The difference between saying you have a “home theater setup” vs. simply having a TV hanging on your wall is, of course, having the audio played back on something other than your TV’s built-in speakers. And for the budget and space conscious, Vizio has recently launched a family of “sound bars” that aim at simplifying the process for those who want better sound without running lots of wires, cutting up drywall, or taking out a 2nd mortgage.
I’d been considering purchasing a Vizio Sound Bar since I first saw on while browsing through my local Costco. I’ve already taken the “over the top” approach in our Seattle-area home theater, and I’ve outfitted the family rooms at our primary residence and our cabin with mid- to high-end gear. But I’d kept things simple in the living room at the Utah house, with a simple Vizio 50″ flat-screen above the fireplace (which I recently repaired). But when I walked past the sound bars at Costco a few weeks ago, I swear that one of them was quietly calling out “I’d go great with the TV in Utah!”
So the next time I visited the Utah house, I dropped by the Costco in Orem and picked up a Vizio Model S4251W-B4 Soundbar with Subwoofer and Satellite Speakers for $299 (you can also pick them up at Amazon for the same price).
The main difference between the different models of Vizio soundbars is how many “channels” of audio it can produce. The base models are “2.0” – meaning they do two channels of primary audio, or simply stereo left and right. The next step up is “2.1” where you still get left and right audio, with the addition of a subwoofer (that’s the .1). Their S4251W-B4 model is their top end, providing “5.1” audio: left, right, surround left, surround right, and subwoofer.
The soundbar element is designed to sit on a shelf or mantle under the TV, or can be mounted to the wall directly below any TV (mounting hardware is provided). With traditional home audio surround setups, you have to worry about running speaker wires from the front of the room to the surround speakers in the back of the room, as well as the subwoofer (which can go anywhere, but is generally tucked away out of sight). What’s great about the Vizio is that the soundbar “communicates” with the subwoofer wirelessly, so you’re meant to stick the subwoofer somewhere near the back of the room, then run wires from the subwoofer to the rear surround speakers. If you’re a “made for marketing photos” racially diverse couple who lives in the future, shops at IKEA, and clearly has no kids living in your hi-rise apartment, this is what your installed setup would look like:
Don’t worry, it will still work fine for you if you live in a normal house, and you’ll still love the fact that you don’t have to run wires to the subwoofer (which was the main reason I selected this system, actually).
After getting the sound bar home, my primary concern was how to connect it to my TV. I’ve owned my Vizio P50HD TV for a few years, so while it has all the “current” gen audio and video inputs (including HDMI and coax digital audio), it’s limited on its audio outputs: 2-channel stereo (either via left and right RCA cables or a 1/4″ stereo jack) is all there is.
The Vizio Sound Bar can handle 2-channel stereo, this, but it’s less than ideal. For the best results, it wants a Toslink (optical) or coax audio (digital) input. Here’s what the audio inputs on the S425W-B4 look like:
I used the AUX (2) input, since it meant only running one cable from my TV vs. two, and was pleased that the necessary cable to do so was included in the box. In fact, everything I needed was included in the box, which is rare these days… and very welcome.
I placed the subwoofer in the back of the room near the couch, and then put each of the surround speakers on an end table on each side of the couch, aimed in toward the center of the room. I plugged everything in, tucked all the cables away under the couch, and fired everything up.
I got sound out of the front sound bar, but nothing from the sub or satellite speakers. My first guess at the problem was right: I needed to “sync” the soundbar with the wireless sub. That took all of about 5 seconds, you simply hit the sync button and let it do its thing. I pulled up my on-screen guide on my DVR to see what audio-friendly movies might be playing in the middle of the day… and found I had been favored by the theater audio gods. I swapped between The Chronicles of Riddick, The Island, Heat, and Hot Fuzz — a combination that provided plenty of bass, music, spaceships, car chases, and gunfire for testing. I tinkered with the volume settings on the TV, switched it to “fixed” output (instead of “variable”), and adjusted the treble and bass settings on the soundbar to my liking.
