Samsung has launched a music system for people who want the latest audio technology in a compact package. At first glance it looks like any soundbar on the market but look a little closer and you will find that it comes included with 2 wireless rear speakers, a wireless subwoofer, and most importantly Dolby Atmos onboard. Atmos is a so-called object-based audio technology that can place "sound objects" in the room for a more immersive sound experience.
You may already have experienced Dolby Atmos in the cinema but how good is it at home? And is it even possible to cram into a compact soundbar design? FlatpanelsHD has received Samsung’s HW-K950 Dolby Atmos soundbar (HW-960 in some regions) for review.
Samsung’s Dolby Atmos soundbar differs from other audio products made by the South Korean giant by putting more emphasis on sound than design. Samsung’s soundbars often come in rounded or atypical shapes but K950 is a very ordinary rectangular bar with flat surfaces.
At first glance it may not look like a "flagship" anything but it is Samsung’s most expensive and feature-packed soundbar on the marked. When you start to examine it more closely you will find that the materials are actually mostly genuine. The grille is made from metal and the sides from plastic but not the glossy plastic that Samsung usually prefers to use. It is a type of matte plastic.
The edges are not rounded but there is a small 45-degree angle that break the otherwise very rectangular design. It is a neat little detail that makes it look a little more elegant even if it is just a long bar. However, I did notice some cases of sloppiness here and there. Some of the joints have about half a millimeter of height difference. For a product in this price class build quality should be better.
There is a small display based on small white diodes used to show what audio input is coming through; HDMI1, HDMI2, Bluetooth, analog or digital optical. With the bundled remote you can change input source, which gives a quick prompt in the display as well as on the TV screen. The soundbar has several different sound presets and settings, too. The display will show you which of the following you have selected: Standard, music, movie, sport or night mode.
On the back we find power and HDMI ports. There are two HDMI inputs and one HDMI output that supports ARC (Audio Return Channel). This is the HDMI port that you connect your TV to as it can transfer sound from audio devices connected through the TV. In my case two HDMI ports in the soundbar were four too few so I ended up using all four HDMI ports in the TV, too.
With Audio Return Channel (ARC) it should be painfree to connect devices through the TV but unfortunately I, on two separate occasions, ran into an issue where the soundbar would not turn on automatically with the TV. I had to turn off everything on the wall and power it on again.
So even though both the TV and soundbar had a Samsung logo on front there appeared to be some challenges in the "handshake" process. I was not able to confirm if the issue was isolated to the TV or soundbar, or a compatibility issue between the two, but it is a small thing that can quickly prove to be frustrating. If the soundbar had 4 or more HDMI inputs this issue would not exist in the first place.
The soundbar also features Bluetooth for music as well as an analog 3.5mm mini-jack and an optical digital port. The minijack port is limited to stereo sound and optical audio limited to 5.1 surround. In other words none of these can utilize the capabilities of the Dolby Atmos technology.
Samsung was quick to point out that the set up process is very easy and of course that is one of the advantages of buying a complete package instead of buying each audio component separately. On the other hand is means less flexibility. And I am happy to report that you simply connect the rear speakers to a power outlet, then the soundbar, and that is all, folks. It does not get much easier than this!
If you want to adjust settings manually, including audio delay, you can. You simply navigate through a on-screen menu on the TV. It is also possible to scroll through adjustment options for treble and bass on the LCD display in the soundbar.
Samsung has an app called "Samsung Multiroom" that allows you to adjust sound. However, it is primarily thought as a tool to set up multiroom speakers. I did not have extra Samsung multiroom speakers for this review but last time I reviewed Samsung multiroom it worked as intended.
Back then I criticized the app for being painfully slow and unstable on iOS devices. Luckily Samsung has fixed the issues by publishing an entirely new app over the summer. It is much improved - and prettier. You can use the same app if you want to listen to music but since the soundbar also features Spotify Connect and Bluetooth it is not really necessary to use the app.
