This 'bar is loaded with network features - but are they enough to forgive some audio niggles?
Most soundbars are focused on sound quality, but Pioneer's SBX-N500 is a little more ambitious. Yes, it packs 140W of muscle for beefing up movies, but it’s also blessed with the sort of multimedia and networking talents that put some full-sized systems to shame, let alone soundbars.
Thanks to its built-in Wi-Fi connection and DLNA certification, you can stream music from PCs and NAS drives, with a YouTube portal thrown in for good measure. Bung in Bluetooth, Wi-Fi Direct and Miracast support and the SBX-N500 is less a soundbar, more a full-on wireless media hub.
It’s one of two soundbar systems in Pioneer’s latest range, the other being the step-up SBX-N700, which adds a separate subwoofer for a £100 premium. But in all other respects the SBX-N500 is identical, saving you a whole heap of cash if you don’t fancy an additional bass box.
The design is stylish and unobtrusive, with an unfussy black and grey colour scheme making it a low-key companion for any TV up to 46in (it’s a little narrow for anything bigger in my opinion). You can wall-mount it, but it’s better suited to tabletop placement. A pair of feet let you raise the height by 20cm, and if it blocks your TV’s IR receiver there’s a built-in repeater, plus an extender cable should you (for some reason) want to tuck it in a cabinet.
On the back, the SBX-N500 sports a single HDMI output, which lets you view the Pioneer’s menus and YouTube videos on your TV. And because it’s ARC compatible, you can pipe audio into the Pioneer through the same cable. But with no HDMI inputs, operation can get a little awkward. It means that the Pioneer is connected to a different TV input than your other devices, so if you want to access its setup menu or watch YouTube you’re forced to switch inputs.
This annoyance is tempered by the inclusion of two optical digital inputs, alongside an Ethernet port for wired web connection. Hooked up to a network, the Pioneer plays ball with MP3, WMA, AAC, WAV and APE music files, plus AVI, WMV, DivX HD, MP4, 3GP and JPEG. Slam a USB drive into the port and you can add FLAC to the list. And there's more: mobile devices can also be hooked up to the 3.5mm input; Miracast replicates your Android phone or tablet’s screen on a TV via Wi-Fi Direct; YouTube’s ‘Send To TV’ feature beams videos from phone to TV; and on the Bluetooth side, the 'bar is equipped with a transmitter, sending audio to headphones and speakers.
It’s not all wireless wizardry – there are old-fashioned sound modes, too. Surround broadens the width of the front image; Dialogue mode boosts the midrange frequencies crucial to speech; and Game, Movie and Music tweak the EQ accordingly.
The SBX-N500’s twin 3in subwoofers underpin two 2.5in full-range drivers, with a Class D amp supplying a quoted 140W of power. It all teams up to deliver a weighty, vibrant sound, with sparkly highs, a feisty (if occasionally wild) midrange and bass by the bucketload. It has no trouble filling a modest room, giving movie soundtracks an impressive sense of scale.
With Pacific Rim on Blu-ray, its rumbling bass endows the battles between monsters and robots with convincing depth and thump – punches and stomping footsteps are accompanied by huge thuds, and when one of the beasts slams its tail into a Jaeger, the metallic clank is loud and forceful. A word of warning though – pushed too high, the built-in woofers can sound excessively boomy and will suffocate the other drivers without judicious tweaking.
And even when you’ve reached the right balance, bass notes aren’t particularly tight or nimble, resulting in a slightly loose, thick sound. But that’s not uncommon among soundbars at this price – if it’s subtlety and watertight cohesion you’re after, try saving your pennies for something like the Monitor Audio ASB-2.
I’ve also tested the step-up SBX-N700 with its separate wireless subwoofer, and I found it to be an unnecessary addition given the hefty bass output generated by the built-in woofers. I think you’re better off saving yourself £100 and sticking with the sub-free N500.
Bass issues aside, the SBX-N500 is good value – loud and energetic, with crisp treble and forthright dialogue. Surround mode opens up the front soundstage nicely, and it also does a passable job with music, offering lively rhythms, crisp percussion and prominent vocals, although it’s a little too brash and fluffy to satisfy audiophile tastes.
But the main attraction is its extensive feature list, which is far more generous than you have any right to expect for £250.
Price: £250 Approx
Highs: Generous feature list; sturdy, low-key design; loud room-filling sound with good detail levels
Lows: Bass lacks agility and tightness; lack of HDMI inputs makes setup slightly messy
Drive units: 2 x 2.5in full-range drivers; 2 x 3in bass drivers
Connections: 1 x HDMI output (ARC compatible); 2 x optical digital audio inputs; 1 x 3.5mm analogue input; USB; Ethernet; IR extender input
Dolby True HD/DTS-HD MA: No/No
Separate sub: No
Remote control: Yes
Dimensions: 900(w) x 86(h) x 121(d)mm
Features: Built-in Wi-Fi; Wi-Fi Direct; DLNA 1.5; Bluetooth receiver and transmitter; YouTube (with Send To TV support); Miracast; IR repeater; Surround, Night & Dialogue modes; Game, Movie, Music EQ presets; Lip Sync; Phase Control; Sound Retriever; Dolby & DTS decoders; MP3, WMA, AAC, WAV, APE, AVI, WMV, DivX HD, MP4, 3GP, JPEG, PNG, GIF playback; onscreen GUI; wall or tabletop mounting; height adjustment feet
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