Many audio enthusiasts - this one included - like having a big mishmash of gear and remotes strewn around the living room. We don't care much what it looks like as long as it sounds great. Sonance has always focused on a different customer, the kind who expects audio/video gear to integrate both operationally and visually, either complimenting the home décor or disappearing almost entirely. The company designed its new SB46 soundbars for exactly that kind of buyer.
No matter what kind of TV you have, as long as its screen size is somewhere from 50 to 80 inches, the SB46 soundbar can be made to look like it's part of the TV. Artison has been doing this for a while with soundbars, but its system requires ordering a specific grille size to suit your TV. The Sonance SB46 soundbars can be custom-sized to your TV by you or your A/V installer in seconds, thanks to its telescoping design. Just pull on the end of the soundbar, and the enclosure slides out to the length you need. No tools or extra parts required. It's as simple to adjust as, say, a microphone stand or a swingarm lamp.
Sonance makes the SB46 in two sizes: the $1,750 SB46 M for TVs ranging from 50 to 65 inches in screen size and the $2,000 SB46 L for TVs from 70 to 80 inches. One of the great things about the telescoping design is that, as long as your next TV is in the same size range, you can use the same soundbar and it'll fit perfectly.
Changing the size of the soundbar doesn't significantly change the acoustics. The actual speaker enclosure is fixed in size. The sections on the sides that slide out are hollow, formed from a cosmetic grille and a metal back panel. The whole unit looks surprisingly well-integrated; you can't tell by looking that the extensions are hollow and only there for looks.
Soundbars have a bad name among some home theater enthusiasts, who see them (or hear them) as nothing more than cheap plastic junk created to appeal to the Costco crowd. There are a lot of soundbars like that, but the Sonance SB46 has as much to do with those as a bottle of Rombauer chardonnay does with a bottle of Two-Buck Chuck. First, the SB46 is a passive soundbar, which means you need to connect it to an A/V receiver or a multi-channel amp. This might not be as convenient an arrangement as the simple, one-cable connection most inexpensive soundbars offer, but the combination of a passive soundbar and a receiver provides much, much better sound quality. Sure, some of those cheap soundbars say they're 300 watts, but that's hard to believe when you see they come with a 40-watt power supply. With a receiver, you're getting as least a few hundred watts of honest power, usually from traditional Class AB amps instead of the ultra-cheap, low-performance Class D amps used in most inexpensive soundbars.
Second, the SB46 is basically three "real" speakers combined in a single enclosure. The quality of the drivers and the rigidity of the enclosure rise far above what we see in inexpensive soundbars. Each channel is a three-way speaker, with dual 4.5-inch Kevlar/Nomex woofers, a four-inch Kevlar midrange, and a one-inch aluminum dome tweeter. This driver arrangement should give the SB46 much clearer voice reproduction and better bass response than most, or maybe all, inexpensive active soundbars can muster.
Because the SB46 has only left, center and right channels, you have to add your own surround speakers and subwoofer, in addition to the A/V receiver. Soup to nuts, you're talking about a typical total system cost of $4,000 to $6,000. At that kind of cost premium, the SB46 better sound a lot better. Let's find out if it does.
Sonance clearly intended the SB46 for use with wall-mounted TVs, because it includes lots of hardware that lets you attach it to a standard VESA TV mount rather than directly to the wall. This is a big plus if you have a fancy mount with an articulating arm, because the soundbar will travel along with the TV when you move it. At just 2.56 inches thick, the SB46 is slim enough to look right even with super-skinny TVs, and the mounting hardware allows the soundbar to fit a little further back, so that its face is flush with the TV. The soundbar does have a couple of keyhole mounts on the back if you want to do a traditional "bolt it to the studs" wall mount.
My only wall-mounted TV right now is a 37-incher, too small to use even with the smaller SB46 M. So I ordered the larger model, the SB46 L, for my review sample and used stands to push the soundbar right up under my Stewart 82-inch projection screen. Yep, that's a tad big for the soundbar, but the SB46 L was able to extend so that each end was just half an inch from the edge of the screen. This made it look pretty much like it was part of the screen. Incidentally, the SB46 sits flat on stands or a table or shelf, just in case for some reason you want to set it up that way.
I connected the SB46 L to the left, center, and right channels of my AudioControl Savoy seven-channel amp, which received its audio signals from a Denon AVR-2809Ci receiver (used as a surround processor/preamp only). The soundbar has spring-loaded metal spring terminals that are a little tight to get to, but that's usually the case with any type of on-wall speaker. I added a couple of Sunfire CRM-2BIP surround speakers for the rear channels, plus an SVS SB-2000 subwoofer.
The only place I had to think much during setup was in setting the subwoofer crossover frequency in the Denon receiver. I started at 80 Hz, thinking that the dual 4.5-inch woofers in each channel would have enough bass response to play that low, but no. When I played a few snippets of male dialogue - my favorite test for a subwoofer crossover point setting - the voices sounded a little thin, telling me that the soundbar's output at 80 Hz wasn't terribly powerful. Switching to a 100Hz crossover frequency fixed the problem entirely. Just be sure to put the subwoofer somewhere near the soundbar so that the two will blend properly and your ears won't localize the higher frequencies coming from the subwoofer.
Click over to page 2 for the Performance, the Downside, the Competition and Comparison and the Conclusion . . .
