Vizio S3851W-D4 38" 5.1 Soundbar System Review - AVS Forum
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post #1 of 35 Old 07-06-2014, 04:17 PM - Thread Starter
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Vizio S3851W-D4 38" 5.1 Soundbar System Review


Vizio's affordable 5.1-channel, 38-inch soundbar is a surprisingly good performer, at least for watching movies. When it comes to surround sound, it helps to have real speakers in the rear channels.

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Soundbars represent a conundrum for budding AV enthusiasts—is buying one a cop-out? Or is it the first step to appreciating what home theater has to offer? The answer depends on who's buying the system. If you've never owned a subwoofer in your life, and you use your TV's speakers to listen to movie soundtracks, then a 5.1 soundbar system is a serious upgrade. On the other hand, many AV enthusiasts look at the limitations of soundbars with disdain for the compromises in sound quality that the form factor demands.

If sound quality is a high priority, an AVR-based system with carefully chosen speakers is a good approach. When space limitations, budget, and aesthetics enter the equation, sometimes a full-fledged 5.1 or 7.1 system is simply not an option. In addition, the rules of domestic audio acceptance dictate that visible cables are largely unacceptable, both aesthetically and as a matter of complexity. It's a real plus if a modern soundbar-based audio system includes wireless connectivity.

A few months ago, I had a chance to audition one such system based on Sonos components—a Sonos PlayBar, a Sonos Sub, and a pair of Sonos Play:1 speakers pulling surround duty. However, there were many limitations to that system—for example, it only provides an optical S/PDIF input—and the price was not exactly pocketbook-friendly.

Enter Vizio, the US-based company that's best known for its high-performance, low-cost TVs. Vizio has another claim to fame—in the US market, it sells the most soundbars of any brand. At CES 2014, I checked out Vizio's audio offerings as well as its new TVs, and what I heard was surprisingly good, so I agreed to audition a Vizio soundbar-based 5.1 system at home. A box containing just such a system—the S3851W-D4—arrived at my doorstep last week, and I've spent a bit of quality time listening to it.


Vizio's soundbar system came in an oddly-shaped box that accomodates the subwoofer

The subwoofer itself is wireless, and it powers the rear speakers, which connect to the sub with wires. While the "wired to the sub" approach is not as elegant as the (almost) entirely wireless Sonos system, even those speakers needed to be plugged in for power, so they were merely wireless, not cordless. Moreover, like any soundbar, the Sonos PlayBar still requires a physical connection to the TV. Vizio's approach provides most of the benefits of an all-wireless system, like Sonos, at a considerably lower price point. Now, I'm not saying it matched the sound quality of the Sonos rig, but setup was quick and easy for both systems, and I found Vizio's approach very well considered. For example, the provided speaker cables for the surround channels are quite long (25 feet each), making it easy to place the sub wherever you want.

My first thought when I fired up the Vizio soundbar was, "Uh oh, what have I gotten myself into?" I played a few tracks from my laptop using the analog stereo input—I appreciate that Vizio includes cables for each of the soundbar's inputs, including analog (1/8" to RCA) as well as digital TosLink optical and S/PDIF coaxial (RCA). It even offers support for Bluetooth audio. Vizio's soundbar does not provide an HDMI input, but at its price point, I would not expect that.


Vizio made sure the box contains a cable for every kind of connection the soundbar supports

Initially, the sound coming out of the system was rather midbass-heavy—I could easily hear the subwoofer's location, and the surround channels were far too loud compared to the soundbar itself. Clearly, the default settings were not appropriate for my room. In fact, I am not sure the initial settings are appropriate for any room, but that's the nature the beast.

The first thing I did was allow for mechanical break-in on the system's drivers—nothing fancy, just an hour of pink noise to loosen up any mechanical stiffness. Then, I used the "Speaker Test" feature to set levels; it only took a couple of minutes to dial in a much better balance. One thing I found was that the subwoofer module was surprisingly competent at belting out bass. It's not capable of reproducing tons of very deep bass, but it is a real subwoofer—punchy and accurate enough to handle music as well as movie soundtracks. In fact, playing Daft Punk's "Doing It Right" from the album Random Access Memories provided a mini thrill ride as I kept anticipating that the little sub would choke on the bass line, but it didn't.


