I’ve been after something like this for a while. Years ago, I owned an analogue 5:1 speaker system (bought with my first Sony flat panel, which I bought when they were very expensive), but it was a colossal faff and the (wired) rear speakers were a pain. It was also a real dust-gatherer.
Since replacing it with a larger but cheaper HD Sony TV, I’ve been aware that the speakers in it weren’t up to much. Part of the problem of lacklustre sound is that the speakers have to fit into a thin case, designed for aesthetics rather than sound. But the bigger problem (also related to aesthetics) is that the speakers face the wrong bloody way. Sound is worse on my new HDTV than it was on my old, analogue, SD, flat panel, which had speakers at the bottom, facing forwards.
So what to do? Didn’t want another 5:1 system, can’t be arsed, and in the real world, people sit all around the room, not in the middle of the soundfield. I looked at sound bars, but could’t see a way of making one work, given limited space and that it would block the infra-red receiver at the bottom of the TV. My kids have got a terrible habit of leaving things in front of it as it is.
And then I saw the Bose Solo, and it looked like it might be ideal, apart from a couple of niggles. Niggle number 1: I do not have golden ears (as previously stated) but my brother-in-law does, and he does’t like Bose. Doesn’t like what they do, and doesn’t like the sound of their stuff. I was prepared to ignore his opinion, however, on the grounds that I wasn’t aware of another solution.
Niggle number 2 was the price. With all Bose products, you suspect you’re paying a brand premium, and once I became aware that there were in fact alternatives, I turned elsewhere.
Considered (briefly) a couple of options, based on online reviews, but dismissed them because they were either only available from online retailers I’d never used before*, or because they lacked features/connectivity, or because they looked as if they’d be too small for my 42″ Sony.
The Panasonic SC-HTE80 looked like it would do the trick. £100 cheaper than the Bose (and even cheaper than that through Amazon), with decent write-ups, given the price.
What did I want it for? My main beef is not actually cinema-style surround and thundering bass, which is why I never really got on with the dust-catching sub-woofer I had before. My beef, as a 50+ year-old bloke is with dialogue. Testing my ears recently, I discovered I can’t hear anything above around 16 KHz. My wife, who had a perforated ear drum some years ago, can’t hear above 13 kHz. When we’re watching TV dramas, we both struggle to hear dialogue against background noise and music. Watching Modern Family on DVD/Blu-Ray, we were forced to put the volume of the TV up to 60% (normal comfortable listening level on the louder channels being around 30-35%).
The Panasonic was easy to set up. It just fits under my Sony 42, being exactly the same width as the base and just 2 cm deeper. I lifted the TV and my daughter shoved it underneath. Any bigger TV or base, you’re going to have to position it on a shelf underneath. It has two HDMI ports (clearly labelled) and an optical. There’s also a USB, but that’s for servicing only. There are also two RCA analogue audio inputs. You connect your blu-ray to one HDMI port and your TV to the other. My Sony has an ARC (Audio Return Channel) HDMI port, so that’s the one to use. Without this, you might have to resort to an optical (TOSLINK) cable.
(I buy Amazon Basics cables. DO NOT pay the prices charged by John Lewis etc. Amazon offer useful 2-pack, with an HDMI and a TOSLINK in the same packet for £8.99. This is below their new £10 threshold for free delivery, however.)
This set up worked perfectly. Even though my set-up includes a Humax Freeview tuner/recorder, the sound from the TV (watching stuff recorded on the Humax) comes through the Panasonic speaker board as soon as it starts up. Don’t worry that you might not notice the difference! The SC-HTE80 immediately sounds richer, fuller, and more detailed than the TV speakers. Switching off the Panasonic to A-B it, it was actually shocking to realise I’d been putting up with the sound from it for so long.
As I said, my ears are not golden, but I could instantly hear the dialogue more clearly, and (watching something I’d already watched once), I noticed details that were impossible to hear before. Someone walks back to their car: footsteps. More information about locations in the form of subtle background sounds. The SC-HTE80 sports two (60W per channel) sub-woofers, which port out of the back. The directional higher frequencies come at you from the two (30W per channel) speakers at the front. The supplied remote allows you to go through the various modes (see below) using the front LED display as a guide. Push the Bluetooth button and you can pair the SC-HTE80 with your phone, computer, or tablet. I tried it with my iPad and played some music through: sounded great. So now we have a living room Bluetooth speaker, not that I imagine we’ll use it much.
- Standard (for your bog-standard drama/comedy viewing)
- Stadium (live sport – I’ll never use this mode)
- Music (for when you connect via Bluetooth, or watch concert films?)
- Cinema (Hmm… 3D sound, movie style? But what about dialogue?)
- Stereo (switch off all the algorithms and just listen in stereo)
You can also adjust the level of certain features: the sub woofer can be turned up or down. The Dialogue can be adjusted in the same way – if you really struggle with it (there are 4 levels). There’s a harmonic bass effect that can be turned on or off (I don’t know what that is**). There’s also an on/off option for 3D clear dialogue, which makes it sound as if it’s coming from the TV screen and not underneath it. A couple of other adjustments, including Auto Gain Control, which is for preventing the SUPER LOUD ADVERT PROBLEM.
The unit also has a NFC chip for pairing with a phone that has one of those. Mine doesn’t.
I watched a couple of TV dramas, and then a couple of films.The Adjustment Bureau was the first. The sound was all right, and I tried the cinema mode. Sound was rich, but I struggled to hear dialogue (especially when crunching smokehouse almonds), so I turned that up a notch, and then just resorted to Standard mode, which is where I think it’ll stay, unless I’m playing music through it.
Very happy with this, and will not want to go back to watching TV without it.
* Sorry, other online retailers, but here’s the thing. I hate what Amazon have done to everyone else, I do, but they’ve got my credit card details, they don’t spam me, and I’ve never once had an issue with them since, what was it, 1998? Touch wood. Every time I buy anything from anyone else, on the other hand, I get a load of unwanted emails, I have to remember yet another password (no, we really shouldn’t use the same password for everything), and little niggles spring up. Niggles such as the use of Yodel as a delivery service. Or saying something’s in stock when it isn’t, John Lewis.
** My best guess: compressed sound loses harmonic detail. Most of what we watch and listen to these days is compressed. Digital TV: compressed. DVD: compressed. Downloaded music: compressed. BBC iPlayer: very compressed. I’m guessing that the Harmonic Bass effect puts this back, in some artificial way. I’m also guessing that watching HD content on blu-ray, you might want to switch this feature off, which is why it’s an option. I may be wrong about all of the above, of course, so check with your local golden-eared sound guru.