Review: Samsung HW-K950 Dolby Atmos Sound Bar Brings Object-Based Audio Home
It’s really amazing to hear the level of sound quality coming from some of today’s sound bars. Once hollow and boxy sounding speaker TV add-ons with narrow sounding coverage and limited musicality, the genre has transformed in recent years into a full-fledged Hi-Fi contender.
The Samsung HW-K950 5.1.4-channel sound bar with Dolby Atmos ($1,497.99) out now is no exception. Our tests found this ample package offers an immersive surround sound home theater experience that rivals the quality of some AV Receivers (AVR) and free-standing speaker configurations, while serving capably for music listening as well.
It used to be that you had to spend several thousands of dollars to get high-quality home theater surround sound from an elaborate set of separates, not to mention having to deal with the space requirements and requisite tangle of wires.
The HW-K950 raises the bar (pardon the pun) for placement of surround sound gear, offering supporting wireless subs and rear-channel speakers. Add to that decoding for new object-based surround sound formats like Dolby Atmos and you have a very worthy challenger to modern home theater convention.
Understandably, you can get good sounding sound bars for much less than $1,497.99 today, but I’ve found few that have the sound quality, wireless speakers/subwoofer and Dolby Atmos support of the HW-K950 all in one bundle.
Read more about the Samsung HW-K950 Dolby Atmos Sound Bar System after the break:
Last year, Yamaha amazed the home theater world when it introduced the first sound bar supporting a true 7.1.2-channel Dolby Atmos (and later added the DTS:X experience, as well) in the YSP-5600 ($1,599.99). That system uses Yamaha’s Digital Sound Projector technology and more than 40 tiny drivers in a one-bar solution to reflect the additional height and surround channels around the listener.
Enter Samsung, which through the guidance of its new Audio Lab in Valencia, CA, developed the new high-end HW-K950 Dolby Atmos Sound Bar as a legitimate option for novices and sterophiles alike.
The HW-K950 offers wireless right- and left rear-channel speakers equipped with top-firing ceiling-reflecting height-channel drivers. The system also includes a wireless subwoofer. You’ll have to buy a sub separately for the Yamaha, and a wireless adapter kit, if the subwoofer you choose happens to be wireless. In Samsung’s product, the sound bar portion features a pair of top-firing height drivers that bounce channels off the ceiling to create the sensation of on-screen objects flying above and around the listener. The effect is real, dramatic, and sounds like it’s coming from a system worth much more than the $1,497.99 retail price.
The Dolby Atmos Effect
So what’s the big deal with object-based audio? Dolby Atmos is a surround sound effect designed to give the sounds of particular objects in a video presentation dynamic 3D qualities. During the mixing for a film or video game, individual sounds of objects like birds chirping in flight or airplanes flying overhead are isolated and recorded. These individual sounds are converted into an “object.” Each sound object is then assigned a particular location within the surround sound listening environment using one or more speakers. As the object moves in the frame visually (or emerges in the distance off camera) its sound appears to follow it audibly around the listener. To accomplish this, the new object-based surround systems use height channels – in this case directed upward and reflected down off the ceiling around the listener.
Instead of sounds being two dimensional, coming from left, right or behind, they can be made to sound like they have additional spacial characteristics.
Many newer Blu-ray movies, and especially Ultra HD Blu-ray movies, are adding Dolby Atmos soundtracks today. Most Blu-ray players will pass the supporting data through to a decoder, supporting AVR or, in this case, sound bar for playback.
In the HW-K950, the Dolby Atmos effect is demonstrable and dramatic. In the new Ultimate Edition of the Ultra HD Blu-ray version of Batman vs. Superman Dawn of Justice, for example, the soundtrack was immediately both wider and fuller than other surround sound formats. Overhead elements were not as pronounced or evident in this title, but that didn’t diminish the value-added listening and viewing experience. Ceiling material can impact the detail and reflection of certain height-channel effects.
Listening in a room with a dropped ceiling and acoustic tiles, for example, made it harder to sense these overhead effects than when listening in a room with an 8-foot sheet-rock ceiling, which better reflects and disperses the sound, making it hard to pinpoint the generating speaker location to enhance the immersive impact. This is something to consider when choosing the optimal room location.
