Since dismantling our projector-based home theater in 2005 and embracing something of a nomadic lifestyle, we’ve been sadly lacking in the surround sound department. But, having recently purchased a new home (and new television), we’re finally ready to get a bit more serious with our audio. Yet, I wasn’t motivated to recreate the elaborate config we once sported and have been fixated on soundbar-esque solutions — improved acoustics over the TV’s speakers, yet minimal clutter without fishing wires through the walls.
Of CNET’s top 2013 pics, I went with the (horribly named) Vizio S4251w-B4 for several reasons. First, and perhaps surprisingly, the Vizio is much less gaudy than the octagonal Sony ($300) – and way more tasteful than my other Vizio hardware, with a matte finish and no glowing logos. But the biggest selling point is true 5.1 sound via the bundled rear speakers… which necessitated the purchase of these speaker stands. The soundbar array communicates wirelessly with the subwoofer, which in turn powers the rears with RCA cables. So, while there’s no wires crossing the family room, we wouldn’t call this a true “wireless” solution. However, to my untrained ears, it’s a highly effective compromise – all-encompassing surround sound, limited hardware footprint and minimal exposed wiring (which I obviously still need to tidy up).
Now, on to the downsides… There seem to be fewer budget audio solutions in 2013 that utilize HDMI ARC, turning a soundbar into a switch of sorts. Heck, even the $700 Sonos Playbar features a single optical input, and the Vizio is similarly constrained. While you could theoretically run all your devices through a HDTV, very few output 5.1 over optical – meaning the surround sound would be simulated. To pass the signal untouched, I have my TiVo Premiere XL4 piping audio straight into the Vizio for 5.1 sound when watching television, renting Amazon VOD, and streaming Netflix. And I’m contemplating a manual Monoprice optical switch to expand the Vizio’s capabilities.
Another potential pitfall is the size of the soundbar coupled with Vizio’s decision to exclude an IR repeater. If you’re in the market for this sort of device, be aware that the height of the speaker could obstruct your television’s IR receiver. Our HDTV sits fairly low and I’ve positioned the front bar a few inches forward to maintain the ability to remotely power cycle the set. On the topic of remotes, Vizio kindly includes one with a display and the soundbar possess the ability to ‘learn’ your television’s volume controls to limit clicker clutter.
The 5.1 Vizio Soundbar retails for $330 which represents a pretty solid value compared to the competition. But we picked it up for an even more compelling $280 at Costco. And, then a week later to honor the promo pictured above, they credited us $50 – bringing the soundbar down to an insane $230. There’s probably no cheaper nor more effective way to land pleasing 5.1 sound. Perhaps we need a second for the bedroom…