AT A GLANCE
- Slim-profile passive soundbar, or…
- Compact LCRs in front, with…
- One sub or two
- AVR required for passive bar
- Inherent limits of 8-inch sub
Whether configured with a three-channel soundbar up front or compact LCRs all around, this system delivers deeply satisfying performance for the price, with plenty of listening comfort.
How should your 5.1-channel system handle the three channels in front? You might use the traditional approach of three separate speakers. Then again, you might simply use a passive soundbar with left, center, and right drivers. We’ve reviewed both kinds of systems—but until now, we haven’t reviewed both options at once. In this Test Report, that’s just what we’re going to do. We’ll start with Atlantic Technology’s new FS3 soundbar in the front and two voice-matched LCR3 satellites in the surround positions. Then we’ll swap out the soundbar for three more satellites to see what that brings to the table. To make it even more interesting, we’ll start with a single 8-inch SB-900 subwoofer, then contemplate the advantages of adding a second one.
System pricing is $1,550 for one FS3, two LCR3s, and one SB-900. Adding the second sub raises the cost to $1,900. For five LCR3s, the total is $1,725 with one sub or $2,075 with two.
I’m writing this introduction before starting the listening demos. Here’s what I expect to happen: The soundbar would have a more solid, but narrower, front soundstage. Substituting three speakers for the bar should expand the soundstage. It would also provide more flexibility in placement, if that were a factor. Adding the second sub would improve the evenness of bass coverage, extending good bass response to more locations in the room. As for what the speakers would actually sound like—their balance of frequencies, dynamics, coloration, and all the tangibles and intangibles that add up to listenability—I’m at square one. Let’s explore.
Two Peas in Different Pods
The FS3 is a passive soundbar with no internal amplifier or surround processing. You connect it to a receiver as the front left, center, and right speakers. At 42 inches wide, it’s recommended for TVs of 42 to 65 inches (measured diagonally). As an option, consider adding Atlantic’s Shelf-2405 ($119), which allows above-screen placement of a soundbar (or center speaker) by attaching to the top of a flat-screen TV. A lip on the front of the shelf keeps the speaker from sliding off, and the clamps have rubber bumpers to protect the TV. Note that this might not work for thin-bezel TVs. The FS3 soundbar is available in matte or gloss black.
The LCR3 is a tall, slender satellite speaker that can be used for any channel in the system. As noted, for this review, I used two different 5.1-channel configurations, first with two LCR3s in the surround positions and then with five all around. Available finishes are gloss black or white. Gloss black is the only finish the LCR3 sat has in common with the FS3 bar.
The FS3 and LCR3 have much else in common, including their driver arrays. They share both a 0.75-inch silk-dome tweeter and a 3.5-inch CPP (composite polypropylene-paper) cone woofer. The satellite has one tweeter flanked by two of the woofers; the soundbar has that woofer-tweeter-woofer array in triplicate, just like three horizontal LCR3s in a larger and shallower enclosure. The tweeter is positioned slightly upward in the bar or off to one side in the vertical satellite. The asymmetrical placement helps to distribute the frequencies at which baffle edge diffraction occurs. Both the bar and satellite have sealed fiberboard enclosures and are equipped with sturdy cylindrical, all-metal, spring-loaded binding posts and dual keyhole mounts; the satellite adds a 1/4-20 threaded insert. Both have a nominal impedance of 6 ohms, rated sensitivity of 88 decibels, power handling of 10 to 125 watts RMS, and rated frequency response of 100 hertz to 20 kilohertz ±3 dB (I picked a sub crossover of 100 Hz in the receiver). See our Test Bench for independent measurements.
A key design feature of both the soundbar and satellite is the plate on which the drivers are mounted. It’s made of ABS—a tough, stiff plastic—with gaskets around the tweeter and both above and beneath the woofer, and it sits proud of the cabinet face. When the grille snaps on with its plastic pins, the plate fits into a cutout in the grille frame. This prevents the output of the drivers from reflecting off the skeleton of the grille. As Atlantic puts it, the drivers “see” into the room without obstruction.
