Our sitting room and dining room are open plan, so we’ve never really been interested in a soundbar or virtual surround sound system as one would need an additional wall to bounce the sound off. However since we’ve had the garage converted and turned into a playroom with our old TV mounted on the wall, the possibility has been there, it’s just never been something we’ve pursued.
Why do you need a soundbar though? Back in the days of CRT tellies, you had the depth and size to incorporate a decent set of speakers. Fast forward to today though and the obsession is with thin TVs with next to no bezel. This isn’t conducive to a full rich sound.
In our sitting room we have a fairly basic 5.1 surround sound set up. The 5 refers to the number of speakers, 1 under the telly to anchor the speech, one each to the left and right of the screen and two behind our sofa. This allows the sound to whizz around a bit. The .1 refers to the subwoofer- a huge bass speaker that provides the depth of sound (mostly the explosions in the action films I watch). 5.1 is pretty much the basic for separate systems now; you can get 7.2 systems (7 speakers and two subwoofers).
Of course not every room is suitable for a separate surround sound system nor would you necessarily want one. This is where a soundbar comes in. As well as adding the additional oompf that the built in speakers lack, a lot of soundbars have a clever motorised set of speakers that can alter their angle to “bounce” sound off the walls and give you a virtual surround sound environment.
So when Pioneer offered to lend me their top end Pioneer SBX-N700 soundbar, I jumped at the opportunity to see whether it would work for us.
As you can see from the picture, the N700 is slightly wider than our 37inch telly. It has a pleasing weight to it, with several inputs on the back, including an ARC HDMI port (the ARC part is only really useful if your telly supports audio return over HDMI- ours doesn’t). The HDMI output allows for some very clever stuff but more of that later, along with the ethernet port (there is built in wifi too mind you).
The most straight forward way of running the system is to plug your TV, Blu Ray or games console into one of the the two optical in ports. Our TV doesn’t have optical out (it’s about 6 years old), so we plugged it into the Blu Ray player.
What you can’t see in the picture is the subwoofer. This is dead clever because it’s wireless. You still need to plug it into the mains but it isn’t wired to the soundbar. Subwoofers aren’t directional, so you can stick it anywhere in the same room (within reason) and the sound will be fine.
We used the optical in for our Blu Ray player and the sound was rather impressive. The playroom is absolutely ideally shaped for a soundbar, and the microphone included for set up made it a cinch to work. The kids soon had Disney’s G-Force blaring out at the sort of volume that makes me glad we’re in a detached house.
What is clever though is the additional functions the N700 adds over it’s lower denominated siblings. The Pioneer SBX-N700 handles Miracasting and if that doesn’t mean much to you, it’s basically what the Chromecast dongle does- it lets you play video from your phone through the soundbar onto your telly via the HDMI connection. It also has something called DNLA streaming, which basically means it can stream video stored on a NAS box or PC/Mac. I didn’t test this functionality out but from what I’ve read it works quite well. The N700 needs a network connection for this, either wired or wireless, and the relevant app installed on either your Android or IOS smartphone. Tasty.
I went into this with an open mind, not too sure what to expect and have come out the other side wanting a soundbar, something I didn’t entirely expect at the start. We have enough tech in the house that the Miracasting function, whilst nice, isn’t essential but I’ve viewed that as a bonus as the N700 is the only soundbar in the range that comes with a subwoofer.
The Pioneer SBX-N700 is priced at £349. For that price you can get budget 5.1 surround systems but in a sense you get what you pay for and the form factor is only one of the features that commands a premium here. If you were to buy a separate AV amp, you’d be lucky to get the amp itself for under £200 before you started purchasing speakers. Maybe I’d like a product that doesn’t exist- the N500 without the smart network features but with the wireless subwoofer. But that’s probably just nitpicking.