The Samsung HW-K950 Atmos sound bar offers the best sound for the money and should appeal to serious movie and music fans alike.
For the longest time my recommendation for people shopping for sound bars was "spend no more than $500." Sound quality doesn't typically take a massive leap beyond this amount, because the necessity of keeping cabinets small and bar-like restricts how good they sound.
In the past year I've been rethinking my approach after hearing excellent-sounding models such as the $899 Sony HT-NT5, the $1,100 Definitive Technology Studio W, and now the $1,500 Samsung HW-K950. The Sony and Samsung speakers make the most of the available sound bar real estate, specifically by by angling their drivers back into the cabinet, which enables them to have larger diameters. The larger the driver, the better it can sound.
The Studio W was CNET's favorite high-end sound bar, with great looks, wireless streaming and superb sound for movies, but the Samsung has eclipsed it in almost every way. It sounds clearer, it's a more capable streamer thanks to the Samsung Multiroom app, and it has superior features. The Samsung HW-K950 is the best reason I could think of to spend over a grand on a sound bar. Especially if you listen to music a lot.
The HW-K950 is now available in the US for $1,499 , in the UK for £1,299 and in Australia for $1,999.
You'll notice how I said the Samsung is better than the DefTech in almost every way. Well, the Studio W has it over the Samsung in the design department, with its solid aluminum billets and its massive subwoofer.
The Samsung still has some design touches that elevate it above the usual "black oblong you flop in front of your telly," however. The endpieces are thin slices of brushed aluminum that curve subtly at the edges. The front has a black steel mesh that conceals a blue LED text readout -- no confusing flashing lights here. The speaker is suitable for most bigger televisions at just 3 inches tall, 48 inches wide and 5 inches deep.
Most sound bars don't come with rear speakers, but the ones that do, including the K950, provide a sense of immersion during movies that faux surround 'bars can't match. The two satellites are roughly desktop audio monitor size at 8 inches tall, and our own resident Audiophiliac Steve Guttenberg remarked that they seemed like "real speakers." High praise, indeed, coming from Steve!
The included subwoofer is 16 inches tall and deep, and half that across. It's not the discreet, hide-under-the-couch size of the sub that comes with the Vizio SB4551-D5, but it's not toweringly ugly, either.
The remote control looks just like the ones CNET's David Katzmaier liked so much on Samsung's 2016 TVs, and it's a big improvement over the dire clickers included with most sound bars. The small wand comes with a handy dedicated volume control for the subwoofer, and it feels premium when you hold it in your hand.
The HW-K950 is one of the first products to be designed at Samsung's audio facility in California, after the Radiant360 range. It is one of two Samsung sound bars that can handle Dolby Atmos. The other is the HW-K850 ($999), which is virtually identical to the K950 but doesn't include rear speakers.
The HW-K950 incorporates a 5.1.4 setup for Dolby Atmos: five surrounds, one subwoofer and four overheads. The Samsung HW-K950's main speaker has dual sets of ceiling-facing drivers as well as three forward-firing driver sets that come with a dedicated tweeter in each. On my visit to the Samsung audio lab, the technicians explained that the drivers are paper-based, which they claim has better acoustic properties than other popular materials such as Kevlar.
Connections include two HDMI ports and one output, optical digital audio, 3.5mm analog stereo audio in addition to Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. The system is compatible with the proprietary multiroom system Samsung brought into the world with the Shape system back in 2014. As such it is also compatible with the Radiant360 speakers.
The Samsung will decode Dolby Atmos from Blu-rays as well as from Vudu/Netflix streams if the source device supports it. I tested it with an Nvidia Shield (3.2 firmware) and found it was able to output Dolby Atmos test scenes from Vudu correctly. While the Samsung will decode Dolby in all its forms, unfortunately for movie fans the sound bar is unable to decode DTS:X, and further will only decode DTS streams in stereo.
The Yamaha YSP-5600 costs about the same but comes without a sub (in the US) or rear speakers. The Yamaha will decode DTS:X, however.
The competition for multiroom music is fiercer than ever, but I expect things to consolidate in the next year or two, thanks largely to the influence of Google Cast/Home.
In the meantime, Samsung's Multiroom app is one of the best following an update earlier this year. The app now features a very straightforward layout which lists the music on your phone first and then lets you scroll horizontally through other streaming services available. The list is quite comprehensive and includes most of the big apps like Spotify (Connect), Pandora, Amazon Music and Tidal. I wasn't surprised to learn that Samsung doesn't support Apple Music.
