Philips Fidelio HTL9100 review

The Fidelio is a beautiful, feature packed system with an innovative design, but it lacks some of the refinements we expect from a system at this price.
The Fidelio is a beautiful, feature packed system with an innovative design, but it lacks some of the refinements we expect from a system at this price.
The Fidelio is a beautiful, feature packed system with an innovative design, but it lacks some of the refinements we expect from a system at this price.

Highs

  • Seamless surround sound environment
  • Smooth, clear sound signature
  • Innovative wireless design
  • Elegant aesthetic

Lows

  • Weak midrange
  • Some light distortion
  • Lack of fine detail

Since our first introduction to Philips’ new Fidelio HTL 9100 power bar last March, we’ve been jonesing for some hands-on time with the first truly wireless 5.1 sound solution we’ve encountered. Sure, there are plenty of sound bars that offer wireless transmission to satellite speakers. But the Fidelio shifts the paradigm, offering magnetically-connected surround speakers that charge from the bar and detach to be placed anywhere in the room for up to 10 hours of compression-free surround sound – no strings (er…wires) attached.

The only cords in this game are to be found on the main sound bar and subwoofer (we’re still waiting for someone to go all Tesla on us and solve that little dilemma). And the Fidelio is packed with plenty of features and inputs to accommodate your audio needs. Of course, freedom isn’t free, and the wireless lifestyle comes at a price – $800 to be exact, which places the system in some regal company. To find out how it ranked, we recently brought the Fidelio home for a few days to put it through its paces. Follow us below to see the results.

Video review

Out of the box

Opening the Fidelio’s tightly packed box revealed what appeared to be a standard-size sound bar wrapped in a white shroud. Removing the cover exposed an elegantly rounded fin with taught speaker screens across its front face, parted at the center with a sleek strip of brushed metal.

Philips Fidelio soundbar HTL7180 subwoofer and tower

Beneath the main bar was a second layer of packaging, which housed two small speaker wedges with Lego-like connection pieces at the sides, and an elongated cube with a 6.5-inch woofer carved into the bottom. Also in the box were two power cables, a packet of instructional material, some mounting brackets, and an ovular remote control. Surprisingly for $800 worth of sonic bling, there were no connecting cables included.

Features and design

The Fidelio is another example in the promising trend of chic, minimalist gear, trading ostentatious rows of buttons and dials for a succinct, understated design. The beaded power button at the front is the solitary onboard control, and the only hint of the sound bar’s ample feature set comes from a row of crystal-white LED’s along the center panel, which indicate source selection, as well as EQ, and volume level during adjustment.

… another example in the promising trend of chic, minimalist gear, trading ostentatious rows of buttons and dials for a succinct, understated design.

The bar’s back panel hosts a substantial collection of inputs including two HDMI ports, Coaxial and Optical digital inputs, an RCA Aux input, and a 3.5mm input. If you’re not rolling in connecting cables, the system is a bit of a tease since it includes zero in the box (a first in our testing). But even if you didn’t come prepared, you can still play music from your phone or newer TV via Fidelio’s Bluetooth connection. The system also incorporates a TV ARC HDMI out, which allows for TV audio to be sent down the line to the sound bar.

The primary sound bar is armed with a pair of 2.5-inch midrange drivers and one pair of 1-inch tweeters. Frequency response is rated at 130Hz-20KHz while total power output is rated at 50 watts. Each of the small surround speakers contains a single 2.5-inch driver, while the sub’s 6.5-inch woofer holds down the low end from 30-130Hz. Total system power is rated at 210 watts RMS. The system employs a Dolby Digital surround sound decoder, as well as Pro Logic II surround processing for stereo sources.

Access to the bulk of the Fidelio’s features are handled by the remote, which allows for source selection, treble and bass adjustment, volume, power, mute and even Bluetooth pairing. Additional controls include an Audio Sync adjustment (which controls delay to the surround speakers), the subdued night mode, virtual surround sound, and auto volume.

Philips Fidelio soundbar HTL7180 soundbar center macro

Charging the surround speakers is accomplished by placing them near the side docking stations where they are magnetically pulled in securely to the bar. An LED on each speaker glows red to indicate a charge is needed, later turning white when the charge is complete. Conversely, the LED glows white while the speakers are detached, turning red when the charge falls below 30 percent.

Setup

The Fidelio’s succinct design exterior carries through to the entire system and interface, offering a dummy-proof setup that is both simple and intuitive. After plugging in the sound bar and sub, we fired the system up and it instantly paired wirelessly to both the subwoofer and the surround speakers. The sound bar’s put-it-anywhere arrangement is accomplished by an orientation sensor, which automatically adjusts optimal sound depending on whether the bar is mounted upright, or set lengthwise on a flat surface. We chose the latter.

For testing purposes, we connected our Blu-Ray player via the system’s HDMI input, and ran video up to the TV through the HDMI ARC output. For music, we connected our iPhone 5 via Bluetooth by simply pressing the Bluetooth button on the remote and choosing the device on our phone. These are just two of the many connection methods available, and those who plan to use the system for all TV sources will want to take advantage of one of the system’s many other inputs.

The only slight complication in setup arose when we wanted to listen in to music in stereo vs. surround sound. While the system automatically goes into virtual surround mode when the speakers detach, the mode must be deactivated from the remote when they are reconnected.