Vizio's soundbar uses small full-range drivers, in this picture you can see one of the two the front-facing bass ports on the soundbar

When playing music, the 38-inch Vizio sounded better with surround sound turned off. I'd pin that on the small size of the surround speakers, but also on the fact there is no distance adjustment for the rear channels. The result is a fuzzy soundfield that sounds expansive, but a bit artificial. With surround turned off, music sounded more natural—the highlight of the soundbar's performance was the relatively accurate bass reproduction coming out of the diminutive sub. When I measured the subwoofer's output, I was surprised to find that it exceeded the company's own published specs—Vizio says the sub is good for bass down to 50 Hz, but I heard and measured usable output down to 35 Hz.


Vizio's surprisingly capable compact subwoofer, with the grill taken off

I didn't spend too much time listening to 2-channel music; after all, it is a TV-centric device with surround-sound capabilities. Plus, it can't replicate the soundfield of a decent 2.0 or 2.1 stereo system with optimally placed speakers. Even a sub-$20, 15-watt Lepai amp connected to a pair of Pioneer bookshelf speakers using a retired iPhone as a source outperforms Vizio's soundbar when it comes to 2-channel music reproduction. However, that was hardly a surprise; fans of 2-channel music consider soundbars anathema to proper audio reproduction.

As I mentioned earlier, this soundbar does not include HDMI; it relies on a S/PDIF (optical or coaxial) connection. That limits surround-sound decoding to compressed formats, namely Dolby Digital and DTS. This isn't a system for Blu-ray fanatics who insist on ultimate fidelity and uncompressed audio, but it's great for watching surround-encoded videos on Netflix, iTunes, and other online services that offer it—as well as cable and broadcast TV. Of course, it'll also handle DVD and Blu-ray soundtracks, and it was surprisingly competent at that task.

Since Vizio's soundbar can't compete with a decent pair of bookshelf speakers when it comes to music, I spent most of my time testing its performance as a 5.1 surround system for watching TV and movies. That's where the Vizio's dedicated rear channels ought to make the most difference, and they did. There are a lot of soundbars that offer fake surround, and Yamaha even makes a few "sound projector" soundbars that can bounce sound beams around a room to create a true 5.1 soundfield. Vizio opted for actual surround speakers, and when the system plays real multichannel content, that decision pays off.


Vizio's surround speakers are very compact, but they get the job done better than any synthetic surround processing I've heard on a soundbar

In order to test the full capabilities of the Vizio, I played my go-to reference scene for evaluating surround sound and dynamic range—the helicopter-attack scene near the end of Skyfall. I connected the soundbar directly to my Sony BDP-S5100 Blu-ray player using the coaxial S/PDIF connection. I also had my main system connected via HDMI, and I set the volume so that the average decibel level was (approximately) the same on the two systems—I measured under a half-decibel difference during dialog. Then, I used the mute button to switch between the two.

While the Vizio was no match for my 2500-watt main system, it was a bit more compelling with 5.1 movie soundtracks than it was with music. In fact, I would describe the sound as immersive, punchy, and crisp. Dialog was clear, and the subwoofer accentuated the action scenes by adding just the right amount of slam to explosions and gunshots. The Vizio soundbar achieved surprisingly high sound levels without distorting. In fact, I maxed out the volume using the provided remote and measured 90 dB peaks from my main listening position during the most intense action, yet the soundbar showed no signs of stress. Finally, the surround effects were distinct and easy to pinpoint.

Many soundbar owners will use their TV as the primary audio source. To test that sort of connection, I hooked the soundbar up to my Vizio M3D550KD HDTV using the optical S/PDIF cable that came in the box. It worked as advertised; with the TV's remote controlling volume. I detected no difference between using the TV as a source, and connecting the soundbar directly to a Blu-ray player. Not all TVs output 5.1 audio; however, if yours does then this soundbar offers full surround-sound capability. My TV has both Dolby Digital and PCM as output options; the Dolby Digital 5.1 stream worked as advertised.

If I have one major complaint about this (or any) soundbar, it's the constrained front soundstage—if a sound panned from left to right or vice versa, it barely moved away from the center. I suspect that a physically wider soundbar would help to remedy that issue. (Vizio makes a 54-inch version.) As it was with music, with movies the soundbar can't compete with the soundfield created by optimally placed speakers.

