Editors' note: The rating of the Soundmatters MainstageHD has been changed since publication to better reflect its value compared to competing home theater systems.
Don't have the room for a home-theater-in-a-box system (HTIB) or a component home-theater rig but still want better sound than your tinny TV speakers? Consider the Soundmatters MainstageHD ($400) single-speaker surround system. The smoothly sculptured "console" design is a stately silver and measures a scant 16.7 inches wide, 2.5 high, and 9 deep. The five-pound speaker is a virtual surround system, but it's upgradable to bona fide surround with the addition of a second MainstageHD, placed behind your couch, and a cable that runs between the two units.
The Soundmatters MainstageHD has a pair of 2-by-2.75-inch speakers, each powered with its own 20-watt digital amplifier, and a top-mounted 4-inch woofer motivated by twin 20-watt digital amplifiers. The display's LEDs indicate the selected input, mute on, and surround processing, but we would have liked to see a numerical readout of volume level. The curvy remote handles volume, mute, source selection, surround on/off, dialogue boost, and an adjustable bass-level control. Placement options include shelf mounting under or over your TV--the speakers are magnetically shielded--and wall mounting via bracket.
The MainstageHD's connectivity quotient is above average for this type of system. You get two digital audio inputs--one optical and one coaxial--for your DVD player, game console, or satellite/cable box, as well as two analog inputs--one stereo minijack and one set of red-and-white RCA connectors--for use with anything else, including, of course, the iPod. Please note: The MainstageHD surround processor can extract spatial information from stereo music and Dolby-encoded discs, but it doesn't work with DTS. That's not a real problem since most DTS-encoded DVDs also have Dolby tracks (see "CNET's quick guide to surround formats" to learn how Dolby and DTS differ). A minijack subwoofer output and an output for connecting to a second rear surround MainstageHD, for the front-and-back combo setup described earlier, complete the jack set.
The matching ultra-low-profile Soundmatters Substage 100 subwoofer ($300) stands a mere 4 inches tall, 16.7 wide, and 7.9 deep. It weighs 14 pounds and feels as solid as a brick. The really cool thing about the sub is that its low-profile shape lets it squeeze in places that are out of bounds for other subs: feel free to tuck it under furniture or sandwich it between the wall and the back of your couch. Soundmatters bundles the MainstageHD packed with the Substage 100 as the FullstageHD for a discounted $600 price. Of course, for that kind of money you could buy a complete HTIB, but it would definitely take up a lot more room, and you would have to deal with a lot of wires and more complicated hookup and operation.
Allison Krauss's Union Station Live concert DVD amply demonstrated the Soundmatters MainstageHD's pure sound. Ms. Krauss's vocals and fiddle took our breath away, and her band's guitars, mandolins, stand-up bass, and drums sounded big and juicy. Bass definition is well above par for such a tiny speaker. Soundmatters' proprietary Dialog-Plus circuit improves voice intelligibility but thins out deeper voices. Thankfully, it can be switched on or off.
We watched The Fog DVD both with and without the Soundmatters Substage 100 connected to the MainstageHD, and the difference wasn't subtle. The MainstageHD on its own is hardly bass shy, but adding the sub is like bolting on a turbocharger. The movie's bump-in-the-night parts were scarier and the film's edgy tension was much more visceral with the Substage 100 filling out the bottom end. And the improvements weren't limited to bass punch; the speaker's soundstage was bigger and deeper with the Substage 100 in place. Once we hooked up the sub, we didn't want to listen without it.
The Zvox Mini ($200) gave the Soundmatters MainstageHD a run for the money. At first encounter, the sound from both speakers was more or less comparable, particularly with CDs. As we got to know them, however, the MainstageHD's sound was more refined, and its surround presence was more extroverted. It was also noticeably better than its similarly styled predecessor, the original 2003 version of the Mainstage.
Editor's Note: The rating on this product has been reduced from 8.3 to 7.3 due to changes in the competitive marketplace.