Vizio SB4051-C0 review: Sound bar looks domesticated, still needs taming

Setup

To start, we ran HDMI cables between our Oppo BDP-105 Blu-ray player, the SB4051 sound bar and our TV, but we had stereo sound only; the center and surround channels were missing. We spoke to Vizio and couldn't determine the cause of the problem but when we hooked an optical cable between the Oppo and the SB4051 we heard sound from all the speakers. This is how we conducted our testing.

The little wireless subwoofer linked automatically with the sound bar, but the surround speakers are wired, and they connect to the sub with RCA plugs. With this arrangement you'll probably have to put the subwoofer in the rear of the room. That's exactly what we did, with the sub to the left of the couch and the surround speakers on shelves about four feet up, on the side walls of the room.

We were a little concerned that with the sub so far away from the sound bar its bass wouldn't gel with the bar, but the blend was perfectly fine. The sub's rear room placement isn't mandatory, but that orientation keeps the surround speakers' wires in the back of the room. Alternatively, you could buy longer RCA cables and put the sub in the front of the room, and run the cables to the rear for the satellite speakers.

Once all the wires are connected, there are no setup or speaker-level calibration requirements. Using the remote you can manually adjust the subwoofer volume and that of the two surround speakers relative to the surround bar's, or simply turn the surround speakers off.

Sound quality

Wow -- the SB4051's tiny subwoofer makes a lot of bass, so much so that once we started listening with a few "Interstellar" action scenes we kept turning the sub volume level down. Even turned down all the way however, the bass could become overpowering. The sound was impressively full for such a tiny subwoofer though, and if you crave a warmly balanced, yet still crisply detailed sound, the SB4051 system could sound just right.

Most sound bars and 'bases are 2.1-channel systems, and many feature processing to simulate some semblance of surround sound. That gambit at best just produces a wider and deeper stereo soundstage. The SB4051 is a true 5.1-channel system. You don't have to be an audiophile to hear the difference the surround speakers make.

Every other 2.1-channel system -- even the most expensive Definitive Technology, Focal or Paradigm sound bars -- can't put sound behind you. Some higher-end Yamaha Sound Projector 'bars push the sound further into the room, but they're nowhere as effective as the SB4051 in creating a total surround experience. Dialogue was clear and clean sounding.

That was definitely apparent with Peter Gabriel's "New Blood, Live in London" concert Blu-ray, where the SB4051's sound leaped ahead of the pack of 2.1-channel sound bars and bases. The blend between the sound bar and surround speakers was seamless, so the concert hall ambiance sounded natural.

Surprisingly, the sub's bass didn't intrude, possibly because the bass in that concert wasn't as deep or sustained as we heard from movies. For whatever reason, the big drum and basses that start the tune "Biko" were remarkably clear and concise; Gabriel's impressively dynamic vocals weren't reined-in at all; we had to remind ourselves that this sound was coming from an affordable sound bar system.

We tried using the DTS TruVolume sound-leveling feature, which is supposed to reduce abrupt soft-to-loud volume changes, but we didn't hear much difference with it on or off.

Moving to CDs, we didn't like the sound coming from all five channels -- it was overblown and too reverberant. The fix was easy enough: we turned off the surround channels via the remote, and in stereo the SB4051 regained its composure. Recordings that didn't have a lot of bass seemed fairly well-balanced overall. Rocking out to the Black Keys "Brothers" album brought the overly bass-heavy sound roaring back. With stereo the 40-inch wide sound bar's narrow soundstage width was evident, something that's not unusual with small sound bars.

When we compared the SB4051 with last year's Vizio S5451w-C2 five-channel sound bar/separate surround speaker system, the bigger bar produced a larger sound. The S5451w-C2 has bigger speakers and a much larger wireless sub, so the bass was more powerful but better controlled; it produced tighter definition than the SB4051. That said, the older system had a softer, mellower midrange and treble balance than the SB4051.

Conclusion

The Vizio SB4051 does a lot of things right -- we loved the room-filling surround, and clear midrange and treble -- but the bass was too big and fat with some music and movies. Still, no other sound bars offer as many features for the money, so the SB4051 could be a great choice for bass lovers.