The cutting edge has its attractions, especially to someone who spends so much time sharing his opinions in print. I’m human -- I want to look cool. But when it comes to loudspeakers I’ve always been something of a traditionalist, and sometimes it takes me a while to catch up.
For years, I thought that just two speakers comprising things that go woof and tweet were all one needed to enjoy music. Many audio reviewers change their speakers several times a year -- I always kept mine far longer than that. The reigning champion was my beloved pair of ATC SCM50As, which saw continuous service chez nous for 20 years. And when we moved from a Texas ranch to a loft in downtown Portland, Oregon, and I had to reluctantly let them go, they still sounded better than most speakers on the market. The ATCs’ only downside was their breathtaking price of $15,500/pair USD.
Other speakers that have served long tours of duty in my home include the KEF Reference 105, Magneplanar Tympani 1D, and Mission 770. They’re all big and pricey, and not one of them is loft-friendly. Luckily, the advent of electronic crossovers allowed me to easily incorporate subwoofers into my system, and so enjoy smaller speakers without giving up sounds below 80Hz. When I listen to EDM, or organ and orchestral blockbusters, I want not only to hear the music but to feel it. I became a fan of 2.1-channel systems.
The one type of speaker that never held much interest for me was the soundbar. I’ve always been suspicious of all-in-one solutions to any problem.
There are so many issues that exasperate folks, like us, who want to experience the latest sound system upgrades. Dolby Atmos can currently deploy 128 distinct audio channels, but whose room is big enough? Who has the money? Even a 13.2-channel system can run a lot of money. So making a single long, low speaker cabinet whose sound output approximates that of a system comprising multiple separate speakers reproducing discrete channels makes a lot of sense, in terms of both cost and décor. But do any of these all-in-one systems actually sound good? For a soundbar, is sounding good even possible? I didn’t think so.
Of course, as soon as you make a sweeping generalization about something sucking, the fates intervene to prove you wrong. We were out to dinner with my close friend Rodrigo, and he invited us back to his place for drinks and to hear some music he’d recently discovered. When we got there, he fired up his TV and began playing music through a $500 Samsung soundbar and subwoofer.
Rodrigo had the enormously good taste to begin with what he hadn’t known is one of my favorite jazz recordings of the last 20 years: the title track of the Esbjörn Svensson Trio’s Seven Days of Falling (Act Music & Vision). He cranked it up until the transients threatened to destroy the system. While he concocted a drink from good-quality mezcal, I settled into the sofa and just loved the music: low-resolution sound coming from a soundbar at high enough volume to clip the amps -- and yet I was mesmerized. It’s one of the defining signs of great music.
Rodrigo then played Thievery Corporation’s live show on KEXP. Again the sound took me by surprise. These true dub lovers use a lot of panned sound effects, and while it wasn’t like having an equilateral triangle of speakers and listener -- again, good music and good friends transcend many limitations in equipment. Rodrigo’s wife turned out to be a font of information about 1970s soul-jazz. She called up Kool and the Gang’s “The Penguin,” and I had to take back all the ugly things I’d ever said about this band. Both the limitations of the gear and YouTube’s ultra-lo-def signal disappeared -- we just loved the music.
It was time for me to review a soundbar.
Some people I trust have spoken highly of Vizio’s soundbars, so I looked for something for under $1000. The SB46312-F6 ($799.99), which includes a subwoofer, seemed a perfect fit. We loft-dwellers have no place to put surround speakers, let alone height speakers, so I had no need for a soundbar with sub and surrounds. That would be Vizio’s SB46514-F6 ($999.99), which adds two little surrounds to the same soundbar and sub.
The SB46312-F6 came packed well enough to withstand the tender attentions of FedEx Ground. Mine arrived with its exterior carton torn in three places and one corner bashed in, yet the Vizio gear inside was in perfect condition. Kudos to Vizio for including just about every cable and piece of mounting hardware you’ll need, for installation on a shelf or a wall. The included remote control is nothing special -- minimalist, in fact -- but it works. It inspired no oohs or ahhs, but I was grateful for this remote’s simplicity and usefulness -- I’ve experienced enough very expensive products whose remotes are klutzy and hard to use.
A case in point: the remote currently bundled with Comcast’s Xfinity models. It makes using verbal commands very easy, but try to use any of its buttons and it quickly becomes clear that it was designed by a sadist. Its power button is so small an infant’s finger couldn’t find it, and the action of the larger buttons features almost zero tactile feedback, not even a tiny click. Given the hundreds of bucks Comcast charges us each month, you’d think they could make something at least as functional as the remote Vizio includes with this $799.99 system. Phone junkies will be happiest using the Vizio apps, available from Google Play and Apple’s App Store. And if you already own a recent Vizio TV, you can use its remote to control the SB46312-F6.
The interconnects are nothing to excite our obsessive brethren at SoundStage! Ultra, but they’re perfectly functional and include everything you might need. This soundbar is intended to be connected directly to your television. Vizio rates the inputs on the SB46312-F6’s rear panel as follows, in ascending quality: Good (3.5mm-to-RCA audio interconnect), Better (digital coax or digital optical), Best (HDMI ARC).
The soundbar itself is compact and good looking. The materials look and feel much more expensive than the actual cost. The buttons on the tiny, top-mounted control panel are difficult to see and use -- it’s easier to use the remote. Vizio adds a brilliant piece of design: a column of ten LEDs at the far left end of the bar. Check the manual to get an idea of the wide range of information those LEDs can convey.
The SB46312-F6 is relatively compact at 46”W x 3.4”H x 2.6”D, while the subwoofer’s ported cabinet is 16”H x 14.75”W x 14”D.
