If you’ve got the room for a fully-loaded AV rack go, for it – there’s nothing quite like having a giant 4K TV hooked up to a true surround sound system when it comes to movie night. But, realistically, space in most of our homes comes at a premium, and the fewer boxes and cables we can have laying around, the better.
The Netgem Soundbox HD wants to minimise the fuss around your TV viewing space by being an Alexa-powered soundbar, set-top box and streaming device all in one. It does its job well, but like a true Jack of all trades, it’s a master of none. However, depending on where you’re planning on placing it, that may not be an issue.
Price and availability
The Netgem Soundbox HD is available now with two pricing options – one at £179, and one at £249 that throws in an Amazon Prime membership. That’s a saving of £9 over buying the Soundbox HD and an annual Prime membership separately.
Though the box itself needs some refinement, that’s still a great deal given everything that’s crammed into the Soundbox HD.
As far as soundbars go, the Netgem Soundbox HD is positively dinky – you could hold it in one hand without any hassle, which is doubly impressive considering it’s serving multiple purposes.
In terms of looks however, it’s about as generic as it gets. The Soundbox HD is a black, fabric covered oblong with a plastic strip across its front edge where the IR sensor and power button live, with matte plastic ends (one with an opening for a bass port). Four plastic feet raise it slightly off the surface it sits on and stop the soundbar from sliding about, or rattling when its bass kicks in.
Turn it around, and on the rear you’ll find a utilitarian selection of ports. There’s a port for connecting the power brick, a 3.5mm AUX In jack, an Ethernet port, an aerial-in port, a USB 2.0 port, and a single HDMI 1.4a connection with ARC. Unless you’re making savvy use of your TV’s ARC functionality then, you’re not going to have much joy getting the Soundbox to hook up to audio from devices like games consoles. For wireless connections, dual-band AC Wi-Fi is onboard, as is Bluetooth.
Note that this isn’t a DVR unit – there are no onboard recording options, so don’t expect to be storing up recordings of your shows either. It’s instead all about live TV, catch-up and streaming services.
A dual-tweeter / woofer combo provides the sound, while the Soundbox HD also ships with a lightweight battery powered remote control, complete with Freeview Play and Amazon Prime Video shortcut buttons. With Amazon Alexa built in, you may not find yourself wanting to use the remote as much as barking voice commands at the soundbar – though that comes with some reservations we’ll discuss in a moment.
With a small footprint and unassuming design, the Soundbox HD should make a nice aesthetic match for screens around the 32-inch size.
Features, interface and performance
As mentioned earlier, the Netgem Soundbox HD wants to be many things at once – set-top box, streamer, soundbar and smart device.
Let’s start with its set top box credentials. The Netgem Soundbox HD makes use of the Freeview Play terrestrial TV platform, which has an interface that we’ve got a lot of time for. Freeview Play gives a viewer access to 70 live TV channels (15 of which broadcast in HD), and 25-odd radio stations.
Presenting content with large visual tiles and plenty of show information, Freeview Play smartly offers picture-in-picture preview when scrolling through its menus, and integrated catch-up services as part of its 7-day programming guide. Live TV sits alongside bingeable boxsets from BBC iPlayer, ITV Player, All 4, My 5 and UKTV Play, as well as giving you shortcuts to the full catch-up apps themselves. You’ll never be short of ways of finding something to watch if you’ve missed the live shows, that’s for sure.
Alongside the Freeview Play interface is the bespoke Netgem TV interface. This collates content from lots of different streaming services, including the partnered Amazon Prime to indie movie hub Mubi, and on to reality TV focussed Hayu and blockbuster rental service Rakuten TV, and even music-orientated streaming services like Deezer. It’s a tidy hub for all these providers, whose apps work just as you’d expect them to if you’re already making use of their services elsewhere.
But there are some big name omissions. Where’s Netflix? Where’s Spotify? Where’s the ubiquitous YouTube? We’ve heard that Netgem is bringing these services to the table at a later date, but for now they’re notable in their absence.
It’s worth noting too that, whether you’re watching live TV, a catch-up service or a streaming show, the Netgem Soundbox HD is a strictly Full HD affair. There’s no support for 4K output of any kind, so if you’re looking to pair it with a 4K TV, that’s a black mark against its name.
Set up of the Soundbox HD is relatively painless, though if you want to make use of the Alexa-enabled features of the soundbar, that’s a little more complicated. You’ll have to pair the speaker with your Amazon account, but an onscreen tutorial gives you easy-to-follow step by step instructions to do so.
The Alexa integration itself though may not be quite what you’re expecting. The soundbar doesn’t have a microphone built in, as with the Echo Dot-aping Polk Command Bar. So what you’re actually doing is routing requests through an Echo device (or other Alexa voice command unit), which is then decoding your request and sending that info back to the soundbar before it then responds.
This means that there’s a noticeable delay between making your request, and it being fulfilled by the Soundbox HD – not a crippling one, but one where you may find it easier to just reach for the remote instead. There are plenty of useful phrases the Soundbox HD understands, but some of them can be unnaturally convoluted in order for Alexa to understand what you’re looking for – unless you’ve managed to lose that remote, you may feel a little silly saying “Alexa, ask Netgem TV to play ‘The Man in the High Castle’”, for instance.
When it comes to audio, the Soundbox HD will certainly be an improvement over most flatscreen TVs’ built in audio, especially if you measure your expectations against its size. It may not be suitable for those used to a premium home cinema experience, but it’ll add some oomph to your bass level, cranks up loudly without overly distorting, and has a nifty audio option for pushing dialogue to the fore. Adding one more arrow to its quiver, the Soundbox HD also acts as a Bluetooth speaker – just in case it wasn’t already looking to put every gadget in your house out of business.
There’s a lot to like about the Netgem Soundbox HD in principle – an all-in-one solution that fulfils all your AV needs other than providing a screen will be attractive to many. It seems perfectly suited to a student’s flat or kid's bedroom – we spent a lot of time testing it with a completely speakerless computer monitor in a home office, and could imagine plenty of other unorthodox use cases for it too.
But it’s a bit rough around the edges in terms of execution, and currently lacking a few too many core streaming applications to wholeheartedly recommend.
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