The sound bar is best seen as a reaction to home-theater-in-a-box (HTIB) systems, which promised all-in-one simplicity, but often resulted in the same speaker clutter and nest of wires most buyers were trying to avoid.
The Vizio S5451w-C2 ($500) feels like a sound bar/HTIB hybrid, offering most of the simplicity benefits of a sound bar, but also adding back the true surround sound experience that sound bars lack. It's a massive 5.1 sound bar system, anchored by a 54-inch sound bar, combined with a wireless subwoofer that connects to two satellite speakers -- yes, via speaker wires, but less than a traditional HTIB system. The reward is a big, enveloping sound that other sound bars can't touch, especially on movies with heavy special effects. And it's packed with step-up features like dual HDMI inputs, Bluetooth, and a nifty remote that has a built-in display.
It's not without faults. The sound bar is tall enough that it might block your TV's remote sensor and the system's overall footprint is large, if not burdensome; this isn't the system for those in a modest apartment. In fact, for most people, the S5451w-C2 is probably overkill. A simpler 2.1 sound bar like the Sony HT-CT770 ($450) will fit the bill without the clutter, or, if you really want surround sound, the smaller Vizio S4251W-B4 ($250) gets you those true surround effects for half (!) the price.
But if you have the space and want the best performance, the Vizio S5451w-C2 gets you closer to the cinema experience than any other sound bar out there, without the full clutter of an HTIB. It's an impressive feat and worth the $500 price tag.
Design: Big, brawny, and possibly in the way
The Vizio S5451w-C2 makes a bigger imposition on your living room than any other sound bar system. That starts with the sound bar itself, coming in at 54 inches long, designed to fit TVs 55 inches and larger. The bar's length shouldn't be underestimated, as it hung off the edges of our reasonably large TV testing cabinet. While a larger TV can exceed the length of your TV stand without looking unsightly, the same can't be said for a sound bar sitting on the cabinet.
While the bar doesn't have the chunkiness of a system like the Pioneer SP-SB23W , it's still relatively tall at 4.18 inches, which means the sound bar might block your TV's remote sensor. It's an annoying issue that many sound bars have, and the S5451W-C2 doesn't have an IR repeater to get around the issue, like some competing sound bars have. If you're wall-mounting, this isn't a problem; otherwise you may want to look into getting a TV riser to boost your TV above the sound bar.
Aside from its size, the S5241w-C2 sound bar is stylish, sporting a reserved look that's appropriate for a product like this. The black speaker grille dominates the front, with a thin strip of silver running along the bottom. That thin strip also houses a series of LEDs that provide some visual feedback when you're adjusting the volume and making other tweaks. It's a nice, subtle touch and actually works better than a full-fledged front-panel display in many cases.
The Vizio's footprint expands with its subwoofer and satellite speakers. The subwoofer is designed to be placed in the back of your room, and the rear channel sats connect to the subwoofer. It's a neat design that eliminates having to run wires from the front of your room to the back, which is the cause of so much wire clutter with traditional surround-sound systems and home-theater-in-a-box solutions.
The subwoofer is wireless and on the large side for a sound bar, with an 8-inch driver. The satellite speakers stand 8.5 inches tall and have a two 3-inch drivers. Note that both the subwoofer and the satellite speakers are a bit larger than the equivalent speakers in the Vizio S4251w-B4.
The real question to ask with the S5451w-C2 is whether this is the right type of product for your setup. In some ways, the system is an in-betweener: not nearly as simple as a basic sound bar/subwoofer combo, but also doesn't offer the performance of a AV receiver paired up with surround sound speakers. It all depends on your preference between convenience and performance, so you should make sure you wouldn't be better served by a simpler or more elaborate system.
Remote: Built-in display, sizable design
Vizio's unique sound bar remote debuted with the S4251w-B4 and it hasn't changed much since then. That's mostly a good thing, as its one of the better sound bar remotes out there. Its substantial design is comfortable to hold and the button layout is easy to navigate by feel.
The standout feature is the built-in display, allowing you to get visual feedback right on remote, rather than squinting across the room to a tiny display on the sound bar. It's a fantastic idea conceptually, but slightly less fantastic practically. The issue is when you hold the display up to look at it, the remote codes fire up toward the ceiling, rather than toward the sound bar, so they don't always reach their destination.
Still, the S5451w-C2's remote works well most of the time, especially compared to the cheap, mushy-buttoned remotes sound bars typically include. Let's hope for a Bluetooth-enabled clicker next year.
