I have long been of the opinion that $500 is the absolute maximum you should spend on a sound bar -- especially when something like the Dolby Atmos-toting Vizio SB36512-f6 offers all you need. Yet, while I loved the Vizio SB36512, it's not the best Dolby Atmos sound bar. The Sennheiser Ambeo Soundbar is.
My colleague David Carnoy first heard the Ambeo sound bar at Sennheiser's booth at CES 2018 and it impressed him, but back then it didn't seem like a real product. Fast-forward 18 months and now it's here, and it's real. It's good, too; nay, great!
This spectacularly expensive speaker ($2,500, £2,220, AU$4,000) is without a doubt the best single-unit system I have ever heard. The Sennheiser delivers the greatest possible movie sound out of one speaker with spookily good simulated surround and deep bass without rears or a sub. It also offers plenty of connectivity for even the biggest setups.
The Ambeo may not do everything right -- it's only OK with music, and movies lack punch without a dedicated sub -- but these are small, somewhat-fixable problems. Especially when you consider the Sennheiser's complete mastery of surround soundtracks. If you don't have the room for a full surround setup, but have the money to burn, you should get this sound bar.
The Sennheiser Ambeo is a cutting-edge sound bar with features such as Dolby Atmos/DTS:X, HDMI 2.1 and Wi-Fi streaming support. There is very little the Ambeo won't do either now or in the foreseeable future.
The Ambeo is the latest sound bar to simulate Atmos surround from a single bar -- the $2,000 Yamaha YSP-5600 and the $1,500/£1,200 Sony HT-ST500 also do Atmos. The Ambeo achieves this effect with a combination of 13 high-end drivers firing from the front, sides and top of the unit. These include five dedicated high-fidelity tweeters and six long-throw woofers, enabling the system to reach down to a claimed 30Hz.
It's a tall unit at 5.3 inches high, and 50 inches wide, which means it won't fit under any TVs -- most people will need to put this speaker on a credenza and wall-mount the TV. However, Sennheiser does offer an optional speaker wall mount for $60 (£50) .
Connectivity includes three HDMI inputs and an HDMI eARC output. It has optical, stereo analog, Bluetooth and onboard Wi-Fi. Google Chromecast makes casting from your phone or Google Assistant that much easier.
The Sennheiser Ambeo comes with a unique calibration microphone. Many AV receivers include plastic pucks and a cardboard tower to perch them on, but Sennheiser's model is a 2-foot-plus steel rod on a hinged base with the mic at the top. It reeks of quality or science or both. Sennheiser makes microphones for a living, so if I was going to trust any company's calibration system, it's going to be this one. In this case, calibration helps the sound bar determine the acoustics of your room so it knows where to shoot surround effects.
The sound bar includes a candy bar remote with most functions, and changes are visible on the super-readable OLED screen. The Smart Control app allows more in-depth changes from your mobile device.
If you want to stream music from your phone -- or another Bluetooth-equipped audio device -- there is a Bluetooth in connection. However, like with most other sound bars, there's no Bluetooth out for sending sound to a wireless headphone. Nor do you get a headphone jack for plugging in a wired headphone. Not too many people will care about that, but I sort of hoped for it in a $2,500 sound bar from a company known for its headphones.
The number of high-end sound bars that can justify their high price is small. Even less so ones that support Atmos. I was a fan of the original (non-Atmos) Bowers and Wilkins Panorama, which was one of the first to use sound-bouncing technology. Since then, companies such as Bose and Sonos have been able to achieve similar or better results for much less.
If you want to get really silly, the Creative X-Fi Sonic Carrier retails for more than twice the price of the Sennheiser but in its favor has a massive bar fridge of a subwoofer. At its current sale price of $3,999 it's still not a great deal.
More realistically, the aforementioned Yamaha YSP-5600 and the Sony HT-ST5000 are the Sennheiser's biggest competition. However, both sound bars are a little long in the tooth and don't support newer functionality such as HDMI eARC.
Given that there are some talented speakers available for a lot less than the Ambeo, this was going to be an interesting test. Could the Ambeo really do everything with just a single box?
I wheeled in the excellent Sony HT-ST5000 and found the resulting competition fierce. The Sony managed to score some points, especially when it came to music listening, but when it was time to simulate the surround sound experience, the differences were clear. It's worth noting that I kept the Ambeo buttton on when listening to surround, but with music I used the Music or Neutral settings.
I listened to a number of different soundtracks on both speakers, including one of my Atmos benchmarks -- Mad Max: Fury Road. I've heard a number of single bar systems attempt the surround steering of the opening scene, but none have ever performed as well as the Sennheiser. While the Sony made this collection of spooky narrations sound both big and atmospheric, the Sennheiser sounded both big and precise. There's one specific voice -- a girl saying "Where are you, Max?" that on a dedicated Atmos system appears from above and behind your head. Without rears, the Sennheiser made this voice hover over the top of my head (I've never heard anything appear behind me on any system, at any price) but on the Sony the voice could still be heard coming out of the front speakers as well.
Where the Sony pulled ahead, though, was in its dynamic heft and deep, deep bass. The ST5000 had better punch when the scene culminated in an explosive car crash. The flipping car sounded a little inconsequential on the Ambeo. Adding a subwoofer to the Sennheiser, such as our reference-level SVS SB4000, gave the speaker an authority the Sony couldn't ever dream of. That said, the Sennheiser/SVS combo was then a $4,000 system. You may get good results with a more affordable unit such as the $500 SVS SB-1000, though.
Going subwooferless again I found that the jungles of the Avatar Blu-ray sounded completely lush and alive with the Ambeo, with insects soaring overhead. Meanwhile the Sony seemed to keep the bugs and swaying fronds locked to the screen. Dialogue, such as Grace's admonishment of Norm at the 27:36 mark was much clearer on the Sennheiser. But as before, the trade-off was the lack of oomph in the corresponding Thanator chase.
As impressive as it is with surround, I'm not entirely convinced by the Ambeo with music. Harsh music could sound really harsh -- it was too midrange-forward, especially in the dedicated music mode. I found setting to Neutral helped sometimes, but the Sony was just altogether smoother and more enjoyable with most songs.
Whether it was punk, singer song-writers, jazz or dance the Sony consistently came out on top. For example, who knew that Michael Penn's Beatlesque No Myth needed the thump of the ST5000 sub to make it tighter and fuller-sounding than the Sennheiser?
Even with another gentle track like R.E.M's Losing My Religion the Sennheiser's midrange was too piercing to really get the toes tapping. Michael Stipe's voice was more agreeable when heard through the Sony.
The Sennheiser wasn't terrible with music, and some genres like blues and folk sounded good, but if you want something balanced, the Ambeo isn't the speaker I'd choose.
The Sennheiser Ambeo is the best surround experience I've had from a single speaker. I don't know what kind of black magic this is, but you should hear it for yourself.
The Ambeo is not the best-value Atmos sound bar, but that's not the point. If you want to spend the bare minimum on a great Atmos 'bar, get the Vizio. Or if you want a system with a better balance between home cinema and music replay, the Sony HT-St500 is an excellent buy. But if you want to be at the very apex of cutting-edge surround sound, then the Sennheiser Ambeo is where you'll want to be.