Ultra HD Central Review
Samsung HW-K950 Soundbar with Dolby Atmos®
| January 10, 2017 |
| Richard De Jong, Editor |
Rarely have I encountered a TV of any ilk – HD or Ultra HD – or even at any price range – budget to budget-busting – that sports built-in speakers that produce audio that does justice to the display’s picture quality. It’s a shame, especially if you have designs on a home theater.
One of the solutions to this audio deficiency is a soundbar. In its basic form, the soundbar itself is an elongated unit containing, at least, Left, Right and Center speakers. Often the package includes a separate powered subwoofer that generates those deep sonorous bass notes that vibrate your soul. Better yet, for true surround sound reproduction, the kit will include two rear surround speakers.
With the HW-K950, the Samsung designers have raised the roof on the soundbar model with 15 built-in speakers including 4 upward-firing drivers. The result is high quality sound that can fill a good sized viewing room, definitely worthy of home theater consideration.
Those four drivers, two in the soundbar and one each in the Left and Right surround speakers, are guided by Dolby Atmos® technology to propel their sound waves up to bounce off your ceiling as if you installed overhead speakers.
When playing back an Atmos soundtrack, you will swear your ceiling is raining sound. In fact, a well-mastered Atmos recording can immerse you in sound enveloping you from all angles.
(If you are unfamiliar with Dolby Atmos technology, watch the video introduction to Atmos at the end of this review.)
Of note, in early 2017, the number of Blu-ray movies with a Dolby Atmos soundtrack is still small. But more and more new theatrical releases, like Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and La La Land, are being mastered in Dolby Atmos and in this New Year we should see, if not a flood, at least a steady stream of Blu-rays and UHD Blu-rays with Atmos audio. (You can find Dolby’s list of Atmos movies here.)
Currently the streaming providers that offer movies with Atmos audio are limited, with VUDU being the most prominent source with UHD versions of movies like Suicide Squad and Sully featuring Atmos soundtracks.
A good surround sound system can isolate audio to certain locations in your viewing room and with an amply powered subwoofer, the effect can become a rumbling experience. And indeed, the HW-K950 can make your floor boards quake, rattle and roll. When I was playing a battle scene from Allegiant, my associate down the hall thought a tank battalion was thundering through the office.
On certain sources, I found that the K950 subwoofer could be too “boomy.” For example, when streaming Netflix’s sumptuous and subtle The Crown, the bass could be ominously resounding instead of quietly resonating. Luckily, the subwoofer has its own volume control, which allows you to fine tune the rumble.
But what sets a Dolby Atmos system, like this Samsung soundbar unit, apart from normal surround sound kits is the ability to recreate the illusion of sound moving around you as if you are in a dome or – wait for it – an Atmos-Sphere.
The Atmos demos that the Dolby Labs have created often accentuate that effect of movement. When listening to this type of audio artifice on the K950, you’ll be ducking from the thunder as you scramble to get out of the rain.
But with a well-crafted Atmos soundtrack, that sensory sleight of ear is often more subtle. The K950 also handles those understated moments with aplomb. Therefore, whether the audio is roaring, soaring or pouring, the Samsung HW-K950 delivers the immersive sonic harmony.
This brilliant performance with Dolby Atmos audio makes this all-in-one unit an astute home theater purchase and a future proof choice as more Atmos movies emerge.
As a caveat, the audio on many of the current Blu-rays is mastered in some version of DTS, commonly dts-HD Master Audio 7.1. DTS and Dolby are competing formats. At this time, the Samsung HW-K950 soundbar system only decodes dts 2.0 Channel, which is the basic stereo encoder from DTS. Unless you change some settings, the dts audio will only playback through the Left, Center and Right front speakers, nothing from the rear surround speakers.
I’ve been running tests with the dts 2016 Demo Disk and have discovered a couple of workarounds. First, if you bought the Samsung UBD-K8500 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray Player, go into the Settings menu > Audio submenu. Under Digital Output, choose the Bitstream (Re-encoded Dolby D) option. The player will re-encode the dts-HD Master Audio and translate it to a Dolby Digital format that the K950 soundbar can read and playback as a discreet 5.1 channel output. Not a perfect solution, but way more satisfying than the alternative.
Now, I have the just-released OPPO UDP-203 Ultra HD Blu-ray Player in for review. With all the controls that it offers, the designers did not include a comparable re-encode feature. If you are in a similar situation, the best solution that I can find is provided by the soundbar.
When playing a dts soundtrack, press the SOUND button on the remote control and it will cycle through turning the Surround Sound feature On and Off. You can also engage all the soundbar speakers by pressing the EFFECT button and choosing either the Sports or Movie sound mode.
