The sound bar is best seen as a reaction to home-theater-in-a-box (HTIB) systems, which promised all-in-one simplicity, but often resulted in the same speaker clutter and nest of wires most buyers were trying to avoid.
The Vizio S5451w-C2 ($500) feels like a sound bar/HTIB hybrid, offering most of the simplicity benefits of a sound bar, but also adding back the true surround sound experience that sound bars lack. It's a massive 5.1 sound bar system, anchored by a 54-inch sound bar, combined with a wireless subwoofer that connects to two satellite speakers -- yes, via speaker wires, but less than a traditional HTIB system. The reward is a big, enveloping sound that other sound bars can't touch, especially on movies with heavy special effects. And it's packed with step-up features like dual HDMI inputs, Bluetooth, and a nifty remote that has a built-in display.
It's not without faults. The sound bar is tall enough that it might block your TV's remote sensor and the system's overall footprint is large, if not burdensome; this isn't the system for those in a modest apartment. In fact, for most people, the S5451w-C2 is probably overkill. A simpler 2.1 sound bar like the Sony HT-CT770 ($450) will fit the bill without the clutter, or, if you really want surround sound, the smaller Vizio S4251W-B4 ($250) gets you those true surround effects for half (!) the price.
But if you have the space and want the best performance, the Vizio S5451w-C2 gets you closer to the cinema experience than any other sound bar out there, without the full clutter of an HTIB. It's an impressive feat and worth the $500 price tag.
Design: Big, brawny, and possibly in the way
The Vizio S5451w-C2 makes a bigger imposition on your living room than any other sound bar system. That starts with the sound bar itself, coming in at 54 inches long, designed to fit TVs 55 inches and larger. The bar's length shouldn't be underestimated, as it hung off the edges of our reasonably large TV testing cabinet. While a larger TV can exceed the length of your TV stand without looking unsightly, the same can't be said for a sound bar sitting on the cabinet.
While the bar doesn't have the chunkiness of a system like the Pioneer SP-SB23W, it's still relatively tall at 4.18 inches, which means the sound bar might block your TV's remote sensor. It's an annoying issue that many sound bars have, and the S5451W-C2 doesn't have an IR repeater to get around the issue, like some competing sound bars have. If you're wall-mounting, this isn't a problem; otherwise you may want to look into getting a TV riser to boost your TV above the sound bar.
Aside from its size, the S5241w-C2 sound bar is stylish, sporting a reserved look that's appropriate for a product like this. The black speaker grille dominates the front, with a thin strip of silver running along the bottom. That thin strip also houses a series of LEDs that provide some visual feedback when you're adjusting the volume and making other tweaks. It's a nice, subtle touch and actually works better than a full-fledged front-panel display in many cases.
The Vizio's footprint expands with its subwoofer and satellite speakers. The subwoofer is designed to be placed in the back of your room, and the rear channel sats connect to the subwoofer. It's a neat design that eliminates having to run wires from the front of your room to the back, which is the cause of so much wire clutter with traditional surround-sound systems and home-theater-in-a-box solutions.
The subwoofer is wireless and on the large side for a sound bar, with an 8-inch driver. The satellite speakers stand 8.5 inches tall and have a two 3-inch drivers. Note that both the subwoofer and the satellite speakers are a bit larger than the equivalent speakers in the Vizio S4251w-B4.
The real question to ask with the S5451w-C2 is whether this is the right type of product for your setup. In some ways, the system is an in-betweener: not nearly as simple as a basic sound bar/subwoofer combo, but also doesn't offer the performance of a AV receiver paired up with surround sound speakers. It all depends on your preference between convenience and performance, so you should make sure you wouldn't be better served by a simpler or more elaborate system.
Remote: Built-in display, sizable design
Vizio's unique sound bar remote debuted with the S4251w-B4 and it hasn't changed much since then. That's mostly a good thing, as its one of the better sound bar remotes out there. Its substantial design is comfortable to hold and the button layout is easy to navigate by feel.
The standout feature is the built-in display, allowing you to get visual feedback right on remote, rather than squinting across the room to a tiny display on the sound bar. It's a fantastic idea conceptually, but slightly less fantastic practically. The issue is when you hold the display up to look at it, the remote codes fire up toward the ceiling, rather than toward the sound bar, so they don't always reach their destination.
Still, the S5451w-C2's remote works well most of the time, especially compared to the cheap, mushy-buttoned remotes sound bars typically include. Let's hope for a Bluetooth-enabled clicker next year.