A Closer Look

Surround Sound -- From a Single Speaker

By Daniel Greenberg
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 29, 2006

The Super Bowl may spark interest in a new television, maybe one of those beautiful high-definition widescreen sets. But some buyers might be left cold when they learn that the attached speakers on many sets don't deliver theater-like surround sound.

For surround-sound audio as immersive as the HDTV image, you need half a dozen speakers carefully arranged around the room with unsightly wires running to all of them, unless you pay professional installers to cut open your walls.

Now, new systems promise to eliminate the clutter by delivering that in-the-middle-of-the-action sound from a single speaker that sits above or below your TV set.

The Yamaha YSP-800 Digital Sound Projector ($900, http://www.yamaha.com/ ) uses an array of 23 small digital amplifiers to bounce sound off the walls and reflect it behind you.

This may sound like a gimmick, but it actually works with the right-shaped room. Large furniture in the way of the sound beams can reduce the surround effect, as can irregularly shaped rooms or rooms where the back wall and seating area are too close together or too far apart.

Last year, when we reviewed the first model, the YSP-1, we found it an excellent offering marred by an extensive and complicated setup process. But Yamaha has successfully addressed this impediment by adding a fully automated setup that uses a microphone to calibrate the system.

You can still tweak the settings by hand, but we found the auto setup worked well with no adjustment. The sound after the setup was distinctly improved. We tested reference DVDs that alternate playing tones in each speaker, and we could distinctly hear the rear-channel audio coming from farther behind the side speakers.

The Polk SurroundBar ($950, http://www.polkaudio.com/ ) takes a different approach. Rather than trying to bounce sound, it uses sound field processing to create the illusion of sound localized in space.

It worked in L-shaped rooms that made the YSP-800 sound weak on one side, but it's not completely immune from distortion. Walls or big furniture closer than about three feet can break up its surround effect.

Both systems are lacking in bass but have plugs for optional subwoofers, which shouldn't be optional because the sound is decidedly lacking in punch without one. Consider plunking down an additional $100 to $600 to put the thump back.

Both speakers offer some advantages over traditional 5.1 rigs. They don't require the careful speaker placement, balancing and adjustment needed to get optimal surround sound from a multi-speaker system. Both systems sounded nearly as good as a full 5.1 surround-sound system (though you can get a decent 5.1 home theater system for about half the price).

The ultimate test is movie-watching. The spacious soundfields of both speaker systems make films much more involving and gripping. Flipping over from listening to the movie in stereo to single-speaker surround was a revelation as the room came alive with sound.

If your TV room is reasonably symmetrical, not too huge, and with smooth, non-absorbent walls, the YSP-800 is the top choice. If your room is too irregularly shaped or has gaps so big that the Yamaha can't work, the SurroundBar is a fine alternative that beats stringing speaker wire.

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