. Whether that's a plus or a minus for you largely depends on how well Play-Fi gets along with your home network. My own experience with Play-Fi has been an outright networking nightmare every single time. In his review of the Cadence, though, our own Sean Killebrew had no such problems. One undeniable advantage that both the Paradigm and MartinLogan units have over the HEOS is their support for Anthem Room Correction, one of the best auto EQ systems in the known universe. They also play well with any subwoofer you choose to bring to the party, so that's nice.
Issues of room correction and EQ aside, I have to say that I'm positively blown away by the HEOS Bar overall. It has been many a moon since I set up a streaming audio product that was this painless to configure, and my experience with the HEOS app was almost entirely positive. It's true, the app could benefit from some slight restructuring in terms of navigation, especially to compensate for the fact that it has to serve double-duty as a streaming audio app and an AV control system. There were a couple of times when I found myself scratching my head, trying to figure out how to get from one place to another within the app, especially when I wanted to switch from music-listening to movie-watching. Or when I wanted to turn on or off a feature like Multi-Channel Stereo. But I'm picking nits. The app works reliably, which is saying quite a bit. Combine that with the impeccable clarity and tonal balance delivered by the HEOS Bar itself, and I have to say that this little system exceeded all of my expectations, in all respects, by a huge margin.�
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� HEOS 7 and HEOS 3 Wireless Speakers Reviewed at HomeTheaterReview.com.