In general, we have come to expect the soundbar to be an all-in-one solution with a focus on convenience and simplicity but with compromises in performance. It is a perfect solution for those who do not have the space, time, or budget to set up a full surround sound system. For others, it gets louder than their TV speakers, and that is good enough. So what about the HT enthusiasts that have the budget and desire for good performance, but face structural or aesthetic obstacles? A compact speaker bar with discrete left, center, and right channels built with high quality passive speaker components may be the right solution. While powered soundbars range from terrible to surprisingly good, a passive soundbar paired with good amplification has the potential to bring the home theater experience to the next level. Phase Technology's Teatro TSB3.0 is positioned to satisfy those who need the best sound in a challenging space.
Design, Build Quality, and Aesthetics
The TSB3.0 houses discrete left, center, and right channel speakers in a single divided enclosure. Each channel uses a two-way design with a 3/4" tweeter and a pair of 3" woofers. It does not have any component inputs, but rather connects to the speaker outputs on a receiver or amplifier. The soundbar can be surface mounted or wall mounted with the included brackets for an unobtrusive look that blends well with most flat panel displays. Phase Technology added Spatial Field Expanders™ (SFE™) to the left and right sides of the cabinet, which face the side walls of the room and increase the size of the sound stage created by the front channels. I expected good quality construction from Phase Technology and that is exactly what they gave me. The TSB3.0 weighs enough to feel solid and sturdy, but not so much that you would be afraid to hang it on the wall. The enclosure is made from a single length of extruded aluminum with composite caps on each end. This provides a good bit of strength, but with the freedom to go beyond a boxy looking design. The black finish on the aluminum is very attractive, and even the hardware looks premium. Overall, everything fits together well for a polished look. The build quality of this soundbar gave me a great first impression, and a good bit of confidence in what I expected to hear. I will just come right out and say that I love the looks of this speaker. Again, the extruded aluminum enclosure body is just amazing. The colors, textures, and proportions are all just right. It looks great hung from the wall above or below a flat panel display, and even looks surprisingly well sitting on a table top or shelf. Phase Technology did not try to get "too creative" with the shape of the sound bar as others have done, but rather added just the right amount of special touches to make the TSB3.0 really stand out as a premium piece of HT gear.
Setup and Operation
Aside from the obvious limitation of a shared cabinet, the TSB3.0 can be treated as three speakers: left, center, and right of course. It should ideally be mounted symmetrically with the display and listening position and as close as possible to ear height. In most cases the best choice will either be directly below or directly above the display. First, consider which option will locate the soundbar closest to the height of your ears when seated in the listening position. Second, consider which position will minimize blockage of the SFE™ drivers on the ends of the soundbar. Although they do rely on reflections to create an expanded soundstage, blocking them with large object such as furniture could reduce or completely negate their effect. Third, consider which option looks better to your eyes - and maybe more importantly, your spouse's eyes. Aesthetics are an important part of most home theaters or living/entertainment spaces, so make sure to prioritize all of these factors before committing to a final mounting position. Phase Technology has designed the TSB3.0 to work with a variety of mounting configurations. There is a row of threaded holes spaced a few inches apart across the back panel of the speaker, which provides flexibility for those who choose the wall-mount option. The included wall-mount brackets provide enough clearance for the speaker wire connections on the rear panel, without sacrificing the low-profile look of the speaker. The brackets can also be converted to a pair of compact feet for table top placement (all hardware is included with the speaker). One thing to keep in mind is that the height of this speaker (if table mounted) could potentially block the IR sensor on a TV, which could lead to some serious frustration. There are simple solutions to that problem though, so I would not shy away from that option if it satisfies all other needs. I would suggest preparing the speaker cables by screwing on the included terminals, before actually mounting the speaker. I found that it was easiest to connect the wires before wall-mounting the speaker. The TSB3.0 does not use traditional 5-way binding posts, and cannot accept bare wire, banana plugs, or spade connectors. Instead, there are three female terminals on the speaker's back panel with corresponding 2-conductor plugs that need to be attached to the ends of the speaker wires (don't worry - no soldering!) The only tool required here is a very small flat