In a time when most people feel that the sound spilling out of the white earbuds that came bundled with their PMP is "really good," getting people to pry open their pocketbooks for sound quality is a tough battle. That doesn't mean it's not worthwhile -- ask anyone who has experienced a good HT demo and they'll tell you that audio is a significant part of the grin-inducing experience. Where price sensitivity intersects with a desire to experience surround sound, HTIB (home theater in a box) systems have found a nice market opportunity. For its part, Samsung's $500 AS730 HTIB promises a lot -- a compliment of five speakers plus a powered sub combined with a receiver that can accommodate your existing system and leave you with some room to grow with both inputs (three HDMI, two component video and an iPod dock) and outputs (an extra pair of speaker outputs for 7.1-channel rear-surrounds). Read on to find out how the Samsung AS730 managed the features/price balancing act.
Quite honestly, we were surprised with how much stuff Samsung packed into the box the AS730 came in: four identical speakers for front and surround, a slightly larger center channel, a powered subwoofer, a receiver with a set of 7 speaker posts and plenty of inputs for just about any entry-level system, an iPod dock (audio support only), a calibration microphone and a bunch of 22AWG wire to string everything together. As we unpacked the box to reveal all these goodies, however, the liberal use of molded plastic parts was apparent. This isn't a knock on the AS730 specifically, as many HTIBs use the same construction technique, but Samsung isn't able to escape the somewhat cheap feel any more than the next company when it has to hold to a $500 price for a 7.1-channel HTIB. The fit and finish of the components was good, but the little touches like spring clips on the hollow-feeling speaker enclosures and a receiver that weighed almost nothing (which matched the feel of the volume knob) didn't exactly inspire confidence. That said, the speakers and receiver never have to be touched once set up, and the pieces do look quite nice in their shiny black finish. The receiver fascia is especially understated, which we'll take over a button-encrusted light show any day.
We started things off with audio because -- as you'd expect at this price -- the AS730 doesn't have a lot in the way of video processing. The three HDMI inputs are routed to a single output, with a user-selectable setting for audio processing in the AS730 receiver or passing the audio along the HDMI output. Similarly, the video on the component and composite inputs are sent out on the corresponding component and composite jacks. There's also no GUI or OSD sent to the video outputs on the AS730, so unfortunately, users are forced to go through the receiver front panel display to navigate the setup.
We were underwhelmed with the out-of-box performance of the AS730 on music. From the midrange on up, the sound was flat and thin, and turning up the volume made things worse. From the midbass on down, the sound was very muddy and congested. A quick look through the manual indicated that the subwoofer crossover defaults to 150Hz, way too high for this setup. We dialed the crossover back to 80Hz, turned the subwoofer level down to the point where we could just hear it and things were much better. That didn't cure our problems with the midrange, however -- there were some nasty resonances in the around 300Hz that gave vocals a nasal, honky sort of quality.
But these impressions probably don't fit all that well with the intended use for the AS730, which isn't intended for music-only lovers. The AS730 will do just fine in punching out sound at your next party, but likely purchasers of this system are looking to jumpstart their HT surround-audio system. So we got "into character" and jumped into some movies.
Luckily, things got better with the HT-centric use case. The automatic calibration did pretty well at measuring the speaker distances and setting levels, and to its credit, that's all it tries to do. As stated right up front, the AS730 doesn't decode DTS-HD MA or Dolby TrueHD internally, so you'll have to configure your Blu-ray deck to put out Linear PCM. All that aside, the surround sound put out by the AS730 was very enjoyable. The resonance we noted in out music-only listening was still present, but for speaking (as opposed to singing) voices, it was much less bothersome and didn't affect speech intelligibility nearly as much as we'd feared. The sub also seemed more at home with soundtrack duties.
Where you'll run into the limitations of the AS730 is no surprise. When things get really loud or really complex, they start to bleed into each other rather than separate into layers like they do with higher performance gear. When dishing out explosions, for example, the AS730 did a commendable job of conveying bass rumble, but it missed the sensation of air being sucked out of the room just before the explosion. It's not just the bombastic content that took a hit -- when listening to heavily layered dialog, for example, it became hard to tease out the different conversations.
One serious issue did crop up in our evaluation. The AS730 receiver would intermittently lose HDMI connection with our PS3 when switching modes. Luckily, simply cycling power on the AS730 receiver brought everything back, but this could be a very annoying problem if it isn't just our sample unit.
In the end, the AS730 is a bit of a mixed bag. Samsung obviously had a very tight line to walk in trying to deliver a $500 5.1-channel HTIB with room to grow. When confronted with the "price - performance - expandability; pick two" question, Samsung tried to go for all three, and that's tough. The pricepoint is definitely good, so kudos to Samsung on that. Performance isn't great, but we're coming from a system that costs so much that it's totally unfair to hold it to the AS730 to that standard. More importantly, for casual users who just want to get up and running with discrete surround sound, it's perfectly adequate. But the "expandability" factor is where we see that AS730 users might be disappointed -- the receiver won't really do justice to upgraded speakers and an upgraded receiver will just expose shortcomings in the bundled speakers.
All those gripes aside, if it's movie surround sound you're after, you'll be better off with the AS730 than any number of soundbars. For example, we actually preferred the music delivery of the ZVOX 550 soundbar, but when it came time to watch movies, the AS730 was far superior. Just be sure to dial down the sub crossover and level during setup, and then spend some time enjoying movies, games and TV before you start worrying about what upgrade to make next.