Onkyo has introduced the EnvisionCinema lineup to provide room-filling sound without the need to actually fill your room with audio components. The LS-B50 maintains a very familiar form factor and aims to provide flexibility while keeping setup very simple. With only the essential audio connections, a few preset sound modes, a wireless sub and simple remote control, this package can make it extremely easy to take your TV audio experience to the next level. While the LS-B50 has some nifty features, it does not bring anything drastically new to the game in terms of technology, aside from its unique AuraSphere DSP. However, it may be just the right combination of performance, simplicity, and value for many consumers searching for better sound.
Design, Build Quality, and Aesthetics
The LS-B50 system is intended for people who want great sound without the need for a stack of audio electronics and multiple speakers spread throughout the room. For many, a soundbar is the only feasible option. Taking advantage of the standard optical audio output found on almost every modern TV, this soundbar and sub combo saves you from the thin, compressed sound coming from the built-in TV speakers. It is designed to stay out of the way though, not drawing attention to itself. With as few as three wires: two power cables and one optical audio cable (all included) users can enjoy the benefits of surround sound and deep bass without sacrificing floor space or aesthetics. The LS-B50 also has a stereo (analog) and a coaxial (digital) audio input. It can play music from a USB source and can be connected wirelessly to compatible Bluetooth audio devices as well.
The soundbar portion of the system looks and feels nice and sturdy and weighs enough to avoid the cheap, "plastic-y" feel common to many of the low-budget soundbars. All surfaces fit and flow together nicely, and nothing feels loose or fragile. The buttons are clearly marked and operated reliably for the duration of this review. The metal grille on the front of the soundbar provides good protection from accidental bumps, and curious pokes. Although I did not test my theory, I feel confident that the soundbar could withstand a fall or drop from a TV stand of average height, with little or no damage. The cloth covering the speakers on the ends of the soundbar has a nice soft texture and is backed by a plastic (I'm guessing) grille for added protection. The subwoofer is a bit of a lightweight in comparison to what many home theater enthusiasts would consider sufficient. Considering the compact design of the EnvisionCinema system overall, the subwoofer and soundbar are appropriately matched in my opinion. In contrast to the soundbar, the subwoofer enclosure has more of a glossy finish, which could certainly coordinate nicely with a variety of furniture and decorations. The only real complaint I have about the design of the subwoofer is the lack of protection for the down-firing woofer. This applies more to handling of the sub than it does during normal use once the sub is placed. I frequently found myself inadvertently poking the woofer when lifting it from the bottom, although it was not damaged at any point during handling or moving.
Onkyo did not stray far from standard soundbar styling with the design of the LS-B50. In my opinion, this is a good strategy. It is small and sleek, but with enough width to provide some stereo imaging and aid the 3D effects produced by the AuraSphere DSP listening modes. The shell of the soundbar is slightly textured with a matte black finish, which minimizes unwanted light reflection in dark rooms. The buttons are flush with the top surface, and shaped to compliment the overall look of the soundbar. In general, I like the look of this soundbar in a variety of placement options. It will blend nicely with most TVs when placed on a TV stand below the display (which I would expect to be the most common configuration). It can also be mounted to the wall above or below the TV, which in my opinion would provide the cleanest, most attractive looking setup.
Setup and Operation
Most will find it very easy to install and use the LS-B50 system. The soundbar is compact and will sit securely on top of your TV stand, just below your screen, or easily mount to the wall with two screws. The rear connections are oriented to allow the soundbar to sit flush against the wall for a clean look. I should note here that the soundbar has speakers on each end (facing the left and right sides of your room) to simulate surround sound effects. Placement of other furniture or electronics near the soundbar, and even the shape of the room can affect the LS-B50’s ability to create a large sound field.
Onkyo has included the cables needed to accommodate the most common home entertainment configurations. The included optical audio cable is just long enough to reach your TV’s audio output without adding clutter to your wiring. Keep in mind that many TVs with HDMI inputs and an optical audio output will down-mix the multichannel audio from the HDMI inputs to 2-channel stereo for the optical output. An alternative would be to connect your digital sources (Blu-ray player, media streamer, DVR, etc) directly to the soundbar's optical input, allowing it to receive the unmixed multichannel audio. The catch is that many soundbars (including this Onkyo) only have one optical input. For that reason, I conducted my review in what I would consider the most common and practical configuration: using my TV's optical audio output for all sources.
Once you have the soundbar connected and positioned to your liking, the wireless sub can be placed basically anywhere in the room. The sub and soundbar are paired with the touch of a button on the sub. There are obvious benefits to this configuration in terms of convenience and aesthetics, but it can be ideal for performance as well. Bass performance can be very dependent on room size and subwoofer location, making a wireless sub very handy. Oh, just don't forget you still need a power outlet nearby. Having said all of that, my suggestion would still be to place the LS-B50 wireless sub close to the soundbar and TV. Since most soundbars do not perform well below about 100Hz, their accompanying subwoofers must often handle content above 80Hz (in addition to the typical bass range from 80Hz down to 30Hz and below). This is not necessarily a problem, but it is easier for most people to locate the source of a sound above about 80Hz. I began my review of the LS-B50 with the subwoofer placed on a side wall, and I did find that my ears were consistently drawn to it as the source of some higher bass content. After moving it to the front wall below the TV and soundbar, I found it to blend much more nicely with the rest of the audio content as well as what my eyes were seeing on the screen.
