SOUNDBARS have come a long way since Yamaha introduced them seven years ago. That $2500 original was a bit of a monster, containing no less than 42 drivers pitching sound in seven different directions to give a simulated surround-sound effect as the sound bounced off walls and ceilings to reach your ears.
Now soundbars have become an accepted category in home-theatre offerings and if you doubt that, consider this: Teac has just entered the soundbar market with an offering at, wait for this, $99.95.
Now the purists may dispute the little Teac's credentials as a true soundbar, especially given it's about one-sixth the price of the next-cheapest soundbars at most retailers. They would sniffily dismiss it as a computer speaker. But its maker calls it a soundbar and all the retailers we've seen that stock them have them positioned under TVs, so we'll take Teac at its word.
With the soundbar, the brand is opening up a whole new demographic. Until now, soundbars have been large and expensive critters but the Teac is half as long as the next smallest soundbar and one-third of the weight. If you have a little TV in the bedroom or the study, it will fit underneath it neatly.
Soundbars are especially popular with people who live in units, where space is limited, and with those who want a simple speaker system that sounds better than the rotten little speakers they're putting in TVs these days.
Most of them simulate surround-sound by using the same idea as that original Yamaha, shooting sounds in several different directions so it bounces off ceilings and walls. Provided your room is the right shape, this can work effectively, but in a large, open-plan room with high ceilings, don't expect a great result.
Many come with a separate subwoofer that can be placed anywhere and most are wall-mountable.
Today we compare the Teac with the cheapest offerings from two other brands fully committed to the soundbar concept.
YAMAHA is the big kahuna in soundbars and this is its cheapest offering. It contains three drivers, a 5.5cm full range unit at each end and a 2.4cm-by-10cm ovoid mid-bass centre, along with a separate 13cm bass-reflex subwoofer that can be placed either vertically or horizontally wherever convenient. The sound is surprisingly good for the money although the surround effect is minimal. It delivers pleasing full-range sound, and there's a clear voice mode to enhance movie dialogue. It's good at music as well and to that end there's a USB connection for portable music players. A nice touch is height-adjustable legs that help fill the space under the television. There are three HDMI inputs and a single output, and a headphone plug. It also has an FM tuner. 800mm x 79mm to 100mm x 79.5mm.
ONCE you accept the Teac for what it is, a speaker for smaller televisions in the bedroom or study rather than the living room, it becomes a proposition. It's considerably smaller than anything else on the market and it can be powered through a USB connection to your TV or by conventional mains power. It connects to the TV's headphone outlet and it doesn't go anywhere near loud enough to fill a big room, but it generates sufficient volume for night-time listening and it has a volume wheel on the right side. The sound isn't brilliant but it's pretty good for the price and a step up from the speakers in most TVs. There are two drivers inside and a passive radiator to add bass. There's no remote. 410mm x 67mm x 59mm (WxHxD).
LG has two soundbars. Both cost $999 and both have integrated 3D-capable Blu-ray players, similar power and speaker arrays, separate 150-watt wireless subwoofers, FM tuners and wi-fi connectivity. So what's the difference? This one is black and has concealed drivers, the other is silver with exposed drivers. This one is longer and higher, but slimmer. We've listened to both and we can't pick much difference in sound quality either, but that's not a bad thing - both have crisp, accurate sound across the full audible range and there's an iPod-iPhone cradle and USB playback in MP3, WMA and AAC. 1040mm x 166mm x 92mm (WxHxD).
IF YOU'RE fed up with poor sound from your bedroom television, the Teac is a quick, cheap and easy solution. But if you're serious about performance and sound quality, the Yamaha is the pick here.