Sound bar buyers' performance expectations are pretty low; all the 'bar has to do is sound better than the lousy speakers that are built into their TVs. So if that's all you need, a sound bar will get the job done -- but there are better-sounding alternatives, starting with a pair of self-powered Audioengine A2 ($199) speakers. The A2s are terrific, but the Paradigm Millenia CT ($700) is a 2.1-channel subwoofer/satellite system, and it sounds better than the Audioengines. A lot better, and it's really pretty amazing.
Spread 64 inches apart, the Millenia sats produced a broad and deep soundstage. A 64-inch-wide sound bar might sound as good, if there was such a thing, but it would probably sell for a lot more than the Millenia CT. The satellites are fairly small, just 7.75 by 4.5 by 5.75 inches, and feature a proprietary 1-inch dome tweeter and a 4-inch midrange aluminum driver. The driver is based on the ones used in Paradigm's $1,299 Millenia One CT ensemble. Black cloth grilles are included.
The sub houses an 8-inch reinforced polymer-composite driver on its side panel, and three channels of Class D amps (80 watts total), which were designed in-house by Paradigm engineers. The subwoofer can be oriented vertically with the supplied cradle or laid down flat, which certainly opens up placement options. It's nice and skinny, just 5 by 15.75 by 14 inches. The sub has its own volume control, which I usually had set at its midpoint, in the 12 o'clock position, and I was never aware of any bass coming from the sub, it all appeared to come from the sats. (That's good.)
The system's two inputs, an optical Toslink digital input and a 3.5mm stereo analog input, aren't on the sub -- rather, they're on a small controller box. That little box is the system's only design fault; it doesn't have a volume control or input selector. So if you misplace the Millenia CT's remote control, you'll find out in a hurry there's no way to turn the system on, control the volume, or change between inputs!
The "House of Flying Daggers" Blu-ray demonstrated the Millenia CT's ample home theater skills -- this little system delivers room-shaking bass and impressive dynamic range. The sub is one nimble performer, and it delivers surprisingly deep bass for its size. Dialogue was nicely focused between the two sats for listeners seated directly inline with the TV, but like all two-channel home theaters, the image will appear to come from the left speaker for listeners seated toward the left side of the room, and from the right speaker for listeners on the right. So the Millenia CT is better with smaller groups of listeners, while sound bars have the advantage for larger groups; 'bars lock the dialog to the center for all listeners, no matter where they're sitting in the room.
Still, if you listen to music more than you watch movies, the Millenia CT performance advantages over sound bars' loom large. Sound bars do their best with movies, and rarely sound great with two-channel music. The Millenia CT is equally adept with rock, jazz and classical music.
It's a great little system, but if you have the space for something bigger, Pioneer's 5.1-channel, six-piece SP-PK52FS speaker/subwoofer system ($630) will be even better. It's more transparent and clear, and it has a center channel and surround speakers. But the SP-PK52FS isn't cheaper overall; you have to use it with a receiver, such as a Denon AVR 1913. The Paradigm system doesn't need a receiver, it hooks up directly to your TV, Blu-ray player or cable box. Performance-wise it's a big step up from the very best sound bars, for about the same price or less.