Where space is tight, a soundbar can save the day. They can’t compete on sound quality alone with a proper surround system, but by upping the sound quality way beyond the capability of any TV, while avoiding the visual impact of a real surround sound system, a soundbar can be just the right solution.
What it is
The Current Audio SB800 is one such. It’s a three part unit, with the soundbar itself, a wireless subwoofer to deliver the sounds a soundbar can’t manage and an IR remote control.
The soundbar is a touch over a metre wide. The body of it is 89mm tall and 84mm deep. It comes with both wall mounting hardware and a pair of plastic stands for TV bench-top mounting. The latter raise the overall height to 120mm. A couple of years ago that would have been fine to put in front of a TV, but the fashion at the moment is for rather low-slung TVs, with stands barely taller than the thickness of their base plates. If you have one of those TVs this unit will likely obscure the bottom section of its screen, plus the TV’s own IR receiver. Unlike some soundbars, this unit does not have an IR repeater built in to blast the remote codes at any devices behind it.
Built into the soundbar are eight drivers: six 64mm midrange units and a pair of 32mm tweeters. The grille wasn’t removable, but with a bit of carefully angled torch light I think I determined that the location of the tweeters was in the sensible position: one near each extreme end in order to provide the widest possible stereo image. The drivers are provided with a total of 60W of what Current Audio terms ‘RMS’ power, which I take to mean ‘continuous’. Up to 120W peak is on offer.
The enclosure is middling in weight at 4.1kg and well-constructed from a sturdy plastic material. It would not twist, nor noticeably ring when rapped. At each end is a small bass reflex port.
In the middle rear is a space for connections and the main power switch. There are 3.5mm and stereo RCA inputs for analogue audio, plus optical and coaxial digital audio. In addition the unit supports Bluetooth. No mention is made of advanced codecs, so I assume it relies entirely on SBC, not the higher quality of AAC (for Apple devices) or aptX (for some Android devices).
The subwoofer features a 203mm long throw driver mounted in the side of a compact bass reflex enclosure, with 80W ‘RMS’ available (180W peak). There is no physical input since the signal is fed via 2.4GHz wireless. The sub is pre-paired with the soundbar, but a pairing button is provided on it just in case. I did not need to make any use of this.
In addition to the mounting hardware, the system is provided with RCA and 3.5mm connecting cables and a smallish infrared remote control powered by two AAA batteries.
The Current Audio SB800 proved to be a musical and, most of all, powerful performer. I fed it a steady diet of uncompressed digital music for proper testing, but first tried out the Bluetooth functionality. It was easily found and paired with an iPad Mini, an Android tablet and an Android phone. All three fed music happily through to it. In turn. The unit remembered them all. In order to change device it was just a matter of switching off Bluetooth in the device currently connected so that ‘Current Audio’ could be selected on the next device for playback.
The unit does not appear to support high resolution audio. Whenever I tried to feed 24 bit, 96kHz PCM material to it via the optical digital input, no sound was produced. Furthermore, when I switched back to CD-standard 16 bit, 44.1 kHz material this wouldn’t play either until I switched the unit off and on again. It was fine with 16 bit, 48kHz music.
Wow, did this unit go loud. Loud while remaining perfectly composed. I’ve been trying to think of whether any of the other soundbars I have reviewed could compete on this front, and I’m fairly confident both that this one is better than nearly all of the others, and well able to match any of the remainder.
Take, for example, the title track of King Crimson’s In the Wake of Poseidon. The drumming of Michael Giles is vital for this track, and is recorded at a high enough level in the mix to ensure that it is heard consistently, spiking up through the harmonies in a way that makes life difficult for the mastering engineers of CDs.
Yet even while thumping this music out at levels that would be deafening were they to persist, the drums continued to rise above the harmonic content, delivering detail and power without any sense of confusion.
The subwoofer was easily able to keep up with the soundbar in volume level and clarity. This was fine stuff.
At more reasonable volume levels, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones’ banjo/sax jazz was surprisingly detailed and again well controlled.
The only audible weaknesses were a slightly overblown high frequency with the treble control on the middle position (there are eight levels) – best to drop this down by a couple of notches – and a general sense of a lack of air in between notes, as though the energy of the music hadn’t been entirely dissipated. There was also a lack of the kind of precise, almost eerie, stereo imaging produced by a fine two speaker system.
The subwoofer clearly didn’t go down to great depths, but it nevertheless clearly covered all the musically important stuff for music, and did a respectable job at rumbling the room when required by movies.
I did most of my listening in the ‘Music’ mode, which provides the most conventional sound. The ‘Movie’ mode didn’t attempt to fake any surround sound, but did widen the front sound stage and added a bit more depth.
The ‘Night’ music mode is a real convenience. It is intended to allow you to enjoy the system without waking up the kiddies or your neighbours. Its main function is to reduce the level of the subwoofer. Since deep bass travels much further and penetrates more deeply than higher frequencies, this is extremely effective, but is rarely implemented in most equipment.
Measuring the performance of the system I found some very strange results indeed, until I worked out what was going on. I use FLAC test files of my own creation for tests to ensure they aren’t performance constrained by some lossy CODEC. In this case I used a good quality network media streamer to decode these to PCM and feed the sound via optical digital audio to the soundbar. The problem was that the soundbar was reversing left and right channels. I normally measure the right channel, but the sound was coming from the left. A change in procedures fixed this, but do not be surprised if the first violins in an orchestra seem to be coming from the right side of the room.
Oh, I should mention that I checked the analogue inputs, and they did not reverse the channels so this is something to do with the internal DAC.
Close measuring the tweeter, it was clear that it produced output solidly out to 17kHz before dropping off fairly quickly.
The subwoofer’s output, also measured up close to reduce room effects, was quite even in the 40Hz to 100Hz band. The usable output was from 38Hz to 111Hz (+/-6dB) in the corner position I use for subwoofers (this position tends to give them the most extended and even response).
Measured from my seating position, the output was fairly even from 44Hz all the way up to 20,000Hz, barring the usual room-created suck-outs at one of two points in the spectrum. Perhaps the most marked characteristic was a band between 3,500Hz and 9,000Hz, which was 3dB or 4dB lower than the other frequencies and a peak at around 10,000Hz.
The one strange thing in the system’s performance was that the subwoofer seemed to lose its connection between tracks, and took around 350ms to kick in every time some new bass content appeared. That means that music that starts with a bass note can lose its introductory impact. For example the track Weed Whacker on the aforementioned Bela Fleck and the Flecktones’ album with five percussive strikes before the music proper starts. The first of these is clearly missing its bass underpinnings.
The Current Audio SB800 is a very good soundbar/subwoofer combination, particularly well-suited to those who like their music and movies up front and loud.