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Vizio SB36512-F6 review: Finally, an affordable Dolby Atmos sound bar worth buying

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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. 

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