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Sony HT-ST7 Setup & Sound Quality

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Setup with the HT-ST7 is about as simple as it comes, plug in power and use the connection of your choice and you’re done. There is no auto setup mic to run, so once the physical connections are made you’re set. I could gripe about the lack of an auto setup mic, but many of them do more harm than good, so it’s not missed in the least.

Operating the unit is as simple as hooking it up, that is, until you start tailoring the sound to your personal preferences. You can adjust the subwoofer level from 0 to 12, and switch it between 3 different tones. Tone 1 is for “more crisp bass”, tone 2, the default setting, is for suitable for “various sources”, and Tone 3 is for “more dynamic bass.”  You can take those descriptions to mean whatever you want as I have no idea what they really mean, but more detail is revealed in the measurements further into the review.

The HT-ST7 also has four different sound modes: Standard, Movie, Music, and Football. While I almost always leave products in Standard, so as to minimize any extra processing, in this case I frequently utilized Movie and Standard. The manual doesn’t offer any help in determining what these sound modes actually do, but I can tell you that standard removed almost all artificial enhancements, like simulated surround. Movie offered the best experience for most movies, enabling surround simulation, but also bumped up the sub more than I would have liked. Music was a bit more of a misnomer for me with little effect, and Football seemed to be the equivalent of Cave or Bathroom with an absurd amount of reverb. Overall, each user will have to play with these settings to see what they like. Because the differences between the sound and subwoofer modes is so drastic, I was left constantly adjusting the setup to get the sound I wanted.

ST7 LED Display 

Sony HT-ST7 LED Display

The single line LED display on the front of the HT-ST7 is large and easy to read, but makes navigating the internal menu a bit difficult. If you dig through the manual you can eventually find your way around the menu as well. A plethora of useful features, like AV sync/delay, a dynamic equalizer to attenuate volume changes between channels and commercials, and a compressed music enhancer, await those who are willing to drudge through the menu.

ST7 Remote Closed                           ST7 Remote Open

Sony HT-ST7 Remote Closed (Left); Open (Right)

The final bit of operation to cover is the included remote control. At first glance I was skeptical about the remote thanks to its unique design, but that skepticism quickly faded. The most commonly used buttons are easily located. This includes: powered, input, muting, volume +/-, sound mode, and voice. But there’s more than meets the eye. The bottom part of the remote slides down revealing another 9 buttons (reference the above photos). In the hidden compartment is housed the navigation controls for the menu, subwoofer settings, and a display button to dim or change what is shown on the front LED display. These buttons are small, cramped, and slightly recessed making them even more difficult to reach. Normally I wouldn’t care much about the hidden buttons if they were seldom used, which they are meant to be, but I found myself using them quite a bit. 

HT-ST7 Sound Quality

I used the HDMI output from my Oppo BDP-93 Blu-ray player for movie listening tests. The soundbar was set on my TV stand, about 9’ away from the listening position.  

CD: Johnny Cash American VICash Amerivan VI

The last album released before his death and my favorite of all his albums, American VI shows a different side to Cash than his earlier work. Raw, unrefined and heartfelt, this album not only sounds good but can also pull at the heart strings for someone who grew up listening to Cash, as I did. When I first popped in the CD, fired up the Oppo and switched the HT-ST7 to HDMI 1, I was shocked by the sound quality. No, not shocked in a good way. There was no heft to the tracks like I was used to, the deep grit in Cash’s voice lost its depth and detail and a thin voice came through the 9 drivers of the HT-ST7. I immediately flipped through all of the different sound and voice modes it had to offer, and while each setting made a significant change to the sound quality, none of them offered up the experience I was hoping for. The upper vocals and midrange were much louder than the rest of the mix, making it difficult to listen to at high volumes. The size of the soundstage was impressive, but that was it.

Then, I remembered that the HT-ST7 is crossed over with the sub at a high frequency (200Hz), and it was possible that much of what I was missing was being sent to the sub. I had already level matched the sub with the soundbar, but figured that I would bump up the volume on the sub a few dB and see what happens. Sure enough, the subwoofer was getting everything that I was missing. Unfortunately, the subwoofer and soundbar did not blend well. When I turned up the sub so I could actually hear the low end of Cash’s voice, it wasn’t reproduced with the same clarity of the soundbar. Through the subwoofer it sounded bloated and colored. This is an unfortunate side effect of most systems designed like the HT-ST7. Since the soundbar can’t handle low frequencies at high SPL, bass is handed off to the sub at a very high frequency. This means that the subwoofer ends up playing frequencies it has no business playing, not only because of its tuning and design, but because of its placement as well. The best physical place for the subwoofer to sit in the room when playing a 40Hz note is not necessarily the same place as when it’s playing a 200Hz note.  Frequencies above 80Hz become localizable and voice intelligibility is critical above 100Hz which needs to be handled by the actual speakers, not the subwoofer.

