SONY HT-MT300 sound­bar

Sony HT-MT300 sound­bar Sony’s sound­bar is half the usual length, and its sub­woofer slim enough to go un­der the couch. What does that mean for its per­for­mance?

Sound + Image - - Contents - Jez Ford

A bar half the usual length, and a slim sub­woofer. It’s neat, but can it de­liver the au­dio goods?

One of our usual ar­gu­ments against sound­bars is that, de­spite be­ing cre­ated as the ‘neat’ al­ter­na­tive to sur­round sound, they’re not re­ally very neat at all. They sit out in front of your TV with wires tum­bling from their cramped rear con­nec­tion bays, and usu­ally with a sub­woofer to fit some­where nearby to get in the way of the vac­uum cleaner.

Sony has an in­ter­est­ing vari­a­tion here — a very com­pact bar, and a com­pact sub­woofer too, in­deed the whole pack­age is small enough that it comes in a box with a plas­tic han­dle on top. A take­away TV au­dio up­grade? Or too tiny to make a solid sonic im­pact? Let’s see.

Equip­ment

Well it cer­tainly is a small bar, just 50cm wide where most go over a me­tre; some of Sony’s pic­tures show the bar oddly po­si­tioned off to one side of the TV but clearly you should cen­tre it to have the sound as con­nected to the screen im­age as pos­si­ble. It’s small but cute, a friendly com­bi­na­tion of curved edges and soft tones in our “char­coal black” re­view unit; “crème white” is also avail­able.

The bar is a two-chan­nel stereo de­vice — there are no ad­di­tional driv­ers to push true sur­round in­for­ma­tion out wide, no ded­i­cated cen­tre driv­ers ei­ther. We ap­plaud the trend in sound­bars away from un­re­al­is­tic prom­ises of fake sur­round, but Sony still pro­motes “S-Force PRO Front Sur­round, a tech­nol­ogy that re­pro­duces a vir­tual sur­round acous­tic field from only two front speak­ers”. The elec­tron­ics do in­clude Dolby Dig­i­tal pro­cess­ing, so that it might use gen­uine sur­round in­for­ma­tion to cre­ate this ef­fect, though only, of course, if it gets served a gen­uine sur­round sound­track. That won’t hap­pen if you use its ana­logue mini­jack au­dio in­put, but might if you use the op­ti­cal con­nec­tion from your TV. There’s no HDMI sock­etry here, so ana­logue or op­ti­cal are your only choices, joined by a sin­gle USB-A slot, and also Blue­tooth. In­creas­ing num­bers of TVs of­fer Blue­tooth con­nec­tion to sound­bars, which cer­tainly over­comes our point about wires mak­ing sound­bars messy, though we’d note only the base-level SBC codec is in­cluded here, which, to quote Sony it­self, “is de­signed to pri­ori­tise ef­fi­cient use of band­width above sound qual­ity... it is not ideal for trans­mit­ting high-qual­ity au­dio”. And to our knowl­edge, SBC can only trans­mit stereo, not Dolby Dig­i­tal or lin­ear PCM.

How­ever the Blue­tooth does mean you can use the MT300 to stream mu­sic from your de­vice of choice (there’s NFC for con­ve­nient tap pair­ing), while Sony of­fers for down­load its Mu­sic Cen­ter app (above), or SongPal, as it’s still called in the man­ual. This con­nected

via Blue­tooth, but of­fered no con­trol of the bar at all, only Blue­tooth stream­ing, and it seemed rather re­dun­dant in this ap­pli­ca­tion.

The sub­woofer can stand upright, in which po­si­tion it presents a nar­row front only 96mm wide, or you can lie it down. Sony also sug­gests some­thing we haven’t heard in years — putting the sub­woofer un­der your sofa. “Sofa Mode op­ti­mises bass fre­quen­cies and elim­i­nates sound loss from sofa cush­ions, it says.” It con­nects wire­lessly, need­ing only a mains cable.

Per­for­mance

The bar is in­deed sur­pris­ingly small, and light too. Pop it down, run the sup­plied op­ti­cal cable from your TV, con­nect the power cable (via a power brick which al­most chal­lenges the bar for size), un­sheath the re­mote con­trol and turn it on — quick start guide, who needs it? We po­si­tioned the sub­woofer in the near­est avail­able side po­si­tion, less than a me­tre left of the bar, and plugged that in; it paired with the bar in a few sec­onds. Ready to go.

The re­mote con­trol looks quite sim­ple, but is ac­tu­ally fiendishly com­pli­cated, able to ac­ti­vate many dif­fer­ent sound op­tions — ‘Mu­sic’ and ‘Movie’ EQs, ‘Voice’ mode, ‘Night’ mode, and ‘ClearAu­dio+’. Com­bi­na­tions of lights on the bar tell you whether an ef­fect is turn­ing on or off — un­less you have ex­tra­or­di­nary pat­tern recog­ni­tion skills you will most cer­tainly need the larger ‘Op­er­at­ing In­struc­tions’ book­let to un­der­stand the many combo flashes and the way ex­tra func­tions are in­voked by five-sec­ond presses. The man­ual is, at least, com­pre­hen­sive and clear, while ClearAu­dio+ is your get-out-of­jail card, since it chooses the best sound set­tings for you — “au­to­mat­i­cally op­ti­mized ac­cord­ing to play­back con­tent and func­tion”.