Considering the size, price, ease of setup, and compactness of the Vizio S3851W-D4, it's hard for me to be too critical of its shortcomings when compared to a full-sized system. The gap between this system and a full-sized 5.1-channel rig as about as large as the gap between a TV's built-in speakers and a soundbar. It represents a big step up in sound quality for someone who has never owned a surround-sound system before, and it's an economical, space-saving alternative to traditional AVR-based 5.1 systems. Although it is a compromise in terms of overall audio fidelity, especially when compared to a full-sized system, the Vizio's performance was more than good enough for movie watching, and it can handle music in a pinch. When you factor price into the equation, it even starts to look like a bargain. If a 38-inch soundbar is the right solution for your audio needs, Vizio's S3851W-D4 is worth consideration.

Vizio expects to ship its 38-inch 5.1 soundbar package in late July 2014 at a price of $279.99.
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Last edited by imagic; 07-07-2014 at 04:40 AM.
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post #2 of 35 Old 07-06-2014, 05:15 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by imagic View Post

Vizio's affordable 5.1-channel, 38-inch soundbar is a surprisingly good performer, at least for watching movies. When it comes to surround sound, it helps to have real speakers in the rear channels...

... At CES 2014, I checked out Vizio's audio offerings as well as its new TVs, and what I heard was surprisingly good, so I agreed to audition a Vizio soundbar-based 5.1 system at home. A box containing just such a system—the S3851W-D4—arrived at my doorstep last week, and I've spent a bit of quality time listening to it.

Vizio's soundbar system came in an oddly-shaped box that accomodates the subwoofer


Vizio's soundbar uses small full-range drivers, in this picture you can see one of the two the front-facing bass ports on the soundbar


Vizio's surprisingly capable compact subwoofer, with the grill taken off


If I have one major complaint about this (or any) soundbar, it's the constrained front soundstage—if a sound panned from left to right or vice versa, it barely moved away from the center. I suspect that a physically wider soundbar would help to remedy that issue. (Vizio makes a 54-inch version.) As it was with music, with movies the soundbar can't compete with the soundfield created by optimally placed speakers...
Thanks for the incredibly thorough review. That will be very useful for those contemplating the 38 inch model.

The specs on the 54 inch model might correct all of the deficiencies you mentioned.

Based on owner's responses who have owned both the 42 inch and 54 5.1, and found the 42 inch narrow across the front soundstage, the 54 inch appears free of any restricted sound.

Also the 54 inch has larger drivers than the 42 inch (and I would guess the 38 inch), and has HDMI connectivity to boot.
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post #3 of 35 Old 07-06-2014, 05:30 PM - Thread Starter
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Thanks for the incredibly thorough review. That will be very useful for those contemplating the 38 inch model.

The specs on the 54 inch model might correct all of the deficiencies you mentioned.

Based on owner's responses who have owned both the 42 inch and 54 5.1, and found the 42 inch narrow across the front soundstage, the 54 inch appears free of any restricted sound.

Also the 54 inch has larger drivers than the 42 inch (and I would guess the 38 inch), and has HDMI connectivity to boot.
Yes, based on what I heard at Vizio's demo, and the overall improved specs of the 54", that's what I'd recommend... so long as someone has the budget and the room for the larger model.

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post #4 of 35 Old 07-06-2014, 06:21 PM
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What was your impression of the 54 inch?

Once again, a tremendously comprehensive and articulate review.
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post #5 of 35 Old 07-06-2014, 06:44 PM - Thread Starter
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What was your impression of the 54 inch?

Once again, a tremendously comprehensive and articulate review.
Just that it had "more," but I have not had a chance to review the 54-inch so I really don't want to speak to its capabilities without giving it a proper try. I'll ask for a review unit, if people are interested.

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post #6 of 35 Old 07-06-2014, 07:05 PM
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Just that it had "more," but I have not had a chance to review the 54-inch so I really don't want to speak to its capabilities without giving it a proper try. I'll ask for a review unit, if people are interested.
I'm interested, and I'm sure most on the 54 Inch 5.1 thread are, and probably some on the 42 inch thread as well. Many are trying to decide between them

I'm sure a review by you, given your thoroughness, would be extremely useful.

