A full 5.1 system is the home cinema ideal, but it’s not always realistic if space is tight or you can’t stand clutter. So one compromise is to buy a soundbar and confine the entire system to the front of the room within one slender unit.
That’s exactly what you get from LG’s BB5521A. It packs a Blu-ray player, 4.1-channel amplifier and speakers into one soundbar that can be conveniently placed on your TV stand or a shelf, with bass provided by a wireless powered subwoofer.
Design and connections
LG has done a wonderful job with the BB5521A’s design. I’m a sucker for a silver finish, and here it gives the system a funky, futuristic feel with the brushed texture lending an extra touch of class.
On the front, a curved platform juts forward, housing the disc slot and a USB port (for digital media playback from storage devices), above which is a large display panel. The exposed speaker cones and tweeters that line up along the front look great, and for up-close control there’s a row of touch-sensitive controls embedded in the gloss black panel on top.
The only design downside is the bulky rear end, which prevents the unit from being wall-mounted. As for the subwoofer, its silver finish is a perfect match for the soundbar. Being wireless, you can place it where you like, which is a bonus in awkwardly shaped rooms.
The generous connections line-up includes an HDMI v1.4 output, hinting at the unit’s 3D compatibility, with two HDMI inputs that make it easy to run other HD kit through the system. That effectively turns it into a switcher, which is useful if you only have one HDMI input on your TV.
They’re joined by optical digital and 3.5mm minijack inputs, composite output, FM aerial input and an Ethernet port. In the box is an iPod/iPhone dock that plugs into a dedicated port.
Somehow LG has squeezed an inordinate amount of features into the BB5521A’s slender frame.
Built-in Wi-Fi opens the gateway to the unit’s web content, which resides in LG’s Smart TV portal. There’s a decent range of ‘premium’ apps, including BBC iPlayer, YouTube, Acetrax Movies, Picasa, Viewster, vTuner, Dailymotion, Google Maps, I-Play TV, CineTrailer, AccuWeather, Funspot, AUPEO! and MLB.TV. A separate service, LG Apps, offers a slew of games, puzzles and lifestyle apps – some entertaining, many useless.
The BB5521A can also stream music, video and photos from servers on your network, or directly from devices using Wi-Fi Direct. LG’s remote app allows you to control the system over a network too.
It’s backed up by multimedia playback from USB. Format support is excellent, handling MKV, DivX HD, AVCHD, WMV, MP4, AVI, MP3, WMA and AAC.
LG has also included a bunch of Sound Effect modes to enhance audio. Most relevant is the Virtual mode, which attempts to make up for the lack of real rear speakers with a surround like effect. Other modes include Natural, Bass, Clear Voice, Night, Game, Loudness and User EQ, which lets you tweak the sound using a seven-band onscreen graphic equaliser.
There’s no automatic calibration, but you can manually set the volume of the four discrete channels using the dedicated controls on the remote.
Setup is incredibly simple. Plonk the soundbar on a stand or shelf, position the sub, power both up and they pair automatically. Apart from hooking up HDMI cables to your TV and other devices, that’s pretty much it.
The BB5521’s operating system finds the perfect blend of flashiness and logic. The menu graphics are beautifully presented in bold colours and legible fonts.
If anything, the onscreen menus are a little too elaborate. The Smart TV menu, for instance, is superimposed over a cartoon-like graphic of a park, while the LG Apps menu is dressed up to look like shelves. Thankfully, this fussy presentation doesn’t hinder the system’s usability.
The Home menu displays a row of icons, offering quick access to different types of content. Select Movie, for instance, and it shows you a list of video content on the network and connected devices.
I’m particularly impressed by the slick media playback screens, which show album art and information about the current song/video. The Gracenote powered Music ID service is a real boon, downloading artist/title/album info when you load a CD and allowing you to find out about songs being played.
The system is controlled with an attractive silver remote, which boasts an excellent button layout. It makes most operations feel intuitive, plus the buttons are responsive and clearly labelled.
Hearing the BB5521A in action is a real treat. It’s a far cry from the authentic, enveloping experience of a 5.1-channel system, but there’s enough enthusiasm and sparkle to gloss over the gaping holes in the soundstage.
The dramatic opening scenes of Thor on Blu-ray perfectly demonstrate the LG’s qualities. As Thor battles the Frost Giants on Yodenheim, what becomes apparent is the system’s power – it's rated at 430W in total but somehow sounds bigger and louder. I only cranked the volume a third of the way up and was already worrying about disturbing the neighbours. It fills a room easily, and that’s not something you can say about all soundbars.
It makes the scene’s pulverising effects, such as the thump of Thor’s hammer smashing into his foes and the footsteps of the huge alien beast, sound rich and meaty – boosted by the punchy sub that integrates well with the soundbar.
There’s also a great deal of high-frequency information in the mix, giving everything a naturally airy and open feel. Mid-range frequencies are strong too, allowing dialogue to push through to the forefront when necessary.
Inevitably the sound is a little coloured and compressed – turn off the sub and you’ll hear just how limited the speakers are – yet as a whole the sound is satisfyingly cohesive.
The Virtual mode widens the sound a little but there’s no surround presence – if you want true surround from a soundbar check the Yamaha YSP-2200.
The BB5521A backs up its pleasing sound performance with superb pictures. 2D Blu-ray discs boast scalpel-sharp detail and vibrant colours, while 3D images look smooth and composed.
With its generous feature list, impressive sound quality and stylish, space-saving design, the BB5521A is a thoroughly impressive home cinema system. Other soundbars may offer better surround presence and let you put them on the wall, but few offer this many features and look this good – and the inclusion of a wireless sub is the icing on the cake.
Manufacturer and model
Component video output
Composite video output
Digital audio inputs
3.5mm minijack input
Dolby True HD decoding
DTS HD Master Audio decoding
Yes (supplied dock)
DLNA media streaming
LG Smart TV
Supported media formats
MKV, AVCHD, XviD, WMV, AVI, DivX HD, M4V, FLV, 3GP, WMA, MP3, AAC, WAV, FLAC
Dimensions (main unit) W x H x D
1,000 x 95 x 207mm
Audio Return Channel support
Sound Effect modes