Arcam Solo Sound Bar
By Chris Heinonen on
Curiously as you spend more money on a sound bar, you often wind up with fewer features. You can find $300 sound bars with multiple HDMI inputs, Bluetooth, and an IR repeater. Once you get to more expensive, and often better sounding, sound bars that sell for $1,000 and up you find ones without any of those. The Arcam Solo Sound Bar is a sound bar designed by an audiophile company that comes with every feature you want. Four HDMI inputs, Bluetooth with AptX, ARC, an IR repeater, AutoEQ, and an optional wireless subwoofer make the Solo full-featured. It also is designed around high-end audio quality just like all other Arcam products are.
For the most part, the Arcam Solo delivers. It sounds very good with both stereo music and with movies. It has four HDMI inputs so you can use it for all your devices to get the lossless audio from them. The IR repeater works well and the AutoEQ system does a good job of optimizing audio for your listening position. The downsides are that it is rather large for a sound bar and without the optional subwoofer the sound is very thin.
Whatever you want in a sound bar, you’ll probably find it inside of the Arcam Solo. Four HDMI inputs that support Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio? Check. An IR Repeater to let you easily control the TV? Ready to go. A setup mic to optimize the speakers and optional subwoofer to the behavior of your room? Also there. The only thing you can really classify as missing is that there isn’t a way to create a 5.1 channel system using it. The Arcam Solo is only a 2.1 channel system but more often this is what people are after.
I’ve spend a lot of time going back-and-forth on if HDMI in a soundbar is really important, or if it can be skipped. At first you’d think it is an easy decision, since HDMI can handle the lossless audio formats off Blu-ray and it provides more inputs. But is this against the goal of a sound bar? I always thought of a sound bar as a cost-effective solution to improve upon the audio from your TV. Not as your main audio system, but as something you’d install in a second room or bedroom so the audio didn’t suck.
Over time the role of the sound bar has changed a bit. More and more people don’t want a big, complex system in their living room. People want something that sounds good, works well, and doesn’t draw attention to itself. While many of the first sound bars were cheap (and often cheap sounding) because of this, now you have sound bars aiming for the high-end. Having listened to dozens of them in the past few years, there are sound bars on the market that do provide a real high-end listening experience. They all have some faults compared to the traditional speakers and receiver approach, as you can’t just change physics, but they can sound great.
Easy Setup and Use
For the most part, setup of the Arcam Solo Bar is very straight forward. You plug-in all your HDMI devices as you would with a receiver, connect it to the TV, and you’re basically done. The subwoofer paired automatically for me and then I inserted the microphone and ran the AutoEQ routine. This adjusted the levels to be appropriate for my seated position and I was ready to go.
Since the Arcam Solo Bar supports HDMI CEC, in theory it should automatically switch input and turn on devices as appropriate. In some cases, this worked very well. If I pushed Eject on my Oppo BDP-103D Blu-ray player to insert a movie, the Solo and my TV both turned on and went to the correct inputs. HDMI CEC lets the TV remote control the volume of the Solo Bar and the IR Pass-thru let my TV remote work even as the IR receiver is blocked. In this case it works flawlessly.
Watching TV, which uses HDMI-ARC to send audio from my TV to the sound bar, did not go as smoothly. Sometimes I’d turn on the TV and the Arcam would switch to the correct input, but often it would not. It would sometimes go to the wrong input, or just not recognize the audio stream coming correctly. This isn’t limited to the Arcam, HDMI ARC seems to work correctly around 10% of the time with any device I have tested, but it makes it harder to use without a universal remote.
The Solo Bar can be controlled with your iOS or Android device thanks to an app that communicates over Bluetooth. It doesn’t offer anything over the standard remote, but might be more convenient for people. Built-in Bluetooth also means you can easily stream all your music directly to the Arcam from any Bluetooth device you have.
To get the most out of the Arcam Solo Bar, it really needs to be paired with a subwoofer. Each channel has dual 4” drivers for bass, but they only can reach so low. Rated to 170Hz, this leaves a lot of lower octaves uncovered by the Solo. While the music sounds very clear and detailed with a tweeter and the dual 4” drivers. It can sound a bit thin and hollow because of the lack of low-end. Adding on the subwoofer fixes this issue, but increases by price by nearly 50%.
With the subwoofer connected music sounds very good through the Arcam. Voices are clear with good stereo separation. You are able to locate instruments and singers in complex mixes while the sound bar and subwoofer integration is well done. The overall sound is a tad darker that the Paradigm Soundscape, but still very accurate overall.
Movies perform better than music on the Arcam Solo. Compared to the Paradigm I was unable to prefer one to the other. The Paradigm has a separate center channel to help with dialogue but I never had trouble with the Arcam. Fed surround sound over HDMI the Arcam creates a very wide soundstage that comes back on the side walls to be equal with me.
Using the Arcam in the living room for a few weeks I was never disappointed in its performance. It sounds far better than my TV and then the Vizio sound bar that usually lives there. I would stream audio from my phone to the Arcam over Bluetooth to listen to Spotify and my favorite podcasts. TV and movies both benefit from the much better sound when compared to my TVs speakers. Perhaps most importantly for people, it integrated into my living room easily.
The main issue with the Arcam in usability is the HDMI ARC issues. I don’t think this is just a problem for Arcam, but instead something that is inherent to HDMI ARC. You could get a more reliable connection by using Optical instead of HDMI, which is what I did, but then you lose the automated input switching that HDMI should offer. A universal remote will let you do both of these fine, but you shouldn’t need one.
I also ran into a weird issue with Bluetooth on my iPhone. If I was watching something on TV and had sound going through the Arcam, my phone would also automatically connect to it over Bluetooth. Many sound bars don’t have Bluetooth enabled unless that input is selected, so your phone won’t connect to it unless you are using it for listening to music. Since the Arcam lets your phone control it over Bluetooth with an app, Bluetooth is always on. Most people might not have something on TV while also watching or listening to something on their phone, but be aware of this if you do.
Good Sound, Fair Value
The Arcam Solo Bar sounds very good, and is very loaded when it comes to features. The main area where it comes up short is value. The Paradigm Soundscape sounds as good, with much deeper bass, for the same price. You can add-on a subwoofer to fix the bass issues but then you’re spending $700-1,000 more than with the Paradigm. What the Arcam does offer is far more features than the Paradigm: IR repeater, HDMI inputs and output, an EQ system, Bluetooth control, and even more drivers per channel.
The Arcam Solo Bar is a very nice high-end sound bar. I wish it was a little bit more affordable to compete directly with the Paradigm but with all its features it will work for more people. If you want high-end sound with the simplicity of a sound bar, the Arcam Solo Bar fits the bill nicely.
More features than any other sound bar, good stereo sound, great with movies.
Really needs the optional subwoofer to fill in the bottom end, HDMI ARC still prone to issues.
The Arcam Solo Bar is a full featured sound bar that produces very good overall sound quality. I would budget in the optional subwoofer because the bottom end can use it.