Darryl Wilkinson is a former editor at large for both Home Theater Magazine and Sound & Vision. He also served for 12 years as the Merchandise & Marketing Manager for legendary AV retailer Bjorn's Audio Video in San Antonio.
Some people might consider the soundbar an invasive species threatening to overrun the native home theater environment. Indeed, soundbars are multiplying and popping up faster than the "flying" bighead Asian carp that are taking over the Mississippi River and cold-cocking fishermen in their boats. (Imagine if they were "cold-codding" fishermen instead. Now that would be a fish story ...) There are so many soundbars on the market nowadays that it's becoming difficult for manufacturers to incorporate unique functions and features in order to differentiate their offerings from every other soundbar out there.
At the moment, Monitor Audio makes one soundbar, the $1,649 ASB-2. It's certainly not the most expensive soundbar you can buy, but that price does put the ASB-2 into a category that's expected to be high-performance, especially since the ASB-2 does not include a dedicated subwoofer. It does, however, incorporate a unique auto-sensing LFE subwoofer output that changes the soundbar's filter/crossover settings when a subwoofer is connected to the ASB-2. With its long, elliptical curves and shiny, brushed-aluminum side panels, the word that comes to mind to describe the appearance of the ASB-2 is sporty or, maybe, modern chic. It's ... well ... you can see the pictures. Come up with your own hoity-toity term for the way it looks. I like the design. It's neutral enough to fit in with most decors, yet the chassis' curves and metal sides keep it from being boring.
In addition to proprietary drivers and DSP, Monitor Audio touts the ASB-2's built-in 28/56 bit, dual-precision DAC that's engaged when an iPod/iPhone is connected to the soundbar via the USB port. Further adding to the ASB-2's upscale nature is the inclusion of wireless AirPlay, DLNA, and UPnP music streaming capabilities.
Aside from an optional subwoofer, the Monitor Audio ASB-2 is an all-in-one system that includes a silicon rubber base for use when setting the ASB-2 on a shelf or the top of a TV, and Monitor Audio says that the ASB-2 is designed to fit Sanus TV mounting systems for walls and cabinets. For a soundbar, it's uncommonly rich in inputs, featuring three HDMI inputs and an HDMI output that supports 1080p/3D video pass-through, a digital coaxial input, a digital optical input, and two analog stereo inputs: one set of RCA jacks and one 3.5mm jack. To make the ASB-2 as simple and easy to use as possible, the soundbar can be configured to power up whenever it senses an incoming HDMI signal. In keeping with its simple nature, the ASB-2 includes ARC support on the HDMI output and allows compatible TVs to control the volume of the ASB-2.
The remote that comes with the soundbar is about half the size of a normal soundbar remote and has a limited number of buttons. Meanwhile, there's a full slate of controls located on the top of the ASB-2, including more than just the typical power, volume, and mute buttons found on a lot of other soundbars (if at all). For example, you'll find separate selection buttons for toggling through each source type - HDMI (1-3), digital (coax, optical), and analog (AUX1, AUX2) - as well as on/off toggle buttons for the wireless network connection, mute, and 3D audio.
In general, the build quality is excellent. The ASB-2 measures 39.6 inches long, 7.1 inches tall, and 6.6 inches deep and weighs a hefty 25.4 pounds. While the main chassis is very sturdy, the grille support structure behind the front grille cloth is made from a slightly flexible plastic. Everything else, though, is solid as a rock. In fact, the only reason why I noticed the grille's flexibility was because I was leaning the front of the ASB-2 against my padded belly while I was carrying the solid, heavy beast from one room to another.
Early on, I listened to the Monitor Audio ASB-2 positioned on a shelf in my office; for the most part, though, I used the ASB-2 resting on the top of the cabinet in front of a Samsung 58-inch plasma TV. Since the soundbar does not include Bluetooth, I connected a Monoprice Bluetooth Home Theater Music Receiver - which is quite an impressive piece, considering it's one of the least expensive Bluetooth receivers with an optical digital audio output - to the ASB-2's optical audio input. I also connected my iPhone 4S directly to the soundbar's USB input and tested out the AirPlay and DLNA capabilities with my computer.
