One pressing First World problem is that the built-in speakers found in many higher-end TVs typically produce tinny, tepid audio. The trend toward increasingly thinner TVs with ever-narrower bezels means there is no room left to squeeze decent speakers into a typical set, regardless of screen size or retail price. For better or worse, good sound is something you must add to your TV.
There are many ways to improve the sound of your TV, and the right choice depends on many factors that include budget, space, and the intended application.
The Vizio SS2521-C6 25″ 2.1 TV Sound Stand ($250) offers a simple and affordable turnkey solution for augmenting TV audio. It’s a one-piece unit—the base houses a subwoofer and the stereo speakers. Inside the box, Vizio thoughtfully provides cables for every input as well as a remote control. For most installations, all you have to do to set up the Vizio sound stand is place it under a TV, plug it in, and connect it to the appropriate audio sources using the included cables.
I had a 60″ Panasonic TC-65CX800 UHDTV in for review when I got the SS2521, so used it to test out the Vizio sound stand. It proved to be a perfect fit for the CX800’s pedestal, and the optical digital-audio cable Vizio provided was more than long enough to make the connection. Additionally, I used a coaxial cable to connect the sound stand to my Pioneer SC-55 AVR. It took me less than five minutes to fully unpack and set up the sound stand, and that includes going into the TV’s menu to set its audio options accordingly.
Speaking of audio options, the Vizio sound stand decodes Dolby Digital in addition to handling PCM. Furthermore, it offers DTS TruSurround HD, TruVolume, and Studio Sound processing. It also offers traditional bass and treble tone controls. In the performance section, I discuss the settings I wound up using for the best sound quality.
The Vizio sound stand’s sleek low-profile design allowed it to blend in seamlessly with the TV; I found it less visually obtrusive than the vast majority of soundbars I’ve seen—sitting underneath the CX800, it was practically invisible.
Despite the low-profile design, the sound stand pumps out clear audio at rather impressive volume levels, considering its price. Vizio specs a peak output of 101 dB and bass reproduction down to 55 Hz, which is beyond the capabilities of the built-in sound systems found in most TVs.
Stereo imaging is limited by the sound stand’s form factor because there’s only so much you can do with drivers that are only two feet apart. Even so, it did not sound monophonic when I was seated about seven feet away, but nobody is going to mistake it for surround sound, even when using the DTS processing. Vizio’s 5.1 soundbars offer a considerably more compelling cinematic experience, but without the space savings or aesthetic minimalism of the sound stand.
The sound stand’s onboard display is as low key and minimalistic as the device itself. A row of white LEDs neatly hidden behind the grill convey status by lighting up and blinking in various ways. The code is simple and easy to learn, but it’s slightly cryptic at first. A quick peek at the included manual provided all the insight I needed to figure out what the blinking lights were indicating. The only part that was not self-evident was ascertaining which input each of the lights represented. Even so, I learned how to tell what was what rather quickly because when you switch inputs, the sound stand searches for the next active input, so it’s quite foolproof.
When I first heard the SS2521, I was a bit discouraged. It didn’t sound bad per se, but the bass was boomy and a bit bloated. I tried both music and movies using the default audio settings of the sound stand, since a typical consumer would expect plug-and-play performance out of such an appliance. When I turned the volume up, I could hear significant amounts of dynamic compression.
Based on what I heard, I decided to take some basic measurements of the system. First, I checked the in-room frequency response while using the default settings. I took multiple measurements in a cluster of locations around the main listening position using REW (Room EQ Wizard) software and a miniDSP UMIK-1 USB measurement microphone. It turns out that in my room, the sound stand produces about 10 dB too much bass.
I adjusted the bass tone control to its lowest setting and took another series of measurements. The resulting curve was quite close to the response I seek when I configure any surround or stereo system, with a peak bass output around 10 dB higher than the treble (instead of 20 dB).
Lowering the bass didn’t just balance the sound, it had a profound impact on the quality of its output at higher volumes. Since it takes a tenfold increase in power to achieve a 10 dB increase in volume, it follows that lowering the bass by 10 dB conserves a similar amount of power. The dynamic compression I had heard at default settings went away, replaced by a surprisingly crisp and competent presentation—for a TV sound stand, that is.
As it turns out, the DTS TruSurround HD processing had a lot to do with the good sound I heard. When I turned the TruSurround feature off, the soundstage shrank a lot. Furthermore, the tonal balance shifted and lost some clarity, especially in the treble region. REW measurements revealed a 2 dB drop in treble response as compared to using TruSurround. In order to get a good response curve with the feature turned off, I had to boost the treble control by three notches and turn the bass all the way down.
Once I worked out the tone adjustments, I compared the overall sound quality with TruSurround HD turned on and off and found that I preferred leaving it on. The DTS processing created a cohesive stereo image that was quite a bit wider than the physical dimensions of the device. Furthermore the processing had the effect of lifting the soundfield, so it appeared to be at ear level rather than emanating from under the TV. To my ears, the DTS TruSurround processing offered a noticeable improvement in fidelity with no apparent downside, so I think it should remain on.
Considering its price point, form factor, and feature list, I am happy to recommend Vizio’s SS2521-C6 2.1 sound stand to anyone looking for an easy and affordable way to improve the audio coming from their TV. It’s no substitute for a proper surround system, nor can it compete with Vizio’s 5.1 soundbars when it comes to creating a sense of immersion. However, Vizio makes no such claim for the SS2521—its job is to play loud and clear while taking up a minimum amount of space—a task it performs admirably well.