Operation of the LS-B50 is straightforward and simple, as is the goal of any soundbar. Using the buttons on the top surface of the soundbar, or the compact remote control included with the system, you can turn it on or off, adjust the volume and bass level, switch inputs, or select one of three sound modes. The EnvisionCinema system can be configured to turn on automatically when it senses that your TV has been turned on. It will also go into standby after a delay if it stops receiving an audio signal. In general it is intended to work pretty seamlessly with the rest of your entertainment system.
In terms of installation, setup, and learning the functions and controls, the LS-B50 did not present me with any major challenges or frustrations. Once I had it all unboxed, it was connected and operational in just a few minutes. In fact, the bulk of my setup time was spent trying to reach the optical audio jack on the back of my TV...
The first thing I did was simply watch some TV while rotating through the sound modes and playing with the different remote functions. Functionally everything works smoothly and intuitively. My initial gripe about the LS-B50 is that it is difficult to see which input and/or sound mode is active without walking over to the unit and looking closely at the labels and LED indicators. This may not be a big deal for most if they only use it with a TV, and stick to one sound mode. I regularly switched between the TV input and Bluetooth, and found myself jumping around to the different sound modes. I understand it is difficult to provide clear visual feedback without being a distraction (especially when viewing TV in a dark room). The best bet here would be to decide which sound mode you like best and stick with it. Beyond that it would just be a matter of turning it on and off and adjusting volume.
I have mixed feelings about the sound of the LS-B50, so bear with me while I explain. First, the EnvisionCinema system produces a much more rich and full sound, with better clarity than most built-in TV speakers. The wireless subwoofer is an obvious benefit here without question. The frequency range and dynamic range are also much better.
To take it a step further, Onkyo has built its AuraSphere technology into the EnvisionCinema lineup to produce a 3D surround sound field for any type of audio content. It comes in the form of three preset sound modes: music, news, and movie. Each mode automatically adjusts the EQ and 3D sound field to enhance different aspects of the programming for the best clarity and impact. This brings me to my second gripe: AuraSphere cannot be turned off. Let me clarify, the AuraSphere DSP modes do a great job of producing a 3D sound effect from a single source for music and movies, but sometimes I just do not want that. During TV and movie viewing, dialog tended to sound as though it was coming from behind the soundbar rather than being up front as I would expect. In some cases, for casual TV watching, I found myself preferring the TV sound (when surround effects were not needed). While listening to music with the music sound mode selected, I noticed that the imaging was not as precise as I would have liked, although the soundstage did extend beyond the physical length of the soundbar itself.
Given the three DSP options, I will say that they lined up with my preferences for the different types of content. Meaning, I preferred music mode for music, movie mode for movies, and news mode for most casual TV watching. The differences are not subtle either, each sound mode has a very distinct characteristic.
Having said all of that, we did spend a good bit of time casually listening to music through the Onkyo system, mostly via Bluetooth from our mobile phones. It does a nice job of filling the room without being harsh or boomy. AuraSphere does help prevent the perception that the sound is coming from a small speaker, and rather disperses it nicely throughout a typical living space. For movies, there really is no comparison between the LS-B50 and the sound coming from a flat-panel TV. The Onkyo system provides so much more of that full sound and impact you expect from action and adventure movies, and can definitely enhance your daily TV viewing experience as well.
Chvrches - The Mother We Share (The Bones Of What You Believe, 256kbps streaming/Bluetooth)
Chuvrches are a relatively new success in the electronic genre, with a pretty unique sound. Their music is full of different synthesized textures supported by a distinctive female lead vocal. The vocals were clean and clear, and the bass was deep, producing a nice full sound. Overall the balance was good for casual listening, although at times I would have preferred the vocals to be a bit more predominant.
Real Steel (Blu-Ray)
This movie jumps back and forth between futuristic robot boxing action and a light-hearted story of a father and son building a relationship. The Onkyo system delivered the subtle details of the dialog scenes clearly, and still pounded out the epic punches during the fight scenes. Crowd noise and boxing ring action were nicely balanced during the bigger fights toward the end of the movie. The sub supported the soundbar when needed, without sounding too muddy or overpowering.
Although Onkyo states an MSRP of $549 on the LS-B50 product page, brand new units are selling for $499 at Shop Onkyo (see top of review for link). There are quite a few options when it comes to soundbars with subwoofers at or below the $500 price point. The LS-B50's feature set lines up well with most others in that range. In terms of performance and convenience, the wireless sub is a great foundation for this system. It performs very well for music without subjecting listeners to the fat, boomy bass that is typical of many compact subs. The styling and build quality, reliable and easy to use Bluetooth functionality, and good subwoofer performance are the biggest contributors to the value of this system. It is competitive in its price range for sure.
Conclusions and Recommendations
If you are looking for an inexpensive and hassle-free way to enhance your TV's audio, a soundbar and sub combo is the easiest and quickest solution. It really does not get any easier than plugging in two power cords and connecting a single TOSLINK cable. The LS-B50 will provide you with rich sound that really does surround you, adding another dimension to your movies and TV shows. Bass performance is surprisingly good, and the wireless sub connection leaves you with plenty of placement options. Although there were some cases where the AuraSphere listening modes did not give me the balance of vocals and music/effects I was looking for, they do provide listeners with a very simple way to tailor the system's sound to different types of content. Also, keep in mind that the AuraSphere effects do rely somewhat on the size and shape of your room, so they may not be as noticeable in large, open living spaces. Overall, if you like the idea of 3D sound and good bass without a room full of speakers, the EnvisionCinema soundbar system is definitely worth considering.
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