The early years of home theater were, for me, ones of disappointment. For all the talk of “surround sound,” the first three generations of HT receivers were underwhelming -- so much so that I gave up on the concept for many years. Why spend all that money and run all those ugly cables for mediocre performance?
Things changed when I bought my first flat-panel TV. Surely, its magnificent 42 inches deserved better sound to go with its HD picture. Still, I looked (and listened) for a long while before deciding on the Anthem MRX 300. That receiver packs more than enough power and features for my HT needs, and sounds terrific. Still, along with an AVR came multiple speakers and their dreaded snarls of cable. My inner two-channel minimalist wondered if a simpler setup wouldn’t work just as well.
For several years now, my reference speaker has been Definitive Technology’s Mythos ST SuperTower ($1999 USD each) -- its performance is so good and so contemporary that I still feel no need to replace my pair of them. My experience with these magnificent speakers made me wonder what the sound wizards in Maryland could do for sound bars. So I requested a review sample of DefTech’s almost-all-in-one home-theater speaker system of SoloCinema XTR powered sound bar with wireless subwoofer ($1999).
The shipping box that shields sound bar and sub from extreme mishandling by shippers left me with the impression that its contents would be fairly large. On opening the top half of a generously sized Styrofoam sarcophagus, I was underwhelmed. “Is that it?” I wondered aloud when I saw what could be a sound bar. Sitting in the hard Styrofoam, it was shorter and thinner than I’d imagined it would be, which left me wondering if I was looking at the wall-mounting hardware -- or maybe just the grille. When I lifted one end of the bar from its coffin, I realized that it must be the speaker. I groaned -- really -- at the thought of reviewing such a demure speaker.
But the SoloCinema XTR isn’t merely an array of speakers in a single, slim, horizontal enclosure: it’s also a full-fledged home-theater processor and amplifier. The SoloCinema’s front, center, and surround speakers, HT processor, and main amp fit inside a 43”W x 5.2”H x 2.75”D bar whose svelteness surprised me.
Another layer deep in the protective cocoon was the SoloCinema XTR’s wireless subwoofer, which has an 8” long-throw cone powered by a 250W class-D amplifier. It was more or less what I expected in being about as wide and tall as the average sub, but it, too, is remarkably slim at 19.75”W x 13.3”H x 6.5”D, and weighs just under 20 pounds. In fact, the SoloCinema sub is so thin that, lying on its back, it could be easily hidden behind a few loaves of bread. Still, I know from experience that Definitive Technology can extract remarkable levels of performance from “lifestyle” speakers (such as the Mythos ST), so I tried to set aside all preconceptions and open my mind and my ears.
The SoloCinema XTR’s beautifully made main enclosure, of aluminum, houses all nine of its drivers: three 1” tweeters and six 3.5” midrange-woofers. Thanks to its wireless subwoofer, the only cables needed are the AC cords for the sound bar and the sub, and the HDMI cables feeding signals to the bar. The bar’s power cord is actually an outboard power-supply cube whose heft implies robustness. A standard IEC-type power cable connects the cube to the wall, while power is sent to the sound bar via a proprietary power coupling. The sub’s power cable is a standard IEC type.
Setup was straightforward. Using the accompanying hardware, I was faced with the choice of mounting the SoloCinema XTR on a wall, which DefTech strongly recommends, or letting it sit on its robust metal feet (provided) on a tabletop. As I don’t like to punch holes in my walls for review samples, I installed the feet to hear how the SoloCinema XTR would fare when installed in its least favorable position. Based on that experience, I would then figure out a way of getting the XTR closer to its optimal position without enraging Mrs. Reviewer.
In a recessed panel at the rear of the SoloCinema XTR are one TosLink (optical) and three HDMI connectors, and one pair of analog RCA inputs. I used only the HDMI inputs, into which I plugged an Xbox 360, an Apple TV, and my HD satellite receiver. That rear panel is a bit cramped, but that’s in keeping with this model’s slim design.
After using the SoloCinema XTR for a few hours, I noticed two problems, one subtle, one anything but. First, I heard a fluttering noise from somewhere. Careful listening revealed the culprit to be the wireless sub. Setting it up had been a breeze -- just plug it and the SoloCinema XTR into the wall, turn on the latter, and the system is paired. The fluttering sound made me wonder if something in the connection had gone awry. When I described what I’d heard to a DefTech engineer, he came up with a diagnosis I thought dubious: a vibrating grille. I’ve reviewed many speakers and listened to many more, and I’d never heard a grille make the sort of noise I was hearing. Still, I removed the grille. The unwanted sound disappeared. Apparently, the SoloCinema XTR’s sub has such guts that it can make grilles go all aflutter. DefTech has stated that they will replace any grille with this problem.