What is Dolby Atmos?
The most important feature in Samsung HW-K950 is of course the Dolby Atmos technology. Dolby has over the years developed several audio formats and recently entered the video segment with its Dolby Vision HDR technology.
From an overall perspective, audio technology has moved forward in line with disc formats. The DVD offered 5.1 sound, Blu-ray offered up to 7.1 sound, and UHD Blu-ray that improves picture quality through UHD and HDR obviously calls for an even better sound experience. For that purpose Dolby has introduced Atmos and while it is also available on some regular HD Blu-ray discs and streaming services, Atmos is most often associated with the new disc format (or the cinema). Atmos adds overhead channels for a more immersive experience. It came to cinemas in 2012 and has since then been adopted in many Hollywood movies.
At the time of writing the catalog covers more than 150 movies and is growing almost every week. Dolby has created a site with a list of movies that are available to buy with Dolby Atmos. It may not come as a big surprise that the list contains mostly action and sci-fi movies but the animation genre is also growing.
In the cinema Dolby Atmos supports up to 64 speakers. The idea is to reproduce more immersive 3D sound with sound coming from different angles and places. There is no support for floor speakers.
To reproduce over-the-ear audio the system needs dedicated channels, which is why Dolby has made a system that can automatically adjust the sound space to your hardware/equipment, and the number of compatible speakers. Typically surround is associated with 6 or 8 channels for 5.1 or 7.1 but Atmos can handle up to 64 speakers and 128 channels for better separation and audio positioning, especially in the cinema.
Few homes have adopted 5.1 systems, let alone 7.1, but to date the added value from having more speakers beyond 5.1 has been fairly limited. With Dolby Atmos there is potential for a significant improvement if you have more than 8 speaker units - at least theoretically because everything has a price.
Adding more speakers only makes sense if each separate speaker is capable enough. In the case of Samsung’s Dolby Atmos soundbar we have 10 speaker positions - 5.1.4 Atmos - to play with but before we get to that I quickly want to expand on the Atmos technology.
Atmos uses sound objects
Another interesting thing about Dolby Atmos is that the technology utilizes so-called "sound objects". Think of it this way: Whenever you record audio, be it music or a movie, you work with separate layers. A bass drum has a certain position in the sound space, just like an explosion.
Atmos has 128 channels but most sounds are still allocated to the regular 5 or 7 channels for static sound since these do not require a specific "position". In fact, the first 10 channels are dedicated to these types of sounds whereas the other 118 channels are dedicated to sound objects. This allows the Atmos technology to reproduce sounds coming from above and other positions for an extra dimension. Again; theoretically because it requires hardware of a certain quality.
When sound technicians are allowed to place objects freely in the space it obviously opens up new possibilities. If you imagine your a room as a 3D space on a screen the sound technician can place sound objects wherever he or she wishes. It is no longer limited to left, center, right. Furthermore, they can define how sound objects move through the space. If utilized properly this can markedly improve realism.
As you may have guessed all this requires extra hardware. Samsung has chosen to implemente more speaker units in the soundbar as well as two wireless rear speakers with built-in up-firing units. It is a compact package with several units - we will get to that in a moment.
A minor detail: Atmos in the cinema works with up to 64 speakers but is "limited" to 34 speakers in the home - or 24.1.10. I suspect that even advanced home cinema setups will be space-constrained but the dynamic nature of Dolby’s Atmos technology ensures that even in a 5.1.4 system all 128 channels will be decoded and automatically adapted to the number of outputs.
A few things of note
The first movie in the UHD Blu-ray disc spinner was ’The Martian’ and it was both a good and bad choice to demonstrate the limits of Samsung's Atmos soundbar. The Martian offers only DTS HD 7.1 surround. Samsung HW-K950 has the hardware to reproduce 7.1 sound but unfortunately not the software support to reproduce DTS surround.
