8.5

Fluance AB40 Soundbase Review: All About That Base

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Fluance AB40 Soundbase Review: All About That Base

Since 1999, Fluance has been making high quality audio equipment for prices that won’t set your wallet ablaze. The company’s latest endeavor is the AB40, a soundbase that offers attractive features for an even more attractive $250 price tag.

The world of high quality audio is a tough nut to crack, with a vast range of both quality and price that can send even seasoned consumers into a tailspin. Fluance is looking to make the process a little simpler, particularly for those shopping for their home theater setup. With its soundbase, the company is putting forth a straightforward product, one that emphasizes great sound at an exceptional value, rather than a host of nonsensical, buzzword-laden “features.”

fluance_5_340.jpgThe first thing you notice about the AB40 is its unusual shape. Most soundbars are long with shallow depth like, you know, a bar. But this isn’t a soundbar, it’s a soundbase; Fluance designed the speaker to double as a stand for your television and users are instructed to place their TVs on top of it in the setup guide. That’s well and good if you have a TV with a pedestal stand, but if you own a model that employs feet, like Samsung’s KS8500 series, there could be problems.

The dimensions need to be considered to ensure it will work with your setup. Beyond the model of TV you own, which could run afoul with the nearly four inch height of the AB40, you have to factor in the 14-inch depth, far more than most TV sound peripherals in this price category. The good news is that, though the design may be inconvenient for some, it’s an easy fix. If it’s too tall to work as a base for your TV, you can mount the panel or put the speaker on a lower shelf of your console.

If it’s too deep to work with your current furniture, you’ll have to consider that in the overall price, which luckily isn’t gratuitous to begin with. For how simple the rest of the experience is, it’s frustrating that the size and shape negate it from being a ubiquitous recommendation. This is not something you can buy for your living room without doing the appropriate research first.

Once you do find a spot for it, getting the AB40 up and running is a simple process. All you have to do is connect it to a power source, to your TV with a digital optical cable, make sure the speaker is set to the right input and you’re up and running. Unfortunately, the only inputs supported are the aforementioned digital optical, auxiliary and Bluetooth. The lack of HDMI is lamentable; I would’ve loved to see Fluance add more flexibility by including it, but it’s not out of the ordinary for the price.

fluance_2_680.jpgThe AB40 features an acoustically tuned MDF cabinet that looks sharp and would fit well into most setups. It’s well-built and feels durable coming in at 24 pounds with a maximum weight allowance of 150 pounds. The speaker arrangement consists of six total drivers; two 1-inch tweeters and four 3-inch woofers, two of which are placed at opposite ends of the base and angled at 35 degrees to spread the sound throughout the room.

On top you’ll find touch capacitive buttons for power, volume and input, though you’ll hardly use these, but instead the included remote. The single most exasperating aspect of using the speaker is adjusting the volume. The calibration in regard to how much volume changes with a single button press on the remote is abysmal. In an attempt, I imagine, to give users full control so they could dial in the perfect level, Fluance made the quantity of change seemingly miniscule. After days of trying to figure out what was happening, if anything, when I pressed the button a single time, I resorted to holding it until the volume reached my desired loudness. It takes what was already an inexact science and makes it even more of a frustrating guessing game.

fluance_logo_340.jpgThere’s also a lack of visual indication, like a number system or progress bar, to give you a sense of how loud the speaker can get and where you are as you adjust. I’ve never before felt so in the dark when it comes to adjusting the volume on a piece of audio equipment, something that should be an afterthought, not a forefront frustration. Aside from that major issue and the other, more minor, ones mentioned above, the AB40 is a pleasure to use. It’s simple, and works the way it should, which is more than can be said about numerous consumer electronics. But, as I always say with audio devices, how easy it is to use matters little if the sound produced isn’t worth your while.

Great sound for a bargain price is an area Fluance has excelled in since its inception in 1999. This is just the latest example of the Canadian company delivering quality on a budget. The most striking aspect of the soundbase is its power. Delivering 120 watts of continuous power, it’s capable of reaching enormous volume levels. Not quite the table shaking highs the company’s marketing video claims, but close. The biggest trial it faced during my months of testing was being the sole speaker for a holiday party with 30-40 people in attendance. It was the lone force driving the dance floor, and it succeeded brilliantly.

