Soundbar reviews do not fill us with anticipation. We have to disconnect our respectable standmount speakers either side of the lounge-room TV, push the TV back to fit some non-descript length of plastic on front of it, and fiddle with cables in some tiny space behind it. Then there’s the trial of explaining some bizarre new remote control to the missus, receiving phone calls in the middle of the day from her complaining that she can’t hear a word anyone is saying because it’s in super-stretch movie mode, and generally restrain ourselves from rewiring back to our standmounts just to understand what’s going on during Home & Away.
And while it’s unusual practise for us to put our conclusions at the front of the review, we have to tell you that after we’d been listening for a couple of weeks and finished our notes, we didn’t switch back to the standmounts. We left the W Studio Micro in place. It’ll go back eventually, but for the moment, we’ve neglected to mention we’re done. We like it that much.
Of course Definitive Technology’s soundbars have never been of the ilk outlined in the opening paragraph above. The company made soundbars before most others, and did so in its own way. Its Mythos designs were so dedicated to high quality audio that each of their speaker sections required powering separately from a proper AV receiver — it required one of the wildest wirefests of its time.
More recently came the W Studio soundbar and subwoofer, part of its W series wireless multiroom system — a beautiful and musical bar blessed with all the wireless abilities conferred by the DTS Play-Fi multiroom platform. DTS Play-Fi has been revised since this platform’s launch, replacing the original bad app with one that is simple and versatile (above), and thereby raising its adherents, including Def Tech, into the top echelons of wireless multiroom platforms.
So this W Studio Micro is, as its name suggests, the smaller sibling of that W Studio. And in value terms at least, we reckon it’s even better.
As with its larger brother, the W Micro bar and sub come together in a crazy box shaped like a chair, this one reinforcing its strangeness by being best opened upsidedown. Given the price differential ($2399 for the W Studio, $1599 for the Micro) it’s impressive that it comes with the same subwoofer, an attractively finished (for a subwoofer) near-cube which has its eight-inch driver firing downward into the space created by its short feet; also underneath is its bass port, hidden but finished in a nice Def Tech blue, so that all four faces are free of drivers and you can position it pretty much how you like (but as near the bar as possible is recommended). The sub has a wired minijack input but connects wirelessly with the bar, pre-paired and requiring no other interaction than plugging it into the power and perhaps trying a few positions to see where it sounds best (if in doubt, consult our subwoofer placement article on AVHub.com.au).
The bar is not quite as dramatically gorgeous as that of the bigger W Studio, but is still a relative looker, topped in a nice slate-streaked matte top which will minimise screen reflection, a fabric front over its many speakers (don’t poke, they’re unprotected), and some angular stuff going on at the sides, echoing the design of the Amp and Adapt electronics in the W series.
Running our fingers carefully across the front cloth grille, we find three sets of drivers representing the three channels of the W Studio Micro. The L and R are each equipped with one tweeter on the outside plus a racetrack-shaped midrange driver, while the centre gets a tweeter with a pair of the racetrack midrange drivers either side.
There is no effort to fire surround channels sideways or skywards here — this is a 3.1-channel system — and DefTech is nicely transparent in its manual in explaining that even though the bar supports Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS-HD, most TVs won’t deliver a 5.1 surround signal down an optical cable anyway.
There are five buttons on the top, but you may never use them since they’re also on the little remote, which is an attractive matte rubbery thing with the volume buttons in exactly the right place, also offering input selection for the various connections on the rear of the bar. These include two optical inputs and one minijack analogue, positioned in several bays that allow oodles of space (many soundbars are a tight fiddle). There are also IR trigger and repeater sockets, a subwoofer out connection in case you ever wish to use a different subwoofer, and a USB-A socket from which you can charge (but not play) a USB-connected smart device, or — something we’ve not seen before — which can be used with a USB-to-Ethernet adaptor to give the W Studio Micro a hard-wired connection to your network.
Although soundbars as a breed have become more musical over the years, it’s still rare we much enjoy them in comparison to stereo speakers. Our first experience of the W Studio Micro was after using the app to get it on our Wi-Fi network, then throwing it some high-res jazz over the Wi-Fi from our NAS drive in the attic. Mercy, but it sounded so nice. There’s a definite on-axis clarity — off over at the drinks cabinet for a refill the upright bass in Trichotomy’s curious track ‘Civil Unrest’ lost its definition, but back on the couch with the Micro full frontal before us, everything was in its place — balanced, musical, dynamic, and with a good whack of level available. We tried acoustic guitar from the aptly-named Peter Finger — a little softened on the edges, but definitely a hi-fi sound, not that of a wireless speaker box. Bonham’s drum intro on Zeppelin’s ‘The Crunge’ sounded great up at room-filling levels (as it should); on ‘Green Onions’ Booker T’s organ sounded marvellously rich, though as on everything the bass content was fractionally soft and did pull towards the subwoofer position (hence our recommendation to bring the sub as central as possible). An intense thrashing of cymbals (the chorus of Zep I’s ‘Babe I’m Going to Leave You’, for example) could put its tweeters in a bit of a tissy, and there wasn’t the front-to-back staging that good standmounter pair can deliver, though selecting the ‘movie’ sound setting on the Def Tech remote spread and excitened things, at the cost of centre solidity.
Note all these music tracks were high-res files played across the network — the DTS Play-Fi system supports FLAC and WAV up to 24/192 but it does, sadly, downsample them on the way, so they emerge at 16-48, roughly CD quality. Your MP3, AAC/m4a and CD-quality Apple Lossless files will play straight through.
So excellent performance with a couple of reservations compared with our benchmark traditional hi-fi. So now, movie and TV soundtracks! We began with an episode of WGN’s excellent (now sadly cancelled) ‘Manhattan’, which had its fine stereo soundtrack delivered as such an enveloping field that several times we thought off-screen chatter and effects were real noises coming from the outside world, rather than the soundbar. Dialogue locked solidly to the screen, bangs and booms (‘Manhattan’ has the biggest of these, of course) had real impact, while the music soundtrack gained from all the bar’s musicality — the closing theme’s bowed strings had terrific depth and solidity.
Running with this advantage, we ran Baz Luhrmann’s music-soaked masterpiece ‘Romeo & Juliet’, where the Micro beautifully handled the opening nine minutes with its Orff/Verdi-style choir, Beastie Boys hip-hop and Sergio Leone spaghetti western cues… though once things get entirely out of hand, the combination of complexity and level did push the capacity of the Studio Micro to its limits. Such heavy action sequences benefit less from the W Micro’s subtle skills — in the third Hobbit movie, Smaug’s devastation of Lake-town felt like one central mass of rumbling crashes... dialogue was held clear and the final death-of-a-dragon silence was as breathtaking as ever, but the benefits of true multichannel separation were clearly missing.
A highlight of our time with the W Studio Micro was its performance with day-to-day TV — many soundbar systems with subwoofers can make news or breakfast telly boomy and intrusive, but the Def Tech system simply made it sound larger and real. It’s a careful balance that makes the most of nearly all material.
So there are limits, but within them, the W Studio Micro is a marvellous performer, delivering far more than expected, enjoyable with music, unusually effective with casual television and drama, perfectly serviceable with major movies. And on top of this high-value soundbar performance, you get an entry to the DTS Play-Fi wireless multiroom system, which can share and stream with not only other DefTech products, but other brands using the DTS Play-Fi platform as well.
So while, as a rule, soundbars don’t do music well, they don’t compete sonically with even a nice pair of standmounts, and they’re often ugly or messy to connect, apparently Definitive Technology missed the memo.
The W Studio Micro breaks all three of these rules to get a very high recommendation here.