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Vizio S4221w-C4 review: An excellent budget sound bar, if it fits

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.

Vizio S4221w-C4
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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.

Vizio S4221w-C4
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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.

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