Vizio M-Elevate Soundbar Review: Great Sound, Elevated Price
This Dolby Atmos system offers plenty of home movie thrills and excellent music playback, but it's expensive for what you get.
Ty Pendlebury is a journalism graduate of RMIT Melbourne, and has worked at CNET since 2006. He lives in New York City where he writes about streaming and home audio.
ExpertiseTy has worked for radio, print, and online publications, and has been writing about home entertainment since 2004. He majored in Cinema Studies when studying at RMIT. He is an avid record collector and streaming music enthusiast.Credentials
Ty was nominated for Best New Journalist at the Australian IT Journalism awards, but he has only ever won one thing. As a youth, he was awarded a free session for the photography studio at a local supermarket.
Vizio made its name with value-conscious televisions, but it has cemented that reputation with a remarkable procession of soundbars. As far as sound-for-money is concerned, nothing can beat models like the V21 and M512a -- each of which is the best at their respective price points in my book. In recent years Vizio has branched out into more luxurious soundbars, beginning with the original Elevate. The follow-up, matching the M-Series TVs, is the M-Series Elevate soundbar.
In Vizio's naming scheme, the 'M' usually suggests a midrange product, and yet this bar still comes with a $800 price tag. It performs well, both with music and movies, and will fill a modest living space with sound. The main "issue" for the M-Elevate, though, is that it's too similar to the $500 M512a-H6 -- both in terms of functionality and sound quality. The main tie-in with the premium Elevate are the revolving end pieces for Atmos height effects, but that doesn't quite justify the extra $300.
Watch this: Vizio M-Elevate Soundbar Review
Let's get this out of the way first: The reason you're probably reading this review is because of that distinctive audio bling. Like the momma Elevate, the M-Elevate features a revolving driver at each end designed for Dolby Atmos. It works a little differently than the original version, however, as that model was able to physically revolve between stereo and Atmos mode. The pop-out height drivers of the M-Elevate can only engage when the soundbar detects Dolby Atmos or DTS:X content, not stereo. The user can change the light to one of a selection of colors -- adding customizability -- and the driver is held on by magnets in case it accidentally gets knocked. It just sticks straight back on. While the motorized LED indicator is hella cool, it's not entirely necessary.
The Vizio M512a-H6 is a surround system consisting of a main soundbar, a 6-inch subwoofer and two wired rear speakers. Like the M512a-H6, the M-Elevate is able to handle competitive DTS:X format as well as the latest HDMI eARC connectivity.
Despite being an Elevate model, the M-Elevate has more in common with the M512a-H6, both in terms of capability and in size. While the styling is different, the soundbar itself is similar to the cheaper model's bar at 41.38 inches wide, 2.6 inches high and 41.38 inches deep. The main grille, which hides three sets of mid-drivers and tweeters, is made of fabric, while the end piece that hides the two upfiring drivers is made of plastic and aluminum.
Likewise, the two systems' subwoofers each sport 6-inch drivers although the M-Elevate is contained in a slightly-more-elegant curved box. The surrounds that are physically wired to the sub via long cables are straight rears -- there are no heights here.
The M-Elevate features a selection of inputs, including HDMI in/out (with eARC), optical, USB (for WAV playback, which is a little odd) and two 3.5mm (headphone-size) analog input jacks. One of those 3.5mm connections is designed to connect a smart speaker like the Amazon Echo Dot, and the soundbar volume will mute if you issue it a command. Given that the soundbar doesn't have multiroom music like the Elevate, it's a relatively easy way to add it.
You see, like the M512a, the system's wireless connections are limited to Bluetooth. That's fine for many uses, but It's a shame that the M512 loses the Vizio Elevate's ability to stream Wi-Fi music and integrate with the Google Assistant. The $999 Elevate is still the only Vizio soundbar to offer Wi-Fi connectivity with Chromecast built in and Spotify Connect.
