Delivering a quality, immersive sound experience, with Dolby Atmos support, in a product that's easy to integrate and use, all at a contained price: that's the tricky challenge Creative's Stage 360 aims to meet.
Like many of its competitors, Creative is following the democratization of 3D audio in the home by multiplying the number of sound bars that support the Dolby Atmos format. The Stage 360 is one of the manufacturer's latest references in this genre, counting on its compactness, its promise of simplicity and performance, but above all on a contained price to seduce the widest possible audience.
The Stage 360 consists of a compact soundbar and a wired subwoofer. The bar's very limited equipment (only two built-in speakers and no detailed information on one or more audio virtualization technologies) does not prevent it from highlighting its "amazing and immersive Dolby Atmos 5.1.2 experience". Because of its small size, the bar has also been designed to be used on a desk or a TV stand, with a manual option to adapt the rendering according to the listening distance.
The Stage 360's design holds no surprises. Considering the price of the set, the soundbar as well as the subwoofer that accompanies it obviously do not benefit from the finest and most meticulous level of finishing that exists. One can easily notice the assembly marks and the materials used are very conventional (metal/plastic grille on the sound bar, painted wood/plastic/very thin fabric grille on the subwoofer). The general quality of manufacture remains honest and no part of the bar presents a design defect. A small reservation concerning the cable used to connect the bar to the subwoofer: we would have clearly appreciated that it was detachable in order to facilitate its replacement in case of a problem.
The Stage 360 is designed to fit easily into a living room or even an office, as evidenced by the small size of the soundbar (about 56.5 cm wide, 7.5 cm high and 9 cm deep) and the slim design of its subwoofer (about 11.5 x 42 x 35 cm). The height of the soundbar is certainly quite contained, but we know of flatter models that peak at 6.5 cm or even 5.5 cm high. A point to take into account if you plan to place it in front of a television. It should also be noted that the Stage 360 does not have a wall-mounting system.
The Stage 360 offers an honest range of connection possibilities: an HDMI 2.0 port (ARC only, unfortunately), two HDMI 2.0 inputs and an S/PDIF optical input are present at the back of the bar, completed by a Bluetooth 5.0 receiver (no multipoint, SBC codec). A specific connector is also proposed to connect the bar and the subwoofer. The sound bar is able to decode the 3D Dolby Atmos audio stream (also Dolby Digital and PCM 5.1), but completely neglects DTS formats. On the video side, you'll have to make do with support for a 4K stream at 60 Hz with HDR10 and Dolby Vision.
The wireless connection via Bluetooth obviously implies a certain latency, particularly high here (300 ms), consequently generating a very important delay between the sound and the image. As always on soundbars, we reserve this means of connection for music playback. Strangely enough, the wired HDMI and optical connections also suffer from a delay, which is negligible in practice, but abnormally high, of the order of 55-70 ms.
The Stage 360 provides a decent user experience, without much complexity. The soundbar does not have any connected functionality, so it is usable as soon as it is connected to power. Almost all of the interaction with the sound bar is done via its very small front display: a solution that is certainly not the easiest to navigate, but acceptable, especially because the manufacturer had the good taste to keep the adjustment menus simple. There is, however, one real criticism to be made of this screen, as it remains permanently lit as long as the bar is powered. This is a visual distraction we could have done without... Another slightly annoying detail is that the Stage 360 takes a good ten seconds to be functional after each power up.
The included remote control - without the two AAA batteries required - offers all the useful controls for quick and easy operation, again without the hassle of unnecessary buttons.
If it provides a decent sound experience, the Stage 360 is far from shining as much as it promises.
Creative's little soundbar has two main arguments that allow it to fulfill its function: a fairly rich and relatively homogeneous sound rendering, as well as a good precision in the midrange restitution. This first one is however subject to a condition, namely to tame the overzealousness of the small subwoofer by setting its intensity level below -3 (to be varied according to the positioning and personal tastes, the lowest setting being -5), so as to calm down the clearly too pronounced emphasis of the bass and its invasive aspect, even slobbery or "boomy", while keeping a minimum of depth and impact.
The subwoofer is in fact in charge of all the reproduction of the low frequencies, the bar only taking over at the border with the low mids. Even though this gain in legibility and clarity (especially beneficial for the intelligibility of voices) is obtained via this adjustment, it is sometimes difficult to pinpoint all the information on songs/scenes that are very rich in bass. A slight "box" aspect, somewhat unattractive, is also present.
Although we've seen soundbars with a more linear and surgical behavior, the balance and the level of midrange detail shown by the Stage 360 are quite satisfactory. The timbres are well respected and the voices do not suffer from any problem of clarity. They are even very slightly highlighted. On the other hand, the rendering of the highs is far from being exemplary. Even at a very low volume, we immediately feel the limits of the bar, which struggles to reproduce them in a detailed and defined way. We note traces of sibilance and a shimmering sound on sources with very high harmonics (cymbals, shakers, metallic noises of bullets, swords and other broken glass, for example). Far from being soft, the highs can even become aggressive when you decide to place yourself at a more generous listening level (and the mids can become a little "rough") because of the distortion. It is thus necessary to restrict oneself on the listening volume to limit all these harmful effects, even if the Stage 360 has a good power reserve.
With no dedicated speakers and no apparent sign of surround and 3D audio virtualization technology, one can only be dubious about the ability of Creative's soundbar to recreate a convincing 3D soundstage. The result is surprisingly far from being anecdotal and even interesting in some aspects, but particularly demanding in terms of sweet spot (ideal listening position).
The Stage 360 can indeed provide a convincing feeling of envelopment with surround effects which are certainly diffuse (difficult to distinguish precisely the position or the exact displacement of a source, for example), but perceptible on the sides and very slightly behind the listening point (120° on each side approximately, variable according to the acoustic configuration of the room). As for the front channels, they extend well beyond the physical limits of the bar (30-40 cm on each side), which makes it possible to establish a particularly broad front scene, although a little blurred. The height effects on Atmos contents are on the other hand much less obvious and are limited to several tens of centimeters, or even a small meter at best according to the acoustics of the room... and especially the positioning of the listener compared to the bar.
As we mentioned above, the signal processing algorithms of the Stage 360 only manage to "deceive" the auditory perception of the user at a very precise point: by configuring the processing in Far mode, the ideal listening point in our two listening configurations was situated at about 1.40/1.50 m from the bar; and at 60/70 cm from it in Near mode. A positioning further away or a few dozen centimeters closer to the bar has the consequence of very quickly placing the surround effects towards the front and of annihilating any notion of elevation. Another detail to consider is the treatment of the central phantom channel, which makes it particularly unstable. When you are right in the center of the bar, the perception of the center channel (and therefore of the dialogue) can go from very diffuse to very clear by moving your head even a few centimeters - the experience is accompanied by a rather disconcerting phase shift effect.
The Stage 360 promises a lot, but in the end, it only modestly fulfills the essential part of its contract, namely to offer a sound reproduction rich and mastered enough to replace the integrated system of a television set... or even a monitor, since in this case it is compact enough to slip onto a desk. We also hesitate to consider it as a model worthy of an immersive sound experience, notably because of the limits and constraints of its sound virtualization technology.