tip screwdriver, like the ones found in eyeglass repair kits. I would recommend anything up to about a 14-guage wire for these plugs. Recommendations will vary, but generally 14-16 gauge speaker wire is sufficient for home audio applications with 50ft or less between the speakers and receiver/amplifier. I personally used Canare 4S8 to connect the TSB3.0 for this review, which is effectively 13-guage when used in a twin conductor configuration. That covers the basics, so let's move on to my setup for the review, and how I chose it. My personal preference for sound bars is to mount them to the wall directly above or below the display, so I initially evaluated both options. Ultimately I decided to mount it above the TV. I found that the TSB3.0 produced a wider soundstage when placed above the TV, which I think was at least partially a result of it being above the tops of the acoustic panels on my side walls. Although mounting it below the TV would have placed it closer to ear height, the added distance did not seem to have a detrimental effect on imaging, even for movies. Channel separation was still good considering the speaker's size, and dialogue coordinated appropriately with the picture. This is typically where I would discuss the automated room correction process and show before/after results. After spending a good bit of time positioning and mounting the soundbar and manually adjusting the distance and level settings in the AVR, I was actually quite happy with the results. I hesitated to run Audyssey in this case because I was unsure of how it would respond to the effects of the SFE™ drivers. Sure, I could have run it anyway and done a comparison, but in the end I opted to simply skip it altogether. I almost forgot to mention subwoofer integration! A well blended subwoofer is a key part of the setup here, and can provide the foundation needed to let this soundbar really shine. I experimented with a few different crossover points to locate the sweet spot and found that the TSB3.0 actually performs quite well with the 80Hz crossover typical of home theater setups. To achieve a slightly fuller sound, 90Hz-100Hz crossover settings worked well in my room too. Results will vary depending on the room and subwoofer, but I would recommend anywhere from about 80Hz to about 110Hz as an acceptable crossover range for this speaker when using a subwoofer.
I was excited to hear Phase Technology's passive soundbar since so many of the self-powered soundbars (or soundbar plus sub combos) fall so far short of the performance I would want in a home theater or casual viewing area. To me, flexibility to use a good quality receiver or amp outweighs the convenience of a plug-and-play, self-contained soundbar. The TSB3.0 is a great example of what can be achieved with a relatively compact passive LCR unit. In fact, I found myself comparing its sound to the separate speakers I have heard, as opposed to other soundbars. Either way, I have been impressed by the performance of the TSB3.0 for both music and movies. The design has managed to compensate pretty well for its size limitations. It sounds full and lifelike with sufficient frequency range for something its size. The low-end cutoff around 80Hz and the roll off at the treble end are to be expected, but did not detract from my experience most of the time. I did notice the occasional boxy or hollow bass often found in small speakers. Phase Technology has done a nice job of keeping that to a minimum, and as stated above, a properly integrated subwoofer can really smooth things out in the bass region. While this speaker presents a good level of detail at normal listening levels, it doesn't mind being turned up to 11 either. Some people know two volumes: "off" and "CRANK IT!!". I am not one of those people, but I do enjoy a face-melting rock-your-socks-off moment every now and then. Most self-powered soundbars simply cannot give you that. While the TSB3.0 is not nearly the loudest I have heard, I never really got the feeling I was pushing its limits. I never found myself thinking "that was ugly, better turn it down". It just happily plugged along, got louder when I asked it, and maintained a satisfactory level of detail and clarity.
Pink Floyd - Sheep (Animals, CD/ALAC)
I try to add variety to my reviews to prevent them from all sounding the same, and to appeal to a range of readers, but it's hard for me to avoid coming back to Pink Floyd almost every single time. They are just plain fun to listen to, and their music has so much detail. Sheep, from Animals is no different, with a great mixture of completely non-musical sounds and lush instrumental solos. The sheep sounds (yep) were very subtle yet clear and believable in the background, while the opening keyboard chords casually filled the room. This song's soundstage is surprisingly big for a two-channel recording and the TSB3.0 was up to the task. With a very incomplete knowledge of Phase Technology's SFE™ I can only speculate, but I suspect this is a case where they really contribute to the illusion that this soundbar is much bigger than our eyes tell us. The tempo picks up quickly and Pink Floyd is rocking just as you would expect them to be. The TSB3.0 is absolutely capable of hitting high volume levels without sounding strained or causing listening fatigue.
