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If you're fed up with the thin, weedy sound limping out of your flatpanel TV speakers and don't have room for a 5.1-channel home cinema system, then a soundbar might be the ideal solution. There's a growing number of these wall-mountable one-box wonders on the market, and the latest to join the party is Crystal Audio with the SSB-1.
The most eye-catching thing about this particular soundbar is the price - at £200, it dramatically undercuts rival products from the likes of Monitor Audio, B&W, Denon and Marantz. As a result the spec sheet isn't particularly cutting-edge, but if its sound quality is up to scratch then we could have a real bargain on our hands.
The SSB-1 packs all of its electronics into a single, compact unit, and uses the imaginatively-titled Virtual Surround Sound (VSS) DSP processing to replicate the effect of a real 5.1-channel system. Crystal's R&D team in Athens, which includes five acoustics engineers, has worked on the SSB-1 alongside European universities and engineers at its China factory, so we're hoping this cumulative brain-power can deliver more convincing surround sound than some of the other soundbars we've tested recently.
Inside the box are eight speaker drivers delivering a combined power output of 200W plus a 100W subwoofer, which means there's plenty of power to go around when playing back movies or music.
The price tag suggests corner cutting on the build quality front, but that's simply not the case. The SSB-1 is as solidly constructed as any other soundbar on the market and it's easy on the eye too - the sleek black styling means it should complement most LCD TVs. What also jumps out is how compact the SSB-1 is. It measures just 685mm wide and 140mm deep, which makes it a nice unobtrusive unit to perch on a table top or hang on the wall.
Sandwiched in between the two removable speaker grilles on the front is a small blue dot-matrix display that shows all the relevant info, like volume levels, the current source and other settings. Beneath it is a row of blue touch-sensitive buttons (source select, power and volume), which is a nice addition at this price. On top is a universal iPod dock, which lets you charge players with a 30-pin connector and control them using the soundbar's remote. There's also a 3.5mm minijack for use with other types of MP3 player.
On the back is a paltry selection of sockets. There's a coaxial digital input for hooking up a DVD player, but because the unit doesn't offer Dolby Digital or DTS decoding (the first real evidence of cost cutting) you have to set your deck to output PCM. You also get three sets of analogue stereo inputs, labelled Aux, TV and DVD and a composite video output for viewing photos and videos from an iPod. The lack of HDMI inputs isn't really surprising at this price, but we'd have liked a couple of optical inputs for connecting a Sky+ box digitally or to cater for DVD players that don't sport a coaxial output.