I could select from DTS HD MA 7.1 or Dolby Digital 5.1 audio tracks. The latter would be acceptable but unfortunately it was an audio track for hearing impaired viewers with a speaker voice. So I ended up having to select the DTS audio track and everything that came out of the soundbar was 2.0 stereo sound.
This was an eye opener that just goes on to show how important comprehensive format support is. In a perfect world Samsung HW-K950 would support DTS’s alternative to Dolby Atmos, namely DTS:X, but I think DTS surround at minimum is a perfectly fair expectation to have for a soundbar in this price class. The soundbar was able to simulate DTS 5.1 (upscaled from the 2.0 track) but that it not an acceptable solution.
With that being said, I think that the typical customer for a soundbar product like Samsung’s may prefer streaming services over UHD Blu-ray. Streaming services in general back Dolby’s solutions and Dolby is more widely adopted than DTS, partly because Dolby is more compressed and therefore more suitable for a streaming service. In that sense I also see Dolby Atmos as a more natural fit (compared to DTS:X) for services such as Netflix, Amazon, and HBO. If this rings true for you the lack of DTS:X can perhaps be forgiven.
Dolby Atmos at home
Watching The Martian did not work out the way I had hoped so on to the next one: San Andreas. This is a disaster movie with lots of helicopters flying over your head. In other words, perfect for the purpose of testing Atmos.
The movie did indeed demonstrate that Atmos is more immersive and more "surrounding" than previous surround formats. However, it also revealed that the separation of sound objects on Samsung's soundbar is a little fluffy. HW950 was able to put a helicopter over my head but it was very hard to position it. Was it left, right, front or back? Impossible to tell really, which ruins some of the fun. In the real world you would of course easily be able to position a helicopter sound in space. In an Atmos-equipped cinema, too.
"Deadpool feels like it was almost made for demonstrating Dolby Atmos "
This may have something to do with the quality of the subwoofer since it is a little too loud. My general impression was that it reproduced a rumble instead of a tight and accurate bass. The definition of the upper woofer frequencies and the lower mid-tones were not well separated, which also affected the "position" of sound because there were some balance issues. This is quite normal for a surround system but in this price class I had expected more from the subwoofer.
The subwoofer is simply too dominating and muddy. You can adjust the effect and make it less dominating but that does not make it more accurate; just less dominating and slightly better tuned in the full sound space.
The treble units are better. I found them capable of reproducing sound with good separation between effects, voices and background music. Almost all of Samsung’s previous surround systems - at least those I have had the chance to listen to - have had a noticeable shrill tone and a tendency to sound somewhat trapped and metallic. Luckily, Samsung has located the issue, which means that HW-K950 is much improved in this area. Especially for movies. Only the subwoofer disappoints.
There are also several scenes in San Andreas in which glass shatters as well as plenty of extreme explosions. When glass is shattered the treble gets activated to higher degree than in the scenes with the helicopter and in these instances K950 was able to better position sound overhead. Separation was still not spot-on but you could actually hear if sounds were supposed to come from left, right, front or back.
The movie ’Deadpool’ has lots of sound effects and it felt like it was almost made for demonstrating Atmos. It has some of the same impressive effects that San Andreas had but less cluttered sound environments, which suits K950 better. The treble units had to reproduce fewer sounds at any given moment, which improved the Atmos sound experience.
The Atmos effect could certainly still be further improved and sounds above you are still not spot-on but since the system is using roof-firing speakers instead of separate speaker position there are obviously limitations to what you can do. To me it also often sounded like many sounds were restricted to 5 channels. Most of the time you are aware that it is the same rear speaker that reproduces "slightly above" and "overhead" sound effects. I must admit that I had expected more.
Of course it is not really fair to compare an Atmos soundbar with Atmos in the cinema and I have not been lucky enough to test more full-blown Atmos systems in my living room but I have no doubt that more complete - and more expensive - systems can improve the experience in the living room quite drastically. I have heard what Atmos can do in the cinema and it is an entirely different experience.
