If sound bars are the everyman's home audio system, the Sony HT-CT260 feels like the everyman's sound bar.
It starts with excellent sound quality, topping last year's sonic champ, the Haier SBEV40-Slim, and holding its own with the best we've heard this year, too. There's built-in Bluetooth, making it easy to wirelessly stream audio from just about every tablet and smartphone, and it throws in decoding for Dolby Digital and DTS for good measure. It has a signature, geometric design that's compact enough to unobtrusively sit under most TVs, but it also has a built-in remote signal repeater in case it does block your TV's remote sensor. Altogether, it does everything you'd want a budget sound bar to do in a flexible design that works well in most home theater configurations.
There are better-sounding systems (Sharp HT-SB60), and ones with more neat features (Vizio S4251w-B4) or a better-looking design (SpeakerCraft CS3), but none of them will appeal to as many buyers as the HT-CT260, which has balanced all the necessary trade-offs quite well and lacks a deal-breaking flaw. We haven't reviewed enough 2013 sound bars to crown an Editors' Choice yet, but it will be tough to top Sony's HT-CT260.
Design: Not your typical tube
Sound bars all start to look the same after a while, but the HT-CT260's funky design makes it stand out from the crowd. It still uses the standard long tubelike cabinet, but the hexagonal shape gives it a unique style. The look may not be for everyone -- CNET editor Ty Pendlebury was immediately turned off -- but we think it's an attractive spin on the familiar sound bar design.
The HT-CT260's sound bar stands 4 inches tall, which means it runs the risk of blocking the remote sensor on some TVs, which can make changing inputs on your TV a real pain. However, Sony has a nifty solution to the problem: a remote signal repeater that receives remote commands in the front, then shoots them out the back. Sony isn't the first company to include a remote signal repeater, but if you have a TV with a low-hanging remote sensor, this feature is reason enough to favor the HT-CT260 over the Vizio S4251w-B4, which has a large, remote-blocking cabinet and no built-in workaround.
The included wireless subwoofer is small, rectangular box that can be placed nearly anywhere, as long as it's plugged in. It's relatively discreet for a subwoofer, although it has an annoying front-facing LED that glows green when it's on, red when it's off. (Nothing a little bit of black tape can't fix, though.)
Sony has a habit of using a stock remote design for its home theater products, and the one that comes with the HT-CT260 is no different. It's a pretty good remote as far as sound bars go, although its ability to control TV produces a lot of button clutter. (Why are there TV volume buttons when you have a sound bar? How many people are using the TV's channel up/down function these days?) The HT-CT260's remote would be a lot easier to use if it ditched some of the less frequently used buttons, but it's still better than most, with a full-size design that sits nicely in your hand and a prominent volume rocker.
Features: Bluetooth, Dolby, and DTS
The HT-CT260's connectivity options are basic: optical, coaxial, and analog minijack. That may not seem like much, but, as with most sound bars, Sony expects you to use your TV to switch between devices -- connect all your gear directly to your TV, then use your TV's optical output to connect to the sound bar. It's a much simpler configuration, assuming your TV has enough inputs for all your gear. (If not, an HDMI switcher and universal remote combo is a low-cost way to add more inputs.)
The HT-CT260 also features built-in Bluetooth, which is essentially a must-have feature this year. Bluetooth streaming makes it possible to wirelessly stream audio from any app on nearly every smartphone and tablet, which means it's easy to stream, say, Pandora straight from your phone. There is some audio quality lost with Bluetooth, but it's generally harder to notice that on a sound bar system versus more detailed full-size speakers.
Finally, the HT-CT260 has onboard decoding for both Dolby and DTS. In the vast majority of cases, that decoding won't actually be used, since most TVs downmix all audio to two-channel PCM over their optical outputs. Still, it's nice to know the decoding is there in case you end up in one of the few scenarios that requires it.