CD: The rocket Summer Do You FeelThe Rocket Summer

After my experience with American VI, I felt that I needed to give the HT-ST7 another chance with 2ch. music. My assumption was, and still is, that the unit was not EQ’d for that style of music, or really tracks that features a strong vocal lead with minimal instrumental accompaniment. So, I grabbed a disc out of my collection with a more indie/rock style. The Rocket Summer, which only consists of Bryce Avary, is not the most popular album out there (although it does feature cameos by the likes of Andrew McMahon of Jack’s Mannequin and two members from Paramore).  It also holds a special spot in my memory as my wife and I took our first steps as a married couple to track 2 on this album

The ST-HT7 did much better with this album. Vocals were still bright but subwoofer integration was smoother because Avary’s voice doesn’t dig nearly as low as Cash’s, letting it stay anchored in the soundbar instead of being spliced into the subwoofer as well. The soundbar was much better suited for this type of music. Further testing with pop and rap proved that the HT-ST7 is best suited for people with music collects consisting of artists like Katy Perry, Jay Z and Lady Gaga rather than Schober, Krall, and Charles

Blu-ray: Hunger GamesThe Rocket Summer

After devouring the Hunger Games trilogy I was cautiously excited for the movie. While in this case I completely embrace the all too common “the book was better than the movie” phrase, I still liked the movie enough to pick it up the day it was released. Right in the opening scene a ship from the capital flies over Gale and Katniss as they are hunting the forest outside of the fence that encompasses District 12. The soundstage put out by the ST7 was impressive, extending a few feet outside the sides of the soundbar. There were no sounds beside or behind me, but the soundstage was still quite expansive. Throughout the movie, vocals were clear even when set on the lowest “Voice” setting. Actually, the lowest voice setting, 1, was the only one that was bearable of the 3 levels. Levels 2 and 3 boosted the vocals so much that they sounded very thin, like I was listening to TV speakers. I had the same sort of feeling when on the “Standard” sound mode, even though that was what I used for music listening. Switching to “Movie” mode made a significant difference, making voices chestier but not to the point where it was bothersome.

Later in the movie, after the initial bloodbath in the games, the canon shots marking the death of each tribute were recreated well by the subwoofer. But the real coup de grâce of sound for this movie was when Katniss is moved back into the fray of the games by a conflagration controlled by the capital. The upper register was a little harsh and during loud scenes I would have liked a bit more clarity, but the dynamic swings were handled well. The subwoofer held up its end of the bargain without any noticeable distortion or other issues, likely thanks to the steep roll off below 50Hz to keep it well behaved.

Blu-ray: BraveBD Brave

There are better Disney-Pixar animation films out there, but Brave is still a fun experience with a great picture and ambient sound effects well suited for testing out a product like the HT-ST7. During the opening scene, Merida and her family are attacked in a brief encounter with Mordu, a bear so large that enormous falls far short of describing it. The HT-ST7 really surprised me in this scene, pumping out big dynamic swings and throwing a soundstage that sounded more like it was coming from my MartinLogan Theos than the soundbar. The subwoofer also jumped into action, filling out Mordu’s deep roar with intense bass that was both loud and tactile. Throughout the movie I found the experience enjoyable, with only two complaints. First, no matter what sound setting I changed the HT-ST7 to, it had an overly active upper register. Secondly, during a few musical scores, while in Movie mode, the subwoofer was bloated an undefined, resonating at higher frequencies. At first I blamed my room, but after moving the subwoofer around a bit and physically feeling the enclosure resonate, it was clear where the problem was. This was not noticeable during most of the movie, only particular scenes however.

As with my experience listening to music on the HT-ST7, this test further proved that you can’t make a decision about a product based off of a quick listening session. You really need to run each product through a barrage of tests to find out what it does well and what it struggles with. A really good product will handle all material with aplomb, but other gear will conceal and reveal its flaws depending on the task at hand.

 

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