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?
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.
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.
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.
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.