The top of the bar includes a limited number of controls such as power, volume, input and Bluetooth. The control is a proper wand rather than a plastic credit card, and the LCD display is used for initial setup and altering advanced settings. To adjust the volume of the height speakers is a little laborious, as you need to feed it a Dolby Atmos signal first (via a Netflix show, perhaps) or the remote will give you a "Not Available" message.
One other issue I had with the remote is that changing inputs could be very slow -- if you took less than two seconds to change the input, the readout on the remote and the soundbar would go out of sync. This would necessitate putting my hand over the remote and cycling it back to the input that matched the bar.
How does it sound?
If you're paying more than $200 for a soundbar, you want to be sure it can truly act as a replacement for an AV receiver, and this means not only its ability to act as a switch, but to play music. I began my review with a couple of folk-centric Australian bands -- Dead Can Dance and Grand Salvo -- and began ratcheting up the tension after that. When I heard the first notes of Dead Can Dance's Yulunga I was immediately struck by how natural music sounded coming out of the soundbar. There was a lack of honkiness or nasal qualities, and I couldn't tell that the sound was coming out of a plastic tube in front of the TV. Lisa Gerrard's voice appropriately sounded huge and the room became a concert hall, with the deep bass of the percussion realistically rendered.
Next, Grand Salvo and his story of a lifelong friendship cut short in "Field of Flowers." The song starts with a gentle guitar strum and Paddy Mann's weary vocals, and the Vizio let the story play out. Yet, it was only during the chorus where the sound became a little pushy with the group vocals. Conversely, the price-comparable Sonos Arc was able to handle the same dynamic shifts but able to render the choir more agreeably.
After listening to a selection of different music I moved to surround sound and the lobby scene from The Matrix. I compared the M-Elevate against its M512a label-mate and found that the two shared a very similar sound -- not surprising given the soundtrack's reliance on deep bass and the similarity of the two subs.
After switching to the Sonos Arc I felt that Vizio's rival offered a better level of detail. For example, as the soldiers assemble in the lobby to take on Neo and Trinity one of them shouts "Freeze." The sound hung in the air on the Arc, and when the bullets started flying the Sonos also offered a wraparound effect of the Arc that wasn't matched by the M-Elevate. The Vizio was more subtle in playback during this scene but the Arc was more fun, but where the Arc couldn't match the M-Elevate was for deep bass due to the dedicated sub.
The big test with a soundbar like this is "How does it sound with Dolby Atmos," and I found the answers to be a little disappointing for an $800 surround setup. While the M-Elevate was again able to provide true surround with the war epic 1917, and therefore gaining an advantage over the Arc, the Vizio's ability to provide height effects was limited.
Sadly I was never able to get enough volume out of the M-Elevate's height drivers -- even at maximum it couldn't match either the M512a or the Arc for convincing overhead sounds. The CNET testing room has a 15 foot ceiling and the M-Elevate wasn't powerful enough to bounce sounds off it, though it was a little more successful with a 10 foot one. This isn't a problem for the less fancy M512a.
To illustrate the differences among the three soundbars, I listened to the opening scene of Mad Max: Fury Road and found that both the Sonos Arc and the Vizio M512a were able to project high and provide a true bubble of sound. Though the surrounds did help with immersion, the M-Elevate was only able to make the ethereal voices sound like they were coming from the screen.
Should you buy it?
Vizio's main issue is that it didn't really need to fill the space between the M512a and the Elevate. The M-Elevate doesn't add all that much for the extra $300, though it works well in almost every regard but Dolby Atmos playback. As a result, the M-Elevate's main competitors are the two soundbars that bookend it: The M512a offers better sound and a better price while the Elevate offers a much bigger package with more useful features for $200 more.
If you don't mind filling your room with boxes, the M-Elevate does offer a compelling alternative to the similarly priced Sonos Arc, and it sounds better with movies, too. Yet, that said, you should probably save some money and get the M512a instead.