Samsung HW-K950 Dolby Atmos 5.1.4 Soundbar Review

Samsung HW-K950 Dolby Atmos 5.1.4 Soundbar

When Dolby Atmos for the home was first introduced, the cost of entry for a 5.1.4 system was high. A nine-channel AVR cost at least $1500, and adding Atmos-enabled speakers was a significant four-figure expense on top of that. Even today, you won’t find an AVR-based 5.1.4 system for under two grand. That’s where the Samsung HW-K950 soundbar ($1300 on Amazon) comes in. It makes the cost of entry to a 5.1.4 Atmos-enabled system lower than ever.

Samsung HW-K950 Dolby AtmosThis graphic depicts how the Samsung HW-K950 soundbar uses reflected sound to create a 3D immersive audio experience.

Thanks to their low profile and easy installation, soundbars are a popular solution for affordably adding better sound to TVs. And while soundbars generally don’t achieve the fidelity of AVR-based systems with standalone speakers, the HW-K950 raises that bar thanks to the team of audio experts at the Samsung’s world-class audio-research lab in Valencia, CA. I toured the facility along with AVS Forum editor Scott Wilkinson; you can read about that here.

As you’ll read in this review, there’s no question that Samsung’s increased focus on sound quality has paid audible dividends.

Features and Specifications

This 5.1.4 system has four separate components: the soundbar, a sub, and a pair of satellites. The soundbar’s chassis houses the front left, center, and right channels as well as the front height channels, and it has a monochrome LCD display that’s visible through the front grill.

The soundbar measures 47.6″ (wide) x 3.2″ (high) x 5.1″ (deep), which is wide enough to hear separation between the front three channels and low-profile enough to rest in front of a TV. The HW-K950 also comes with a wall-mount kit.

The soundbar and satellites feature grills made of all-black metal mesh with black brushed metal accents. The look is notably low key yet sophisticated. The soundbar has several physical buttons on the right side panel, which can be used for adjusting the volume, selecting the source, and turning the soundbar on or off. Underneath the main unit are a pair of buttons used for connecting the system to a Wi-Fi network.

During the trip to the Samsung audio lab, I learned about the interesting approach the audio engineers took to designing the HW-K950’s tweeters. The issue is that horizontal MTM (midrange-tweeter-midrange) driver arrangements—which this soundbar uses for its center channel—typically exhibit lobing. This cancellation effect manifests as an audible shift in frequency response as you move left or right.

Lobing in a horizontal MTM driver array can be effectively eliminated if the crossover is sufficiently low. To combat this effect, Samsung designed what one engineer called a “heroic tweeter” that can play down to 400 Hz at high levels. The overall fidelity of the soundbar clearly benefits from this sort of attention to detail—I never heard any lobing with this system.

This soundbar relies on the pair of self-powered, wireless satellite speakers to handle both surround and Atmos-enabled rear elevation-channel duties. Each satellite contains two discrete, self-powered, full-range drivers. One driver faces forward and takes care of surround, while the other driver faces up, at an angle, to handle height info. These speakers allow the HW-K950 soundbar system to deliver a full 5.1.4 Atmos experience.

Samsung included an ergonomic remote with the HW-K950; it’s practically a dead ringer for the controller the company includes with its TVs—slender, sculpted, and intuitive. It features separate controls for main and subwoofer volume, and it offers dedicated buttons for access to level adjustments, source switching, surround upmixer on/off, audio effects (Music, Clear Voice, Sports, Movie, and Night), and general settings.

The remote sports a control pad that’s capable of controlling playback on a connected device. Furthermore, some buttons have two functions—for example, the Level button grants access to a 7-band EQ when held down for five seconds. Similarly, holding down the Source button for five seconds activates Bluetooth pairing.

One of the more thoughtful features of this system is a separate volume control for the subwoofer, located right next to the main volume control on the remote. I wish this was a standard feature on all soundbar (and AVR) remotes because it’s very handy to be able to adjust subwoofer levels to taste.

The HW-K950 supports the Samsung Multiroom app, which runs on Android and iOS devices and lets you stream music to compatible Samsung speakers using the company’s proprietary wireless system.

The most unique feature of the HW-K950 is its ability to render Dolby Atmos in 5.1.4 immersive surround sound. You won’t find a less-expensive ticket to a complete system with four Atmos-enabled height channels. Furthermore, the sound quality is great for a soundbar system.