Performance

To be clear, we loved the simplicity and intuitive nature of the system. For smaller apartments or those who hate clutter, the ability to detach the surround wedges and place them around you anywhere they fit is just cool. Also, when we wanted to simply jam out, reconnecting the speakers was a snap, and the Bluetooth connection was rock solid, refusing to drop out as we moved about our apartment.

Movies

To test the Fidelio’s surround sound chops we called upon an old favorite: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. We placed the wedge speakers leisurely behind us on the couch, and settled in.

The sound was a little too close behind us at first, so we adjusted the audio sync delay a couple of notches, which spread things out more accurately. Immediately we were enjoying an impressive display of continuity as the speakers spread the sound through the spherical environment. As the young wizards entered the Quidditch World Cup, a broom buzzed us from the left rear, cutting a keen trail across the room and erupting in a deep thud of magical explosions from the lively arena at the front.

Charging the surround speakers is accomplished by placing them near the side docking stations where they are magnetically pulled in securely to the bar.

As we moved on, we were continually impressed by the laser accurate movement. When Harry faces the dragon, for instance, the creature’s expulsion of a fireball spun through the room with a seamless transition from left to right, flickering wildly with crackling flames. Meanwhile, the dragon growled from directly behind us in a perfectly-defined rear center image. There were also a few of those fun moments in which the system fooled us into thinking the sound from the film was coming from the actual environment around us. At the finale in the maze, for instance, a whistling sound that signaled the start of the task was cast forth in a swirling billow that materialized to our right side, sounding distinctly as if it were coming from the street outside our window.

The Fidelio’s clean upper register did a nice job when summoned upon to handle musical transitions, expanding the fluttering strings and brass with crystalline radiance. Dialogue was also well rendered, with excellent annunciation. As for the lower end, bass was full, adding a welcome touch of visceral force to spells, dragons, and the like. The weak point, again, was the midrange, which was anemic, especially when handled by the surround speakers, delivering the heavier effects with a cold, frail hand. The single 2.5 drivers of the satellites were simply underpowered, and had a tendency to distort when things got hot.

Philips Fidelio soundbar HTL7180 subwoofer macro

Much like our music sessions – which we detail below – we were also underwhelmed with the textural detail, which is so important for fostering the illusion of complete immersion into the movie. While the sound was extremely clear, it never reached the lucid level of definition that makes mundane effects seem almost like poignant experiences. Finer moments like chalk strokes in Moody’s classroom, or the creaking of the castle’s ancient wooden doors fell a little flat. There were some tactile scenes, such as the whirring and spinning of the silver machines in Dumbledore’s office, but we were left wanting more.

Music

We began our testing by running the Fidelio through a gauntlet of different genres from our music catalog with our Bluetooth-connected iPhone 5. Though we tested some tracks in virtual surround mode with the speakers detached, we got the best results by adjoining the satellites and listening in good ole’ fashioned stereo.

…the ability to detach the surround wedges and place them around you anywhere they fit is just cool.

There’s a languid gloss to the Fidelio’s sound signature that’s quite pleasant. The treble is delicate, handling upper register instruments such as cymbals, and chimes with a present, powdery glow. Bass was full and powerful as well, especially considering modest size of the 6.5-inche subwoofer. Hip-hop and electronic music had plenty of push at the low end, rendered with thick catacomb power around the 60Hz area.

The Fidelio’s smooth, meandering sound signature was at its best with softer rock and folk music. Vocals were usually the star of the show, with excellent clarity at the front of the attack, though at times they were rendered with a slightly pale color. Acoustic guitar was plucky and warm, and brass and strings were clear and relatively full. The Beatles track “Because” offered some really nice sting in the arpeggiated horns, providing radiance and depth to offset the spindly keys.

When we turned to straight ahead rock, however, we were continually aware of a lack of punch and saturation in the midrange. Snare was often weak and plastic-y, and toms seldom brought the depth out of the lower mids we expected. Pearl Jam’s “World Wide Suicide” was a perfect example of the lackluster effort in the middle of the sound. The track just couldn’t seem to get loud enough in the guttural edge of the percussion to match the vocal and bass lines, and the electric guitars never cut that crunchy, face-melting force that makes you want to move.

We were also disappointed with the system’s lathed-over sound when it came to the finer details. When auditioning electronic music, reverb effects and ancillary synth patches occasionally got buried in the mix. And acoustic instruments on tracks like “Out of the Woods” by Nickel Creek, were often rendered with a two-dimensional finish that was less refined than what we expect from a system at this price level. The woody rattle of stand-up bass was especially flat, reproduced with an almost anonymous signature that could just as easily have been mistaken for electric bass, or even a synth patch for that matter.

Conclusion

On one hand, the Fidelio is a beautiful, feature packed system with an innovative design, intuitive interface, and crystal clear sound. On the other, the audio performance was less than we expect from a system at this price, offering a watered-down midrange and a flyby approach to the finer details. If you simply love the Fidelio’s clutter-free approach, elegant aesthetic and remarkable convenience, we don’t think you’ll regret laying down $800. Otherwise, consider the Vizio S42521w-B4, which offers quality audio at a lower price, albeit without the Fidelio’s sleek and sheik appeal (or wireless surround speakers).

Highs

  • Seamless surround sound environment
  • Smooth, clear sound signature
  • Innovative wireless design
  • Elegant aesthetic

Lows

  • Weak midrange
  • Some light distortion
  • Lack of fine detail
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