The other problem jumped out at me a few days into the review. There I was, minding my own business, watching TV on a rainy evening, when suddenly the XTR’s volume level jumped to max. Not only did it scare the hell out of me, two dogs, and two cats, I worried that the SoloCinema XTR’s drivers might have been overdriven. I frantically grabbed for the remote, turned the volume way down, and assessed for damage. I couldn’t hear anything amiss at lower volumes, so I ascribed the glitch to some sort of weather-induced fluke and carried on. Minutes later, the volume maxed out again. And then again. And again. Obviously, something was wrong. I contacted my Definitive engineer for a, well, definitive diagnosis.
The response came back quickly and, as with the first, I found it surprising. DefTech has found that, in those rare instances in which a SoloCinema XTR is connected to an improperly grounded satellite dish, the touch-sensitive buttons on the front of the sound bar can go crazy. The control thinks full power has being commanded, and it obliges. The solutions offered were to either ground my satellite feed or to disconnect the satellite receiver from the SoloCinema.
My satellite dish had never had a problem getting along with other HT receivers, including my reference Anthem MRX 300, but then none of the other units I’ve tested has had touch-sensitive buttons. Not knowing where to begin to ground my dish, I removed it from the loop. That severely limited what I could do with the SoloCinema XTR, to which were now connected only my Xbox 360 and Apple TV, neither of which get much play in my household compared to the satellite box.
But removing the satellite feed did cure the problem of sudden leaps in volume, so it seems that DefTech’s diagnosis was accurate. Had I paid for this unit, I would have been frustrated that my top HT source was unusable through my new speaker array. DefTech told me that this problem affects only a tiny proportion of their customers, and that a software fix is available that will calm down the volume control; they do, however, feel that solving the grounding problem is the best way to go. I'd call or email DefTech immediately if you experience any issues and they'll be glad to help.
More than any other product I can recall reviewing, the SoloCinema XTR was extremely sensitive to the quality of sound it was fed and its position relative to the front wall. When it was mounted on its stand about 18” out from the wall, standard-definition broadcasts sounded like SD broadcasts. The sound coming from the SoloCinema was locked to the speaker bar, and not much better than what my Panasonic TV can muster through its own built-in speakers, with the exception of the better bass courtesy the SoloCinema’s sub. There was a small addition of air and space thanks to the sound bar’s integrated electronics, but nothing to write home about. The better bass from the wireless sub was overblown, and I quickly learned that, in my room, the sub could not live directly in a corner, where the meeting walls boosted bass output to a painful degree. Moving the sub a few feet away from the corner considerably tamed the bass bloat, as did a -3dB cut of the sub’s output, effected through the SoloCinema XTR’s remote control.
Garbage in, garbage out is a rule; so, too, can be the opposite. Given signals of better quality to work with -- HDTV shows with great audio, like Bravo’s White Collar or HBO’s Game of Thrones, or HD movies from my Apple TV and my digital music library streamed through same -- things improved so dramatically that an uninformed listener might have concluded that I’d switched speakers. Nonetheless, while HD or digital sources sounded infinitely better than SD programming, the stand-mounted SoloCinema XTR left me wondering if there was any reason to further fuss over the system. The sound was fuller and richer than what my TV could produce, and detail and dialogue were much clearer, but the result was still far from what I’d hoped for, or could get from my admittedly much more expensive and totally uncompromised HT array of speakers and electronics.
Although DefTech emphasizes that the SoloCinema XTR will sound best when rigidly mounted directly on the front wall on its included bracket, the last thing I wanted to do was drill permanent holes for a temporary visitor. But sometimes a professional must make sacrifices in the pursuit of truth. First, I convinced my wife that the TV room could use a fresh coat of paint. She agreed. “And since we’re going to be doing that,” I continued, “I might as well wall-mount this review speaker thing. I can easily patch the holes before I paint.” Devious, yes, but dammit, it had to be done. (She never reads these reviews.)