Bass response is home theater-worthy thanks to a ported wireless sub featuring an 8″ driver. It’s no afterthought; the dimensions are 8.0″ (wide) x 15.7″ (high) x 16.3″ (deep) and it weighs 21 pounds—that’s large and solid by soundbar standards. More importantly, the sub provides impactful bass response that can reach down to 30 Hz. Plus, its output is strong enough that you can feel it, not just hear it.

Notably, this soundbar does not decode DTS:X immersive audio, it’s Atmos-only. It also does not support DTS HD. However, you can still feed the system PCM multichannel audio and get a good result. If your content is not mixed in Dolby Atmos—as is the case with most movies and TV and all music—this soundbar can upmix in various ways, including one that allows it to take advantage of the elevation channels.

Setup

Thanks to its wireless design, the HW-K950 is extremely easy to install; it was less hassle than any 5.1.4 system I’ve reviewed so far. The wireless design makes it possible to put the soundbar in front of a TV, find a convenient spot for the subwoofer, place the surrounds in appropriate positions, and plug in all the cables in under five minutes. Even with that minimal effort, the result is a cinematic audio experience.

For this review, the soundbar fit perfectly on a TV stand, resting in front of a 65″ Samsung UN65KS9800 TV. The subwoofer went in the front left corner of the room, and I placed the surrounds on 30″ speaker stands located in appropriate spots—to the sides of and just behind the listening position—per Dolby’s guidelines.

I connected the soundbar’s HDMI output to the TV’s ARC-compatible input, which I used to bring TV audio to the soundbar. I plugged a Samsung UBD-K8500 Ultra HD Blu-ray player into the soundbar’s HDMI 1 input and attached a Windows 10 laptop with an optical-digital S/PDIF cable.

Once I was finished with the physical connections, I installed the Samsung multiroom app on my Galaxy S7 Edge phone. I launched the app and followed the on-screen prompts to connect the HW-K950 to my home Wi-Fi network. With the push of a button on the bottom of the soundbar, the app found the system and prompted for a W-Fi password. After entering my password, the HW-K960 quickly connected to the network and became available for audio streaming. I also tested the Bluetooth connection and confirmed that it works as expected.

It’s worth noting that I’ve read about some AVS Forum members having problems with wireless connectivity. Early in the review process, I did briefly experience an issue with the surround speakers losing their wireless connection—if that happens, the soundbar will alert you with a message telling you which speaker to check. I reestablished a solid wireless link using the ID Set procedure described in the manual. Resetting the wireless connections takes a couple of minutes and requires pushing a recessed button on each speaker, but it’s no big deal.

Unusually, this soundbar does not generate test tones for level adjustment, and there is no calibration routine. Through measurement and listening, I found that the ear-level channels were well balanced and could all be left at their default setting of 0, but all four height channels benefited from a boost to the +2 setting.

Thanks to the dedicated subwoofer volume control on the remote, I was able to adjust the system’s bass output to taste. I wound up using a subwoofer-volume setting between -3 and 0 most of the time (the range is -12 to +6). I appreciate how trivially easy it is to turn the bass down at night to avoid disturbing the neighbors or to crank it up to experience your favorite flicks and tunes with added bass impact.

Performance and Listening

The HW-K950 is one of the few soundbars I’ve heard that I could live with. This is not a soundbar that makes you think, “I wish I was listening to an awesome Dolby Atmos system.” Rather, it’s a soundbar that makes you think, “this is an awesome Dolby Atmos system.”

I was pleased to see the HW-K950 handle 4K/UHD HDR video with Dolby Atmos, meaning it will work with such sources that offer only a single HDMI output.

Thanks to its multiple upmixing modes—including one with a dedicated  button on the remote that adds height to a non-immersive mix—the HW-K950 was great at playing back more than just Atmos soundtracks. Even with upmixed 2-channel music, I frequently experienced the audible illusion of a lucid, three-dimensional soundstage. 5.1.4 Atmos breaks the boundaries imposed by the close spacing of the front channels, which is an issue with all soundbars.

Sound-wise, the HW-K950 is much more like hearing a full-sized stereo system than I thought was possible, given the system’s size. It is capable of true high-fidelity sound reproduction with both music video content.

I played various Blu-ray and Ultra HD Blu-ray movies featuring Atmos mixes. As with other Atmos-enabled systems I’ve reviewed in the same room, the height effects were clearly audible. Overhead ambience and discrete sound objects properly rendered overhead, which is something I’ve never heard from a soundbar before.

I played four demo clips from Dolby’s Atmos Blu-ray demo disc: Silent, Amaze, Leaf, and Unfold. I also streamed the four clips in HDX format from Vudu.com, where they are available free of charge as The Dolby Atmos Experience (Bundle). I got the full Atmos effect from both sources and was satisfied that the system works as advertised.