The SB-900 is a front-firing sub. It has an 8-inch mineral-filled polypropylene cone driver with a 1.5-inch voice coil, a large unflared port in the same plane as the driver, and a 125-watt RMS amp. The speaker-level ins and outs are cheap wire clips, not my favorite termination, but most users will connect the LFE-in RCA jack to the receiver’s sub-out anyway. Atlantic claims for the sub something called CFT, or clear filter technology, which is said to use active circuitry to reduce enclosure-generated distortion. The correction is built into the EQ—which many subs have in one form or another—and Atlantic says it works better than the limiters and feedback loops employed by other manufacturers. Associated equipment included a Pioneer Elite VSX-53 A/V receiver, Oppo BDP-83SE universal disc player, Micro Seiki BL-21 turntable, Shure V15VxMR/N97XE cartridge, and the phono stage of a Denon PRA-S10 preamp.
Act I: Bar and Sats
The first configuration was the FS3 soundbar in front, two LCR3 satellites in the surround positions, and one SB-900 subwoofer. This created a soundfield that was narrow in front and wide in back.
“Smooth” was the first word that came to mind. While the FS3’s top end was far from anesthetized—in fact, it could still sound pretty zingy when content so demanded—it also easily sidestepped glare, grit, and harshness. Its voicing was never enough, in itself, to induce discomfort, and it held up at moderately high volumes. The LCR3’s voicing and performance in the surround positions were consistent with the FS3’s. The bar’s and satellites’ 3.5-inch drivers handed off neatly to the SB-900 sub’s 8-inch driver. The compact sub didn’t exactly shake the floor, but it produced clean tones without bloating or aggravating my room’s inherent standing wave in any noticeable way.
I’ve started a binge on Game of Thrones with the Blu-ray release of seasons 1 and 2 in Dolby Atmos. While Atmos’ addition of height channels gets the most attention, this object-oriented surround format can also remap a soundtrack to any system configuration—in this case, 5.1. The disc menu provided a choice of Atmos, Dolby Digital 5.1, and the usual language and commentary tracks. The Oppo player’s audio display also provided Dolby Digital but labeled the Atmos soundtrack as Dolby TrueHD 5.1 (TrueHD is the default audio codec for Atmos), and I chose that option. As I wrote in a blog called “Is 5.1 Obsolete?” about a year ago, “most of the fundamental truths of surround sound are present in a 5.1 system: a center channel to anchor dialogue, a soundfield that reaches to the four corners of the room, a subwoofer to firm up bass.”
My Game began with season 1, episode 1: “Winter Is Coming.” From the opening rumble of castle gates to the wealth of outdoor soundscapes—chuckling brook, distant thunder, or just the quiet movement of wind—the perfectly matched drivers and voicing of the bar and sats built a solid 5.1-channel soundfield that was somewhat narrow in front and wider in back. When I concentrated on the bar’s lack of width, I noticed it. But once I let down my guard, I was surprised to find my brain processing the trapezoidal soundfield to make me believe I was in wide open spaces. Sitting between the more widely spaced surround speakers—in my usual setup, side-surrounds—distracted me from the bar’s limited soundstage width much of the time.
Blindsided (DVD, Dolby Digital) is a nifty little thriller about a blind woman battling home invasion, with Michael Keaton as charismatic crook. Vocal reproduction was so natural that I didn’t even think to assess it until an hour into the movie. The integrity of Atlantic’s soundfield really heightened the drama of a stairwell pursuit and battlefield flashbacks. Quieter moments like city sounds on a rooftop also benefited from the system’s low-level resolution; the smooth top end wasn’t too polite to generate realism. The orchestral score, which is at times clangorous and dissonant, came through with just enough sweetening to make it feel good. This system works on an emotional level: It’s enjoyable to listen to, not unduly analytical or fatiguing.