I was confident it would sound better than my TV’s built-in speakers, but had tempered my expectations knowing that I was using the least-favorable audio input the sound bar could support. Still, I was very pleasantly surprised. The sound bar did an excellent job of creating a “faux” lifelike surround space, even with the 2-channel input. I’m certain it would be even better with a digital or optical input, and when I eventually update the TV, that’s that I’ll do. But the Vizio surprised me with its audio quality, especially at the sub $300 price point. Bass response was full and tight, ambient surround was convincing, and audio was clear and strong throughout a decent range.
The user interface on the Vizio soundbar is clever. There’s no on-screen feedback, so a row of small white LED lights on the left side of the bar tell you everything you need to know (power state, volume, mode, etc.). Combined with the excellent LCD remote control (probably the stand out feature of this product), getting set up and dialed in was a snap, as is selecting the surround and mode options available. The “Night Mode” option allowed me to reduce the bass level of the setup at night, while the kids were asleep. That came in really handy.
For calibrating the speakers, the Vizio sound bar does let you tweak the volume settings of each channel individually, but what it doesn’t have is the ability to generate a test tone that circulates around each speaker to make calibration easier. I ended up adjusting on the fly as I watched TV and movies, and while that worked OK, it’s still something I really wished the Vizio was able to do. Test CDs and DVDs are available for this purpose (and I own some), but it’s always much more convenient to just turn on test mode and dial things in.
It’s worth mentioning the sound bar’s remote separately. It’s surprising well designed, feels good in your hand, and incorporates an LCD screen to get maximum utility from a tiny remote. It’s clear this remote wasn’t an afterthought (like most are). The LCD screen makes finding the right adjustment or mode a snap, and is way more convenient that squinting across the room to decipher a row of LED lights.
Although, as much as I liked the Vizio soundbar LCD remote (and I really, really do), I hate using multiple remotes… and I didn’t want to be forced to use one remote for selecting channels, and a separate remote for audio — no matter how awesome that remote is. Thankfully, my DirecTV remote already had the built in codes to operate Vizio audio equipment, and I was able to program it so I only needed that one remote to control everything. I also set the DirecTV remote so that the volume always controlled the soundbar (which made sense, since I’d shut off the TV’s internal speakers).
If you’re using a third-party remote (like a DirecTV remote), I recommend enabling the sound bar’s Power Save mode, which automatically puts the sound bar into sleep mode after a period of non-use. The DirecTV remote will turn on both the TV and satellite receiver with a single press of the remote’s ON button, but to control the power of audio equipment, you have to slide a little switch on top of the remote. Ain’t nobody got time fo’ dat! Instead, I enabled Power Save mode on the soundbar, so that it eventually shuts itself off after I’ve turned the TV off (I seem to remember it taking about 10-15 minutes). But the really smart design feature is how to turn the soundbar back on when you want to watch TV again. It’s brilliant… and dummy proof — even for someone who’s never used your TV before. Imagine you turn on a television, and you see the image on the screen, but you hear no sound? What’s the first thing you’d naturally do? You’d press up on the remote’s volume button… which is exactly how you turn the Vizio soundbar back on from sleep mode. I tested it out on my kids. I just handed them the remote and said “turn it on.” They turned on the TV, got no sound, naturally hit the volume, and the sound started working. That’s a great design feature, Vizio!
The Vizio S425W-B4 Sound bar comes with the added feature of Bluetooth audio, meaning you can pair it with your iPhone, iPod, or other Bluetooth-capable audio device, and stream audio wirelessly. That’s not a feature I’ll probably use that much, since I use an Apple Airport Express connected to a separate whole-house audio system to stream via AirPlay, but that’s still a strong selling feature for those who would use it.
Bottom line? For (barely) under $300, this soundbar is tough to beat. For the same price you’d pay for another brand’s soundbar alone, you get the wireless sub and remote speakers. Sound quality is good for such small speakers, setup is easy, and it “does what it says on the tin.” This is a great addition to your Vizio TV, or any other TV, for that matter!