Features: Bluetooth, HDMI, and more
The S5451W-C2 has more connectivity options than a typical sound bar and that starts with two HDMI inputs. Normally HDMI connectivity isn't that much of a plus, especially if you plan on using your TV as a switcher, but it's actually a big plus on a true 5.1 sound bar like this. That's because most TVs dumb down incoming surround sound audio to stereo, which means you'd be missing the true surround-sound experience. By connecting important devices (cable box, gaming system, etc.) directly to the sound bar, you can be sure you're getting a true 5.1 experience.
In addition to HDMI, the Vizio has a healthy selection of legacy ports, including optical, coaxial, analog, and minijack. There's also onboard decoding for Dolby Digital and DTS, so the S5451w-C2 should be able to handle whatever type of audio signal you throw at it.
Bluetooth support is built-in, so you can stream audio wirelessly from almost every smartphone and tablet. The aptX codec is also supported, which promises better audio quality, although you'll need a compatible device.
Setup: Simple, even with surround speakers
Like most sound bars, the S5451w-C2 doesn't require much setup. The wireless subwoofer links automatically with the sound bar, and you just need to connect the rear channel speakers using the included cable. You'll also need to plug in the subwoofer, so make sure there's an outlet in the back of your room. And although we had some concern that the rear placement of the subwoofer might keep the bass from jelling with the sound bar across the room, but the blend was perfectly fine.
Once all the wires are connected there's no mandatory calibration, although you can adjust the subwoofer volume and the volume of the two surround speakers relative to the surround bar. It should sound pretty good out-of-the-box, but if you have more sensitive ears, you'll definitely want to tweak the sound quality for your room.
Sound quality: Real surround from a sound bar
The S5451w-C2 is a bona fide five-channel sound bar plus subwoofer system and you don't have to be an audiophile to hear the difference the surround speakers make. This system's room-filling sound capabilities far exceed 2.1-channel systems that tout "simulated surround" sound, but can't actually put sound behind you. Even the best faux-surround sound bars -- Yamaha's Digital Sound Projectors -- are nowhere as effective as the S5451w-C2 in creating a total surround experience.
The S5451w-C2 has separate front left, center, and right channel speakers built into the sound bar, but we noted that movie dialog mixed to the center channel speaker was also coming from the left and right front speakers. That means that listeners sitting to the left or right sides of the room won't hear dialog coming from the center of the sound bar. The workaround is easy enough: turning up the center channel volume anchors dialog to the center of the sound bar. If you have trouble following dialog in a movie raising the center channel volume can improve intelligibility somewhat.
The S5451w-C2's physically large sound bar and subwoofer make a big sonic difference. The ultrawide sound bar separates the left and right channel speakers a foot wider than what you get with most sound bars, giving the Vizio a wide open sound. And the system's jumbo subwoofer produced a fuller than average bass balance when we played the "Gravity" Blu-ray. This outer space thriller is loaded with rumbling sound effects and heartbeat rhythms, and the Vizio sub did a great job energizing the 14x22-foot CNET listening room with bass. This system can comfortably play louder than most sound bar systems.
The surround speakers also let us hear exactly what was going on with "Gravity"'s sound mix cues; we heard the voices of Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and fellow astronaut Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) move around the room. No other sound bar, save for Vizio's S4251w-B4, could possibly track those movements as accurately. If you watch a lot of special effects driven movies, this is the sound bar to get.
Next, we popped on the Peter Gabriel "New Blood, Live in London" concert Blu-ray, and again the scale of the sound impressed. Gabriel sings with a full orchestra and the S5451w-C2's weighty sound did justice to this well recorded concert. The one area where we noted a problem was the sub's definition, where the bass could get a little flabby.
At this point we started comparing the S5451w-C2 with Sony's HT-CT770 sound bar, and there were huge differences. The spacious surround ambience was totally gone, and the S5451w-C2's rich tonal balance was replaced with the HT-CT770's leaner, clearer sound. Once we settled in and really listened the HT-CT770's superior overall clarity was impressive, which almost made up for the loss of the S5451w-C2's room-filling sound. Many buyers will definitely see the HT-CT770's more compact size and easier setup as big pluses.
CDs sounded best with the surround speakers turned off. The Queens of the Stone Age's "Songs for the Deaf" CD proved system can play hard rock loud without strain or harshness, and again, that's not always the case with sound bars.
Conclusion: Big-sounding bar, if you're willing to pay
The Vizio S5451W-C2 definitely isn't for everyone, with a relatively high $500 price and sprawling design that takes up more space than a typical sound bar. But typical sound bars don't sound nearly this good, especially when it comes to movies and TV shows with a lot of surround effects. It's hard to find this blend of performance and convenience in another system, which is what makes the S5451W-C2 a standout.