While Sky’s announcement for this high-end soundbar may have come as a bit of a surprise earlier this year, the satellite broadcaster is by no means a stranger to offering up their own audio solutions.
Long term Sky subscribers may remember the Gnome, a triangular wireless speaker and radio combo from the mid-noughties that resembled a Teletubbies prop.
It’s unique selling point at the time was that it relayed your Sky + boxes audio output, allowing you to listen to the dulcet tones of Jeff Stelling on Soccer Saturday in the garden or bath without having to witness the horror of a roundtable consisting of Iain Dowie, Matt Le Tissier and Phil Thompson.
A tad more refined and decidedly less pointy than the Gnome, the Soundbox also has a somewhat unique feature set as well as being a device heavily subsidised by Sky for current customers.
Born out of a collaboration with French audiophile specialists Devialet, a company best known for its striking Phantom wireless speakers that start at an eye-watering £1690, the Soundbox can be picked up for a mere £249 if you’re already shelling out for a premium Sky Q multiscreen package. For regular Sky subscribers it goes for £299, while for non-Sky customers it’s a markedly less enticing £799 without the discount.
Like most soundbar systems, it aims to offer an alternative to the weedy built-in speakers found on today’s paper-thin TVs, beefing things up with an array of directional speakers to give a surround effect from a single unit, all without the hassle of the wires and rear speakers a traditional 5.1 system would normally require.
As part of the team up, Sky have taken on the design of the Soundbox with Devialet concerning themselves with the innards. With its fairly standard moulded plastic casing and black mesh speaker grille, aesthetically it’s a pretty reserved device that’s about as far removed as you can get from the futuristic sci-fi designs that are the regular hallmarks of the French firm’s gear.
Capable of Dolby audio (but unfortunately not Dolby Atmos – more on that later) the unit boasts two 7.5cm woofers firing from each side along with another pair at the back. These are complemented by three 5cm full-range drivers – one at the front and a couple facing the rear.
Recessed at the back of the unit are the device connections, with one HDMI input and output loop for linking the device to a Sky box and TV, and one optical input for connecting other AV devices. There’s also Bluetooth 4.1 wireless connectivity for mobile devices plus the promise of support in the future for Apple’s new audio streaming platform AirPlay 2.
Deliberately fuss free, once you’re all plugged in and have selected the device as an output source within your Sky box’s menu, there’s no further setup.
The keep-it-simple approach extends to selecting inputs. Apart from a power light there’s no display or other indicators. Instead, a friendly female voice is emitted from the Soundbox letting you know when a source change has been made, saying “HDMI”, “Bluetooth” or “Optical” when pressing the appropriate button on its equally minimal tiny remote control.
The Soundbox’s key feature comes with how it works in tandem with a Sky box for its audio processing. Switch on Q Sound mode and the box makes use of Sky’s programme metadata to automatically optimises the sound for the type of broadcast, with the device able to switch between three profiles - sport, music or cinema. There are three further user control modes: ‘Speech’ for boosting voices, ‘Late Night” which tones down bass frequencies, and ‘Kids’ which acts a volume limiter restricting output to below 50 per cent. Beyond that there’s no deeper controls for adjusting EQ, which may or may not be an issue depending on how much you like to tweak.
Elsewhere, the unit’s AVL (auto volume level) system monitors and adjusts audio in real time to prevent spikes in volume - a feature aimed primarily for movies that flit between whispered dialogue and explosive action scenes.
Roughly the same footprint as a Sky Q set top box, its markedly compact in width, running about half the length of Sonos’ rival Playbar. But what really strikes you about the Soundbox’s form however is its height. About twice as tall as most other soundbars at 95mm, if your TV sits on a low-profile stand there’s a fair chance the unit could obscure the bottom of the screen. With no wall mounting option and the unit’s not insignificant 21cm depth, it means the options for placement are limited.
Where your TV is positioned is also crucial to how well the device’s 360-degree sound effect works. Like most systems of this type, the Soundbox works on reflections for creating its surround effect, and performs best when there’s plenty of space around it. Sky advise leaving a 15cm clearance either side of the device to allow the side-firing drivers to work their magic, which may rule out anyone hoping to place the unit within a TV cabinet.
If you’re able to work within all these constraints, the Soundbox does delivers a powerfully impressively three-dimensional sound.
The Soundbox processing cleverly distinguishes between ambient audio and ‘direct’ sounds like dialogue, with the latter pushed out through the front speakers and the former through the rear to produce reflections. During testing this worked really well for focused speech, with dialogue delivered with impressive clarity even during the frenetic, explosion-fest finale of Rogue One.
Not having a dedicated additional Subwoofer speaker means it can’t compete for low end when compared to some of its soundbar rivals that include an additional speaker handling bass duties, however Sky claim the Soundbox can reach frequencies down as far as 35hz. That’s a ridiculously low claim that I’m somewhat sceptical of for a system this size, but in use it does unquestionably pack an impressively hefty thud for a single unit system and should more than satisfy the needs of bass heads and cinephiles alike.
With the Q Sound feature engaged while watching Manchester City’s recent 3-1 win over Arsenal the sound processing made a meaningful difference with crowd noises attenuated adding some genuine extra atmosphere. Watching Sky’s F1 coverage was somewhat less successful with engine noise sometimes ramped up to a level that at times overwhelmed the rest of the sound.
This sort of occurrence was rare, but it does mean you’ll probably find yourself switching the feature off every so often and it’s in these situations that you end of wishing there were some further options for adjusting the sound. While the Soundbox doesn’t do a bad job working from other sources via the optical input, when watching a number of films via a connected Apple TV the spatial sound offered by the Q Sound processing was lost, leaving the overall sound less focused and dialogue sometimes getting a little submerged in the mix.
Arguably a bigger disappointment for film fans will be the lack of Dolby Atmos. Support for the new surround sound format was rolled out for Sky Q in the summer which makes its omission here especially baffling and renders the device somewhat behind the curve with a steady stream of new mid-range soundbars now adopting the format.
On a more positive note, music playback is particularly good. There’s a controlled, overall mid-focused sound offering noticeable separation between instruments, handling tricky dynamic tracks like Björk’s recent ‘The Gate’ single really well. The “Music” setting is versatile enough, but as mentioned before it would have been nice to have at least had some further presets for different styles of music.
No one in their right mind who is a non-Sky subscriber should opt for the Soundbox at its current £799 asking price - there are plenty other options in that range that offer so much more including multi-room support, expandability and Dolby Atmos.
Under its discounted price however it becomes a much different proposition. It integrates seamlessly into the Sky ecosystem, and while its ultimate aim of being a stress-free system to setup and use means it has limitations, if you can live with those then you have easily the best sounding speaker of this type that’s available for under £300.
- Devialet quality sound without the space age looks or scary price tag
- Hugely subsided for Sky customers
- For everyone else it’s still too pricey
- As hassle- free a set up for a surround speaker system as you’re going to get
- Next to no tweaking of the set sound
- Awkward shape won’t work for everyone
- Powerful, immersive sound when Q Sound is engaged
- Music playback is also pretty sweet and punchy
- No Dolby Atmos support
- Doesn’t sound as good with other devices when watching movies or sport as it does when connected to a Sky box