The bar’s drive units comprise three .75” tweeters and three 1.75” x 4.25” midrange-bass drivers. The left and right channels use passive radiators while the center uses a port. The soundbar also includes two 2.91” x 2.32” upward-firing “full-range” drivers, one each for the left and right height channels. The sub has a single 10” driver. Vizio recommends that the SB46312-F6 be used in rooms with flat ceilings no more than 12’ high, to give the output of the component speakers something to effectively bounce off of. Our loft’s flat 11’ ceilings were nearly ideal. I could find no recommendations of how far the bar should be from walls, but suffice it to say that it’s best if the sidewalls are reasonably close to the display’s left and right edges and to have the TV equidistant from the sidewalls. As part of the initial setup process, the soundbar “announces” its array as Left Front, Center, Right Front, Left Front Height, and Right Front Height; the subwoofer announces that it’s on and in working order by producing white noise. The announcements and noise let you know that all of the drivers are working. It also proves that the SB46312-F6’s directional design actually works.
Connecting the soundbar and subwoofer to a TV is easy, either through Wi-Fi and Vizio’s SmartCast Mobile app or an Ethernet link. I’d normally use a wired connection, but given that one of Vizio’s goals for this system is to keep its physical footprint compact, I used SmartCast, and with zero difficulty. I’d have appreciated the inclusion of some type of room management equivalent to Audyssey or Dirac Live, but given this product’s type and price, you can’t have everything. The SB46312-F6 is clearly designed for users who like to get through setup fast, rather than those who enjoy endless tweaking. Accordingly, the sub levels are preset at the factory.
Enough playing along with Vizio -- in a devilish mood, I thought I’d try to trick the system by starting with actively panned stereo music to hear if any of it would seem to come from above or out past the edges of the speaker. Béla Fleck’s The Bluegrass Sessions: Tales from the Acoustic Planet, Volume 2 (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Warner/Qobuz) features Sam Bush, in full-on ’60s radio voice, in “Do You Have Room?,” a spoken track that sounds more like early Steve Reich than the sons of Bill Monroe. This is bluegrass? You must hear it to believe it -- when I heard it through the Vizio, lo and behold, the sounds traveled horizontally through a soundstage that extended about a foot past both ends of the bar, but without ever escaping into the vertical plane.
Trying to find a true Dolby Atmos recording is made more difficult because I’m such a skeptic. I always think that they are downconverting, compressing, or otherwise conspiring to rob me of the full bandwidth. The bottommost of the bar’s column of ten LEDs lights up in the presence of Dolby Atmos -- if that LED glows green, you have Atmos. And if, like me, you want to know the whole truth, Vizio’s SmartCast app gives you the facts about what you’re listening to. That’s blessed relief for this skeptic.
In Episode 1 (“The Boy”) of Season 1 of Amazon’s Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, in a scene 19:30 in, bad guys break into a box to retrieve some evil stuff (I’m being deliberately vague to avoid spoilers). The Foley, extremely well recorded, includes the sounds of slams, tinkling glass, and muffled voices. These disparate sounds will conspire to confuse any speaker, but the Vizio did a smashing job of keeping the tension high and the intelligibility even higher. Bravo! But if there were height effects, I missed them. This does not seem to be the fault of the Vizio. I think the folks at Dolby are still figuring out how to produce a truly convincing height effect.
Wu Assassins, a new Netflix series, features sound of the highest caliber. The last two episodes involve heavy kung-fu fighting backed by some wild science-fiction special effects and a wonderful score by Jeehun Hwang. Kudos especially to Frank Laratta, the Sound Design Supervisor, who manages a huge amount of sound and keeps it perfectly intelligible. This was tough for those small speakers, but kept within reasonable volume levels, the sound quality was amazingly good.
The SB46312-F6 is designed for use with video and films, but it can also play music via Bluetooth pairing. Our loft is crammed with Sonos speakers we’re quite happy with, but I was never able to rustle up the intelligence to integrate the SB46312-F6 into the Sonos controller, so I didn’t really get into that feature too much. But we did try a favorite film that features some of the best music videos ever dropped into a movie. Streets of Fire, from 1984 (BD, Shout Factory Select Collector’s Edition), has two music scenes I never tire of: Fire Inc.’s “Tonight Is What It Means to Be Young,” and Dan Hartman’s “I Can Dream About You.” The former is one of a long string of magnificent compositions by Jim Steinman (others include “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad,” “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” “Holding Out for a Hero,” “I’d Do Anything for Love,” and the adolescent-boy fantasy “Paradise by the Dashboard Light”). It’s lip-synced by a ravishing Diane Lane, and picture and sound are equally exquisite. The SB46312-F6 offered a spacious sound good enough that I quit paying attention to the speakers and just enjoyed director Walter Hill’s artistic vision. “I Can Dream About You” is composed and mostly performed by a single very white guy. The Sorels are also skilled lip-syncers, and the video is a masterpiece of old-school soul. Again, the SB46312-F6 provided very clear sound and went quite loud before clipping. Could I have used a little more volume? Yes. But not very often.
The sound system I currently use with our TV is restrained by the problem of living in a loft condominium with shared exterior walls and no interior walls. The best solution I’ve found is a 2.1-channel system with Focal Solo6 Be active speakers and a Gallo Acoustics TR-3D subwoofer driven by a Marantz AV7702 preamplifier-processor. The phantom center channel is automatically in full sync with the front L/R speakers, since they’re producing it. Those three speakers cost almost five times as much as the SB46312-F6 with sub. They also take up more room and require a pre-pro, which raises my system’s cost to 7.5 times that of the SB46312-F6. Quite a difference. Of course, my system plays louder, cleaner, and more precisely than the Vizio.
But -- were I in the market for a high-quality TV speaker system for under $1000, the Vizio SB46312-F6 would be at the top of my list. Its combination of smart engineering and good sound make it a no-brainer.
. . . Wes Marshall