The Fidelio B5 is an innovative soundbar with a pair of detachable wireless speakers that deliver true surround sound – an idea that Philips calls "Surround on Demand". It’s the follow-up to Philips’ superb HTL9100 from a couple years ago, and comes equipped with a few new features and a lower price – although at £550 it’s still more expensive than your average soundbar.
The beauty of this system is that you can whip out the rear speakers for movie night, then stow them away neatly in the soundbar when you’re watching TV or listening to music.
The B5 is a great-looking soundbar, styled with Philips’ customary flair. It features the same "airfoil" design as the HTL9100, with alluring curves at the front and rear that make it look like a teardrop from the side. It’s mostly covered in black cloth with a brushed silver panel in the middle, bisecting the left and right speakers. Construction is solid and robust, as you’d expect at this price.
The only button is a power key in the centre that glows red in standby, although an NFC touch point is buried behind the right-hand speaker cloth. A large display panel on the left side provides information about inputs and volume levels, but since it faces upwards when laid on a flat surface it’s fairly difficult to see (but not impossible).
The detachable speakers slot into the sides of the soundbar and charge when docked. When disconnected they can be used as surround speakers or individual Bluetooth speakers, which is a new addition to the feature list. They’re also covered in black cloth, with a glossy finish on the side panels. There are two buttons – Surround on Demand and Bluetooth – which allow you to switch between the two modes. Each button has a small LED to indicate which function is selected.
The B5 can be placed on a TV stand or mounted on the wall. A built-in sensor detects its orientation and adjusts the sound accordingly. At 70mm high, it sits fairly low on a flat surface and should duck under your TV screen – although there’s a chance it could obscure the infrared sensor.
The selection of rear sockets is excellent. You get two HDMI inputs and an HDMI 1.4 output with Audio Return Channel, which sends audio from the TV to the soundbar, as well as letting you control the soundbar volume with the TV’s remote. These sockets are handy if you want to run a Blu-ray deck or Sky box through the soundbar and take advantage of its built-in Dolby Digital and DTS decoding.
They’re joined by optical and coaxial digital inputs, analogue RCA and 3.5mm mini-jack inputs, and a USB port for service use. That’s a generous selection, although not quite up there with the Arcam Solo Bar Plus. And as I remarked in the HTL9100 review, when wall-mounted the HDMI cables stick out awkwardly at the top.
At 510mm high, the subwoofer is an unusually tall affair. However, its narrow depth and width make it surprisingly easy to squeeze into tight spaces. It’s attractively styled in a dark-grey finish with curved corners and four sturdy feet that elevate it off the ground. This gives the down-firing woofer plenty of room to breathe. It’s paired with the soundbar at the factory, but you can use the pairing button on the back to reconnect if it drops out.
The detachable wireless speakers are the obvious highlight. They communicate with the soundbar using a proprietary transmission system that eliminates interference from other wireless devices. The system switches to surround mode automatically when the speakers are detached – a clever touch. The "Close to Me" mode allows you to shut off sound from the main bar and listen through the surround speakers only.
The main bar features Bluetooth with apt-X and AAC support for high-quality music streaming from compatible devices. The ability to stream via Bluetooth to individual surround speakers is a real bonus if you get the urge for some tunes in the garden. Each one offers 8W power output and lasts around 10 hours on a full charge.
The 120W soundbar’s speaker array includes a pair of 3-inch drivers and two 1-inch soft-dome tweeters – part of what Philips dubs "Crystal Clear Sound". Inside each surround speaker is a 3-inch full-range driver, while the bass reflex subwoofer boasts a 6.5-inch woofer and kicks out 90W of power.
There’s on-board Dolby Digital and DTS decoding, plus Dolby Pro Logic II expands stereo sources to five channels. The lack of Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio decoding is still a shame, but not a deal-breaker. Philips has also thrown in a bunch of sound modes including Movie (surround), Music (stereo), Voice and Night.
Once you’ve rigged up all your cables and paired the wireless speakers, it’s time to tweak the sound. That’s an easy process thanks to the built-in spatial calibration mode, which customises the surround speakers for your room using white noise test tones. It happens in two stages – first it works out the listening zone, then it balances the left and right speakers according to your seating position. It’s a quick and painless process.
The B5 is operated by an impressive new remote, an upgrade from the oval zapper supplied with the HTL9100. The buttons are thoughtfully placed, with central volume controls flanked by bass and treble +/- keys, while each input gets its own button at the top. Particularly useful are the dedicated controls to correct lip-sync issues and to adjust rear channel volume. The ergonomic handset and buttons have a nice solid feel and the brushed finish is a nice touch.