Depending on your home network architecture, the wireless setup procedure for the ASB-2 can be either stupidly simple or a bit more intimidating. If your wireless router has WPS capability, then integrating the ASB-2 into your network is as simple as pressing the WPS button on your router and then pressing the wireless connection button on top of the ASB-2. If your router does not support WPS, an alternative method of setting up the ASB-2's wireless capabilities is to connect it to your iOS device via the ASB-2's USB port. An authorization request will pop up on your iOS device asking for permission to transfer the wireless security settings from the iOS device to the ASB-2. By the time your finger finishes touching the screen, the process is pretty much complete. A third method of setting up the ASB-2's wireless connectivity parameters is to put the ASB-2 in hotspot mode, wherein it creates its own temporary wireless network. You can then join your computer to the ASB-2's network and use your browser to manually enter the security key, etc.
Click on over to Page 2 for the Performance, the Downside, Competition and Comparison and Conclusion . . .
In my highly esteemed professional opinion, there are two general types of soundbars. One type is the soundbar that's small on size, big on promises, and exceedingly underwhelming in performance. Then there's the other type of soundbar that gives the kind of experience that, while not being able to completely replace the excitement of a full-blown multi-speaker system, still causes you to do a double-take and wonder if what you're hearing is actually coming from the slender speaker system in front of you.
The Monitor Audio ASB-2 falls in the latter category. In fact, it rises to the much more rare "Wow!" level in terms of movie performance. When in 3D Audio mode, the ASB-2 had an amazingly broad reach, wrapping the sound fully across the front and down both of the side walls. For example, after recently seeing Catching Fire in the theater, I decided to try out the ASB-2 using the Blu-ray of The Hunger Games. The most popular demo from the movie is the scene in which Katniss is dodging flying fireballs while attempting to escape from the burning forest. Three things really stood out. One was the realistic crackle of fire around the room. Another was the strong and focused dialogue reproduction. Third was the ASB-2's extremely impressive bass output.
No, the ASB-2 isn't going to be the death knell for multiple-speaker home theater systems, but I have to hand it to Monitor Audio. They've developed a soundbar that gets tantalizingly close to the real deal. Although the forest fire scene in The Hunger Games is a great action-filled demo, I found that the ASB-2 was even more impressive in what it did in the scenes that followed. Once Katniss has taken refuge high in a tree, a couple of the pursuing Tributes shoot arrows at her. The sound of the arrows moving past her head shot from front to back across the room realistically enough to make anyone watching duck out of the way themselves. Later, though, when Katniss and Rue are alone in the forest, it was the sound of the birds and insects seemingly coming from everywhere that showed the Monitor Audio ASB-2 to be something extra special. While I find it hard to believe I'm saying this, in the scene in which Katniss blows up the mound of booby-trapped supplies, the ASB-2's bass response was convincing enough that, for modest volume listening, you could easily get by without a subwoofer and still be moved by the soundtrack. Now, mind you, it wasn't wall- and window-rattling bass response, but it performed a heck of a lot better than what many soundbars with separate subwoofers can do.
The ASB-2 provided the same impressive (for a soundbar) bass performance during the "Apocalypse" traffic jam scene in World War Z that gives Brad Pitt and his family their first experience with the oncoming "Black Friday at Walmart" rush of over-caffeinated zombies who can't seem to resist bashing their heads into car windshields and windows. In addition to the expected low sounds from motorcycle engines, car crashes, and explosions, the scene is (not very subtly) underpinned by a heavy, heartbeat-like thumping that, at one point, coincides with the writhing of an unfortunate bystander as he metamorphoses into the antithesis of the classic George Romero zombie. You could say that the Monitor Audio ASB-2 never skipped a beat during the scene, and it's extremely difficult to believe that such powerful bass comes from a single pair of Monitor Audio's proprietary 5.5-inch C-CAM (Ceramic-Coated Aluminum/Magnesium) woofers. Without any hesitation, I have to say that, as far as soundbar-only bass performance goes, the ASB-2 joins Atlantic Technology's amazing PB-325 as being the two best subwoofer-less soundbars I've heard to date.
