It has been said that TV is "radio with pictures." With our visually-dominated society, producing a transmitted picture often takes up much more time and effort than the accompanying sound. But various new audio devices and technologies may offer the promise of high-quality sound reproduction commensurate with the growing quality of HDTV displays.
Many TV viewers do not want to take up living room space and add a tangle of wires to put in a full 5.1-channel surround system, and that means they usually default to a display that has small, inefficient speakers, either on sidebars or built into the display itself. But until recently, no amount of clever acoustics or signal processing has yielded performance matching that of a discrete system, placed around the room. To address this opportunity, several manufacturers - Samsung, Sony, Philips, Yamaha, and various speaker manufacturers -have developed thin "soundbars" that are placed below the display. According to Henry Choy, senior analyst at Jon Peddie Research, soundbars are "one way that the TV companies can differentiate their products and be able to charge a premium - not all TVs will be connected to an AV receiver for surround sound."
The technology works by integrating an array of up to 32 or more "beam drivers" together with sophisticated DSP (digital signal processing). While most of the manufacturers use their own chips and algorithms, at least one company, Micronas, is now supplying a single-chip soundbar processor as a component for TV and speaker manufacturers. Using this chip, manufacturers can differentiate their products with a DSP-code download capability. This feature allows the manufacturer’s own audio processing algorithms to be embedded in the Micronas chip. The device also includes an integrated lip-sync delay compensator, something that is needed when sophisticated video processing is carried out.
Without naming names, some results are better than others. Imaging and sonic detail can range from impressive to poor. The sound field can be altered on some models to better match music, sports, movies, and the like. Some manufacturers have chosen to integrate a DVD player into the system, adding convenience and saving real estate. And pricing can run from a low of $99 to well over $1000.
In this analyst’s opinion, no amount of DSP and hardware ingenuity can match the performance of a system today with six good speakers and adequate power. But many viewers just don’t want or need that kind of performance. A soundbar with clever processing can produce an acceptable spatial feel, while at the same time reducing the footprint (or "wallprint") in the viewing room. This is also true for PC users - a marketing opportunity that has not escaped the notice of PC manufacturers. As far as product development choices, more manufacturers will want to consider this viable alternative to either "elephant ear" speakers or a home theater audio setup. With golf-ball sized speaker elements pushing the dimensions ever smaller, we may even see a soundbar array that is integrated with the display bezel.
Now, if we could just find someplace to hide the subwoofer … - AC