It always strikes me as odd that so many people spend a fortune on really nice home theater systems but then skimp or neglect the most important piece – audio. I happen to be one of those folks. Which is sad, considering that I do review Blu-rays and DVDs. The reason I always skimp on the audio portion is that for me a nice 2.0 soundbar has always been “good enough”.
While I appreciate a great 5.1 surround sound set up, dealing with wires is a annoying. Vizio’s new 5.1 surround soundbar system is the first system that I’ve seriously considered having in my home, primarily because it is the first “virtually” wireless surround sound solution that I’ve found (and believe me, I’ve searched).
Acceptance is the first step towards recovery. It’s time I came out of the closet and admitted that yes, I’m a Vizio fangirl. My living room TV is a 55-Inch Vizio 1080p 120Hz Razor LED Smart 3D set and my bedroom TV is the 42-inch 3D version of this TV (I also have a two-year-old 47-inch Sony Bravia). I love my two Vizios, even more so after getting Lasik surgery earlier this year. In my defense, Vizio TVs are cheap!
The audio on both TVs, but especially the 55-inch, was always good enough for me – I live in a condo complex so it isn’t like I want to kill my ears, or blast my neighbors out of their homes. But I wanted to step up my game, so I tried several different soundbar systems from Sony, Yamaha, and Bose. None of them worked particularly well – primarily, the audio wouldn’t sync properly. I think it has more to do with the TVs than the soundbars. I never wanted a Vizio soundbar because frankly they look ugly and are too bulky.
Vizio’s system comes in an oddly L-shaped box that wasn’t as easy to unpack as it should have been (or, I could have just been so excited that I didn’t take the time to figure out how to get the bar out without ripping the box apart). Nothing drives me crazier than opening up a brand new piece of expensive hardware like a phone or a printer and find it’s missing the cables or headphones required to actually use the product. Vizio included everything you need to get going: remote, batteries, and plenty of cables, including an optical cable in the accessory box, so no annoying trips to the store.
When I finally got everything out of the box, the last thing I felt like doing was lugging around a big, heavy subwoofer. While big, the subwoofer was smaller than most that I’ve tried, but surprisingly light. So light that I wondered if there was anything in it. I easily moved the wireless subwoofer and put it under the end table next to my couch and hooked the left and right satellite speakers directly into it. This creates the “wireless” experience that I’ve always wanted. Nothing in the middle of my floor – sweet! It is so unobtrusive that it scared the crap out of several people who sat on my couch and didn’t realize I had a surround setup.
I was disappointed in the lack of available connection options. OK, let me rephrase: Every connection you want is available – coaxial, digital, HDMI, and optical. The problem is you only get one of each. I tested a couple of soundbars (Yamaha and Bose All In One) that provided at least two optical inputs.
Having only one optical input means all my devices had to go through my TV via HDMI and then go optical from my TV to the soundbar. This is important because if you want pure digital audio (technically, HDMI is digital), you want to go optical to optical. TV HDMI sound still does some audio compression. I’m not an audiophile, but I do, occasionally, notice the difference when I plug my Blu-ray player (PS3) directly into the soundbar.
I tested it out with Blu-rays of Oblivion, Terminator 2, Monsters, Inc 3D, Oz The Great and Powerful 3D, and Les Miserables. The sound on this thing is booming. Having a proper sound system really did add a whole new level to my home theater system. The soundbar itself delivered full, rich sound almost every time at any volume that I selected. The center channels in the front were clear and had a lot of “weight” to them. I fell in love with Les Miz all over again.
The base was thick and rich, but the satellite speakers did not seem to work particularly well at the lower volumes. I don’t know if this is an issue with the speakers or how 5.1 tracks are mixed. However, I found that I had to turn the volume up to get the full effect.
You can control the volume levels on each speaker including the center, subwoofer, and satellite speakers. It took some playing around to get it to a place where it didn’t kill my ears, but once I did everything evened out and worked really well.
At 3.2 inches deep, 3.7 inches high, and 42.3 inches wide, the soundbar itself covered up the entire front chin of my TV. I had initially feared that it would block my remote control sensor and it wouldn’t work properly. There is something to be said for having uniform equipment.
Without any setup, code punching, or pairing, the system immediately recognized my TV’s Vizio remote control and everything just worked right out of the box. This meant that it didn’t really matter that it covered my TV’s remote sensor and I was able to change channels, volume, power on/off, etc. This may be an issue for non-Vizio TV owners. There are also very small, unnoticeable, LED lights that signal volume levels.
I like the design of the remote control that comes with this system. It is small and unobtrusive, with big, easy-to-use buttons. There is a grey-scale LED light on the remote, but between the grey text on grey background and the small text it is basically useless. I had to shine a flashlight directly on it to see what I was doing.
The speaker has Bluetooth functionality! My various phones (iPhone, Windows and Android) easily synced with the device and I was streaming all my music through it with very few issues – there was the occasional stutter, but that seems to happen with any Bluetooth device. However, I couldn’t get my Macbook Pro to sync with it.
While bulky, sometimes flaky, and not without issues at $329, Vizio’s S4251 5.1 Surround soundbar hits the sweet spot of price vs. performance and has a nice range of rich, full-bodied sound that most non-audiophiles won’t be able to help but love. I liked it enough that I actually bought it.