The soundbar category is certainly not lacking in diversity. From passive soundbars to replace your traditional L/C/R speakers to basic 2.1-channel active models that serve as a step up from your TV speakers to more advanced multi-channel models that use complex digital signal processing and acoustic principles to simulate a surround experience, the number of options can be overwhelming. Sitting at the very top of the active soundbar category are those models, fewer in number, that are truly intended to replace both a multi-channel speaker system and a multi-channel AV receiver. Instead of offering just a couple of analog and digital audio connections, these soundbars better replicate modern AV receivers by adding HDMI inputs and outputs, as well as some noteworthy features that go along with them - namely, high-resolution audio decoding, Audio Return Channel, and 3D pass-through. Because they're designed to accommodate a more robust and advanced array of source devices, these models generally don't come cheap. Sony's HT-ST7 is an example of this type of soundbar, and its asking price is $1,299.99.
The HT-ST7's nine-driver array and the included wireless subwoofer allow for playback of soundtracks up to 7.1 channels, and the bar's three HDMI inputs will accept and decode Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks. The soundbar has excellent build quality, with a sturdy, dual-ported cabinet design that feels quite solid and has an attractive brushed-aluminum finish and angled edges that distinguish it from some of the basic black-box soundbars. The HT-ST7 isn't as petite as many of today's soundbars, measuring about five inches deep (with the detachable metal grille in place) and a little over four inches high. If you plan to wall-mount the bar, keyhole inserts are located on the back panel for just such a purpose. If you intend to put the soundbar on a rack in front of the TV and potentially block your TV's IR sensor, Sony has built in an IR repeater function, with a supplied IR emitter, to pass your TV commands through the bar to control the TV positioned behind it. The soundbar comes with a slender, simple, non-backlit IR remote that contains all of the buttons you'd need; core buttons like input, mute, volume, and sound mode are triangular in shape and arranged in an interesting and intuitive manner at the top, with other advanced options hidden behind a slide-down panel.
The HT-ST7's total power rating is 450 watts - 50 for each of the bar's seven channels and 100 for the subwoofer. The nine-driver array consists of a pair of two-way speakers at the bar's outer edges that handle the L/R channels and employ a 20mm dome tweeter and 65mm cone midwoofer. Five full-range 65mm cone drivers run across the middle of the bar, with the centermost driver handling center-channel duties and the other four primarily handling surround information - although the digital signal processing that's used to enhance and expand the soundstage and create a sense of surround envelopment makes the division of labor amongst the drivers a little more complicated than that. Sony does not list what the crossover point is between the soundbar and subwoofer, but to my ears it's definitely higher than the commonly recommended 80Hz point, which we'll discuss further in a moment.
In addition to the three HDMI inputs I mentioned earlier, the HT-ST7's connection panel features one stereo analog, one coaxial digital, and two optical digital inputs, plus built-in Bluetooth to support wireless audio streaming from Bluetooth-equipped smartphones, tablets, and laptops. All in all, the HT-ST7 supports the connection of up to eight audio sources, a far higher number than you'll find on many entry- and even mid-level soundbars. One HDMI output passes video and audio on to your TV.
The HT-ST7 also offers a lot of sound customization options, starting with four sound modes: Movie, Music, Standard, and Football (which produces "sound effects for enjoying the feeling of being present in a football stadium"). A handy function called Voice specifically deals with dialogue level and clarity, with three levels of adjustment from which to choose. Subwoofer volume and tone controls are also available, as are things like dynamic range compression, sound optimization, volume leveling, AV sync, and more. Again, this is more customization than you'll find in a lot of lower-priced soundbars, and I found I needed to experiment with a lot of them in order to dial in the best performance.
Click on to page 2 for the Performance, High Points and Low Points, Comparison and Competition and Conclusion . . .