The Samsung HW-K950 5.1.4 Dolby Atmos Sound Bar System ($1,497.95) includes 11 drivers in the main sound bar portion. This includes two 2.5-inch full-range drivers paired with a 30mm tweeter for each of the three front channels. In addition, two 2.5-inch full-range drivers are top mounted on the right and left ends of the sound bar and are pointed out and up, to create the front half height effects. Each driver in the sound bar gets 20-watts.
The surround speakers use similar drivers but omit the tweeters, plus top-mounted outward and upward firing full-range 2.5-inch height drivers, each powered by 35 watts. The wireless sub houses an 8-inch driver paired with a 160-watt amplifier, and is ported in the back.
The sound bar itself measures 47-3/4-inches wide, 4-1/4-inches high and 5-1/4-inches deep. The front and top cover plates are matte-black and perforated to let sound flow unimpeded into the room while concealing the driver array.
The subwoofer is relatively compact, measuring 17-3/4 inches high, as are the rear-channel surround speakers, which measure 7-3/4 inches high. Both have similar styling to the sound bar.
The subwoofer is essentially a matte-black plastic box with the right side covered in matching black cloth to let the driver pump out the low-end frequencies. The surround sound speakers have matte-black plastic housings with matte-finished metal front and top driver cover plates that add a touch of substance and additional protection to each component.
The 47-3/4-inch sound bar is sized proportionately for TVs measuring 47-inches and larger, and makes a perfect match for one of Samsung’s new curved or flat-screen 65-inch 4K Ultra HDTVs. The 4-1/4-inch height makes for easily placing the speaker bar on a console or table top in front of the TV set without blocking any portion of the screen. However, the 5-1/4-inch depth of the speaker bar will require a tabletop depth of almost 20 inches in order to hold both sound bar and the newer Y-shaped stands that come with Samsung’s larger-sized SUHD Series 4K Ultra HD TV models. Alternatively, the speaker bar can be mounted on a wall underneath a mounted display. Samsung ships a pair of wall-mount brackets in the kit.
Much of what you’ll need to set-up and use the HW-K950 is supplied in the substantial box. Samsung includes an HDMI cable, power cables for the speaker bar, subwoofer and rear-channel speakers, and Samsung’s Smart Remote, which closely resembles the remotes included with 2016 higher-end Samsung TV models. You might need a second HDMI cable if you plan to connect to a Dolby Atmos-supporting source device, like a 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray player. An HDMI Audio Return Channel (ARC) output will pass through the video to the connected display. If you plan to hook up the sound bar via an optical audio cable, you’ll need to get that separately.
Connecting the wireless subwoofer and rear surround channels was fairly straightforward for anyone who uses Bluetooth devices. The process involves pressing and holding a setup button on the back of each speaker until a blue LED signal light begins to flash. The user then shuts off power to the speaker bar and presses a source button on the side of the bar until the blue lights on each speaker are solidly lit. I did have a little trouble getting the left rear channel to connect at first, requiring me to repeat the process, but after that everything connected and worked as advertised.
Connecting to a new Samsung SUHD TV couldn’t be much easier. Simply find the Connection Guide icon in the TV’s double-bar menu, scroll down to audio device and the system walks you through activating the sound bar as the primary sound system. After that the TV’s remote operates most of the basic volume and power controls on HW-K950.
Input jacks are placed on the bottom of the Samsung HW-K950 speaker bar. It comes with an optical input, but you’ll need to connect the speaker via HDMI to do certain things, like listen to Dolby Atmos content. It is equipped with two HDMI inputs and one output with ARC support to connect to the display. An external source device must be connected to the speaker bar’s HDMI 1 or HDMI 2 inputs and the bar must then be placed in HDMI mode to decode Dolby Atmos. When an Atmos soundtrack is recognized and supported, the white LED front-panel readout will say “Dolby Atmos” and a blue LED indicator will light up on the far right corner of the speaker bar. The speaker bar does not support coaxial digital input or RCA analog connections, but it has a mini-headphone input for auxiliary connections to iPods and similar music devices.
