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If you think you'll miss out on a home-theater experience by choosing a budget sound bar, think again. Sure, you can pay hundreds or even thousands for a sound bar or audio system to go with your home theater, but if you choose wisely, some real gems can be had at the budget level too.
The $100 Vizio SB362An-F6 may not look like much -- a Toblerone shoved in a sock -- but as with many recent Vizio sound bars, its appearance and price belie serious performance. The quality of sound it can deliver at this price is kind of amazing.
What surprised us most is how well the bar held its ground in our direct comparisons with the Yamaha YAS-108, which costs twice as much. Features and design aside, the Vizio is the more enjoyable listen, and that's quite an accomplishment given how good the Yamaha sounds.
The biggest competition for the SB362An-F6 comes from within. The step-up Vizio SB3621n-E8 costs $150 (or even less) and offers significantly better sound thanks to an included wireless sub -- something the cheaper version lacks. We think it's definitely worth the money to get the version with the sub, so it remains CNET's Editors' Choice for budget sound bars. But if you don't want an extra box in the room, or you just want to spend as little as possible on a great sound bar, get the SB362An-F6.
There's something distinctly "80's sci-fi" about the SB362An-F6. Those hexagonal end pieces could be an apartment building the antihero buzzes in his flying car, or miniature fighter intakes at the end of a Battlestar's hangar outrigger. This 36-inch-long sound bar can sit on an AV stand in front of your TV -- provided you have enough clearance for its 2-inch height -- or it can be mounted on the wall (with two keyhole ports) to point outward into your room.
The side of the speaker is where things get particularly geometric, with a series of triangular buttons staggered across the hexagonal face. The buttons include volume, source selection and a dedicated Bluetooth option.
The remote offers powerful levels of control for a cheap soundbar, with volume plus three bands of EQ and a input selector.
The SB362An-F6 is a 2.1 channel system with two built-in 3-inch "subwoofers" that Vizio claims deliver frequencies down to 50Hz. The woofers are actually mounted on top of the unit, and it does sound different if placed on a table than when you hold it up vertically (though we didn't test it mounted on a wall).
The underside of the cabinet has a scooped-out section for the inputs. As expected at this price, they're scant: optical audio for hooking up your TV, a 3.5mm analog port, and a USB port for playing MP3s and WAVs from a thumb drive. There's no HDMI with ARC, as found on the Yamaha YAS-108.
The Vizio offers both Dolby and DTS decoding, which is impressive for a sound bar at any price, plus it has DTS Virtual:X, which is designed to simulate sound coming from around and above you, and that works especially well. We first heard DTS Virtual:X last year in the $300 Yamaha YAS-207 -- it's a technology that does a great job of simulating surround and even height effects -- and here it's appearing for the first time in a hundred-buck sound bar.
Though the Vizio claims the unit offers "room-shaking bass," we wouldn't go that far. The SB362An-F6's bass was full and plenty deep enough that we didn't miss having a separate sub, as long as we stuck to dramas and comedies.
To get started listening, we hit the SB362An-F6 hard with the Pixies -- Club Date: Live at the Paradise in Boston DVD (sadly, it hasn't come out on Blu-ray). The show, with the reformed band after their 10-year split, had terrific energy as they charged through tunes including our favorite, Caribou. Best of all, the SB362An-F6 let us hear that the band was really having fun, so the old tunes felt fresh. The bar unleashed a tall and wide soundstage while still maintaining good image focus.
We also noted the audience applause and club ambience were projected forward, well into the CNET listening room with the Virtual:X sound processing feature turned on. We didn't hear any overt digital sound processing artifacts coloring the sound. Even with the processing turned off the SB362An-F6 still sounded awfully good.
Switching over to the $100 Polk Signa Solo sound bar shrank the soundstage dimensions, but otherwise the Signa Solo wasn't totally embarrassed by the comparison. It sounded solid, with well-balanced dialogue. The SB362An-F6's sound was a tad weightier. The Polk is fine, but overall it isn't in the same league as the Vizio.
We also liked that it was easy to adjust the SB362An-F6's bass and treble control on the fly, and we usually preferred the sound with the treble turned down and the bass turned up, just a little in each case. Vizio's TruVolume dynamic range compression feature worked well, maintaining a more consistent sound volume and minimizing abrupt soft-to-loud volume changes.
Next we tried something more challenging to pummel the SB362An-F6, the Deepwater Horizon Blu-ray. The plot starts slow, then the soundtrack unleashes a torrent of rushing seawater, churning mud and lots of oil-fueled explosions. (Fun times!) The SB362An-F6 did its best, but there's no way this skinny bar can deliver the visceral thrills larger sound bars with brawny separate subwoofers are able to dish out. With our expectations lowered, the SB362An-F6 was still satisfying. Dialogue clarity and dynamic oomph were a lot better than what you'll get from speakers built into your TV.
When you're not playing it too loud, the SB362An-F6 succeeds by disappearing and not calling attention to itself. That's a compliment: you forget it's there and you focus on the movie or TV show. That said, if you crave legitimate room-shaking bass to feel Star Wars or Black Panther antics, you'll need to spend up.
Surprisingly, we found that the Vizio offered both better bass and more high-end sparkle than the similarly configured but more expensive Yamaha YAS-108. Father John Misty's new album, God's Favorite Customer, had more punch and presence when played through the Vizio when compared to the Yamaha bar.
If you only have a Franklin to spend on a sound bar, the answer is yes, you should buy it. The SB362An-F6 defies our expectations for how good a $100 sound bar can sound and beats anything we've heard at that price.
The slightly more expensive SB3621, the Vizio with a separate subwoofer, is still a better product with better sound, however. We definitely think it's worth the extra $50 or so if you want to really feel your music and movies. But if you just want to spend the bare minimum on improving the sound of your TV, the SB362An-F6 is the first place you should look.