In the end I was not blown away by Dolby Atmos on Samsung K950, even considering the price/performance ratio.
Most people who invest in a surround system want to use it for both movies and music. Dolby Atmos actually supports music but few music performances are recorded and encoded in Atmos. I had nothing to test with. However, you do not need to spend a lot of time with K950 to conclude that Samsung has largely ignored music performance.
Like many other surround systems the speaker units are optimized for movies and not really geared for music. The mid-tones and treble frequencies get reproduced in honorable fashion, and are fairly accurate when challenged to reproduce percussion in for example Ben Harper’s new-modern blues-folk music. Jeff Buckley’s cover version of the a sony by the recently deceased Leonard Cohen demonstrates that the upper, flimsy vocal is handled really well. The treble has some minor distortion issues but nothing too serious. For this type of music the system is quite convincing.
Problems arise as soon as you want to add the subwoofer to the mix, which it often needs to be since the 2.5-inch mid-tones in the soundbar cannot go deep. The subwoofer has a too weak amplifier and is not built for reproducing fast tones. It does the job for any major movie explosion but fast drums, agressive basslines, and electronic music forces the subwoofer to skip tones - into muddy waters.
When listening to Deadmau5 the subwoofer started rumbling because there were too many sounds for it to handle. Not a good experience. If you want a good soundbar solution for movies as well as music I cannot recommend K950. It was never optimized for music - and that it fine - but many buyers still expect it.
I experienced some quality issues, too. Whenever the rear speakers are inactive they give off a low sort of white noise. Some may not notice it - it was not a loud sound - but I did. It probably depends on how good your ears are and your level of OCD. I found it quite annoying and every time a movie would go down-tempo I could hear the white buzzing.
I have tested other sound systems with active speakers that cost a third of this soundbar that have had no issues whatsoever in the area.
Samsung has integrated a "Surround Sound Expansion Plus" that is designed to convert regular 5.1 surround sound to 5.1.4 in order to activate the roof-firing speaker and simulate overhead sound. Unfortunately, the effect was very limited. There was a difference but it felt mostly like it just separated random sounds, not the right ones.
All in all, Samsung's HW-K950 Dolby Atmos soundbar delivers good sound and a decent surround experience but the slack bass and too directional sound means that it lacks some definition. Some people may feel that it is too expensive for what you actually get.
To me, it seems like you are paying a premium for Dolby Atmos functionality that could perhaps have been better spent on better-quality units. One of the issues is noise from the rear speakers. Another is a sloppy subwoofer that lacks nuance. The subwoofer quickly loses control, especially for a sound system in this price class.
In movies such as ’San Andreas’ and ’Deadpool’ the Atmos effects surely improve the listening experience but as a buyer I think you have to make up your mind about whether it is worth paying a significant amount for something that is not entirely convincing. For the same amount of money you can buy a traditional non-Atmos surround sound system that sounds better.
I also think that it is important to emphasize that K950 does not support DTS beyond 2.0 stereo, which will present some limitations when you want to enjoy Blu-ray discs with DTS HD MA or DTS HD High Resolution. I know that most streaming services back Dolby’s formats but if you still enjoy Blu-ray discs it can be a little frustrating to know that the hardware is capable but licensing prevents it.
My last complaint revolves around music that K950 struggles to give life to. Again, the subwoofer is simply not nuanced enough and the soundbar cannot reproduce the deep tones from the built-in units. The system offers no flexibility to add another subwoofer so you are stuck with what you get.
But I also want to praise the sound. Samsung’s K950 generally delivers - with its two wireless rear speakers - good sound in most cases. Samsung has managed to eliminate the sharp treble distortion and the "tin can sound" issues that have plagued its previous speaker systems. A big thumbs up to the engineers. Last but not least setting up the system is as easy as it gets.
Price and retailers:
Good sound Very easy setup Treble distortion solved
Only 2 HDMI inputs Some build quality concerns Subwoofer not good enough White noise from rear speakers DTS limited to 2.0