(Pocket-lint) - We all know that a better sound system has the potential to enhance a movie, TV show or sporting event we're watching yet, according to Sky, most of its customers are still relying on the speakers included in their television.
And as the average TV has become thinner over the years, so has its audio performance. You can't fit massive speaker drivers into a superslim flatpanel.
That's why, after conquering 4K Ultra HD visuals, Sky has turned its eye - or ear, so to speak - to sound.
Teaming with French speaker company Devialet, which brought us the wildly impressive Phantom, Sky is providing what it hopes will be the audio equivalent to its video presentation.
Pocket-lint was treated to a demo of the new Sky Soundbox to have a listen and find out if it cuts the mustard.
Sky Soundbox preview: Design
- 210 x 375 x 95mm
- HDMI, Optical, Bluetooth
- Needs Sky Q to control
The Sky Soundbox is about the same size as the main Sky Q set-top-box but about twice, if not three times, the height. The unit measures 210 x 375 x 95mm and weighs 4kg.
It's big, black and minimal in its design, but you can't miss it. A gloss black Sky logo adorns the top, while there's a second Sky logo on the front alongside one for manufacturer Devialet.
There are minimal controls for the speaker unit (volume, source, power), with your Sky Q remote taking on the mainstay of the work. There is one HDMI input, one optical input and Bluetooth 4.1 wireless connectivity.
You can't connect it to Devialet's Phantom app, nor to services like Spotify Connect, although it should support AirPlay 2 when Apple releases that into the wild next year.
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That big box approach means placement of the speaker is limited. There's no wall mounting option like you get with sound bars, and it's an awkward enough shape that you can't treat it like a sound base, as we've seen from Denon or Sonos. You can't therefore plonk your TV on top.
So it has to go on your TV stand in front of your TV, either on an open shelf in your TV cabinet. Or, shudder the thought, "on the floor", as Sky recommended to us. Who does that?
The reason it has to sit front and centre of your TV is to allow the sound to be projected around and bounced off the walls of your room. For the best effect, you need to be directly in front of it.
Sky Soundbox preview: Special modes
- Dialogue mode
- Kids volume limiting mode
- Automatically changes sound stage for football
The partnership between the companies has allowed for the two to build-in specific functionality that only works with Sky Q. Sky Q Sound will, based on hidden information provided by broadcasters, automatically tune and tweak audio accordingly.
Watch football, for example, and the technology within the box will adapt the sound stage. It works with other sports too, like F1, as long as they are tagged correctly by Sky. It won't work if you watch a football match from another source for example.
Beyond the automatic sound mode, the speaker comes with three other modes that can be turned off as and when needed. There's dialogue enhancement for lifting speech above the bass, late night mode to remove the bass so you don't annoy the neighbours, and a kids mode to limit sound volume.
Other tricks include a rather clever approach to coping with films that go from quiet dialogue to loud guns blazing action, all designed to save you having to reach for the remote and the volume control. In home entertainment systems, this is all common stuff.
Sky Soundbox preview: Speaker performance
- Three 2-inch full range drivers
- Six 3-inch woofers
The Sky Soundbox is a one-box audio system that comprises three 2-inch full range drivers in 120-degree configuration and six 3-inch woofers in dual push-push configuration.
In our 45-minute demo with the Sky Soundbox, we listened and watched the opening to Mad Max: Fury Road, a scene from Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a scene from Skyfall, some football, the opening of the 2017 Italian Grand Prix and, on our request, Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd.
Sadly, the results were varied. Our range of excitement went from very impressed to bitterly disappointed.
The opening of Mad Max, which was a strange pick given what the rest of the film can deliver, proved the speaker can certainly deliver a powerful bass experience without the need for a separate subwoofer.
The speaker offers Dolby Digital Plus support, not going as far as Dolby Atmos, but still manages to pack a punch given its size.
The sound stage is large, but also flat, we felt, failing to envelop us on a sofa 6-feet away. It did a good job of coping with the roar of the car and Tom Hardy's gruff opening monologue, but not a home cinema substitute.
The clip chosen from Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was the moment where Eddie Redmayne's character introduces the exotic beasts he has stored in his suitcase. It's a scene with a wide range of noises, low rumbles, high treble, and lots going on.
The Soundbox sounded awful.
The audio peaked, it sounded muddled and, we suspect, the speaker's processor got confused as to the best sound experience to choose. It was only a short clip and we were in a hotel suite rather than a traditional home environment, but we were far from impressed.
It's the same for the the football and F1, with the sound system actually sounding better with the auto adaption technology turned off. With football, the crowd noises are pumped up but at the cost of clear commentary. We had to remind Sky the tech was still off when we watched the F1 - turning it on didn't help.
The Skyfall demo proved more effective. Off and Daniel Craig's Bond was all moody muttering. On and it was clear and precise, presenting a number of shots from a Walther PPK without deafening us.
Likewise, listening to a bit of Beyoncé and Pink Floyd via a Bluetooth connection and Tidal proved there is some hope yet. It was very capable with streamed music.
Our time was brief, but at that stage we couldn't help but feel the speaker struggled with the tasks presented it in those early demonstrations. Especially with the automatic sound adjustment technology enabled. We need more time to evaluate its performance properly, but from what we've heard so far colour us unimpressed.
Beyond Sky it's also not a very clever speaker. With so many rivals out there offering multiroom experiences and/or have Alexa or Google Assistant voice control built-in, it seems archaic. This is just a speaker and not that practical either considering its shape and size. It's just not worth the £800 charged for non-Sky customers.
On the other hand, at £250 for Sky Q customers it looks a bit more attractive. You are unlikely to get as beefy a sound system for £250 on the market, but if you've got to pay the £800 then you'll easily find better solutions elsewhere.
We need to investigate further, however, and look forward to getting it into the Pocket-lint test labs for a more extensive workout.