Soundbars have had several years of wild success in the TV audio market, because they solve two problems. Firstly they improve on the thin sound delivered by almost all of today’s televisions, given that our desire for the thinnest possible screens is directly opposed to their ability to deliver a sound of substance. Some soundbars also promised an alternative to surround sound for those who didn’t want speakers all over their lounge, which even we, with our penchant for making big noises, can understand. A small décor-friendly alternative was a promising option. Problem was, small and décor-friendly often meant that the sound quality was still relatively small; there were a few standout performers among them, but soundbars as a breed developed a dreadful reputation among audio fans, especially when it came to playing music as well as TV sound.
But as time passed, the success of soundbars led established audio companies to reinvent the concept, delivering premium soundbars that offer serious sound while still keeping the TV area neat and tidy. One such is this Solo soundbar and Solo subwoofer, from serious UK hi-fi company Arcam.
Arcam's Solo Bar is a substantial unit, 110cm long by 13cm high and 11.5cm deep, though the space it takes up will depend on how you orientate it, remembering that Arcam specifies it will give best performance when wall mounted, for which a bracket and clear instructions (including a drilling template) are provided. All its drivers face forward — twin four-inch cones on either side of the central section and a tweeter at each end. The frequency responses given for these are odd (the woofers go higher than the tweeters, according to the specs in the manual) while there’s a total of 100W of power specified at a half hi-fi 0.5% THD — 40W to each pair of woofers, 10W to each tweeter.
In connections terms this is a fully-featured unit, not one that just takes an optical output from your TV. Instead you use the Bar as your HDMI hub — it has four HDMI inputs and one HDMI out to your TV; this output has ARC support so it will play audio from other TV inputs (and from the TV’s own tuner) back down the wire, if your TV plays nice with ARC (not all do).
In addition there is one each of optical and coaxial digital inputs, one minijack analogue input, and also Bluetooth reception so you can stream music to it from a smart device or laptop — there is aptX support if your Android device is compatible. There is also CEC support for control signals via HDMI, including TV volume control.
There is also a wired subwoofer output, which means you can use the Bar with any subwoofer — the Bar can be purchased with or without its wireless Solo Sub. Or, as we’ll see, you can chose to use the output to wire up the wireless Solo Sub.
When used with the Sub, the Bar’s performance is automatically tailored to hand the low stuff over to this tower of a subwoofer, some 43cm high and 32cm square, containing a 10-inch downfiring woofer and a quoted 300W of power within its braced MDF cabinet.
As a subwoofer for a soundbar it’s unusual in a number of respects — particularly in having not only the usual wireless signal connection but also input sockets and filter controls so that it can be used with other small-speaker systems; come the day you choose to change your system, this subwoofer can be reused. The input sockets are RCA phonos at line level, with a three-position switch to invoke a low-pass filter for full-range signals, or none for pre-filtered LFE signals.
The third position for this switch is for the wireless connection, and when used with the Arcam Solo Bar in this way, connection is a simple sync process controlled from the Bar’s menu system. You should still set the Sub’s filters accordingly, however — Arcam recommends crossover Q at 1.1, crossover point at 90Hz, and volume to be set depending on the placement and the room, most likely between 7 and 9.
All this is particularly easy to achieve given Arcam’s excellent instruction manuals — one each for the Bar and the Sub, each supplied in full in printed form in the boxes.
We couldn’t wall-mount the Solo Bar given the impermanence of our reviewing life, so we positioned it in front of our LG TV. It seems happy either leaning back or sitting upright to fire horizontally, and we could find no advice either way in the literature, so we tried both positions during our listening, and settled on preferring the direct sound of horizontal firing.
In either orientation the Bar just avoided covering any of the picture, but it did obscure our TV’s IR receiver, so we were pleased to find an IR repeater function enabled, even in standby — our TV remote worked just fine.
We spent a little time with the Bar alone, before connecting the Sub, and gave it the benefit of the auto-set-up procedure, which uses a small microphone to analyse bursts of noise and adjust EQ of the Arcam system to suit your room. The procedure worked smoothly, and the sound of the Bar was clear, strong and spacious, enjoyable in its own right, but audibly itching for bass to underpin the performance. So out came the Sub. It is a surprisingly large unit, but unobtrusively modern in design, and was a cinch to pair (we were using a Bar that had not previously been paired with this Sub), before adjusting its settings and doing a fresh burst of auto set-up.
Immediately the sonic balance was improved, if rather subtley so — the soundtrack to Prometheus was not suddenly flooded with rumbling bass but was, rather, filled out to be given a larger scale. Switching the applied room EQ in and out showed that this process had indeed improved vocal intelligibility significantly, though the bass had a couple of dips, and when we switched to Bluetooth music we couldn’t achieve an agreeable balance, no matter what we did with the Sub’s settings.
The solution, slightly oddly, turned out to be running a wired connection between the bar and the Sub’s LFE input, resetting everything, then doing a third set of auto set-up. The bass was then far more substantial, deeper for movies (much added ominousness for Prometheus), and more balanced for music. We highly recommend at least experimenting with this connection versus the wireless link.
We tried also the app control, which requires connecting your smart device via Bluetooth — easy and neat enough, though the app only duplicated the physical remote; the status feedback was useful but it didn’t offer any significant extra functions or easier operation.
What was clear throughout was the ability of the Bar and Sub to perform at high and full levels; this is the sign of a quality system, able to keep clarity and kick out the action. There is proper Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD processing onboard, so given a proper PCM feed from Blu-ray, it fully separates the channels, further assisting its clarity, though not, thankfully, attempting fake pseudo-surround.
Music via Bluetooth (‘Stereo’ mode is the default here) could become a little forced up at very high volumes, but maintained grace and balance up to higher levels than most would use for casual listening. Stereo separation is good, too.
Confirming the evolution of the soundbar, Arcam has a high-quality pairing here, worthy of the company name. Give or take a tweak, it delivered excellent movie sound and impressively enjoyable music as well, with the benefit of neatness for those not wishing to invest in a full hi-fi.
Arcam Solo Bar and Solo Sub soundbar & subwoofer
Price: $2395 (Solo Bar $1495 separately, Solo Sub $1195 separately)
+ Upmarket soundbar & sub solution, HDMI hub, Dolby/DTS-HD processing, Movies can go loud without loss of clarity
- Sub performs better wired than wireless
Inputs: 4 x HDMI, 1 x digital optical, 1 x digital coaxial, 1 x analogue minijack, Bluetooth
Outputs: 1 x HDMI (with ARC/CEC), sub out
Processing: Dolby TrueHD, DTS-HD
Soundbar drivers: 4 x 4-inch woofers, 2 x 25mm tweeters
Subwoofer driver: 10-inch, sealed enclosure
Quoted power: 100W (bar); 300W (subwoofer)
Bar dimensions (whd): 110 x 13 x 11cm
Sub dimensions (hwd): 43.5 x 32 x 32cm
Warranty: Two years (up to five years on registration with Arcam)