- Lots of features
- Stylish looks
- Crisp, bassy sound quality
- Can’t be wall mounted
- Ineffective virtual surround
- Review Price: £649.99
- 4.1-channel soundbar
- 430W power output
- DLNA certified
- LG Smart TV
- Supplied iPod/iPhone dock
- 3D Blu-ray support
- Wireless subwoofer
If you hate clutter, then LG’s BB5521A could be the home cinema system for you. It throws all the components you need (Blu-ray player, 4.1-channel amplifier, audio processing and speakers) into a single soundbar that you can place in front of your TV, leaving the rest of the room free from boxes and cables.
Well almost – the soundbar can’t provide room-filling bass all on its own, so LG has included a powered subwoofer to handle those all-important low frequencies. But the good news is that it’s wireless, which means you can place it wherever you like without worrying about cable trails.
The soundbar offers two front channels and two surround channels, with 70W going to each channel and 150W supplied by the sub. Of course with rear speakers placed at the front of the room and no centre speaker, the BB5521A will always struggle to replicate the experience of a real 5.1 system, but the combination of 430W amplification and virtual surround technology means you’ll still get a loud, room-filling sound that’ll put your TV speakers to shame.
Since this unit is destined to be the focal point of your living room, its looks are almost as important as how it sounds, and thankfully LG has done a terrific job with its design. The snazzy brushed silver finish catches the eye instantly, while the front panel is augmented by a curved platform that houses the disc slot and a USB port. A slim display panel sits above it, imparting its operational wisdom, while two silver speaker cones and a black tweeter are embedded into each side of the front panel. On top you’ll find a row of touch-sensitive controls set into a gorgeous gloss-black panel.
The soundbar sports a rather bulky back end, with the outward-facing connections lined up along the back. This and the unit’s deep cabinet make it nigh-on impossible to wall mount, which is unusual for a soundbar. Instead it’s designed to sit on top of your TV stand, so be sure that you have the surface area to support it before buying.
There’s a generous range of connections on the back though, underlining the unit’s status as an entertainment hub as opposed to simply being add-on speakers for your TV (as many soundbars are). Alongside the HDMI v1.4 output, which lets you pipe 3D images to your TV, you get two inputs, allowing you to run digital TV boxes, games consoles and other HD kit though the system. That’s a nice touch, and not something that all soundbars offer.
They’re backed up by an optical digital audio input, composite video output, an Ethernet port, an FM aerial input, a 3.5mm minijack input for non-Apple MP3 players and a port for the supplied iPod/iPhone dock.
LG has gone to town on features, throwing in all the cutting-edge gubbins you’d find on its standalone Blu-ray decks. Most importantly it includes built-in Wi-Fi, which cuts out the cost of buying a USB dongle and the inconvenience of hooking up an Ethernet cable.
This web connection makes it possible to access Smart TV, LG’s internet content portal, which delivers premium video streaming and a range of other games, puzzles and lifestyle services designed to keep you entertained in between Blu-ray movies. These are split into ‘Premium’ and ‘LG Apps’ sections – the former offers BBC iPlayer, YouTube, Acetrax Movies, Picasa, Viewster, vTuner, Dailymotion, Google Maps, I-Play TV, CineTrailer, AccuWeather, Funspot, AUPEO! and MLB.TV.
Additionally the soundbar is DLNA certified and can stream content from servers on your home network (HomeLink). That includes movies, music and photos, and it’s a hugely convenient way of enjoying your media. Alternatively you can load files onto a USB storage device or external HD and play them that way. Either way the system supports such formats as MKV, DivX HD, AVCHD, WMV, MP4, AVI, MP3, WMA and AAC.
The BB5521A also features Wi-Fi Direct – which means it can talk to Wi-Fi devices without a router in sight – and with LG’s remote app downloaded onto your iPhone, iPad or Android device, you can use it to control the system. What’s more the system will also play 3D Blu-ray discs, as well as upscaling DVDs to 1080p.
As for audio features, there’s a bunch of ‘Sound Effect’ presets designed to enhance movie and music playback. These include Natural, Bass (which boosts low frequencies, natch), Clear Voice (for dialogue based material), Virtual (generates a surround-like effect), Night, Game, Upscaler (which aims to enhance high-frequencies), Loudness and User EQ, which lets you tweak the sound using an onscreen graphic equaliser across seven different frequency bands.
You can also tweak the individual channel levels by hitting the Speaker Level button on the remote – up pops an onscreen menu showing level bars for each of the five channels. There’s no automatic calibration, so you’ll have to rely on your ears to get the balance just right. You’ll find further lip sync correction in the setup menu to correct timing issues.
Elsewhere the LG is a cinch to use, thanks largely to its incredibly attractive and friendly onscreen menus. The Home menu is a fine example of this. Drenched in bold primary colours, the graphics and icons are instantly appealing, but the clear, spacious layout and clear and quick-moving cursor keep frustration from the door.
From here you can choose the type of content you want to view – Movie, Music, Photo and so on. Select one and a second menu shows you which connected devices contain that type of content (network, USB, Blu-ray, iPod etc). You can also visit the setup menu, which is simple to navigate with its classic left-to-right submenu structure. The DLNA media menus are gorgeous, showing album art where available (even over a network) and listing tracks in alphabetical order. It can get a little confusing finding specific tracks amid large libraries, but you can filter by album, artist, genre and so forth.
