Just as Philips’ premium OLED TVs have helped the once moribund brand re-establish itself as a major force in the TV world, so the brand’s Fidelio products look right on track to rejuvenate its audio fortunes.
Philips first introduced the Fidelio sub-brand a decade ago as a way of distinguishing its most premium and imaginative products - a philosophy the Fidelio B97 soundbar continues in triumphant fashion.
The B97's big party trick on paper is its detachable wings; speakers that can either be attached to each end of the main soundbar, or, if you prefer, taken off and placed behind your seating position giving you instant surround sound with the pair of wireless. You don’t have to listen to its 7.1.2-channel sound for long, though, to realise that it also sounds seriously good.
Even in its ‘single bar plus subwoofer’ configuration, with the detachable wings attached, the B97 proves superbly capable with movie soundtracks.
The scale of the soundstage is excellent, with movie mixes breaking explosively free of the appealingly narrow confines of the soundbar’s bodywork as soon as they push through its grilled cover. However big your room, you can hear sound effects cast way off to the left and right - as well as enjoying a sense of height courtesy of two up-firing drivers that reaches at least as high as the top of a big TV.
The presence of these height channels indicates right away that the Fidelio B97 is designed with Dolby Atmos soundtracks in mind. It also, though, supports not only the DTS:X sound format but also the IMAX Enhanced version of DTS:X, where IMAX adds its own ‘secret sauce’ to the mix.
The subtlety and accuracy with which the Fidelio B97 portrays and positions specific sound effects in a Dolby Atmos or DTS:X mix really is superb, even without the rear speakers in play. Underpinning this sense of precise detail and sound stage creation is a mountain of raw but controlled power, which is itself backed up by bags of dynamic range that serves up pristine, harshness-free trebles at one end of the spectrum and seriously deep and convincing rumbles at the other.
The soundbar’s low frequencies meld into the substantial efforts of the subwoofer beautifully, too, ensuring deep bass never sounds baggy or detached.
Another great feature of the Fidelio B97 is the way it slightly elevates its sound so that it seems to be coming from the screen sitting above the soundbar, rather than from the soundbar’s actual position.
The Fidelio B97’s drivers handle the sharpest and most extreme ebbs and swells without succumbing to distortion or timing issues, and action movie fans will love the vigour and punch with which Philips’ soundbar presents heavy impact sounds such as gun fire, explosions and dinosaur footfalls.
There are one or two limitations with movie playback. Dialogue sounds a little quiet out of the box - but the tools are there to fix this. Also, while trebles typically sound pristine, slight harshness can creep in during the most dense soundtrack moments. The typically reliable subwoofer can occasionally drop out with the most extreme bass sounds, and there’s no sense of sound behind or alongside you when using the B97’s simple soundbar/sub configuration.
Which, of course, is where detaching the wings and making them rear speakers comes in. In this configuration the system creates a much more immersive, three-dimensional experience that amply justifies the effort involved. There is a slight power and dynamic range mismatch between the rears and the main soundbar/subwoofer, but actually this isn’t as severe as expected.
Happily the Fidelio B97 is as assured with music as movies. Tracks of all flavours sound clean and dynamic with no sense of dislocation or unevenness/misbalance. The main soundbar’s bass is good enough, too, to manage many tracks without calling the subwoofer into heavy action, making for a more consistent sound.
Musical detailing is strong without sounding clinical, and finally song staging is bold and expansive without sounding forced.
Obviously the Fidelio B97’s detachable wings/rears require more effort than typical soundbars. The system is so well designed, though, that attaching and detaching the two speakers doesn’t feel like a chore, and will seem a small price to pay for anyone who doesn’t want rears permanently cluttering up a shelf or sideboard at the back of the room.
The only issue with the detachable rears is that they need charging. Something that can only be achieved by either plugging them into the mains via (unprovided) USB power chords, or reattaching them to the main soundbar. You can’t just leave them sitting wirelessly behind you forever.
The Philips Fidelio B97 provides a unique solution for people who like the idea of a true surround soundbar but don’t want rear speakers permanently on display. Its outstanding design and build quality delivers on its unique detachable speaker selling point beautifully, and its innovative design doesn’t stop it from producing exceptionally clean, detailed and flexible sound.
The Invisible Man, 4K Blu-ray
As Carrie’s invisible assailant takes out a security team in a corridor of the asylum she is being held in, the Fidelio B97 delivers the gunfire and punching/head hitting windows sounds with suitably gruesome impact.
The first four tracks of Bjork’s third solo album are not only among the best the artist has ever recorded, but fantastic tests of a Hi-Fi or soundbar’s capabilities with ‘epic’ music. And the B97 handles them all expertly.
Tenet, 4K Blu-ray
Tenet’s notoriously muffled and distorted dialogue is so well handled by the Fidelio B97, without limiting the huge scale of the other soundtrack elements, that you actually have a chance of making out what’s been said pretty much all the time. And you can’t really ask for more than that!
You should consider a Philips Fidelio B97 because as well as delivering a surprisingly big and involving sound from its compact, elegantly designed form, the B97 uniquely features detachable ‘wings’ at each end that can be moved to the back of the room to become wireless rear speakers on movie nights.