As the owner of a network DLNA server where I keep my music collection, one perk I appreciate is that the app automatically finds servers and puts them in the list. By contrast DTS' competitive Play-Fi app makes you search for servers manually using an outdated-looking interface, and in my experience doesn't always find them.
When it comes to home theater equipment, it is actually very easy to get home cinema right. As long as dialogue is clear and the subwoofer is able to handle the dynamic shifts of modern blockbuster soundtracks, most sound bars will perform well enough. Music, on the other hand, is much harder. I can count on one hand the sound bars I would try to listen to music on, and you've probably guessed by now that the Samsung is one of them.
I started my testing with Radiohead's excellent "comeback" album, "A Moon Shaped Pool." Straight away the staccato strings of opening track "Burn the Witch" stabbed into the room. The sound wasn't harsh or brittle, but did help create the kind of tension the band was no doubt looking for. The synth bass balanced the strings nicely, while Thom Yorke's voice had solidity and a distinct place in the soundstage. This is how music should sound.
By contrast, no one was in any danger of being stabbed, garroted or even papercut on the Yamaha YSP-5600. The strings sat like a porridge in the background of the track and Yorke almost sounded bored in comparison. The lack of a subwoofer really hurt the presentation, and I had to strain to hear any bass at all.
The astonishing "Yulunga (Spirit Dance)" by Dead Can Dance sounded superb on the Samsung. The big tom drums throughout the track were weighty but not overwhelming. And those dueling shaker eggs that appear halfway through the track floated in the air just six feet away from me.
The Yamaha managed this track a little better than the last. The sound had a good balance between all of the disparate elements but the shaker wasn't quite as lifelike. Unsurprisingly given the lack of a sub, the drums lacked the oomph the Samsung had.
When it comes to movies, there is no substitute for surround speakers, and that's especially true for an Atmos system like the Samsung. At the beginning of the epic "Mad Max: Fury Road," you hear voices appear all around you on a good Atmos system -- from newsreaders to politicians to Max Rockatansky's personal ghosts. Max's voice will also appear at the front of the room and be doubled again over your left shoulder. This is what you hear on the Samsung. The room was a huge globe of sound with voices appearing like points of light dotted around it.
Due to its inability to simulate true surround, the Yamaha didn't quite manage this feat. While there was a wide audio bubble appearing slightly above and below and all the way to the extreme sides of the room, never did voices appear behind us on the YSP-5600. The sound bar also "faked" the sound of Max appearing in two places at once by adding reverb to his voice -- the effect was nowhere near as convincing.
So the Samsung was light years ahead of the Yamaha Atmos speaker, but how did it cope against a "musical" sound bar like the Definitive Technology W Studio? I started off with Patrick Watson's whimsical folk song "Into Giants." The Samsung generated plenty of air around Watson's voice and was also capable of convincing stereo separation -- something unusual in a sound bar -- with a mandolin percolating merrily in the right channel. The baroque bass line that arrives at the 50 second mark sounded full and appropriately bouncy.
The same track didn't fare so well on the DefTech, with Watson's vocals sounding distant, as though they were coming out of a radio. The difference was stark enough that I had to double-check that the 'bar was in Music mode (it was). The bass also lacked the definition it had on the Samsung, and the song just didn't move me in the same way.
Moving to the "Avatar" Blu-ray, the Studio W was on surer ground. Norm's mumbled dialogue at the beginning of the Thanator Chase was a little clearer on the Def Tech than the Samsung. While I missed the provision of dedicated speakers, for pure envelopment, the DefTech was still appropriately exciting in this scene. As the Thanator bounded and clawed after Jake through the jungle the Studio W's sound helped raise the hairs on the back of my neck.
In comparison, dialogue seemed a little fainter on the Samsung, and even with center pumped up to max I couldn't achieve parity. Samsung's Clearvoice mode helped a bit, but I lost the surround ambiance, as this option turns off rear speakers. However, when switching back to Movie mode I found that I preferred the immersion of the Samsung's rear speakers over the marginally louder dialogue on the Studio W.
The HW-K950 offers ripping surround sound and excellent music replay -- a talent that is exceedingly rare among sound bars. While there's probably no such thing as an "ultimate sound bar," the Samsung HW-K950 is the closest you might get for the money.
Of course, you could always build your own Atmos system with a receiver and a set of speakers -- say a Denon AVR-S920W, a couple of sets of Pioneer SP-BS22A-LRs, a center and a sub. It would probably sound better than the Samsung, but it would also cost more and be a lot more finicky to set up.
As always, the killer advantage of a sound bar over separate speakers is discreet design. And if you can afford it and desire superb sound quality from your 'bar, the Samsung HW-K950 should be at the top of your list. Highly recommended.