Vizio S5451w-C2 review: Real surround from a giant sound bar

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.

Features: Bluetooth, HDMI, and more

The S5451W-C2 has more connectivity options than a typical sound bar and that starts with two HDMI inputs. Normally HDMI connectivity isn't that much of a plus, especially if you plan on using your TV as a switcher, but it's actually a big plus on a true 5.1 sound bar like this. That's because most TVs dumb down incoming surround sound audio to stereo, which means you'd be missing the true surround-sound experience. By connecting important devices (cable box, gaming system, etc.) directly to the sound bar, you can be sure you're getting a true 5.1 experience.

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In addition to HDMI, the Vizio has a healthy selection of legacy ports, including optical, coaxial, analog, and minijack. There's also onboard decoding for Dolby Digital and DTS, so the S5451w-C2 should be able to handle whatever type of audio signal you throw at it.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Bluetooth support is built-in, so you can stream audio wirelessly from almost every smartphone and tablet. The aptX codec is also supported, which promises better audio quality, although you'll need a compatible device.

Setup: Simple, even with surround speakers

Like most sound bars, the S5451w-C2 doesn't require much setup. The wireless subwoofer links automatically with the sound bar, and you just need to connect the rear channel speakers using the included cable. You'll also need to plug in the subwoofer, so make sure there's an outlet in the back of your room. And although we had some concern that the rear placement of the subwoofer might keep the bass from jelling with the sound bar across the room, but the blend was perfectly fine.

Once all the wires are connected there's no mandatory calibration, although you can adjust the subwoofer volume and the volume of the two surround speakers relative to the surround bar. It should sound pretty good out-of-the-box, but if you have more sensitive ears, you'll definitely want to tweak the sound quality for your room.

Sound quality: Real surround from a sound bar

The S5451w-C2 is a bona fide five-channel sound bar plus subwoofer system and you don't have to be an audiophile to hear the difference the surround speakers make. This system's room-filling sound capabilities far exceed 2.1-channel systems that tout "simulated surround" sound, but can't actually put sound behind you. Even the best faux-surround sound bars -- Yamaha's Digital Sound Projectors -- are nowhere as effective as the S5451w-C2 in creating a total surround experience.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The S5451w-C2 has separate front left, center, and right channel speakers built into the sound bar, but we noted that movie dialog mixed to the center channel speaker was also coming from the left and right front speakers. That means that listeners sitting to the left or right sides of the room won't hear dialog coming from the center of the sound bar. The workaround is easy enough: turning up the center channel volume anchors dialog to the center of the sound bar. If you have trouble following dialog in a movie raising the center channel volume can improve intelligibility somewhat.

The S5451w-C2's physically large sound bar and subwoofer make a big sonic difference. The ultrawide sound bar separates the left and right channel speakers a foot wider than what you get with most sound bars, giving the Vizio a wide open sound. And the system's jumbo subwoofer produced a fuller than average bass balance when we played the "Gravity" Blu-ray. This outer space thriller is loaded with rumbling sound effects and heartbeat rhythms, and the Vizio sub did a great job energizing the 14x22-foot CNET listening room with bass. This system can comfortably play louder than most sound bar systems.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The surround speakers also let us hear exactly what was going on with "Gravity"'s sound mix cues; we heard the voices of Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and fellow astronaut Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) move around the room. No other sound bar, save for Vizio's S4251w-B4, could possibly track those movements as accurately. If you watch a lot of special effects driven movies, this is the sound bar to get.

Next, we popped on the Peter Gabriel "New Blood, Live in London" concert Blu-ray, and again the scale of the sound impressed. Gabriel sings with a full orchestra and the S5451w-C2's weighty sound did justice to this well recorded concert. The one area where we noted a problem was the sub's definition, where the bass could get a little flabby.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

At this point we started comparing the S5451w-C2 with Sony's HT-CT770 sound bar, and there were huge differences. The spacious surround ambience was totally gone, and the S5451w-C2's rich tonal balance was replaced with the HT-CT770's leaner, clearer sound. Once we settled in and really listened the HT-CT770's superior overall clarity was impressive, which almost made up for the loss of the S5451w-C2's room-filling sound. Many buyers will definitely see the HT-CT770's more compact size and easier setup as big pluses.

CDs sounded best with the surround speakers turned off. The Queens of the Stone Age's "Songs for the Deaf" CD proved system can play hard rock loud without strain or harshness, and again, that's not always the case with sound bars.

Conclusion: Big-sounding bar, if you're willing to pay

The Vizio S5451W-C2 definitely isn't for everyone, with a relatively high $500 price and sprawling design that takes up more space than a typical sound bar. But typical sound bars don't sound nearly this good, especially when it comes to movies and TV shows with a lot of surround effects. It's hard to find this blend of performance and convenience in another system, which is what makes the S5451W-C2 a standout.

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