The 54 inch is really in a class by itself, particularly at its price point.
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post #7 of 35 Old 07-06-2014, 07:51 PM
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No highs no lows must be Vizio ... lol just kidding! at least it doesn't cost an arm and a leg like Bose.
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post #8 of 35 Old 07-07-2014, 11:19 AM - Thread Starter
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No highs no lows must be Vizio ... lol just kidding! at least it doesn't cost an arm and a leg like Bose.
Actually, I measured a surprisingly full-range response, right up to 20 kHz.

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post #9 of 35 Old 07-07-2014, 12:23 PM
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Actually, I measured a surprisingly full-range response, right up to 20 kHz.
I didn't think the "no highs no lows" epithet applied to Vizio. But it is interesting that Vizio chose to use solely 3 inch drivers in their 54 inch 5.1 model. It's my understanding that the 42 inch model actually has tweeters. I wasn't able to find out what drivers are used in the 38 inch model.

That's one thing I'm eager to find out from a review by you, as to the high frequency response of the 54 inch model.
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post #10 of 35 Old 07-07-2014, 02:27 PM
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Has there been any real improvements over last years 5.1 model?
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post #11 of 35 Old 07-07-2014, 04:37 PM
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Mark, a minor quibble on your major complaint that soundbars have a constrained front soundstage. I believe it's true for the soundbars you've listened to BUT -

I have the B&W Panorama soundbar and it is anything but constrained. I urge you to take a listen, place it in your set-up at the same exact position, i think you're in for a surprise.

Talk Robert into doing a soundbar shootout too
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I can't take a soundbar seriously... even if the speakers aren't that bad, you're not going to get a good front soundstage with good channel separation. Even HTIBs at that price point that have modest speakers and AVRs can at least get good channel separation and can be better "fit" to a room. That, and no one will ever convince me that wireless is as good as copper cables.
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post #13 of 35 Old 07-07-2014, 04:47 PM - Thread Starter
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Mark, a minor quibble on your major complaint that soundbars have a constrained front soundstage. I believe it's true for the soundbars you've listened to BUT -

I have the B&W Panorama soundbar and it is anything but constrained. I urge you to take a listen, place it in your set-up at the same exact position, i think you're in for a surprise.

Talk Robert into doing a soundbar shootout too
I know what's possible at the high end, GoldenEar also has a soundbar that puts out a very impressive soundstage, and Yahaha's YSP series (which I've owned in the past) truly projects a 3D soundstage. So, I know it's doable. But as a rule, dollar-for-dollar, IMO soundbars don't match properly-spaced speakers for overall effect.
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post #14 of 35 Old 07-07-2014, 04:54 PM
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I agree - i will say that sometimes i am amazed at what i'm hearing - on the swoosh sound effect that you hear on sports shows when they change graphics - the sound travels all the way out to the sidewalls!
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Thanks Mark. This vizio unit looks like a very reasonable and extremely competent for the money unit, your review is appreciated. Although I have no need for a sound bar I have friends and relatives that ask me for recommendations for equipment and a sound bar such as this may very well fit the bill and the acceptable look. I am shocked at what some manufactures want for their product$ and this units price/performance is very competitive

I won't be reading all sound bar reviews when they first come out but when a friend or relative asks about a product I'll be sure to use AVS resources to make recommendations or refer people to AVS for reviews.

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The ideal for this sound bars are dual 4" driver for LCR channels, with this configuration you will get more output, fuller sound ect ...practically two small drivers will act like a single larger driver .




The more drivers you add the louder and fuller will sound.I'm not a fan of small full range drivers ..... but Here is an example of a line array 4 - 3" drivers.





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Owners of the new 54 inch 5.1 Vizio soundbar have no complaints at all about narrowness in the front soundstage. They have remarked that the 54 inch has quite a larger sound across the front than the 42 inch, and I presume the 38 inch.

4 inch drivers are nice, but having separate three-inch drivers for left center and right is also nice. The surrounds in the 54 inch Vizio also utilize 3 inch drivers.