The sub and satellite speakers’ wireless connections to the sound bar increase placement flexibility. However, each unit will need to be within reach of a power outlet or extension cord to operate. Other than that, the wireless connections eliminate unsightly cord runs from the speaker bar to the back of the room.
The HW-K950 uses Samsung’s carefully developed new Smart Remote design, featuring a thin curved and uncluttered wand that fits comfortably in the hand. The remote has just six buttons, plus a central up, down, left, right directional control with center-positioned play/execute button. Volume and woofer settings are controlled with a pair of multi-function toggle controls. The remote lacks backlighting but the Spartan button array makes it easy to get familiar with controls and commands fairly quickly for functional use in the dark. Anyone using this with a new Samsung SUHD TV runs the risk of easily confusing it with the TV’s remote, although that features a silver plastic back plate instead of a black plastic one.
Built-in Wi-Fi support made it simple to link a mobile device to the sound bar using the supported Samsung Multiroom Audio App. Simply push a “SPK ADD” button on the bottom of the sound bar, download the free Samsung Multiroom Audio app to a smartphone or tablet and follow the on-screen setup directions to connect to your home Wi-Fi network. Once connected, the smartphone app accesses digital music files on the phone, network connected PCs, network attached storage devices, and a host of internet music services streamed through the phone or tablet.
I found the app a joy to use. It also affords the added bonus of being able to stream audio to a supporting Samsung wireless speaker (sold separately) positioned in other rooms of the house. Comparatively, the Yamaha YSP-5600 has similar capabilities with its MusicCast multi-room audio system, but a much broader range of supporting speakers and wireless streaming products to use with it.
The sound of compressed music streamed over the network through the HW-K950 was remarkably clear, deep and room filling, although some definition was predictably lost at lower volumes. That’s where the added power of a good AVR or amp/preamp tend to have a big advantage.
Similarly, music from CDs played through connected source devices sound impressively full, deep and lively, without a lot of overly shrill top end. Close your eyes, and you might think you are listening to a pair of bookshelf or speaker towers listening to some content.
The Samsung HW-K950 includes six listening modes: Standard, Music, Movie, Clear Voice, Sports, and Night Mode, the latter levels the sound and prevents drastic changes in volume jumping between programs and commercials. Each mode has a distinct aural characteristic, which helps to color the sound for the right content. You’ll have to listen for yourself to see which of these delivers the most desirable result for the room and your own tastes.
In addition to Dolby Atmos surround sound, the Samsung HW-K950 supports Dolby Digital (5.1), Dolby True HD (7.1), Dolby Digital Plus (7.1), and DTS (2-channel only). In June, 2017, Samsung added a firmware update that brough full DTS 5.1 channel support to the sound bar and the model K850 as well.
The remote makes it easy to manually adjust volume levels for each channel to better balance the surround experience, but the HW-K950 lacks a basic speaker test to verify everything is connected properly as well as an automated speaker setup function. Auto EQ systems are commonly included with AVRs today and a good one would be very useful for the set up of a new Dolby Atmos system. The Dolby Atmos Blu-ray Demo disk makes a good companion tool to isolate and listen to individual channels, including height channels, and set levels for the listening environment.
I started my evaluation of the Samsung HW-K950 by viewing regular programming channels from DirecTV. In standard mode, viewing content like news channels and sitcoms, the dialog was clear and up front. For movies and dramas, standard mode was too narrow and hollow sounding, but this opened up significantly in “movie” mode, and more so with surround activated. The overall sound was nicely dispersed, vocals were clear and background music was rich and well defined without being overpowering in properly mixed material.
Like music streamed over the aforementioned Wi-Fi Multiroom Audio System, music streamed over Bluetooth connections sounded clean and clear.
The 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray version of Batman vs. Superman Dawn of Justice has a dynamic Dolby Atmos soundtrack that highlighted the system’s bass response and surround sound capabilities, although height channels were not as pronounced as they are on the Dolby Atmos Blu-ray Demo Disc, which anyone with a Dolby Atmos supporting system should get. Still, the Atmos soundtrack seemed to widen the speaker dispersion while boosting dialog and subwoofer volumes, adding extra punch.