Eddie Vedder - Without You (Ukulele Songs, CD/ALAC)
The Ukulele's sound is characterized by it's small size in a similar way as small speakers can color the sounds they produce. Not that one is better than the other but you could generally distinguish between a Ukulele and, say, an acoustic guitar by ear alone. The average Joe could most likely do the same in a blind comparison between a floorstanding speaker and a small bookshelf speaker. The TSB3.0 faces the challenge of not sounding like three (two in the case of music playback) small speakers very close together. I somewhat expected the Ukulele sound to exaggerate the "smallness" of the Phase Technology soundbar, but the results were not bad at all. It did not sound unusually hollow or tinny as some compact speakers and most powered soundbars tend to do. The instrument and vocals were well balanced and natural sounding. This is not an album that I would really crank up, but at a comfortable volume it was very easy to listen to.
Christina Aguilera - Hurt (Stripped, iTunes 256kbps)
Whether or not you like her music, Christina Aguilera has a great voice and great control of it. It can certainly be a challenge for speakers to accurately reproduce female vocals. The TSB3.0 did a nice job of presenting the dynamics of her voice, while portraying the emotion of the song. It was rich, detailed, and fairly well balanced. It did not quite have the in-your-face presence a good set of stereo speakers can provide, but it was certainly not disappointing, considering the limitations of the soundbar form factor. The vocals and instruments blended well, with neither overpowering the other as the song progressed from a quiet introduction to heavy-hitting bridge, and back to a soft conclusion.
The Incredibles (Blu-Ray)
In my opinion, pretty much everything about this movie is great. The story, the characters, the picture quality, the audio - all great. An equally good home theater makes a movie like this even more enjoyable. With a mixture of dialog and action, a strong and balanced front soundstage is critical. The clarity of the TSB3.0 was great throughout the movie, and the SFE™ did a nice job of creating a broad image that seemed to go beyond the physical form of the soundbar. Dialog was clean and lifelike, while action and sound effects were presented with good clarity and impact when needed. At times the midbass was a bit boomy, but not to the point of distraction.
Jack Reacher (Blu-Ray)
This was one of the first movies that came to mind when I began planning my review of the TSB3.0. It was very well produced, and I especially like the soundtrack. The car chase scene is one of my favorite parts, and offers an exciting surround sound experience in the right environment. This was one of those "crank it!" moments for me. The Phase Technology soundbar was up to the task and really impressed me here. The rumble and roar of the Chevy V8 was a real thrill, and all aspects of the scene came together with the right amount of balance and impact. Tire squeals, crashes, crunches and everything else were right in my face and presented on a sufficiently large front soundstage. The shootout in the quarry toward the end was pretty spectacular too. It was a great contrast between subtle environmental cues and rifle blasts.
It is easiest for me to consider the value of this soundbar by setting up a pretty simple formula. Consider the cost of three small (bookshelf/micro) speakers, add high quality materials and construction and the convenience of an attractive compact enclosure and the TSB3.0 looks like a pretty good value. Could you get better sound from three separate $250 speakers? Yes, but many do not have that option. But, buying this AND a receiver AND a sub costs so much more than a typical powered soundbar with a wireless sub... is it worth it? Absolutely. No comparison. You might be surprised at the cost for some of the powered soundbars that simply do not deliver.
Conclusions and Recommendations
The passive soundbar is a pretty small niche market compared both separate speakers and powered soundbars, but to me it's clearly the best compromise of performance, size, and convenience. Phase Technology's TSB3.0 is proof of that. Separate speakers are still definitely the way to go if you have the space for them, but if you are forced to consider an all-in-one solution I would strongly urge you to find a way to make a passive soundbar work within your setup. An AV receiver is understandably hard to conceal if space and aesthetics are concerns, but there are other options if you are willing to be a bit creative. I would have no problem recommending the TSB3.0 to anyone in need of a soundbar but willing to sacrifice a bit of simplicity for an unquestionably better experience.
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