If you hadn’t already noticed, a certain design principle pervades the home audio biz: Take a winning design, super-size it, jack up the price, and call it “premium.” Everyone does it, and it often works, so we’re not surprised to see Klipsch take that tack with the R20-B Reference sound bar and wireless subwoofer, the $800 step-up to the R10-B system we reviewed months ago.
Unfortunately, the R20-B does nothing to address the source of our malaise with its predecessor – a lack of key features – making the price tag even harder to swallow in a product space where we tend to expect more frills for our dollar bills.
That means the R20-B needs to justify its premium price with a significant improvement in performance. And while the souped-up sound bar does up the ante, we weren’t exactly bowled over.
Out of the box
The R20-B’s highlight is its serious subwoofer. Complete with robust MDF enclosure, and bursting with quality, the sub sports an 10-inch driver to reproduce even more thunder.
We’re bothered by the R20-B’s modest feature set.
The sound bar itself, though, is a simple slab of plastic, crossed at the front with a streamlined speaker screen (which we find slightly reminiscent of the X-Men logo) and layered with an extra spoonful of Klipsch’s copper-colored drivers.
The accessories box is packed with all you’ll need to get the system up and running, including rubberized feet to help decouple the unit from a TV cabinet, power cables, a small remote control, and an optical cable, outlining one of only two ways to connect the system to your home theater setup.
Features and design
There’s no denying the R20-B is a sharp machine, even more-so than the R10-B, thanks to those extra drivers, which add a touch more copper-top-sexy to the equation. At 8.5 pounds, the bar is pretty light, especially when compared to its massive subwoofer counterpart. But as we said with the R10, the sound bar’s feathery weight makes for easier mounting, and that’s a good thing since it is tall enough to block your TV’s infra-red remote control sensor.Beneath the speaker screen, the system packs four 3-inch polypropylene midrange drivers (2 more than the R10-B), and dual ¾-inch textile dome tweeters mated to Klipsch’s Tractrix horns for enhanced dispersion. Total system power is a claimed 250 watts.
As we eluded to earlier, we’re bothered by the R20-B’s modest feature set. Aside from a tri-colored LED array at the front, there’s no user interface, making volume levels and source selection a little difficult to detect.There’s also no user-adjustable DSP or EQ control, and no HDMI connection, which limits audio source options and makes the use of ARC (which can simplify connection and control of the system considerably) a non-option. The bar does include Bluetooth with aptX for CD-quality wireless streaming from compatible devices, as well as basic Dolby Digital decoding – sorry, no DTS.
Input options include one stereo RCA analog input and a digital Optical input. Around front, a modest collection of on-board buttons control power, volume, source selection, and Bluetooth pairing. These controls are echoed on the small remote.
One option you’ll find on the remote that isn’t on the bar itself is the 3D button, which engages the virtual surround function that accounts for the R20-B’s only real sound adjustment option. However, the 3D effect creates a strange sound in the center image, especially in the midrange, sounding almost like you’ve got water in your ears. As such, we kept the feature disabled.
Since the R20-B only has two inputs, setup is going to be simple no matter what. Still, there are a couple of different approaches to take, depending on where your priorities are.
This sub is big and barreling.
If you value simplicity over sound quality, or if you watch mostly TV and streaming content from Netflix or other online services through smart TV apps, simply running an optical cable from your television to the sound bar is going to provide the best overall experience, though Blu-ray disc sound quality will take a small hit.
If, however, you watch more Blu-ray movies than most, you may want to make your one digital connection to your Blu-ray player and connect to your TV with RCA cables (if supported). Neither scenario is ideal, which is why we’re so displeased with the lack of input options.
We began our audition with one of the new Hobbit Films, The Desolation of Smaug, and it was evident almost immediately that the R20-B has a real aptitude for stark, luminous clarity. While the upper midrange and treble are rendered with a steely finish, there’s certainly no lack of detail or nuance there. The rippling water from the dip of an oar, the textured creak of a bow as an arrow is notched, and the slender whispers of the Elven king were all served up on a sparkling silver platter.
The clarity continued as we turned to one of our favorite Blu-rays for audio evaluation, Skyfall. The audio is superbly produced, and it gave the R20-B a nice platform for displaying its penchant for resolving nuance in dialog, leaving no breath or turn of phrase behind. There’s a point right before a big explosion in which Judi Dench’s “M” becomes frustrated while exiting her car saying, “For God’s sake!” The “for” in that phrase often gets obscured, but in this case it was clear as a summer dawn.
As the inevitable explosion from the scene erupted, we got a real taste of that 10-inch sub, bellowing with a thunderous clap at the very roots of the sound. The sub is big and barreling in its approach, like a runaway semi screaming down a mountain pass. However, in spite of its visceral potency, we found ourselves missing the R10-B’s tighter, more musical 8-inch sub. There’s no doubt the bigger block can beat the drums of war, but we wouldn’t mind if it were a tighter and more delicate in its approach. There was also a noticeable disconnect between the sub’s beefy low end and the sound bar’s high frequencies
As time passed, we also found ourselves slightly irked by that steely resonance in the upper register at times. The clean brilliance is perfect for yielding clear dialog, snappy gunfire and sputtering engines, but we wished for a softer touch with music. Brass instruments sounded especially strident in the sustain, as if each note was resonating off the head of a crash cymbal.
When it comes to clarifying the details and adding a theatrical flair to movies or music, Klipsch’s R20-B is no slouch. But for $800, you should get a moonroof and a spoiler, not vinyl seats and a tape deck. The R20-B aims to wow with performance, and in some ways it succeeds, but the frills-free design left us wanting more. For our money, the R10-B hits the sweet spot of Klipsch’s Reference line.
And if it’s more features you crave, we also suggest looking at the Sony CT-770, The Denon S514, or if you’re willing to step up a stretch, even the Yamaha YSP-2500 or the Def Tech Solo Cinema Studio.
- Brilliant clarity
- Well-balanced midrange and treble
- Handles dynamics well
- Powerful sub-frequencies
- Meager feature set
- Bass could be more musical
- Upper register gets a bit steely at times
- Virtual surround feature creates nasally soundstage