Movies with great Atmos soundtracks provided true immersion when played through this soundbar. Whether it was Mad Max: Fury Road, Gravity, John Wick, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, or Edge of Tomorrow, the sense of being in the film was uncanny. Seriously, soundbars are not supposed to be able to do that. The sub impressed me with its ability to recreate percussive effects like guns and explosions with startling dynamic impact considering it’s a soundbar system.

With music, the soundstage and imaging conjured by the HW-K950 were surprisingly accurate and detailed. When upmixing was enabled, it rendered a virtual soundstage that extended well past the physical boundaries of the soundbar itself. The effect emulates what a pair of properly placed speakers sound like in the same room—accurately. Indeed, the illusion was so effective, I fooled guests into thinking a pair of (silent) bookshelf speakers were responsible for the sound they heard.

One of the greatest pleasures of listening to this soundbar is how well the upmixer feature—the “Surround Sound” function with its own dedicated button called Sound—converts 2-channel audio into something you’d expect to hear from a nice stereo system. I played the new Deadmau5 album—W:/2016ALBUM/—at maximum volume; it measured 92 dB (C-weighted) on average and came through without a hint of strain or dynamic compression. Does a 5.1.4 AVR-based rig beat it? Sure, if set up properly, that’s just about inevitable. However, the difference is not as big as you might expect.

Infected Mushroom’s “The French (Original Mix)” from Friends on Mushrooms did not have quite the gravitas on the soundbar as it can when played through a full-sized system, but the HW-K950 kept the driving beat going, and the synths certainly sounded like they were forming an 8-foot-wide soundstage in my 11-foot-wide room—just like a pair of quality standalone speakers would.

“Stray Dog” by New Order is an atmospheric track that’s drenched in the band’s clean, tight, impeccably produced signature sound. Iggy Pop shows up to lend his gravelly voice to the proceedings, and the result sounded about as good as I’ve heard from some decent stereos—I can’t quite get over how well it recreates a quality 2-channel listening experience.

I also checked out Star Wars: Battlefront, a PC game that features Dolby Atmos. The spatial cues pleasantly surprised me with their precision; I won’t go so far as to say it offers a tactical advantage, but you can hear precisely where off-screen characters and vehicles and other sources of sound are located. The envelopment greatly enhances the sense of immersion during gameplay; I hope the future brings more games that take advantage of Atmos.

Regarding its peak audio output, the HW-K950 may have 500 watts of total power on tap, plus a robust 8″ sub, but at the end of the day, it’s still a soundbar. When compared to a rig consisting of a 9-channel AVR, standalone Atmos-enabled speakers, and a 12″ subwoofer, it is not going to win a decibel war. But no matter what I threw at it, Samsung’s flagship soundbar never faltered—even with the volume maxed out. This is a system that always finds a way to sound great while staying within its performance envelope.

While some may feel frustrated that they can’t “max out” this soundbar,  I think that bulletproof good sound is more important than allowing people to push it to the point of distortion just to gain a few more dB.

In terms of overall performance, this system ranks quite highly by providing a better listening experience than most premium models I’ve heard can muster. Fidelity is top-notch, and in a small or medium-sized room, its output is more than sufficient to make watching movies an impactful experience.

The HW-K950 can handle large rooms as well; just don’t expect it reach THX reference levels. In a family-viewing situation or for anyone living in a condo, this system has plenty of power to provide some thrills. Just understand that the system’s maximum output is not going to match what a 5.1.4 AVR-based Atmos-enabled system can typically manage.

Conclusion

Ultimately, the decision to go with a soundbar over an AVR-based system comes down to weighing the factors in a price/performance equation. If the answer to your AV audio needs is a soundbar, with this system, you won’t be sacrificing the pleasure of hearing deep bass, surprising accuracy, and significant amounts of fine detail.

When you factor in price, aesthetics, and ease of use, the HW-K950’s value proposition becomes clear. You won’t find a complete 5.1.4 Atmos-enabled system for less, or one that is easier to set up. Whether you listen to music, play video games, or watch TV and movies on the HW-K950—and you have a ceiling that properly reflects the sound from the upfiring speakers in the system—you can count on an exciting Dolby Atmos-enhanced audio experience that transcends what lesser soundbars provide.

Test System

Samsung UN65KS9800 UHD TV
Samsung UBD-K8500 Ultra HD Blu-ray Player
Windows 10 PC with Nvidia GTX980 video card