As televisions continue to devote less energy into the audio quality of their built-in speakers, speaker companies continue to develop smarter products that solve the TV speaker problem. The most common solution is a soundbar. SpeakerCraft, a company known mostly for making in-wall and in-ceiling speakers for the custom home installation market, offers something a little different, the CS3 TV Speaker.
The SpeakerCraft CS3 works like a soundbar in that it is a single unit designed to replace your TV’s speakers. But it’s not a soundbar. At 28-inches wide and 16.5-inches deep it’s actually a little platform for your TV to sit on. It’s about the size of a briefcase (those things people used to carry files, pens and work things before backpacks and thumb drives were invented). The theory behind this approach is that the extra space (the overall size of the cabinet is much bigger than most soundbars) offers more room for drivers without occupying more visual space when you’re looking at it from your sofa. Also most people don’t hang their TVs on the wall—they place them on TV tables or cabinets. The problem with that is that the TV’s base will often be in the way of the soundbar, and they just look funny together. With SpeakerCraft’s system, you stick the TV on top of it, which raises the TV about 4 inches.
The trend in soundbars now is a lot like the trend in TVs, to make them as thin and inconspicuous as possible. And that’s how a lot of them sound, thin, which is why many come with subwoofers, usually wireless ones (to appease the anti-wire customer). As I wrote above, the CS3’s design means that it can cram more drivers in the box. In this case it includes four 2.5-inch midrange drivers, two 1-inch silk tweeters and two 5.25-inch bass drivers. Those two bass drivers (essentially a built-in subwoofer) fire down toward the table or cabinet the system is sitting on. The bass drivers mean you can get good bass without an additional subwoofer.
Like a soundbar, the CS3 connects easily. You plug in the AC and then plug the audio output from the TV into the back of the CS3. The system takes digital optical, coaxial or analog stereo. This setup means you need to connect all your sources to the TV first, presumably via HDMI, and then use your TV’s audio output to feed the CS3. This also means you need to search through your TV’s on-screen menu to turn off the TV’s speakers. If your TV doesn’t have this feature, then you can turn the TV speakers down to zero and hope no one touches the volume.
The mostly simple connection means that while there’s only one wire connecting your TV to the speaker, there will be multiple wires connecting your components to the TV. Plus, while some of your source components may be capable of delivering true 5.1 surround sound to your TV, the audio cable from the TV to the speaker will probably only carry stereo (that will vary depending on the TV).
When you put your TV on the CS3, it will be stable—don’t worry about it. The unit can support a TV up to 160 pounds, so anything in the 32-55-inch range is fair game as long as the TV’s base doesn’t hang off the CS3. If your table or stand is a dark color, the speaker will blend in pretty nicely. My TV was already on the wall, so I placed the speaker on the component table directly under the TV.
The CS3’s remote is just a little credit card-sized thing of the sort that comes with kitchen radios. The remote is a little frustrating because the buttons don’t feel quite right and the text is too small to easily read, but I assume most people who buy this system will have it integrated on a universal remote along with the remotes for their TV, Blu-ray player and cable box.
Sound is the most important thing when considering a system like this. It has to sound better than your TV’s speakers. At $600 it has to sound a lot better. And the CS3 does. Many soundbars are just lousy TV speakers built into a separate cabinet. The result is only marginally better than where you started. The CS3 sounds like a real audio system. In my living room it filled the space with rich, textured music when playing back streaming channels from Pandora or the music stations provided by my TV subscription. With CDs played through a Samsung Blu-ray player, the results were even better. There was precision and energy in the sound that you don’t get with your average product. I was particularly impressed with the wide soundstage, considering that system is only 28 inches wide.
With TV and movies the CS3 is also a big improvement over your TV speakers and qualifies as a great alternative to a receiver and separate speakers. A surround button on the remote kicks the system into a virtual surround mode. That mode isn’t doing any Dolby Digital decoding, especially since in most cases it’s only receiving a two-channel signal, but it does a good job of creating a sound umbrella and fashioning an impression of spaciousness. You won’t duck your head and look for dinosaurs stomping behind you, but it will fill the space well.The CS3 gets respectably low, maybe not as low as the Atlantic Technology Powerbar 235 (which costs more), but low enough, and without an external subwoofer.
The CS3 also includes Bluetooth, and connecting a Bluetooth device is a pretty simple process. I paired it with my iPhone and again was pleased with the quality of the music the system put out. It doesn’t have any built-in music services like you’d get from the Sonos PLAYBAR, but you can stream those services from your smart phone or use the music services built into your internet-connected TV.
If a full surround sound system isn’t in your plans for a certain room in your house, you still owe your ears a better audio experience. The CS3 can deliver that without any installation complications, and in most situations, it’s a better cosmetic fit than a soundbar. It’s similar to the ZVOX 580, but that system doesn’t include Bluetooth, which I think is critical in this age of smartphones and tablets. My only complaint about the CS3 system is that you don’t get very good visual feedback when you do anything with the remote—there’s a little blue LED light behind the grill cloth, but it’s hard to see. A small display for volume number, input or mode would be nice.
SpeakerCraft CS3 TV Speaker
Depth 16-1/2” with grille (16” without)
Weight 25.0 pounds
Amplified Power 80W
Number of Speakers 1
Frequency Response 35Hz - 20kHz
Tweeter Size 1”
Tweeter Composition Silk dome
Midranges Four 2.5”
Tweeters Two 1” Tweeters
Subwoofers Two 5 ¼” Subs
Enclosure Type Ported Speaker
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Grant Clauser has been covering home electronics for more than 10 years with editorial roles in several consumer and trade magazines. He's done ISF-level damage to hundreds of reviewed products and has had training from THX, the Home Acoustics Alliance, Control4 and Sencore. He's also the author of the book The Trouble with Rivers
. Follow him on Twitter @geclauser.