Even when no Dolby Atmos track is available the HW-K950 does a nice job with more established surround sound formats like Dolby True HD and Dolby Digital Plus. Both delivered a pleasing and lifelike surround sound experience with an acceptably wide sound stage when in “movie” mode. As mentioned, other modes on the sound bar tend to narrow the sound stage appreciably and are better used with live TV programs like news casts and sitcoms. Sports mode is a nice compromise, offering both clear direct dialog for the announcers and a wide surround experience for rear channel effects of the crowd and stadium.
For music listening, again, I found the sound stage to be somewhat narrow in “music” mode, but this opened up significantly when the surround button was activated and I got the accompaniment of the rear speakers. The sub offered good bottom but lacked the depth of punch of larger subwoofer systems on harder-edged material. The remastered three-disc anniversary edition of Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti was clear, hard and in your face through the front speaker array. Quieter songs like Bron-Yr-Aur were adeptly present showing the brilliance and clarity of Jimmy Page’s acoustic finger-picked stylings.
An old favorite for audio testing, Steely Dan’s Aja, was as clear and balanced with satisfying midrange presence, although here larger speaker systems, like B&W’s CDM series and a good Denon AVR used for reference, were somewhat more lively sounding and output better clarity of detail. Still, the fact that a sound bar is even in contention musically with such a system is no small achievement.
Overall, where the HW-K950 falls short of more elaborate (and expensive) home theater setups is a somewhat boxier sound on certain programming; good full-size speaker setups offer a more dispersed natural sound with greater presence, particularly at lower volumes.
The Samsung HW-K950 is expensive for a 47-inch sound bar today, but its 5.1.4 channel capabilities with Dolby Atmos support makes it an added experience worth investigating for yourself.
Alternatively, to save a few bucks or for use in rooms without the space for rear-channel speakers, Samsung makes a scaled-down version of the package available in the HW-K850 ($899). This omits the rear speakers. In this case, the sound bar itself carries the full load of the height channels, which will limit the full scope of the experience.
As we said, the sound quality is such that this sound bar is competing not against most sound bars, but against many of today’s low-to-mid-fi AVR receiver and speaker systems, and it is pretty good at it.
This wireless sound bar system impressed me by providing ample volume, solid vocal clarity, a nicely defined and wide sound stage and well-balanced low-end without adding any distracting distortion. The system proved adept at handling a variety of content and listening situations, including a wide selection of music genres.
As a first step, there are a few elements we’d like to see added. Samsung needs to incorporate an automated speaker EQ setup tool for calibrating and adjusting channel levels to the conditions of the room. Also, at this juncture, we would like to have seen support for the new DTS:X object based surround sound format as well. It’s rare today to find an object-based audio component that doesn’t support both Atmos and DTS:X, and these omissions are included in the rival Yamaha YSP-5600 for $100 more (sans subwoofer).
Also, it should be pointed out that the catalog of Dolby Atmos-supporting content is growing rapidly, giving consumers a nice selection of content options, and more and more Blu-ray titles coming out will support both Dolby Atmos and DTS:X formats, so you aren’t likely to miss too much with Atmos alone, at least for now. Of course, if you prefer the sound of DTS:X to Dolby Atmos, you’ll be at a loss.
With its impressive handling of the Dolby Atmos surround sound, and convenient Bluetooth and multiroom audio Wi-Fi linking, the Samsung HW-K950 Dolby Atmos Sound Bar is a fantastic audio upgrade to any on-board TV system, without the complexity, clutter and expense of adding a full-blown component system.
In assembling its new Audio Lab, Samsung said its goal is to become the leader in home entertainment audio, just as it is in television today. This product could be a good first step on the road to realizing that achievement.
We therefore award the Samsung HW-K950 4.5 out of 5 hearts.
The Samsung HW-K950 Sound Bar used for this review was a company loan.
By Greg Tarr
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