I work things like Trumbo (BD, DTS-HD Master Audio) into my viewing regimen because I like quality drama, but this one comes with a juicy score that bravely mingles orchestral jazz with John Cage–like prepared piano. The bar and satellites made the music luscious and colorful, although the bar didn’t quite do justice to the outdoor ambience of a backyard picnic or voices echoing in the halls of Congress. This heightened my anticipation of the grand swap of the bar for three satellites.
The unanalytical bent continued in the self-titled debut album of Crosby, Stills & Nash on vintage vinyl. Operating in two channels, the Atlantic bar favored blending of the three distinctive voices over separation, as though there were a fourth voice in the room—a unique choral voice. The bar’s limited width may have contributed. The bar changed its personality for the individual demands of each song. Stephen Stills’ “Suite: July Blue Eyes” is mixed hot, and the bar didn’t dumb it down: The unified choral voice bounded assertively out of the bar, and the Eastern-flavored acoustic guitar really stung. The bar took the opposite tack with David Crosby’s “Guinnevere”: softly textured, laid-back, and hypnotic, the guitars gently chiming, not biting. Graham Nash’s “Lady of the Island,” a duet with Crosby (the voices separating for a change), was beautifully imaged and highly resolved, and the bar somehow made it surprisingly intimate.
Linn’s surround SACD of Bach Violin Concertos includes two pieces for violin and oboe, in addition to the familiar violin works. (John Butt leads the Dunedin Consort with violinists Cecilia Bernardini and Huw Daniel and oboist Alfredo Bernardini.) This was a surprise. I didn’t expect the initial burst of tone color; the FS3 is truly a high-resolution soundbar (a combination of words you don’t see every day). The bar’s top end was sweet enough to flatter the beautifully recorded period instruments.
Entre Amigos, by Brazilian singer Rosa Passos and jazz legend Ron Carter, is a hybrid SACD from Chesky. The Oppo identified the disc as 5.0, with bass management provided by the receiver. The center channel went unused, leaving the left and right channels to image Passos’ velvety, voluptuous voice and the surrounds to tug it ever so slightly forward. Despite the amount of ambience embedded in the front channels, the bar imaged in a somewhat mono-ish fashion, which again heightened my anticipation of the impending bar/sat swap. While the sub didn’t make Carter’s string bass sound big, it did underpin the articulate attack of his instrument.
Act II: Sats All Around
I replaced the FS3 soundbar with three vertical LCR3 satellites in the front, leaving the other two LCR3s as the side-surrounds. This reshaped the trapezoidal soundfield to something more like a rectangle, though it wasn’t perfectly rectangular; the front speakers were still slightly closer together than the surrounds. But the fronts were toed in, whereas the surrounds fired from the sides. As I replayed the demos, it occurred to me that confirmation bias may have influenced my assessment of how the front satellites would differ from the bar. But some scenes and selections really did feel different.
In the Game of Thrones episode, the outdoor sounds were predictably more open. However, some sounds—like the chuckling brook—weren’t really transformed. A dissonant moment in the score, signifying a mortal threat in the woods, gained drama along with frontal width, as did King Robert’s triumphal entrance into Winterfell and the drums at the Dothraki wedding party. I felt more immersed in a bucolic peasant scene inside castle walls, with milling horses and yipping dogs.
The stairwell chase in Blindsided echoed more dramatically. The gasps of the pursued woman were localized in the center channel, something I hadn’t noticed with the bar but did notice with the more widely spaced sats. Vocal timbre in dialogue was just the same, though. The soundfield was less dense in front, but also less speaker-bound.
When I cued up the delicious orchestral jazz score in Trumbo, the front width expansion was especially gratifying. An orchestra isn’t meant to be confined by the width of the average soundbar. The wistful going-to-prison music, the tense prepared-piano counterpart to the screenwriter’s hunt-and-peck, and especially the snippet of Alex North’s Spartacus score at the movie’s theatrical premiere had not only greater width but also greater emotional impact, once the front soundstage was no longer squished. As with dialogue, instrumental timbre didn’t differ as much.