It didn't surprise me that, when I connected a GoldenEar ForceField Five powered subwoofer to the ASB-2's subwoofer output jack, the entire room absolutely pulsed with deep bass during the aforementioned zombie-jam scene. The ForceField Five is one of the very best $999 subwoofers on the market at the moment. What I didn't expect was how much more lively the ambient effects - from the sounds of frenzied, panicked screams to the wail of sirens and the whirring of helicopter blades - became once I connected the GoldenEar subwoofer to the ASB-2. The large, wide-open soundstage that had previously extended down along the sides to comfortably embrace me in the listening position grew in width and in height, and it seemed noticeably more dynamic and alive (despite the zombies).
I'm willing to admit that some of the perceived performance improvements may have been the result of expectations on my part. After all, you'd want the system to sound better after adding a thousand dollars' worth of bass output to it. But that doesn't come close to explaining all of it. I believe that the majority of the sound quality benefits came from the fact that the power supply, the amps, and the larger drivers in the ASB-2 no longer had to use resources attempting to reproduce bass below the 80Hz crossover setting I employed. As a result, what was already phenomenal as a subwoofer-less solo soundbar became even more phenomenal (phenomenaller?) with the addition of a high-quality subwoofer.
While I was thoroughly enchanted by the Monitor Audio ASB-2 when watching movies, I was ever-so-slightly less delighted with this wonderful soundbar for music listening. Don't get me wrong, the ASB-2 is an impressive, top-of-its-class soundbar for both cinema and song. Yet, where I struggled to find even the smallest of faults with the ASB-2's theatrical capabilities, I couldn't help but notice a couple of minor weaknesses with music. Every now and then, depending on the bass note in the music, the grille on the left side of the ASB-2 would rattle. The opening track of Air's modern score for the classic 1902 French silent film Le Voyage Dans La Lune, for example, hits just such a note. At first, I thought one of the drivers was bottoming out, but placing my hand on the front of the grille stabilized it and eliminated the noise. It's quite possible that this was an issue specific to my sample ASB-2, especially as it only ever happened on the left side of the soundbar's grille. However, since the grille is not designed to be easily removed, I wasn't able to inspect the inside for possible cracks or defects.
The other issue is common to nearly all soundbars that use signal manipulation or some form of DSP in order to fool the listener's ears into thinking sound is coming from places where there are obviously no speakers. Most of the time, the ASB-2's processor did a near flawless job creating an extremely broad and tall soundstage, but the studio-added ambience and reverb that's part of a lot of pop music sometimes comes out sounding, well, weird ... and, at times, kind of metallic. Some of the ancillary background vocals on Katy Perry's "California Gurls" exhibit this unstable acoustic effect. Turning off the ASB-2's 3D audio expansion setting gets rid of the problem, but at the cost of considerably collapsing the soundstage. Essentially, what I'm saying here is that if you are a two-channel purist when it comes to music, the ASB-2 - or just about any other soundbar, for that matter - is probably not for you.
On the other hand, there's a huge reason to own an ASB-2 for everyday music listening: it sounds awesome with almost everything other than over-processed pop releases I mentioned earlier. alt-J's unique vocal style and playful audio palette, for example, is handled very deftly by the ASB-2 on "Tessellate" from the English indie rock group's 2012 debut album, An Awesome Wave. Each individual layer of the song is cleanly placed within a large soundstage, while the main singer's voice remains locked in the center, regardless of the other sonic accompaniments fluidly moving on around it. The ASB-2 is similarly sublime with the less enigmatic, more direct Flobots song "Handlebars", from Fight With Tools. What was truly exceptional with this song was how far off to the left the ASB-2 was able to place the slow, simple plucking of guitar strings that begin and end the song.
