Vizio's 5.1 sound bar is one of our favorite sound bars of the year, with one big caveat: you have to like its rear speakers. They get you true surround sound, but for some that's not worth the extra clutter.
The Vizio S4221w-C4 ($250 street) is a step down from the 5.1 sound bar, offering essentially everything that's great about the step-up model without the rear speakers. It has great sound quality, built-in Bluetooth, and one of the best remotes offered on a sound bar. It also has the same refined styling, although its 3.74-inch height is still problematic, as it blocks the remote sensor on many TVs.
The similarly priced Sony HT-CT260 (and its successor, the HT-CT260H) still get our nod as our favorite 2.1 sound bar, with slightly better sound quality and an IR repeater to help remote signals find their way to your TV. But the Vizio S4221w-C4 is certainly close, especially if you prefer its less flashy style.
Design: Refined, but possibly in the way
The Vizio S4221w-C4 doesn't stand out much, but that's generally a good thing when it comes to sound bars. Its reserved style is dominated by the large black speaker grille on the front, with a thin strip of silver running along the bottom. There are some nice touches; on the far left, there's a series of LEDs that give you feedback on the volume level and even what input you're using. The wireless subwoofer is on the bland side, but it's easy to stash in an inconspicuous spot of your living room.
The major drawback to the S4221w-C4's design is that it might block your TV's remote sensor if you place it in front of your TV. It's a big drawback, as you'll find yourself holding the remote in the air, angling to get the remote signals to your TV. It's a common problem with sound bars, although models with a pedestal design get around it, as do sound bars with IR repeaters, such as Sony's HT-CT260.
If you're considering the S4221w-C4, your best bet is to find your TV's remote sensor, break out a tape measure and figure out if the 42.32-inch-wide, 3.74-inch-high and 3.15-inch-deep cabinet will get in the way in your setup.
A remote worth talking about
Most sound bar remotes feel like afterthoughts, but it's obvious there's been some work put into the S4221w-C4's clicker. Its caliber is clear as soon as you pick it up, with a substantial feel and minimalist selection of buttons that easily fall under your thumb. The volume buttons at the bottom are even slightly tilted to make them easier to feel by touch; it puts the thin, credit-card-style remotes found on other sound bars to shame.
What really sets the S4221w-C4's remote apart is its built-in display. It's a smart idea: why not look at the remote right in your hand instead of squinting at a tiny display across the room on your sound bar?
In practice, it's not quite the perfect solution you want it to be. Figuring out the logic of how the menus work on the single-line display takes some getting used to. The display also makes it easy to forget that the remote actually needs to be pointed at the sound bar for your commands to take effect. The instinct is to angle the display toward your eyes, with the remote pointing upward, which means your remote signals may not be received by the TV. Still, you do eventually adjust to its quirks; its excellent button layout and feel make it a great remote overall.
Features: Bluetooth, Dolby/DTS, and more
There are four inputs on the back of the sound bar that should cover everything you need: optical, coaxial, minijack, and analog. Sure, that's only enough for four devices if you're connecting everything directly to the sound bar, but you're likely better off using your TV to switch among devices, in which case you probably don't need more than a single optical input.
The S4221w-C4 also has built-in Bluetooth, which is pretty much a must-have feature for sound bars these days. Bluetooth is the easiest way to wirelessly stream music from the vast majority of smartphones and tablets. There is compression with Bluetooth audio, so there is some sound quality lost, but it's less noticeable from a sound bar than a system with separate speakers. There's also onboard Dolby Digital and DTS decoding, which isn't essential on a sound bar, but is helpful in some niche situations.
Setup: Simple, plus the ability to tweak
There's not much to talk about with setup, because once you hook up the power and the digital and analog audio cables, you're good to go. The wireless subwoofer links automatically with the sound bar.
The S4221w-C4's menu offers a bunch of sound tweaking options that don't appear on Vizio's step-down S3821w-CO sound bar. Both systems feature DTS TruSurround processing that enlarges the stereo imaging a bit, and we found it useful with movies. TruVolume is said to maintain a more consistent volume level with movies and TV shows, but it had minimal effect.
The S4221w-C4 adds individual dialog, surround, and subwoofer level controls. They make it easy to dial in sound balances to taste, which is nice. "Night Mode" lowers the sub volume to minimize the chances that movies or bass-heavy music will disturb people in other rooms.
Sound quality: A superb budget bar, but not the best
The S4221w-C4 may be priced like an entry-level system, but the sound was pretty impressive. No comparably priced system sounded this good a couple of years ago.
Few sound bars cut it with music, but the S4221w-C4 put on a credible performance with Bryan Ferry's recent "Live in Lyon" concert Blu-ray. Ferry performed songs associated with his old group Roxy Music and his solo albums with a big band, and even when we turned the volume up, the S4221w-C4 didn't complain. The subwoofer provided a solid foundation for the sound; it went deep and definition was fine. There was a bit of sibilance on Ferry's vocals, which we tamed by turning the treble down a few notches.
DTS TruSurround processing enlarged the stereo spread somewhat, without adversely affecting other aspects of the sound. We used TruSurround with most movies, but it was less effective with CDs and other two-channel music sources.
We next hammered the S4221w-C4 with the sound of robots attacking Will Smith in his car from the "I, Robot" Blu-ray. The barrage of twisting metal, breaking glass, and gunshots amply demonstrated the S4221w-C4's home theater chops. TruVolume didn't make much of a difference, but nudging the Dialog Volume control up helped clarify dialog in the midst of heavy action scenes.
So far so good, but then we compared the S4221w-C4 with one of our favorite budget sound bars, the Sony HT-CT260, and that system presented a bigger, more room-filling soundstage. The only also played about as loud as the S4221 w-C4, but sounded clearer overall. The S4221w-C4 struggled to keep it together in hard-hitting action scenes, where the HT-CT260 handled the assaults with greater finesse. The S4221w-C4 sounded "livelier," and the HT-CT260 had more weight and oomph. The Sony's treble detailing is softer, which made it easier to listen to over the course of a movie. There was no clear winner here, and hair-raising dynamic punch isn't in the cards for 'bars at any price.
The Sony HT-CT260's superiority was more apparent with stereo music and video concert discs; vocals sounded more natural, and well-recorded acoustic bass had just the right combination of fullness and "pluck."
The S4221w-C4's Bluetooth sound was a little harsh and there were occasional dropouts when streaming from a Nexus 7 tablet. CD sound was clearer than Bluetooth, but the S4221w-C4 isn't ideal for rocking out to high-energy music. It did its best with movies and more acoustic-oriented CDs, like Roseanne Cash's "10 Song Demo."
Conclusion: An excellent sound bar, if it fits
There's not much to complain about on the S4221w-C4: it sounds great, looks good, and offers all the features we consider important for a budget sound bar. The only problem that its design does block the remote sensor on many TVs, which is a real pain, unless you invest in a small TV riser to boost your TV up a little. If you can get around that quirk, it's an awfully good value for $250.