In some respects, the Crosby, Stills & Nash album was closer to what the artists intended. Several songs have guitars at far left and right, flanking the vocals in the middle. The separation of guitars and vocals was more pronounced. The tight unity of harmonizing voices wasn’t affected in a song like “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” where all three are mixed precisely in the middle; I double-checked with headphones to make sure I was hearing it correctly. But in Stills’ “Helplessly Hoping,” which spreads the three voices across the soundstage, greater stereo separation enriched the music.
The Bach violin concertos were more airy. The interaction of instruments and venue was presented more naturally in a roomier soundfield. The violin soloists were better imaged and more distinct. However, perversely, I did miss the bar’s stringent compacting of the front channels, a denser presentation that somehow made the orchestra seem richer and more colorful.
The tasty Passos/Carter duet came through with the same texture but more of the space that Chesky painstakingly captures in its recordings. Front ambience, which had been audible but oddly detached when heard through the bar, was better integrated with the primary vocal and instrumental elements. It also better complemented ambience in the surrounds, eliminating discontinuity between front and back. The soundfield was at its best with the saxophone solo and the cowbell (more cowbell!). I better appreciated the murmuring, rhythmically insistent acoustic guitar when it had more of its own space in the further-flung right channel.
Act III: Second Sub
The last configuration was five LCR3 satellites with two SB-900 subwoofers. My customary single-sub position is between the center and left speakers, so it was aesthetically pleasing to place the second sub between center and right. Other possible placements would be in the front corners; on the front wall, one-quarter to one-third of the way between the side walls; on the side walls, at various points between front and back; and in opposing diagonal corners, one front and one back. These and more are all worth trying if you have a rectangular room with predictable acoustics, but mine is a six-sided room where no two walls are the same length, and I use asymmetrical long-wall speaker placement. Occasionally, an acoustics expert offers to suss out the perfect speaker positioning, then rolls his eyes when I describe the room.
When I repeated the Passos/Carter duet, the first thing I noticed was that the second sub put more bass energy into the room and raised the overall level by the expected 4 to 6 dB. I compensated with a 5-dB reduction in the sub output level from the surround processor. Even with volume corrected, the string bass gained in texture and definition. With one sub or two, bass level varied as I stepped into and out of the room’s standing-wave zone, though the difference was less pronounced with two subs, and I noticed it became even less pronounced (in my room, at least) if I toed out the subs so that their front-firing drivers wouldn’t hit the back wall head-on. It took The Who’s Live at Leeds (CD) to demonstrate the limits of the 3.5-inch drivers in the satellites and the 8-incher woofers in the subs. Drummer Keith Moon’s rolling thunder and bassist John Entwistle’s rumbling commentary needed heavier artillery; I was used to getting more slam out of the 7-inch aluminum woofers and 10-inch flat sub driver of my Paradigm Studio 20 monitors and Seismic 10 sub. Still, the Atlantic system performed decently within its size (and price) limits, and better yet with double subs.
If you want to convince a friend that a sat/sub combo can provide a full musical experience, the Beatles’ Abbey Road (CD) makes a stronger case by placing more bass and drum tone above the crossover. With the drums mixed at hard-right in “Come Together,” having the second sub between the right and center channels produced a better dovetailed sound (though true full-range speakers would be better still). In 1960s and ’70s recordings with drums or bass off to the sides, having a sub no more than a few feet away from the left and right speakers does help, as would a lower crossover point, too.
Although I focused on the flanking-center positions, both subs were on long tethers, and they were light enough to easily move around the room. As I did so, I ran bass sweep tones from the DVE: HD Basics test disc and watched a real-time analyzer running on an iPod touch with thumbtack mic. Because my system’s front left and right corners are nowhere near right-angled walls—which, usually, I’d consider to be an advantage—I didn’t test corner sub positioning, though in a normal room I’d expect to get more (and probably less evenly distributed) bass. I did move the subs to the midpoint of the side walls. This produced as much as 10 dB more bass at the top end of the sub’s range with a 100-Hz crossover. So did diagonal placement, with one sub near the front left speaker and the other near the right side-surround. See our sub measurements for the specifics on anechoic extension.
