Hands-on review: CES 2016: Samsung HW-K950 Soundbar with Dolby Atmos

Audio fidelity, up to a certain point, is subjective. Yes, an expensive tower speaker will blow a bookshelf speaker out of the water any day of the week, but between similarly priced products that both have the same codecs, the same size drivers and nearly identical amplifiers, you’ll be hard pressed to pick “the better speaker” nine times out of 10.

So at a conference of dozens, if not hundreds of speakers, many of which sound the same and use similar components, it can be hard to find something truly different.

That said, the HW-K950 flagship soundbar from Samsung actually blew me away.

What sets the soundbar apart from the admittedly feature-rich Sonos clones that pervade the show floor here in Vegas is that it packs Dolby Atmos into three speakers: a soundbar and two wireless satellite speakers.

It’s a simple setup, sure, but it’s also one of the most accessible entry points into Dolby’s “3D bubble of surround sound” technology. While this technology exists in dozens of other forms from traditional five speaker home-theater-in-a-box packages to insanely high-end masterwork audiophile-grade towers and surround speakers, this is one of the first times it’s come packaged into a neat four-piece kit.

Samsung Dolby Atmos Soundbar

The Atmos advantage

Atmos is a software and hardware combination from Dolby Laboratories that offers a more immersive auditory experience than traditional 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound.

The key difference between Dolby’s latest audio tech and traditional setups is that Atmos uses upward-firing speakers to bounce sound off the ceiling and create multiple planes of sound. To get an idea of what I’m talking about, picture a scene in an action film with a helicopter flying overhead. Instead of hearing it discretely move from your rear speakers to your front left, right and center speakers, Dolby Atmos will project the sound onto the ceiling so that it sounds like it’s moving closer before passing overhead and flying away.

Dolby uses a “sound bubble” analogy when describing the tech, so if that helps you can imagine that, too. (We also have a pretty great guide to Dolby Atmos that’s worth a read.)

The HW-K950 is a major leap forward for Atmos technology because instead of requiring a traditional six speaker setup (front left, right, center, a subwoofer and left, right surround units), Samsung has boiled it down to one single soundbar that houses three drivers, two surround speakers and a sub.

Samsung Dolby Atmos Soundbar

In total, the soundbar has five drivers, three front-firing speakers and two upward-firing ones. Add to that two drivers in each surround unit and it brings you to a 5.1.4, with the .4 coming from the upward-firing Atmos drivers.

Stealing first by coming in second

If you follow the audio space at all, you’ll know that the K950 isn’t the first soundbar to offer Dolby Atmos built-in. That honor belongs to Yamaha’s YSP-5600. But what makes the K950 the better bet for your next investment in cinema-quality sound is that it offers the rear speakers with the upward-firing speakers, too, making it a 5.1.4 system opposed to Yamaha’s 5.1.2 sound strip.

Samsung Dolby Atmos Soundbar

Here comes the bad news: Dolby Atmos isn’t the only new audio technology around. Competitor DTS has its own brand of 3D audio called DTS:X that would love to push past Dolby as the go-to technology of the next generation. That means film studios need to pick which one to invest in, and have sometimes decided to stay away from 3D audio entirely to cut costs in the studio.

What that means for you a small handful of Dolby Atmos-enabled content to choose from and the possibility that you’re investing in a technology that could lose out to the competition. Finally, any other equipment you buy – from your A/V receiver to your next Blu-ray or set-top player – will need to be Dolby Atmos-enabled as well.

Samsung Dolby Atmos Soundbar

Early verdict

I’ve had Dolby Atmos-equipped speakers in my home for the last six months now, and I’ve never looked back. Movies have never been more cinematic in my home, and while content can be tough to find, like HDR or 4K Ultra-HD, the time and money investment is well worth the reward.

What I like about the K950 specifically is that it’s simple. It’s something I could buy for my parents, two people who know nothing about sound systems, and have them set it up themselves.

This ease of setup isn’t without trade-offs, however. For one, I found the soundbar to produce a somewhat muddled sound during my short demo on the show floor here at CES. Another, again, is that for Dolby Atmos to work you’re going to need some form of Dolby Atmos content and a player for it all to work. The last sticking point is that we have no idea how much the K950 is going to cost, though a representative at CES said to expect it to cost “around what the flagship soundbar currently costs (referring to the $1,300/£650 HW-J8500), if not a little more.”

These complaints could be moot once I get the speaker into my own home (admittedly, a crowded show floor isn’t the best place to demo a tightly tuned speaker), but so far I’m more impressed and wowed than I am skeptical of the final product.

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