You have to take your hat off to Philips for coming up with the most innovative and literal interpretation of the one-box home cinema solution. Its SoundBar is easily the most practical TV-friendly form-factor in its class.
But given that the 2.1 speaker systems it's up against have failed to deliver any appreciable surround sound, how can Philips hope to achieve it with an arrangement that's best described as 1.1?
Amazingly, Philips' freaky 'Ambisound' technology succeeds in apparently placing surround effects behind the listener. The SoundBar itself is the width of an average 50in plasma TV and not much deeper, so it looks great mounted on the wall under your TV.
The glass panel at the centre of the bar is lit up by an LED display when activated, and glides open to reveal a DVD player. There's also an AM/FM tuner built in here and a Faroudja video processor used to upscale DVD material to 720p, 1080i or 1080p resolution. This helps the Philips achieve a solid picture performance, removing unwanted jaggies from standard-def DVD material.
A single HDMI cable connects this unit to the TV; everything else, including the power cable, run straight into the subwoofer - which also houses the amplification, audio processing and connections.
A row of drive units generate front, centre and rear channels, using Ambisound trickery to place effects behind your ears. The substantial subwoofer, meanwhile, takes care of the bass. From the first spin of the D-day landing scene from Saving Private Ryan it became clear that the Ambisound algorithm really did work.
As you might expect from a system that relies on six small drive units, there are limitations. It isn't hugely powerful; there is plenty of bass from the sub and a remarkable level of treble detail from the soft-domed tweeters, not, unfortunately, stereo. CDs don't fare so well.
With the drive units fixed in a row, it's impossible to get the same degree of imaging that you would from freestanding speaker cabinets. This system should be considered as more of an added dimension to your TV's audio than a replacement hi-fi.
That said, the concept and design on offer is top-class. Both the subwoofer and centre unit are well-assembled and the user interface is mercifully easy to use too. Just point the nicely-sculptured remote and scroll through the onscreen graphics to tweak the picture and audio to suit. Thanks to the Faroudja video scaler, you can choose to output up to 1080p resolution via HDMI.
Philips SoundBar is ideal for a smaller room where you want to be immersed in surround-sound style audio; and it puts its 2.1 'virtual surround' rivals to shame.