When I try a new soundbar, I usually crank it way up on first listen, just so I can get a quick idea of where its limits lie and how I should best evaluate it. I happened to have an old favorite Blu-ray, U-571, all loaded up, so I went right to the first scene, where the sub torpedoes a cargo ship, then succumbs to depth charges dropped by a British destroyer. It was obvious to me right off the bat that the SB46 competes not so much with other soundbars as it does with conventional 5.1 speaker systems. Even at very loud levels, often hitting more than 100 dB from my listening chair about 13 feet from the soundbar, the sound remained clean and undistorted. The slam and impact weren't quite what I'd expect from, say, a big THX speaker system, but they were pretty close, and certainly more than enough for almost any media room.
Now that I knew the SB46 had dynamics, I wanted to get an idea of its sonic character, so I watched a few movies that are almost all dialogue: In a World, a great indie pic about a struggling voice actress (so yeah, lots of dialogue), Blue Jasmine, Woody Allen's recent character study of a fallen rich woman (so yeah, lots of dialogue), and Matilda, a movie adaptation of a Roald Dahl story in which much of the dialogue is spoken by children, mostly little girls. With In a World and Blue Jasmine, the SB46 passed the hardest test for any soundbar: I was able to forget I was reviewing a soundbar and just enjoy the movies. When I listened carefully for flaws, I noticed what sounded like a slight emphasis in the lower treble, which resulted in a subtle sibilance with some voices. The flaw was mild enough that I quickly forgot about it when I want back to casual listening. I also thought that with the sibilance came a slight enhancement in clarity, making the voices easier to make out during loud, effects-filled scenes.
Only when I put on Matilda did the sibilance bother me, and even then it was mainly in the voices of the girls, including then-nine-year-old lead actress Mara Wilson. The voices in this movie sound a little bright to begin with - even Danny DeVito's narration - but the SB46 accentuated the flaw.
Movies such as Elysium really let the SB46 strut its stuff. As in most of these post-apocalyptic movies, in which a downtrodden but brave Everyman confronts a dystopian future while battling to save humanity, Elysium is packed with scary, ominous-sounding bass tones. Even with the SVS sub in the system, the soundbar still had to play the higher bass notes (and the harmonics of the lower bass notes) all by itself, and the SB46 never failed. I found I could crank up the system to very loud levels without things starting to sound harsh or distorted.
One potential downside of a soundbar is that the left and right speakers are relatively close together, so they don't give you a realistic stereo spread and don't blend well with the surround speakers. A couple of passive models, such as the GoldenEar Technology SuperCinema 3D Array, attempt to spread the perceived width of the stereo soundstage through crosstalk cancellation, but the SB46 is more of a purist passive soundbar, like the PSB Imagine W3: just three speakers placed together in the same box with no apparent sonic trickery. This creates something of a "sonic gap" between the soundbar and the surrounds; it's not quite the seamless blend you can get with the SuperCinema 3D Array or with a conventional 5.1 system.
Almost all of the lower-cost active soundbars now incorporate Bluetooth, so obviously some people are listening to music through their soundbars. While music wasn't the focus of my tests, I thought I'd give some of my favorite test tracks a spin. It doesn't sound to me like the SB46 was voiced with music in mind. Toto's "Rosanna", a pop classic with densely layered, carefully balanced overdubs and superb mastering, showed again how well the SB46's woofers blended with the sub. The whole system grooved perfectly, sounding beautifully integrated in the bass and lower midrange. But at higher frequencies, it seemed out of balance, making the lead and background vocals sound too bright. I got the same result with all the vocal music I played: the singers sounded too bright, their voices lacking body. Hearing the discrepancy between the movie sound and the music sound, I worried that I might have accidentally changed a control setting somewhere. But no, the tone controls and Audyssey processing on my receiver were deactivated. All I was hearing was the SB46. I guess the SB46 is okay for playing music in the background, but I wouldn't use it for long, more focused listening sessions.
It seemed weird that the SB46's performance with movies and music could be so similar, yet so different. Did the treble boost just bother me more with music? Usually, music vocals are recorded better than movie dialogue, thus a bright-sounding speaker will accentuate the flaws in a soundtrack recording and make movies sound worse. But my later lab measurements showed clearly why I got such different results when I went from 5.1 to 2.0 channels.
Comparison and Competition
I've tested most of the passive soundbars currently available, and the two that most quickly come to mind as competitors for the SB46 are the ones I mentioned above, the $999 GoldenEar SuperCinema 3D Array and the $1,199 PSB Imagine W3. The Sonance SB46 enjoys two advantages over these competitors. One, obviously, is its cool telescoping design, which will give it a much more integrated look with your TV. The other is the SB46's ability to come pretty close to the dynamics and sheer brute force of a full-size 5.1 home theater system. I'm pretty sure it offers the most output of any soundbar I've tested. Both the GoldenEar and the PSB get the advantage in sound quality, though. The PSB is exceptionally pure-sounding, more like a set of good conventional speakers than a soundbar. The GoldenEar has a bigger, more enveloping sound than the Sonance or the PSB. Both the PSB and the GoldenEar sound better with music.
I can pretty much guarantee you'll like the Sonance SB46's form factor; the company's industrial designers really outdid themselves with this one. Whether or not you'll like the sound depends on what you listen to on your soundbar. If you want to crank up your sci-fi/fantasy movies and enjoy rock 'em, sock 'em action from a speaker system that easily blends into your décor and takes up near-zero space, the SB46 is exactly what you need. If you want to combine your movie and TV watching with a lot of music listening, look elsewhere.
Check out our gallery of 7 Hot Soundbars below . . .