The re­mote has the main vol­ume on the cen­tre cir­cle, and also of­fers sep­a­rate sub­woofer up/down. We used these a lot at first. As­sum­ing you like a bit of bass sup­port, the sub­woofer ends up do­ing a fair bit of the to­tal work­load, and from the first sounds of day­time TV, the sub­woofer was pulling the sound to­wards its po­si­tion left of cen­tre. Bass is not as di­rec­tional as tre­ble, but the higher your sub­woofer goes, the more di­rec­tional it be­comes, and for our ears, this com­bi­na­tion pre­sented two dis­tinct images, par­tic­u­larly no­tice­able with mu­sic. On the O2 record­ing of Leonard Cohen’s

Tower of Song, we lifted the sub­woofer level to sup­port the bass se­quence, but this brought Leonard’s lower voice honk­ing from the sub and quite sep­a­rately from the bar. Rel­a­tively high crossovers de­liver the ‘twin Leonard’ ef­fect, given the in­creas­ing di­rec­tion­al­ity of higher bass fre­quen­cies. Mean­while Leonard’s ap­pre­cia­tive O2 au­di­ence shrank down to sev­eral feet of space along the width of the bar.

So we’d rec­om­mend as cru­cial here a need to get the sub­woofer as cen­tral as pos­si­ble. Sony’s ‘sofa mode’ works to cen­tralise your sub, as­sum­ing you en­joy the sensation and are not sen­si­tive to the lack of bass com­ing from the front. We slid it un­der our AV fur­ni­ture, cen­trally, and the sonic trans­for­ma­tion was con­sid­er­able, as the sep­a­rate sonic images com­bined, po­si­tional phase prob­lems dis­ap­peared, and mu­sic stream­ing via Blue­tooth SBC be­came lis­ten­ably friendly. It didn’t fix the blur­ring and bloat­ing of basslines, and there were re­sponse dips in­clud­ing a hol­low­ing out of lower bass which could thin vo­cals, but the mids and tre­ble were clear and smooth enough not to fail en­tirely the usual sound­bar mu­sic hur­dle of ac­tual of­fen­sive­ness; you set­tle into it. A rel­e­vant com­par­i­son might be with the sound of a medium-sized Blue­tooth speaker, which the X300 very much re­sem­bles, other than be­ing bar-shaped. And that makes it use­ful, be­cause it does pro­vide a use­fully bet­ter sound than most TVs will man­age, and it is use­fully small, and its sub use­fully easy to slip away.

One sur­pris­ingly spa­cious de­liv­ery was Tom Jones’ In Style and Rhythm; while the bass was very soft (it’s re­ally very tight), the Tom­ster’s vo­cal was clear and well staged, if rather un­nat­u­rally boxy.

The spread isn’t wide — left and right, as in pol­i­tics, were just mildly dis­tinct from the cen­tre po­si­tion. You can turn it up and de­liver quite the level of au­dio for movies and TV sound­tracks, but no mat­ter what the EQ set­ting we found we were hav­ing trou­ble hear­ing dif­fi­cult TV drama di­a­logue cues, while well-miked cen­tral voices could emerge al­most painfully peaky.

The dy­namic shifts of movie sound­tracks had us con­stantly ad­just­ing vol­ume — turn­ing down ac­tion scenes, turn­ing up di­a­logue. We hate to in­voke dy­namic range com­pres­sion but here there was lit­tle choice. By way of com­par­i­son we had the X300 sit­u­ated in front of the com­pany’s mag­nif­i­cent A1 TV for a while, and the A1’s ex­pan­sive Acous­tic Sur­face sound made the X300 sound very boxy in com­par­i­son.

Con­clu­sion

So the main ad­van­tage of this Sony sound­bar is its com­pact­ness — very small at the front, with an easy-to-ac­com­mo­date sub­woofer. Yet size is also its main dis­ad­van­tange — its sound is in­evitably also smaller than a larger sound­bar would achieve. Darned physics, eh?

The ques­tion, then, is how small a sound can you live with? For us, the Sony sim­ply didn’t fit, like try­ing on pants a few sizes too small. It made too many sonic com­pro­mises to be en­joy­able for TV and movies, while the high cross­over pulled bass to thes­sub­woofer po­si­tion, and even once cen­tred with the TV it made mu­sic ca­su­ally lis­ten­able, but closer to the sound of a wire­less speaker than a hi-fi. The HT-MT300 up­grades TV au­dio, but not far enough for an en­joy­able ex­pe­ri­ence.

Up or down — Sony’s wire­less (ex­cept power) sub­woofer is so small you can put it un­der the sofa and en­gage ‘sofa’ mode.

Top view of the bar, show­ing its sta­tus lights. In­ter­pre­ta­tion may re­quire the printed man­ual.

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