The need for a separate head unit may be annoying, but it does allow the HT-CT550W to house considerably more inputs than a more traditional sound bar.
There are three HDMI inputs, plus three digital inputs (two optical and one coaxial), and a stereo analog input. All that connectivity is nice, although the benefit is considerably lessened if you end up using your TV as a switcher, as you'll end up using only one of the HT-CT550W's inputs.
On top of connecting all your home theater gear to the head unit, you'll also need to connect the sound bar's proprietary (and permanently attached) speaker cabling to the head unit. After that, you're good to go, as there's no further setup or calibration necessary.
Performance: Sounds too much like a sound bar
We started our HT-CT550W's auditions with the "Quincy Jones: Live in Montreux 2008" DVD. The big band's music was clear and bright, but the sound was lacking the natural warmth we've heard from this DVD on other systems. We turned up the subwoofer volume with the remote, and that didn't make much of a difference, so we tried turning up the bass control and that helped somewhat. We continued to experiment with the tone controls, but the bass "gap" between the sub and sound bar remained.
The HT-CT550W is a 2.1 system, so we weren't surprised that it didn't create much of a faux surround effect in the Sound Field menu's Standard and Movie settings. The sound stage never developed any depth or spread much wider than the sound bar's actual dimensions. The sound had a hollow or recessed quality, and once we noticed it, it was hard to ignore.
We used a Western, "3:10 to Yuma," to check the HT-CT550W's ability to handle highly dynamic action scenes. This Blu-ray had lots, with bad guys robbing stagecoaches and shooting off guns. The soft-to-loud parts of the soundtrack sounded lifeless and compressed, so turning the HT-CT550W's Audio DRC (Dynamic Range Control) on and off didn't really make much of a difference. On the upside, dialogue was clear and articulate, and the subwoofer's deep bass was average for a small sound bar system.
When we compared the HT-CT550W with the Haier SBEV40-SLIM, the sonic contrast between the systems was immediately obvious. Where the HT-CT550W's tonal balance was lean, the SBEV40-SLIM was full. It was also more dynamically alive, so it sounded more like a large speaker/subwoofer system. Neither one produced room-filling surround effects; they're both 2.1 channel systems. The SBEV40-SLIM sounded more natural with dialogue, but the HT-CT550W's subwoofer was more powerful.
We preferred the SBEV40-SLIM because with the lights turned down, it was easier to forget we were listening to a skinny sound bar and just enjoy the movie. We never felt that comfortable with the HT-CT550W, as we found that its lean balance and hollow character were too distracting. Listening to CDs didn't alter our impressions of the HT-CT550W -- there are better-sounding choices on the market.
Conclusion: Bigger not always better
Sony's smaller HT-CT150 has been a popular budget sound bar option for years, but the bigger HT-CT550W isn't as attractive. The bulk of the separate head unit eliminates a lot of the simplicity of a sound bar system in the first place, plus the larger size (not to mention the higher cost) doesn't result in better sound. For $400, a sound bar needs to deliver premium sound, and the HT-CT550W is just average.