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Dolby Atmos sound bars are finally affordable in 2019, thanks to Vizio

If you've been patiently waiting for Dolby's best surround format to hit mainstream prices, Vizio has a budget model ready.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Dolby's Atmos home theater audio standard debuted back in 2014, and brought with the biggest change since the creation of surround sound itself: height. Dedicated drivers fire toward the ceiling, creating an even more immersive feel for TV shows and movies. 

You can find Atmos soundtracks on Blu-ray discs and streaming services like Netflix and iTunes via more devices than ever, including smart TVs, Xbox OneApple TV 4K, Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K and more.

Until very recently, however, sound systems that can convey the power of Atmos haven't come cheap. Budget AV receivers with Atmos have been available for several years, but they require a full multi-speaker setup to shine.

Finally, in 2019, Atmos is coming to affordable sound bars. Sure the Samsung K950 Atmos sound bar from 2016 sounded great, but at $1,500 it was nowhere near "affordable." I recommended it as an Atmos product because at the time it was the only game in town. 

But now, there's Vizio. The budget TV and audio brand's excellent SB36512-F6 retails for $500 all-in, and it has Atmos. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Vizio SB36512-F6 is an excellent, entry-level Atmos sound bar. It offers excellent home theater sound with dedicated height and surround speakers. Bluetooth streaming adds some flexibility for music lovers. Read CNET's review.

All about Atmos: Height matters

Dolby Atmos and its rival DTS:X are known as "immersive audio." Both add something new to the more Dolby Digital and DTS surround soundtracks: a height dimension. Upward-firing speakers enhance involvement in action titles, concert films and video games

The Dolby Atmos format is designed to be flexible in how it's implemented in your home, but the most effective use of height is by having the channels at the front. Sound bars like the Vizio SB36512-F6 bounce sound effects off your ceiling back at you. As rears are designed to be barely heard it always pays to have them mounted high to aid in diffusion -- if you can hear surrounds they distract you from the screen.


Dolby's upward firing speakers as seen in 5.1.2 setup.


The Vizio works because it offers excellent home theater sound plus plenty of connectivity to hook up your other gear. The subwoofer is weighty-sounding but not so huge that you won't find somewhere to stash it. 

Drawbacks include the necessity of running front-to-back wires for the rears, and sound that's not as accomplished as some other Vizio speakers when it comes to music. But at the Vizio's price those are decent tradeoffs, especially if you're primarily interested in movie watching.

Now playing: Watch this: Vizio's $500 Atmos sound bar is the one to buy

On the other hand if you do want to go the multi-speaker route, the Denon AVR-S740H or Onkyo TX-NR585 both provide a solid foundation for future Atmos-based systems. You could then use it to power a Pioneer 5.1 system and Atmos add-on modules at $750.

At its current sale price of $400 there isn't much to touch the SB36512-F6 right now, and it's likely to reign for the foreseeable future. Yes, we're only partway through 2019 and there are many more Atmos sound bars in the pipeline, some from Vizio itself. Is it possible there will be a more recommendable Atmos sound bar available later in the year? Sure, but Sony, Samsung, LG and Yamaha have been working at Atmos for a while and have yet to come near Vizio's price point. We'll see.

If your main complaint about sound bars is that they do not have immersive audio built-in, friend, the time has come. The Vizio SB36512-F6 is the Atmos system you should get.