With my tests with the dts Demo Disc, this technique does not render discreet front and surround channels. For example, the Left Front and Left Surround speakers output the same audio. At least you are surrounded by audio. More importantly, though not discreet, the audio quality is quite noteworthy.
According to the classification of audio speaker setups, the Samsung HW-K950 is a 5.1.4 channel system. One Left Front + one Center Front + one Right Front + one Right Surround + one Left Surround = 5. The powered subwoofer is the 1. And the 4 upfiring Atmos speakers are rest of the configuration, 5.1.4.
The main unit soundbar contains 11 speakers, three each for the L, R and C channels plus a L and R upfiring driver. All are rated at 8W, 4 ohm, THD≦10%.
Each surround sound speaker has two drivers, one directed out the front and one directed up. They individually are rated at 35W, 4 ohm, THD≦10%. The speakers receive a wireless signal from the soundbar, but they still need to plugs into an electrical outlet.
The powered subwoofer also is connected wirelessly to the soundbar and needs to be plugged into an electrical outlet. Its rating is a hefty 62W, 3 ohm, THD≦10%. The total power for the system is 500 W.
The exteriors of all the components are matte black with an occasional gloss black accent. The most notable design aspect of the almost four-foot long soundbar is that it is not curved. If it were, it could fit in more snugly to the stands of Samsung’s curved TVs.
For example, the stand on Samsung 65KS9800 65" Curved SUHD Smart TV sticks out over 4.5 inches from the face of the screen, which prevents you from setting the soundbar any closer. Of course if you are wall mounting the TV and the soundbar, then this flat K950 provides a sleeker profile than a curved unit.
On the bottom of the main soundbar unit are a variety of audio and video connections, two HDMI inputs, one HDMI out (ARC – Auto Return Channel compatible), a digital audio (Optical) input and one Aux (mini-jack) analog audio input.
Also integrated into the K950 is a Wi-Fi adapter, which allows you to connect your soundbar to your network. And perhaps more importantly, the unit is Bluetooth capable giving you the ability to stream audio from your phones, tablets and other Bluetooth devices.
The K950’s manual explains the Wi-Fi setup and Bluetooth pairing procedures. But before you jump the queue, you need to take some time to place your speakers.
The manual provides the Recommended Speaker Layout diagram (pictured above).
Remember that the subwoofer and the surround speakers communicate wirelessly with the main unit, which saves you from running speaker cables hither and yon. (About 33 feet is the maximum transmission distance.) Also be mindful that each speaker needs to be plugged into an electrical outlet.
In addition, the manual suggests, “For optimal listening performance, make sure that the area around the wireless subwoofer and surround speakers location is clear of any obstructions.”
When they are first powered up, the subwoofer and the surround speakers should automatically pair with the soundbar. If they don’t check the manual for guidance.
I will not attempt to cover all the permutations of audio and video connections your systems may present. When you have all your devices – TVs, game consoles, Blu-ray players – hooked up, you can choose your source with the remote control.
This matte black, non-backlit, compact (6.25 x 1.5 inches) provides an ergonomically curved back side that fits comfortably in the palm of your hand.
Samsung does not provide a microphone-aided calibration system for your speakers, but you can perform an ear-aided volume adjustment by pressing the LEVEL button on the remote and selecting the speakers one at a time and tweaking its volume to match the other speakers.
With the remote, you can also adjust TREBLE, BASS, or AUDIO SYNC and Samsung includes a seven band graphic equalizer. Some of these tools require you to press and hold a button to access their menus, therefore I’m afraid you probably will have to consult the manual – even if it’s against your DNA to do so.
While you are nosing around in the manual, you can read about what lies behind the EFFECTS button. And before you begin howling about why you are not getting a Dolby Atmos signal from your Ultra HD Blu-ray player, be sure to check on the settings you need to apply on your player.
The whole rigmarole may take some time and gumption to set up, but when you hear a good Atmos soundtrack on your system, you will be rewarded. Actually, the Samsung K950 soundbar does an admirable job playing back all sorts of non-Atmos audio content as well.
At first blush, a $1500 soundbar seems pricey. But when you factor in that the Samsung HW-K950 is a full-throated 5.1.4 Dolby Atmos sound system, the value is much more evident. Do I wish it were less costly, of course. And during the past Black Friday season, it was selling for a couple of hundred less. Also, in this New Year, with a little vigilance, you might find this 2016 model marked down.
Samsung has built a Dolby Atmos system from the ground up and the result is the high performance 5.1.4 HW-K950 soundbar system. By integrating two upfiring Atmos speakers in the soundbar main unit and one each in the two wireless surround speakers, the Samsung designers have created a conveniently compact yet powerful kit that shines when playing Dolby Atmos mastered audio.