If you’re looking to snap up a Blu-ray player and home cinema system in one fell swoop, but your room is too pokey to house a full 5.1 rig then this soundbar solution could be right up your alley. Unlike the majority of soundbars that only handle the audio side of things, the HLB54S comes with a Blu-ray player built right in. That means there are fewer ungainly wires snaking behind your system, as everything has been squeezed into a single unit - decoding, amplification, speakers, player.
Clever and convenient it may be, but LG has missed a trick. Unlike most soundbars it can’t be wall-mounted, which is normally one of a soundbar’s selling points. Yes it’s slim enough, but the awkward section jutting out at the back makes this suitable for a table-top only.
It’s a tragedy because the HLB54S is the sort of soundbar that deserves pride of place on your wall. It’s an absolute stunner, with a glamorous gloss black finish and a row of touch-sensitive buttons that go "ping" when pressed. Lovely.
But the LG’s beauty lies mostly on the inside. This thing is packed with an improbable amount of features, which should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with LG’s standalone Blu-ray decks. It’s BD Live ready, and can connect to the Web via the Ethernet port or the built-in wireless connection. The Wi-Fi adapter supports 802.11b, g and n, the latter ensuring super-fast connection with compatible routers.
That network functionality also allows you to stream movies, music and photos from your PCs and servers (supported formats include MP3, WMA, DivX HD, MKV and JPEG) and stream videos from YouTube. Alternatively you can plug in a USB stick into the front panel and play the same file types from there. No two ways about it, the HLB54S is one of the most versatile digital media hubs we’ve come across.
The feature list doesn’t end there either. It also comes with an iPod dock in the box and a wireless subwoofer, which lets you place it anywhere in the room and eliminates yet another unsightly cable. The soundbar can decode Dolby True HD and DTS HD Master Audio and backs it up with a range of sound modes, while on the video side DVDs can be upscaled to 1080p and 1080/24p Blu-ray output is possible. In fact the only thing missing is built-in memory for BD Live downloads, which means you’ll need to plug in a 1GB USB stick.
The generous array of sockets makes it simple to integrate the LG with your other kit. You get two HDMI inputs that let you play other high-def sources through the speakers, as well as acting as an HDMI switcher for TVs with limited inputs. These are backed up by an optical digital audio input and an analogue minijack for MP3 players.
Like LG’s Blu-ray decks, set-up and operation is a doddle thanks to the fantastic onscreen graphics - even the potentially tricky network configuration is a cinch. The Home menu makes it easy to find the various types of media available and disc loading is ultra quick, taking as little as 30 seconds to fire up some Java heavy discs. On the downside, the cheap-looking remote is overly cluttered.
The HLB54S is a 4.1 system, equipped two front and two surround channels that each receive 70W from the amp, with 150W channelled to the sub. It’s been tuned by Mark Levinson, a guy who knows a thing or two about sound quality, and it seems his tinkering has paid off.
The sound is surprisingly powerful, wonderfully dynamic and packed with detail. Big explosions sound suitably brutal, high-frequencies are usually reproduced without any harshness and dialogue emanates clearly from the front of the soundstage.
The only thing missing is a sense of surround immersion, which very few soundbars can achieve, and although the subwoofer’s output is loud and rumbley, there isn’t a great deal of shape or tautness to its bass tones. But with incredibly sharp and solid Blu-ray picture quality and superb-looking DVD playback, you’ll probably be staring too intently at the screen to notice a few sonic flaws.
The HLB54S is an astonishing piece of kit. Wall mounting disappointments aside, the impressive performance, extensive feature list and stunning looks make this the best Blu-ray soundbar money can buy - even though that price tag seems steep, you certainly get what you pay for.