Another nice touch is the Gracenote-powered Music ID service, which lets you look up info about songs you’re playing and displays cover art and metadata when you load a CD.
Elsewhere the Smart TV and LG Apps menus look great. The former superimposes logos for each service over a full colour background of a grassy park, while the latter’s icons are lined up on shelves, as if you’re browsing them in a shop. Nice.
The remote is a stylish device, using an all-too-rare silver finish with chunky rubber buttons embedded into it. They’re nicely separated into groups, clearly labelled and placed for maximum thumb-venience. The direction pad and ‘Enter’ key have a satisfying click to them too. It’s dotted with keys that give direct access to often-used functions, while a cluster at the bottom allows you to control LG TVs. But as we mentioned, you can ditch this remote for your iPad, iPhone or Android phone if you prefer.
The BB5521A is a very impressive performer, delivering sound that sparkles with detail and packs plenty of low-frequency oomph. What it lacks in surround envelopment it makes up for in sheer enthusiasm and room-filling power. It’s surprisingly potent by soundbar standards, belting out movies loudly with the volume barely turned up a quarter of the way.
We slid Clash of the Titans into the slot, skipped to the giant scorpion attack in chapter 8 and felt the system’s force. In the lead up there’s some lovely high-frequency work as Perseus legs it through the woods and rolls down the side of a hill – the delicate crunch of twigs and bark is beautifully teased out by the tweeters. This continues throughout the scene as the warriors move onto the dusty desert land. Gravel crunches underfoot, and as scorpion claws burst through the ground the hiss is clear and crisp.
When we get into the meat of the action, it’s the sub’s time to shine. The scorpions thump the ground and smash into pillars with a tight punchy thud, fusing tightly with the soundbar rather than overpowering it, while the score’s pounding percussion and low string stabs drive the scene along urgently. The sub and soundbar form a cohesive union, linking up to supply a seamless sense of depth.
At the same time the soundbar’s drivers contribute more of that gorgeously crisp detail, from the brief chink of armour to pebbles raining down from the scorpions’ huge tails. Punching their way through the melee are the cries of people being thrown around and the garbled screech of the scorpions, showing that the LG’s dialogue chops are up to scratch despite the lack of dedicated centre.
It’s utter chaos but masterfully handled, with the LG making it possible to pick out all the individual elements within the 4.1-channel soundstage while keeping things nicely balanced across the frequency range. There’s impressive drive and dynamism behind everything, plus when the going gets loud you don’t have any of the nasty brightness that some soundbars can suffer from.
On the downside there’s absolutely no surround presence at all with the Virtual mode engaged. The sound is nice and wide across the front of the room, but that’s where it stays – the Yamaha YSP-2200 is a much, much better bet if you’re after a convincing surround sound experience.
And if for any reason you’re thinking of ditching the sub and using the soundbar on its own – don’t. Its own bass response is poor, so without the sub covering the bass and lower-mid frequencies the sound is horribly compressed and thin, unbearably so at louder volumes. We can’t think why anyone would, but we say it just to underline how important the subwoofer is to this system’s success.
We’re also impressed by how sympathetically the BB5521A treats music. OK, high-end hi-fi it ain’t, but there’s enough detail, openness and vocal clarity in its rendition of Coldplay’s Mylo Xyloto to earn the title of ‘decent all-rounder’.
In terms of pictures, the LG’s hi-def reproduction is right on the money whether you’re watching in two or three dimensions. Clash of the Titans’ fine computer-generated detail scrubs up beautifully on our 55in Samsung set, making the image seem dazzlingly lucid, backed up by luxuriously vivid colours.
There’s wonderful depth to the image too, making the movie’s epic shots of Greek landscapes seem suitably cinematic, but it’s combined with a beautiful sense of subtlety that makes gentle shading and textures on skin look smooth and natural. Add fluid movement, clearly visible shadow detail and poised 3D pictures into the melting pot and you’re onto a winner.
All told then, about the only major concern we have with the LG BB5521A is precisely its raison d’être – it being all-in-one. Not because it doesn’t work beautifully but simply that it’s the nature of technology that certain sectors move faster than others, so one part or another of this system may be redundant in a couple of years time. The audio part of the equation will remain relevant for the foreseeable future but the other multimedia features are in such a state of flux, we’d be inclined to keep the lot seperate. That said, for its core functions – Blu-ray playback and audio – it will do the business for years to come.
The LG BB5521A is a superb soundbar system, not only because it’s packed to the hilt with features but also because its sound quality is so darn enjoyable. It’s rare that a soundbar system delivers such clean, uncoloured high-frequencies, tight punchy bass and clear dialogue all at the same time, and it’s even more unusual to find one that’s this easy to use and plays a wide range of sources and formats with such slickness. Throw in excellent picture quality and stunning looks and you’ve got a must-buy system. The lack of wall mountability and unconvincing virtual surround are small minuses, but otherwise this is a soundbar superstar.
Score in detail
Sound Quality 8
|Number of Speakers||4.1|
|Audio Processing||Sound Effect modes|
|Dolby Pro Logic II||No|
|DTS Master Audio HD||Yes|
|Composite Video In||No|
|Component Video In||No|
|Component Video Out||No|
|S/PDIF Optical In||Yes|
|S/PDIF Coax In||No|
|Stereo Line In||Yes (minijack)|
|Stereo Line Out||No|
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