There really aren't that many things to complain about with the Monitor Audio ASB-2. For me, the most egregious aspect of the ASB-2 is the onscreen menu. Although most people won't need (or probably want) to access the onscreen menu, those who do will feel as if they've been taken back in time to the days of dot-matrix printers and Atari consoles. The onscreen menu is worse than spartan: it's crude, homely, and sometimes sluggish in operation (although this may be the result of the IR communication I'll mention shortly). I didn't find it to be especially intuitive, either.
It's possible that I'm being more negative about the onscreen menu than I should be; however, since the ASB-2's half-normal-size remote control does not include a button to directly turn the 3D audio processing on and off, I had to access the menu many, many times in the course of doing my listening tests. (Insert sounds of shuddering here.) The small remote control doesn't include direct source selection buttons either, so you have to toggle through each source - or use the menu - to get to the one you want. I don't know if it's the fault of the IR emitter on the remote control or the IR receiver built into the ASB-2, but communication between the remote and soundbar was finicky at times, and there's not much room for error when pointing the business end of the remote at the ASB-2. It's hard to see how any of these negatives would be apparent in small systems with only one or two sources and an HDTV, though.
In terms of connectivity, one potential downside could be the fact that the ASB-2 does not possess an Ethernet port. It's Wi-Fi only, so the quality of your home's wireless network will be an important factor in the ASB-2's streaming performance. For what it's worth, there is no capability to access Internet streaming services directly from the ASB-2, nor is Bluetooth connectivity built in.
Comparison and Competition
$1,649 is an odd duck of a price point for an active soundbar, putting the Monitor Audio ASB-2 between the more expensive ($1,999) 5.1-channel Definitive Technology SoloCinema XTR Soundbar and the $50 less expensive ($1,599) 7.1-channel Yamaha YSP-3300. Interestingly, both of the competitive models listed above come with wireless subwoofers. Both the Definitive Technology SoloCinema XTR and the Yamaha YSP-3300 include DTS HD and Dolby TrueHD decoding and claim to be sound-worthy enough to merit being able to decode those high-resolution audio formats. Neither model, however, incorporates wireless (AirPlay, DLNA, UPnP) streaming connectivity, as does the Monitor Audio ASB-2. None of the three possesses on-board Bluetooth capability.
From the standpoint of soundbars that do not come with subwoofers, the most appropriate comparisons to the Monitor Audio ASB-2 are the spectacular $2,200 (and worth every penny ... or shilling ...) Bowers & Wilkins Panorama 2 and the only slightly less spectacular ($1,500) MartinLogan Motion Vision. Both are standouts as far as sound quality is concerned, which is not surprising, because it's difficult to go wrong with either the Nautilus tube-loaded aluminum dome tweeter in the Panorama 2 or the Folded Motion tweeters MartinLogan uses in the Motion Vision. In terms of features, styling, and onboard processing, the Monitor Audio ASB-2 can definitely run with these big boys and is absolutely worth a listen if you're interested in high-end, sophisticated sonic performance, along with a great cinematic wow factor in a super-easy-to-use package - and it's especially worth considering if you're not sure you have the room, the budget, or the desire for a separate subwoofer.
For more possible choices in soundbars, check out a plethora of other reviews here.
The Monitor Audio ASB-2 is, quite frankly, one hell of an active soundbar. If you're looking for a soundbar that doesn't absolutely need a subwoofer to sound like a real audio system, the ASB-2, even at $1,649, is one hell of a deal. It's simple enough in design that most non-technical people will be able to use the ASB-2 almost immediately, especially if their system consists of not much more than one or two HDMI source devices and an HDTV. More advanced users will appreciate the multiple HDMI inputs, digital audio inputs, analog audio inputs, as well as the AirPlay and DLNA streaming connectivity. Regardless of their technical prowess, however, all users will marvel at how fantastic - how thrillingly theatrical - the Monitor Audio ASB-2 sounds. And that's before adding a subwoofer! Folks who decide to take the bass plunge and add a dedicated subwoofer will be thoroughly blown away. This product is highly, highly recommended for people who want or need simplicity, but don't want to sacrifice fun and excitement.