Flat-screen TVs have improved dramatically over the last couple of years in terms of picture quality, but their sound quality hasn't really kept pace. The trend for increasingly slim TVs means there often simply isn't enough room in the chassis for a decent pair of speakers. One option is to boost your telly's audio via a soundbar system like Pioneer's HTP-SB300, which is priced at around £400 and includes a wireless subwoofer.
Frills that thrill
Unlike Samsung's HT-BD8200 and LG's HLB54S, the HTP-SB300 is a straightforward soundbar, without a built-in Blu-ray player. Measuring 90cm wide, it's designed to be used with TVs of between 32 and 37 inches in size. It'll happily sit in front of your set on a normal entertainment unit or, alternatively, it can be mounted on a wall (instructions and brackets for doing so are included in the box).
The soundbar's chassis has a matte black finish, with cloth covering the speaker grilles, but Pioneer has also added chrome panels on the ends to spice up the design. The centre of the HTP-SB300 houses an illuminated display, and it can be dimmed with the remote control so it doesn't distract you when you're watching movies with the lights turned down. This display shows the currently selected input, along with the volume level when it's being adjusted. Beneath the screen, there's a line of buttons that let you directly control settings such as input selection and volume when you've lost the remote down the back of the sofa.
The soundbar houses a centre speaker, plus two side speakers, which, along with the wireless subwoofer, makes this a 3.1-channel system. Pioneer says the total sound output is 250W, with the centre and side channels producing 50W each, and the subwoofer adding another 100W into the equation.
The HTP-SB300 is pretty straightforward to set up. The wireless subwoofer automatically pairs with the main unit and, around the back of the bar, you'll find two HDMI inputs, along with coaxial and optical digital audio connectors. There's also an HDMI out to route video and audio to your TV. Surprisingly, there are no stereo phono inputs, so you can't make any analogue connections to the soundbar, if you want to run an iPod through it, for example.
The unit's built-in decoder handles Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital Plus, DTS and Dolby TrueHD streams. Sadly, DTS-HD Master Audio isn't supported. There are, however, a number of pseudo-surround-sound modes that you can access with such presets as 'action', 'drama' and 'sports'. Unfortunately, all these really do is add some digital reverb to the sound, so we found they were best ignored. There is, however, an auto level control that stops the volume surging when ad breaks come on or when switching between channels. We found this worked well when used with Virgin's cable service, which is a persistent offender when it comes to inconsistent audio levels between channels.
Unfortunately, the HTP-SB300's remote is exceptionally busy, with the result that it's initially somewhat confusing to use. On the plus side, it can be programmed to operate both your telly and your Blu-ray deck, even if they're not Pioneer models, so it can help cut down on remote-control clutter.
What's really important is how the HTP-SB300 sounds. Thankfully, it's a pretty impressive performer. The centre and side channels are tight and focused, so dialogue sounds clean, crisp and in your face, yet the bar still has the width to do justice to explosive action-movie sequences. The subwoofer also blends well with the centre and side channels and never overpowers them, as is sometimes the case with lesser systems.
But, although the HTP-SB300 does manage to spread out the front sound stage somewhat, it doesn't deliver the all-round, immersive sonic experience of a true 5.1- or 7.1-channel speaker system. Those without the space to accommodate a surround-sound set-up will, however, still find the HTP-SB300 delivers a sonic experience that's vastly improved over that you get with normal telly speakers.
The Pioneer HTP-SB300's cluttered remote and lack of analogue sound inputs are disappointing, and the pseudo-surround-sound modes are gimmicky. But the HTP-SB300's tight and focused audio means it still delivers a serious sonic punch, and it's certainly worth considering if you're thinking of upgrading your TV's audio but are short on space.
Edited by Charles Kloet