Before the night of the holiday party, I wasn’t sure it could be a singular home theater audio solution. After hearing how it performed for hours blasting music near full volume, I was convinced. If you’re looking for a simple answer to up your audio setup, to enhance your movies and music with one piece of equipment, this is an incredible deal at $250.

fluance_4_680.jpgThere’s more here than pure strength, though. It can get loud, very loud, but does so while retaining a good balance within the audio. Bass is well represented thanks to the AB40’s ability to offer frequencies as low as 30Hz, the only soundbase on the market to do so without a dedicated, down firing subwoofer. This helps tremendously with music, particularly in bass heavy genres like hip-hop and EDM, but also movies and television, heightening a dramatic moment in the score or action sequence. The bass is tight, resisting distortion and muddiness until pushed to its edge, and does a good job of making its presence known while not stealing the show.

fluance_volume_340.jpgThe best part about the sound offered here, and a facet that is integral to the success of a soundbase, is it doesn’t let the softer, more delicate notes get lost in the shuffle. You’re not going to hear anything new that you haven’t heard elsewhere, particularly if you’ve had the benefit of hearing remarkable, high ticket audiophile equipment, but the layers you expect to be there are. This is important for a piece of equipment dedicated to relaying multifaceted soundscapes. On TV and in movies, you have to make sure all sounds, from the score to dialogue, are represented accurately. The Fluance speaker did an excellent job of creating a vibrant soundscape without losing crucial detail, particularly dialogue. During my months of testing, there were just a handful of times I felt dialogue was lost, a remarkable fact for a device that will only put you back $250.

fluance_remote_340.jpgThe big feature the company is pushing with this device is 3D Sound, a term you will hear often, in various iterations, in regard to soundbars and soundbases. The idea is that you don’t need to have a large setup. With its 3D Sound, the AB40 is the single piece of audio equipment you need and you’ll still have a full featured surround sound experience, or so the marketing claims. In my past dealings with 3D audio, I’ve found it to be a marketing ploy that sort of works, but doesn’t add much to the overall quality of a product. It’s much the same here.

I will say there were moments in which the 3D effect seemed work well, and it did sound like the audio was coming from different areas in my living room but, for the most part, it like it was coming from exactly where it was, under the TV. The other problem I had was that I was never quite sure if it was on. This goes back to the lack of visual indicators. Because the only indication you get when a button is pressed is a flash from the primary input light, I had to listen closely to tell if the sound was different after pressing the 3D Sound button.

If I had it on and forgot, it was a crapshoot whether I could figure out again if it was active or not. It’s both an issue of UI but also of the technology itself. Sure, Fluance should have made it more clear whether the 3D Sound mode was engaged, but if it worked as well as the company claimed, it would be apparent when it was on.

The 3D audio feature being a let down did little to sour my experience with the AB40. Throughout my time with the device, I was impressed with the quality of sound it was able to deliver. For the majority of my review time, I used it with my TV, as a typical soundbar. Though it handles music well, it is meant to be used in a living room setting, hooked up to your television. You can find other speakers that will do more for you in terms of detail and instrument separation, but this one excels on movie night.

fluance_driver_680.jpgI never expected to like thie AB40 as much as I do. Knowing full well it was on the budget side of the audio market, I thought it would be a serviceable piece of kit that might have a few flourishes up its sleeve. What I got was a device that is supremely well-made and thoughtful. Not only does it deliver on its promise of great audio, it does so without forcing you to take out a second mortgage on your house.

If you’re looking for a simple way to enhance your home theater setup, the AB40 is a fantastic value buy at $250. Compared, for example, to the Samsung HW-K850 which I reviewed, and liked, in September, Fluance’s is a clear victor. It offers a sound and set of features that is comparable to the K850, which retails for $1000. What the Fluance team has created is remarkable. The AB40 is well-built, versatile and an absolute steal.

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