Mounting the SoloCinema on the wall was easy. DefTech includes a paper template to facilitate the process -- all one need do is tape it to the wall, get it level, make four holes, insert anchors (not included), position the bracket, and screw the four screws into the wall. When anchors are used, the sound bar is easily firmly attached to the bracket, and therefore to the wall. Rubber isolation mounts on the bracket prevent the SoloCinema from vibrating against mount or wall, as does the sound bar’s superrigid construction. If you’re wall-mounting the SoloCinema XTR, I strongly recommend you cut a small hole in the wall behind it, where the HDMI and power cables attach, so that those can be run down inside the wall to a level where their egress won’t be unsightly. I already had such a hole I’d cut for my Xbox’s Kinect camera, and used that to make the XTR’s installation look quite slick.
To say that mounting the SoloCinema XTR on the wall transformed its sound is a fairly significant understatement. Where, before, the array’s surround effect was unconvincing, the sound locked to the position of the bar itself, the SoloCinema now offered a far more immersive experience. More than a few times I turned to left or right to see where a sound was coming from, and at least once I actually looked out the window to my right to see if a strange noise I’d heard had been made my someone or something in the street outside. It hadn’t.
While the sound of video productions went from OK to excellent with wall mounting, the same could not be said for music-only signals. Listening to the music library stored on my Mac through the Apple TV’s HDMI output, I was less than enthused. Although the sound was pleasant enough and was no longer locked to the sound bar, the surround effect was not particularly convincing. Singers’ voices were a little forward, and individual instruments were not easy to differentiate. Is any of this surprising from a speaker array whose very name includes the word cinema? Not really.
I had on hand two combos to compare with the DefTech system: SoloCinema XTR vs. Panasonic TC-50PX34 TV, and SoloCinema XTR vs. an Anthem MRX 300 driving DefTech’s own Mythos ST (front L/R), an NHT Three C (center), and Aperion Verus Grand Bookshelf (surround) speakers. Yes, yes, I know -- I commit a sin by not using speakers with identical drivers across the front. I don’t care. I like what I’ve got.
SoloCinema XTR vs. Panasonic TC-50PX34: The DefTechs defeated the Panasonic in what was not even a fair fight. For Game of Thrones fans, think The Hound (spoiler alert: when he still had his head) vs. an unarmed peasant. A dire wolf vs. a fuzzy little bunny rabbit. Tyrion Lannister’s wit vs. Samwell Tarly’s . . .
SoloCinema XTR vs. Anthem-DefTech-NHT-Aperion: Another unfair fight, this one pitting full-size speakers and heavier electronics against a system not designed to compete against same. Those who don’t mind big speakers and wires all over the place wouldn’t even consider the SoloCinema XTR. But people who consider sound bars don’t want big speakers and cables everywhere -- they want sleek, they want integration, they want simplicity. When I tell you that $5000 worth of speakers plus $1000 or so worth of receiver vs. $1999 worth of SoloCinema XTR wasn’t much of a battle, you won’t be surprised. I’d take my full-size system over the SoloCinema XTR any day of the week and never think twice about the decision. I’d also take a Porsche over a Subaru BRZ, but that doesn’t mean that the BRZ isn’t an awesome car.
Definitive Technology’s beautifully made SoloCinema XTR will look great below any wall-mounted flat-panel display, be it a Costco special like mine or a crazy-expensive Bang & Olufsen. The subwoofer is terrifically convenient -- its wirelessness means that if it doesn’t like a corner in your room, you can put it just about anywhere else. Setup is dead easy, even if you mount the sound bar on the wall -- which you really, really should do. The remote control is functional even if it feels almost laughably cheap. The warranties -- three years on electronics, five years on speakers and cabinet -- are superior. The sound is excellent for a system that can’t be all things to all people, and I have no doubt the SoloCinema XTR would trounce every home-theater-in-a-box available at the local electronics barn. If your remodeling plans don’t include wires and bulk, but do include convenience, sleek modern design, and great sound for the price, Definitive Technology’s SoloCinema XTR should be at the top of your shopping list.
. . . Colin Smith
- Speakers -- Definitive Technology Mythos ST (mains), NHT Three C (center), Aperion Verus Grand Bookshelf (surrounds)
- A/V receiver -- Anthem MRX 300
- Sources -- Apple TV, Xbox 360, HD satellite receiver
- Cables -- Analysis Plus Black Oval interconnects, generic HDMI cables, Synergistic Research Galileo Basic speaker cables
- Power cord -- Synergistic Research T2 (MRX 300)
- Power conditioner -- Blue Circle Audio BC6000
Definitive Technology SoloCinema XTR Sound Bar and Wireless Subwoofer
Price: $1999 USD.
Warranty, parts and labor: Three years, electronics; five years, speakers and cabinets.
11433 Cronridge Drive
Owings Mills, MD 21117
Phone: (410) 363-7148