The Goldenear is multiple times more expensive than the Vizio 54 inch, and it should be no surprise that it is a great soundbar. But from reviews I've read, the 54 inch Vizio has extremely good sound, nearly as good or as good as some 5.1 setups, according to a recent purchaser who has posted on a different thread.

I daresay that you will get a fuller sound from that soundbar then with the Yamaha YSP soundbars which project the rear channels out, using room reflections. because of the discrete rears and adequate driver size.
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post #18 of 35 Old 07-07-2014, 07:01 PM
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Has there been any real improvements over last years 5.1 model?
You should check out the other thread which focuses on the 54 inch 5.1 model. Some owners who were not satisfied with the 42 inch model greatly prefer the 54 inch.
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in fact, playing Daft Punk's "Doing It Right" from the album Random Access Memories provided a mini thrill ride as I kept anticipating that the little sub would choke on the bass line, but it didn't.
Thats, how, you, know, imagic's, right
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The only issues I have with soundbars is when you have your tv on a stand. My F8500 is on a stand, and any soundbar that has a height greater than 3 1/2 inches, covers part of the screen.
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Truly well done
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post #22 of 35 Old 07-08-2014, 01:22 PM - Thread Starter
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The ideal for this sound bars are dual 4" driver for LCR channels, with this configuration you will get more output, fuller sound ect ...practically two small drivers will act like a single larger driver .

The more drivers you add the louder and fuller will sound.I'm not a fan of small full range drivers ..... but Here is an example of a line array 4 - 3" drivers.
http://youtu.be/F377jVGJjJI
I love the DIY sub with the Kicker driver!
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post #23 of 35 Old 07-09-2014, 03:17 PM
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The only issues I have with soundbars is when you have your tv on a stand. My F8500 is on a stand, and any soundbar that has a height greater than 3 1/2 inches, covers part of the screen.
This is one reason I've never understood soundbars. A stereo pair of bookshelf or tower speakers are easier to place, adds to the stereo seperation, will likely sound significantly better, and if you choose carefully can actually add to the room decor. I really fail to see how a plastic box several feet long sitting out in front of your TV stand is any more acceptable from an aesthetics point of view.

Bose, of all companies, makes something that makes a *little more sense: they make a small 'cinema' system that connects to your TV or bluray player. It's essentially a slick, low profile, over-priced, muddy sounding 2.1 system like what you would get for your computer but actually allows you flexibility of placement vs a soundbar and is so small the speakers draw virtually zero attention.

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post #24 of 35 Old 07-09-2014, 03:21 PM - Thread Starter
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This is one reason I've never understood soundbars. A stereo pair of bookshelf or tower speakers are easier to place, adds to the stereo seperation, will likely sound significantly better, and if you choose carefully can actually add to the room decor. I really fail to see how a plastic box several feet long sitting out in front of your TV stand is any more acceptable from an aesthetics point of view.

Bose, of all companies, makes something that makes a *little more sense: they make a small 'cinema' system that connects to your TV or bluray player. It's essentially a slick, low profile, over-priced, muddy sounding 2.1 system like what you would get for your computer but actually allows you flexibility of placement vs a soundbar and is so small the speakers draw virtually zero attention.
I have zero use for a soundbar in real life, but I've seen more than enough microscopic Manhattan apartments housing huge TVs to know there is a market for them.
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post #25 of 35 Old 07-09-2014, 04:08 PM
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Originally Posted by imagic View Post
I have zero use for a soundbar in real life, but I've seen more than enough microscopic Manhattan apartments housing huge TVs to know there is a market for them.
Oh for sure! My cousin moved to New York and he had to downgrade from his Denon 7.1 system with Wharfedale towers to a soundbar system to fit in the new apartment. The soundbar is an absolute necessity as the speakers on his ultra-thin LED LCD are basically useless. Still, placement was a pain as the soundbar covered the front of his low-profile TV and it looked funny as it had to sit out in front of the TV stand. Sort of ruins the look of the ultra low profile LCD.

If you live in a small apartment I get why you might want one of these-- although I lived in a 700 sq ft apartment for years and still managed to find space in my room, budget and decor for a 'real' amp and speakers. Heck, I just bought a set of Jamo S25s (sort of like omni-directional orb speakers) to upgrade my computer sound system and those are smaller than bose and actually sound half-way decent with a paired sub. Plus they're so small and stylish I get a lot of compliments on them from visitors.

