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.
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.