Just like the HTL9100, the B5 is a stunning performer, offering powerful and refined sound. But what makes it stand out is the use of real rear speakers, which brings you closer to a true home-cinema experience than any other soundbar on the market – even Yamaha’s celebrated sound projectors.
There are so many positives it’s hard to know where to begin. First, I’m massively impressed by the B5’s natural, well-integrated sound. There’s a lovely balance across the frequencies – everything just sounds right.
The subwoofer underpins action scenes brilliantly with deep, meaty bass, but never sounds bloated or overpowering; the soundbar attacks mid-range and high-frequency effects with vigour, but always stays the right side of brightness; and dialogue is consistently detailed and intelligible. Speech sounds like it’s coming from the middle of the screen, despite the lack of a dedicated centre channel.
If you think the balance needs tweaking, no problem – the B5 gives you great flexibility over the audio output. There are three sound modes, bass/treble controls and separate volume levels for the main and rear volume, so you can easily find a sound that suits.
But what most people want from a soundbar is power and volume, and the B5 doesn’t skimp on either. The excellent subwoofer plays a major role in conveying scale and size – massive lumbering beasts in movies such as Godzilla and Pacific Rim are backed by rich waves of rumbling bass that shudder through the floor.
The soundbar reaches a decent loudness too, but it doesn’t need much provocation with the volume control to achieve an exciting, room-filling sound – even at mid-way, you might start to annoy the neighbours. It’s at its best at louder volumes, offering terrific dynamism and attack.
But let’s talk about the B5’s secret weapon – those detachable rear speakers. Placed at the back of the room, they receive discrete rear-channel information from the Dolby Digital or DTS soundtrack, giving you an immersive 4.1-channel soundstage (with a virtual centre). Their limited bass extension tips the balance towards mid-range and treble, but they reproduce rear effects clearly and accurately, with crisp detail and smooth steering.
Mad Max Fury Road on Blu-ray is an absolute blast through the B5. Every explosion feels weighty and forceful, while the incessant rumble of car engines is visceral. Max’s narration at the start is rich and nuanced, while other voices ring out from the rear speakers. When Furiosa shouts from the bottom of a canyon, the echoes radiate across the back of the room.
The soundstage is bristling with detail throughout, from jangling chains to crunchy footsteps on the dusty ground. When Max wakes up after the sandstorm, the lucid rustle of sand against the silence is mesmerising.
Switching to TV, the B5 continues the good work. Watching Homeland on a Sky+ HD box, Saul’s mumbled dialogue is surprisingly easy to hear and as Quinn stalks his target, there’s plenty of subtle detail amid the hush. During the infrequent moments of action, the subwoofer steps in to lend depth and punch to gunshots and explosions.
The experience is enhanced by Dolby Pro Logic II, which turns even the most mundane programme into an immersive experience. During a Beatles documentary on ITV HD, the B5 adds depth to the music clips without being too in your face and expands applause to the back of the room. Voice mode brings extra clarity to speech while lowering the bass output.
Plug the speakers back into the soundbar and you’re treated to enjoyable stereo music playback. The overall character is polite and detailed, with nicely defined voices and nimble bass work from the sub, which keeps pace with tricky basslines and drum beats. Its relaxed approach might lack the oomph to please fans of harder, faster electronic or rock genres, but on the whole it sounded pretty good with everything I threw at it.
Used as standalone Bluetooth speakers, the surrounds lack the necessary bass depth and finesse to be taken seriously, but it would be churlish to complain given it’s just a nifty bonus feature – in that context, they do a decent job.
The Fidelio B5 is a fabulous soundbar that brings you the best of both worlds. It’s a clutter-free TV speaker that can also deliver real surround sound when required, a unique feature in the soundbar world. The detachable surround speakers are a brilliant idea well executed, allowing you to tidy away the clutter when movie night is over – the sort of feature likely to gain approval from even the most resistant of spouses.
But it’s not all about the rear speakers. The B5’s robust build quality, stylish design, plentiful connections, easy setup and polished, powerful sound quality also help make it one of the best soundbars on the market. The upgrades from the HTL9100 are subtle but effective, the best one being the ability to use the surrounds as standalone Bluetooth speakers.
The only thing that might make you think twice is the price – £550 is fairly pricey as soundbars go, but the B5’s clutter-busting convenience and excellent performance justify the expense.
With its detachable rear speakers, stylish design and stunning performance, the Fidelio B5 is a fantastic solution for those who want a clutter-busting TV speaker without compromising on surround sound.