I concluded that the flanking-center positions were the best choice for my room. It wasn’t the position with maximum room-gain, but the subs had plenty of output. Your situation, of course, will differ, and I haven’t even considered the possible effects of full room EQ. But getting some cheap long cables and experimenting with placement is always well worth the effort. I’ve never heard a system that didn’t benefit from additional subs.
The Atlantic Technology FS3 is a thoughtfully designed, beautifully voiced, hi-res-worthy passive soundbar. It is not only beyond excellent for its price but well into best-in-its-class, I-could-live-with-this territory. If I needed to buy a passive soundbar right now with my own ink-stained pennies, it would be this one. The LCR3 satellites sound just as well rounded, and the SB-900 is a highly tuneful bass maker. Sometimes, reviewing speakers is a burden, because the guests aren’t as good as the stuff that usually sits on my speaker stands. But I never felt the urge to disconnect this system and use my own for off-hours listening—not even when the bar was hooked up. It was that good.
- FS3: 3.5 in composite polypropylene-paper cone woofer (6), 0.75 in silk dome tweeter (3); 42 x 4.75 x 3 in (WxHxD), 13.5 lb
- LCR3: 3.5 in composite polypropylene-paper cone woofer (2), 0.75 in silk dome tweeter; 4.75 x 11.25 x 5 in (WxHxD), 4.8 lb
- SB-900: 8 in composite cone woofer; 125 watts RMS; LFE and stereo line-level in, speaker-level in and out; 11 x 13 x 13.3 in (WxHxD), 28 lb
- Price: $1,550 to $2,075 (FS3, $650; LCR3, $275 ea; SB-900, $350)
L/R Sensitivity: 88 dB from 500 Hz to 2 kHz
Center Sensitivity: 88 dB from 500 Hz to 2 kHz
Surround Sensitivity: 88 dB from 500 Hz to 2 kHz
This graph shows the quasi-anechoic (employing close-miking of all woofers) frequency response of the FS-3 left channel (purple trace), SB-900 subwoofer (blue trace), FS-3 center channel (green trace), and LCR-3 surround (red trace). All passive loudspeakers were measured with grilles at a distance of 1 meter with a 2.83-volt input and scaled for display purposes.
The FS-3’s left channel listening-window response (a five-point average of axial and +/–15-degree horizontal and vertical responses) measures +2.04/–2.54 decibels from 200 hertz to 10 kilohertz. The –3dB point is at 137 Hz, and the –6dB point is at 121 Hz. Impedance reaches a minimum of 4.29 ohms at 373 Hz and a phase angle of +30.54 degrees at 2.5 kHz.
The FS-3’s center channel listening-window response measures +2.22/–3.10 dB from 200 Hz to 10 kHz. An average of axial and +/–15-degree horizontal responses measures +2.29/–3.50 dB from 200 Hz to 10 kHz. The –3dB point is at 134 Hz, and the –6dB point is at 118 Hz. Impedance reaches a minimum of 4.28 ohms at 374 Hz and a phase angle of +29.98 degrees at 2.5 kHz.
The LCR-3’s listening-window response measures +1.46/–2.81 dB from 200 Hz to 10 kHz. An average of axial and +/–15-degree horizontal responses measures +1.75/–2.18 dB from 200 Hz to 10 kHz when mounted vertically. The –3dB point is at 132 Hz, and the –6dB point is at 115 Hz. Impedance reaches a minimum of 4.23 ohms at 384 Hz and a phase angle of +31.84 degrees at 2.5 kHz.
The SB-900’s close-miked response, normalized to the level at 80 Hz, indicates that the lower –3dB point is at 34 Hz and the –6dB point is at 31 Hz. The upper –3dB point is at 185 Hz with the Lowpass switch set to Bypass.—MJP