To each their own. Your review was excellent and very topical as the popularity of soundbars is at an all time high. I just hope more consumers will pause before making a buying decision to weigh the viability of a basic 2 or 2.1 channel system (which you made a good a good argument for).

"For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love."

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post #26 of 35 Old 11-05-2014, 11:58 AM
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Well you guys are way more "audiophilic" than I, but I wanted to add a few comments that might help anyone looking at this Vizio unit as an affordable way to improve sound on a secondary TV.

I purchased the 38" unit from Costco for a mere $199 (it was on a $50 instant rebate last month) to install on my bedroom TV (an older Sony Bravia). I'd previously been using a 2.1 Altec-Lansing system meant for use as computer speakers, but which gave significantly better sound than the built-in speakers on my TV (it has an amazing sub). But I still was finding myself avoiding watching TV in the bedroom, preferring instead my downstairs TV's, both of which run through Yamaha 5.1 surround systems. Compared to these, the bedroom TV just sounded flat...once one gets used to the immersion of surround, it's hard to go back I guess.

So when I saw this unit at this price, I figured what the heck, let's give it a go! Unfortunately the first unit was a dud...it slipped through Vizio's quality control I guess...the soundbar simply wouldn't pair with the sub. So I brought it back the next day and got another (thank you Costco for your customer-friendly return policy!), which worked flawlessly right out of the box.

So now I have the soundbar in front of the TV, the sub behind the bed, and the surround speakers on the nightstands on either side. Unfortunately my older Sony TV lacks capability to connect via optical or digital coax, so I ended up using the RCA. Despite this the Dolby circuitry (forgive me audiophiles if I'm using these terms incorrectly) gives a pretty good 5.1 surround effect. So now my wife and I can prop up in bed and get that nice immersive sound that we get downstairs.

For me it's a big step up for the old Sony in the bedroom. The sound is clear, the sub gives good punch (especially located behind the bed!), and the sense of immersion is definitely there despite using the RCA connection. I do agree with other commenters that the front soundstage would benefit from better separation, but that's apparently the trade-off you make with a 38" soundbar. But this is a minor issue for me. My big issue was that I was avoiding watching TV in the bedroom due to the sound..but no more! We're now enjoying TV parties in bed again!

My bottom line...this is alot of product for the price. For my needs...improve sound on a secondary TV...it's just the ticket. Bring on the popcorn!

Last edited by Larry Vogel; 11-05-2014 at 01:14 PM.
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post #27 of 35 Old 11-05-2014, 12:34 PM
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Do you get an actual 5.1 kinda simulation from the rca, or do all speakers including the rears fire constantly?
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post #28 of 35 Old 11-05-2014, 12:59 PM
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Do you get an actual 5.1 kinda simulation from the rca, or do all speakers including the rears fire constantly?
Yeah, I actually do get a "kinda 5.1 simulation." Actually, it's better than a "kinda"... it's not true 5.1, but for a non-purist like me it's pretty darn hard to tell the difference.

Here's an interesting link to an article about how Dolby and SRS surround works that explains how it can take a stereo signal and make it into something approaching 5.1 surround. It's pretty amazing really.

www.dolby.com/us/en/technologies/dolby-digital.pdf

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post #29 of 35 Old 11-05-2014, 01:51 PM
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What I meant by "kinda" is that when I hooked up my dvd player with rca to the sound bar, it didn't produce even a simulated 5.1. It was just equally spread through the bar and rears and the rears were always firing, unlike even faux 5.1 where the rears only fire ambiance and rear L/R. So I was curious if the stereo analog out from the TV makes the sound bar fire only stereo, or whether it actually still gives that faux 5.1.
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post #30 of 35 Old 11-05-2014, 01:55 PM
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What I meant by "kinda" is that when I hooked up my dvd player with rca to the sound bar, it didn't produce even a simulated 5.1. It was just equally spread through the bar and rears and the rears were always firing, unlike even faux 5.1 where the rears only fire ambiance and rear L/R. So I was curious if the stereo analog out from the TV makes the sound bar fire only stereo, or whether it actually still gives that faux 5.1.
Yeah, it's definitely the faux 5.1 from the TV.
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