|Ratings + Specs|
At first glance, the HT-CT550 seems about the same as the other systems tested here. However, its design represents a slightly different approach.
The other systems are twofers: soundbar and subwoofer, with the soundbar’s amplifiers located in its own chassis. But this Sony offering puts the soundbar’s amp in a separate box. The only connections on the soundbar itself are two speaker leads located behind a rear panel. No wall-mounting hardware is provided, but keyholes on the rear make it easy to hang on any old screws.
The soundbar’s amp is an odd-size box, not the width of a standard component but still a sizable 10.75 inches across; it will probably end up untidily perched on top of other boxes in your component stack. However, because the input connections are located on the amp instead of the soundbar, the wiring scheme will look cleaner on your wall.
The amplifier has an input selector and volume control on the front. The system’s display is also located there instead of on the soundbar. Around back, it has three 3D-capable HDMI inputs and one HDMI output (with ARC), one coaxial and two optical digital inputs, a stereo analog audio input, an FM antenna jack (for the onboard FM tuner), and two speaker outputs. In addition, there is a slot for a wireless transceiver module.
Sony’s quite comprehensive remote is a large cut above average. In contrast to the low-button-count remotes supplied (or not supplied) with the other systems, this one offers up a generous 50 buttons. As you might expect, it can control other Sony Bravia gear connected via HDMI.
Several sound modes are available, such as Movie, Sports, Gaming, and Music. The subwoofer level can be adjusted independently of overall volume, and there are bass and treble controls as well. Delays can be set to sync audio with the picture, and DRC (Dynamic Range Compression) can be switched on when listening to movies or TV programs with Dolby Digital soundtracks.
The wireless subwoofer is quite stylish: A matte black cube (made of particleboard) floats above a pedestal. The four supports and the pedestal’s top are gloss black. There’s a slot for a wireless transceiver module, and you can select among three different transmission frequencies — useful for avoiding interference when you’re running lots of wireless gear.
The Sony’s sound quality was a mixed bag. I initially liked the soundbar’s crisp presence on the Eagles’ “You Are Not Alone” but grew tired of it after a while. The tweeters were not the problem; their sound was smooth and had good high-frequency extension. My concern lay with the midrange and, in particular, the soundbar’s upper midrange response. Its very articulated sound had great inner detail but was also penetrating and aggressive. Higher harmonics in acoustic guitars popped out of the mix in unnatural ways. Male vocals sounded generally okay, but on some other Eagles songs with extra sibilance (like “Business as Usual”), the lead vocals were sometimes strident.
The subwoofer provided a solid foundation, with bass that was natural and unobtrusive. Moreover, its upper end merged nicely with the soundbar’s lower end. Aside from the over-articulated upper midrange, the system held together quite nicely at loud levels.
For the most part, the sound modes were both subtle and effective, with the changes in frequency response sufficient to tweak the sound for a given situation. That being said, the News mode’s frequency-response truncation was a bit much.
The explosions and general-purpose apocalypse in Inception’s Chapter 14 are a sound-system stress test. But even during this loud scene, the amplifier seemed to have plenty of power, and the speakers weren’t overly distressed handling it. Not unexpectedly, there was some distortion when I cranked the system to very loud levels, but I was still impressed by its sound-pressure delivery. (Perhaps that’s the benefit of placing the amplifier in a larger, separate chassis.)
The sound of cleansing surf at Chapter 14’s end, while not exactly surrounding, at least extended beyond the speaker’s width and had a good sense of ambience. Dialogue was highly intelligible, even in scenes with densely mixed sound.
Although I had some issues with Sony’s system, there is still a lot to like here. The sound quality was not my cup of tea, but if you prefer more aggressive tuning, this system will impress you. It plays loud and its subwoofer is solid. My only other quibble is fairly minor: It’s nice to have a FM radio in the soundbar, but I would have traded that for a USB port. At its relatively modest price point, though, this is a very good system.