Sound bars have a reputation for being a cheap and convenient home audio option that may not wow you with their sound, but hit that critical level of "good enough."
Sony's new HT-ST7 ($1,300) wants nothing to do with good enough. It's marketed as a high-end, performance-driven system that offers serious sound quality for those who still want the simplicity of a sound bar. Visually the HT-ST7 is a stunner, with brushed metal details and a heft that clearly differentiates it from plasticky budget bars. It's also packed with features, including three HDMI inputs, built-in Bluetooth, and NFC pairing -- although curiously AirPlay support is missing, despite AirPlay's superior sonic fidelity.
As much as the HT-ST7 has the attitude of a true luxury sound bar system, I found it didn't quite have the performance. It excels at creating a wide soundstage for movies, sounding much larger than the width of the sound bar, but couldn't quite match the level of visceral power of the competing, cheaper systems we pitted it against. And while it's a decent performer with music, it still wasn't impressive enough to warrant the price.
If you've got deep pockets and have been disappointed by most sound bars' lack of aesthetic flair, there's no denying Sony has set a new standard with the HT-ST7's style. But even if you're willing to pay big bucks for a sound bar that sonically trumps its rivals, the HT-ST7 doesn't quite qualify.
Design: Sleek, heavy, metal
The Sony HT-ST7 looks and feels like a serious piece of equipment. The metal, angled cabinet gives it a refined, slightly futuristic look, spoiled only by the plastic back, which would typically not be seen anyway. It felt like a solid piece of metal in the hand, and weighs in at 17.41 lbs. It's also anything but petite, at 42.63 inches wide, 5.13 inches tall, and 5.13 inches deep.
The 5-inch height means there's a good chance it will block your TV's remote sensor, which is why Sony includes IR-repeating functionality, as the company does in its entry-level HT-CT260. However, instead of the built-in IR repeated included in the HT-CT260, the HT-ST7 has separate, physical IR blasters that you connect to the bar. The separate IR blasters definitely allow more precise placement, but they also create more wire clutter. A built-in repeater, combined with the option to add separate IR blasters if needed, would be a better solution, especially at this price.
Behind the speaker grille, the HT-ST7 features a front-panel display that gives you useful feedback when adjusting the volume and selecting inputs. The display remains lit by default, but you can change the settings so it only illuminates while in use. The speaker grille itself is also removable, letting you expose the drivers for a more in-your-face style. There are nine total drivers (seven 2.56-inch woofers and two 0.79-inch tweeters) driven by seven discrete amplifiers. The low end is handled by the 100-watt wireless subwoofer, which sports a 7-inch driver and a passive radiator.
The included remote has a striking design as well. It has an unusual sticklike shape, with triangular rocker buttons that are set off by indents and the volume buttons marked by plus and minus nubs. Slide the bottom down to reveal more controls, including one to adjust the subwoofer level. Despite the unorthodox shape, the remote is better than most included with sound bars. If you like to make a lot of on-the-fly adjustments, however, note that the buttons under the slide-down panel are particularly small.
Features: 3 HDMI inputs, plus Bluetooth and NFC
Most modern sound bars go light on connectivity options, expecting you to connect all your devices directly to your TV via HDMI, then connect your TV's optical audio output to your sound bar. Our take is that's usually a smart bet, leading to less remote fumbling and overall simpler setup.
One unfortunate downside is that many TVs "dumb down" incoming audio signals to plain old stereo, theoretically robbing you of a true surround-sound signal and some of the extra bits high-resolution soundtracks (Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio) provide. That's why the HT-ST7 features three HDMI inputs plus Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD MA decoding, so you can connect your devices directly and get your audio signal undiluted. Considering the HT-ST7 actually has seven discrete channels, there could be some gains from using the full multichannel soundtracks.
On the other end of the fidelity spectrum, the HT-ST7 has built-in Bluetooth with the cool capability of pairing via NFC. Bluetooth is great because it's compatible with nearly every smartphone and tablet, letting you wirelessly stream audio from any app on your mobile device. Upping the convenience factor even further is the HT-ST7's Bluetooth standby functionality, letting you wake up the sound bar simply by connecting via Bluetooth. And NFC makes the initial pairing process even easier on supporting devices, letting you simply place your device on the HT-ST7's angled edges to pair. Altogether, it makes the HT-ST7 great for casual, instant-gratification listening, although there's some audio fidelity lost with Bluetooth compression.
That loss of audio quality, especially on a performance-oriented sound bar, is what makes the HT-ST7's lack of AirPlay so puzzling. AirPlay doesn't suffer from the same loss of audio fidelity when wireless streaming, although it's not as compatible with as many devices. Perhaps that's putting too much emphasis on sound quality when most users will be streaming compressed audio from Spotify, Pandora, or their own MP3 collections in the first place, but for $1,300 the lack of AirPlay feels like an omission if you own iOS devices.
Rounding out the connectivity options are three digital inputs (two optical, one coaxial) and an analog audio input.
Setup: Simple, with room to tweak
We had the HT-ST7 up and running in no time, with setup relegated mostly to placing both the sound bar and the subwoofer. Unlike most sound bar systems, the HT-ST7 requires you to plug a small wireless transceiver module into receptacles in the sound bar and subwoofer, but it takes less than a minute. Although you can technically place the subwoofer anywhere in the room, it generally sounds best within a few feet of the sound bar.