The Dolby Atmos surround format offers excellent immersion in a home-theater environment, but until now sound bars with Atmos have not been very good values. For example, the $800 LG SK10Y was last year's cheapest bar, but it was only a middling performer. However, the Vizio SB36512-F6 changes everything.
If you've been wanting the sweet, object-based surround effects of Atmos but you're uninterested in an AV receiver and a roomful of speakers, the Vizio SB36512-F6 will be music to your ears. The SB36512 is not only the first Atmos sound bar we've seen to hit the $500 mark, but it's also good. Really, really good.
2019 may see more Atmos sound bars at this price, but almost none include actual rear speakers. The Vizio does, and they make all the difference for immersive surround sound. Not only does the SB36512-F6 serve up great sound for the money, it also has all of the connectivity you'll need. Only its lack of DTS:X decoding and a less-successful performance with music could give the enthusiast pause.
The Vizio SB36512-F6 offers excellent performance for the money and one of the best home cinema performances you can find for under a grand. We enthusiastically award it the CNET Editors' Choice award.
The look, the gear
Vizio hasn't changed the look of its sound bars in a few years, to the extent that one of the company's $130 models looks much the same as the $500-or-so one. The SB36512-F6 is fairly understated with its black cloth wrap and silver-colored ends.
At the top of the bar is a pair of upward-firing height speakers designed to beam Atmos effects off your ceiling and down into the room. There's a limited number of controls at the top, and the 36-inch wide bar is wall-mountable at the rear.
The main weakness of the SB36512's design is the same as any other Vizio of recent years; the super-basic "display" on the unit. It's just a stack of LED dots, which may offer a useful gauge of the volume level but utterly fails when representing which input is currently active.
The wireless subwoofer is a black-and-silver shoebox with a ported 6-inch woofer. This unit helps the entire system get down to a claimed 40Hz.
The Vizio features five different types of physical connectivity: HDMI in/out (with ARC), coaxial, optical, USB (for .WAV playback, strangely) and a 3.5mm analog input jack. Wireless connections include Wi-Fi with Chromecast built in and Bluetooth.
The remote control is a proper wand rather than a plastic credit card, and it even includes a one-line LCD display, which is very useful for altering advanced settings or setting the sound bar up in the first place.
Compared against the $1,000 Vizio SB46514-F6, the main differences are the size of the subwoofer -- the step-up is three times bigger -- and its rears have height modules in them, too. While we spent some time listening to the more-expensive model, we felt it didn't necessarily offer twice the performance of the SB36512.
Big, brawny sound
Now that Vizio's SB36512 has brought Dolby Atmos sound bar prices down to Earth, how does it sound? In a word, superb!
The SB36512's setup routine offers lots of speaker tuning options, but even before we adjusted anything, the sound from the Mad Max: Fury Road Blu-ray did a great job filling the CNET listening room.
After awhile the bass felt a little too fat, so we turned the subwoofer volume down, and the surround speakers' volume up, but only that minimal amount of fussing was required to achieve fully immersive sound. The sound bar and subwoofer's blend was excellent.
With Mad Max, the effects flying overhead and across the room via Atmos' height channel really did make a nice difference. The front to rear channel speakers' seamless coherence put right us inside the sound mix.
The road rage didn't falter when we turned the volume up. This system played loud with greater ease than most affordable sound bars, but of course a decent AV receivers with larger speakers will outpunch any sound bar. Still, for the SB36512's size and price, we had no complaints with home theater audio.
Since we didn't have any comparably priced Atmos sound bars on hand, we used the much larger and more expensive LG SK10Y for our comparison, and the SB36512 held its own. Dialogue sounded natural, and while the bigger LG bar and sub sounded fuller during the ferocious Omaha Beach Landing scene from Saving Private Ryan, the difference wasn't drastic. That battle's barrage has humbled many a sound bar, but not the SB36512.
Although the SB36512's musical chops were a little above average for sound bars, it still didn't sound as good as home theater. Streaming from Tidal, the SB36512 acoustic folk and jazz were fine while reggae and EDM's bass was weighty, but the sound had a hollow quality overall. We tried the different modes, but neither Direct nor Music (which activates the surrounds) offered what we craved. The Vizio's sound simply works a lot better for movies.
Should you buy it?
Given its very reasonable price, the Vizio SB36512 gets closer to the sound of a Dolby Atmos AV receiver and multichannel speaker system than we would have thought possible. That's great, but not everyone will want to run the SB36512's wires across the room to the surround speakers. If you can accommodate the wires and want an upgrade beyond typical sound bars, the SB36512 deserves serious consideration.
Update, June 26: Added CNET's Editors' Choice award.
Originally published April 5 2019.