THE GOOD: Sound bar home theater system; very thin design; wireless subwoofer; surprisingly solid sound quality on movies, given its size; three inputs (two optical, one minijack); simple setup; useful "smart volume" control.
THE BAD: No HDMI connectivity; sounds lackluster with music; faux-surround effects are mild.
THE BOTTOM LINE: The Samsung HW-C450 is an exceedingly thin sound bar home theater system that sounds surprisingly good with movies, but lacks HDMI connectivity.
Sound bars aren't as thin as the slimmest HDTVs yet, but the Samsung HW-C450 ($300 street price) is getting close. It is less than 2 inches thick, which seems almost impossibly thin, considering the fact that it houses six drivers and built-in amplification. Even more impressive is that Samsung manages to get some impressive sound quality out of those cramped quarters (plus a wireless subwoofer), with better-than-average sonic detail on movies. Music, on the other hand, sounds a little disappointing, and JVC's somewhat heftier TH-BA1 is a better pick if you plan on listening to more than TV and movies. Our other main knock against the HW-C450 is the lack of HDMI connectivity, especially when the competing Sony HT-CT150 ($300 street price) has three HDMI inputs, all capable of 3D video pass-through. If the lack of HDMI connectivity doesn't bother you, the Samsung HW-C450 is one of the sleekest sound bar home theater systems we've tested, making it a good pick for style-minded buyers who mostly watch movies.
The HW-C450 is one of the most decor-friendly sound bars we've tested. At only 1.77 inches deep, its slim profile makes it easy to fit on even the most crowded TV stands. It's 3.62 inches high, so it should fit easily under an HDTV without obscuring the screen. From the front, you'll notice six total drivers, separated by a glossy black finish, as per Samsung's usual style. There's also a small LCD display along the top, which we appreciate, although its size makes it hard to see from far back. Next to the display are several touch-sensitive buttons, which are handy in case the remote goes missing. The lack of need for a wire to connect the included sub just adds to the minimalist charm.
The remote mostly matches the simplicity of the bar's physical design. Samsung doesn't clutter up the clicker with too many unnecessary buttons, and important functions like volume, at least, get different colors to make them easier to spot. We appreciated the ability to adjust subwoofer volume directly with the remote, which isn't always available.
The HW-C450 can be wall mounted with the supplied bracket or placed on a shelf; we went with the second option. Unfortunately, the HW-C450's 1.77 inch depth doesn't make for a stable design. Samsung should include pads or footers to prevent the speaker from tipping over.
Our sample HW-C450's wireless subwoofer automatically linked with the speaker; if it didn't work we would have initiated the simple "ID Set" procedure. The wireless sub worked perfectly throughout the testing period, and we didn't experience dropouts, noise, or other malfunctions. As with all small speaker-subwoofer systems, we recommend placing the sub within a few feet of the speaker--much further away and you start to hear the sub as a separate sound source.
If you're put off by overly complex home theater setup requirements, put the HW-C450 on your short list. It doesn't have setup menus or speaker calibration requirements. Just hook up the AC power plus analog and/or optical digital audio connections to your sources and you're good to go. The two-channel speaker levels are fixed, but you can adjust the subwoofer volume level from the remote--a feature we'd like to see on more sound bar and home theater in a box systems.
The HW-C450 hits most of the key points we look for in a sound bar home theater system. The wireless subwoofer eliminates another cord from your home theater. Included basics, like a remote and LCD display, which go missing from many competing sound bar HTIBs, make it relatively easy to use. The HW-C450 lacks any video pass-through options, so you'll need to run all video cables directly from the sources to your TV.
The HW-C450's connectivity package is less extensive than we would have liked. Most glaring is the omission of any HDMI connectivity, which is available on the similarly-priced Sony HT-CT150 and Panasonic SC-HTB10. Two optical inputs are the main digital audio connections and the HW-C450 also includes a minijack input designed to handle a device with a stereo analog audio output. Samsung includes a minijack-to-stereo RCA adapter cable with the HW-C450. If you have a simple home theater--three devices or fewer--the HW-C450 may fit your needs, but it's smart to check whether it has enough inputs to handle all your gear. There's also a USB port on the back, but it's used only for firmware updates.
Only standard Dolby and DTS decoding are handled by the HW-C450. In our opinion that's not a major loss, as the superior sonic fidelity of high-resolution soundtracks like Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio is likely to be lost on a single speaker system like the HW-C450.
Don't let the HW-C450's sleek proportions fool you: this system is surprisingly potent. The speaker's tonal balance is rich, but doesn't skimp on detail or energy. True-surround envelopment isn't a strong suit, but the HW-C450 can project a wide and spacious soundfield.
We were so impressed with the HW-C450's natural sound that we'll start by recounting our listening sessions with a music Blu-ray, the AIX "Audio Calibration Disc HD Music Sampler." John Gorka's vocal and acoustic guitar sounded natural as can be; few sound bars--even very expensive ones like Yamaha's YSP-4100--can touch the HW-C450 in this regard. But there was little virtual surround and the YSP-4100 is much better on that score.
There's a scene from the first episode of the "Mad Men Season Three" Blu-ray in which Don (Jon Hamm) and Sal (Bryan Batt) are on a jet flying to Baltimore. The sound of ice cubes hitting the sides of the plastic cups, the roar of the air conditioning, and the low drone of the engines in the plane's cabin were beautifully rendered by the HW-C450. That level of subtle detail isn't something we take for granted with budget-priced sound bars, but the HW-C450 rose above the fray.
We used the battle scenes from the "Black Hawk Down" Blu-ray to test the HW-C450's Smart Volume feature. With Smart Volume turned on, from the remote, the helicopter crash and gunfire weren't much louder than the dialogue. At first we weren't sure the Smart Volume was actually doing anything, but it was working so well we didn't hear the usual adverse effects of dynamic range compression (dulling and muffling of the sound). The HW-C450 has another potentially useful feature, DRC, which does pretty much the same thing, but we preferred Smart Volume. The wireless subwoofer's bass was full, though not particularly powerful.
The sound was less impressive with CDs, as on them the treble was harsher, and we noticed a gap in the bass between the sub and the speaker for the first time. The HW-C450 will be adequate for background music listening--or even multichannel mixes, like the AIX disc--but not a great choice for buyers who play a lot of two-channel music. The HW-C450 sounds best with movies.