Whether you love their convenience or consider them a necessary evil, soundbars are here to stay. At CES 2017, Samsung introduced several new soundbars that comprise the Sound+ series. I got my hands on the HW-MS650 ($450), which is a 3.0-channel model that promises bass response deep enough that a subwoofer is not needed.
Samsung also announced the HW-MS750 at CES; that model uses upfiring drivers and upmixes content for an immersive height effect. And there’s the HW-MS6500 ($500) that is identical to the MS650, aside from being curved. But this review is about the most affordable model, the MS650.
As one of the first Samsung soundbars to fully benefit from the company’s recently intensified investment in audio research, the MS650 is intriguing because it packs in so many features, plus it promises great fidelity, all in a single box that costs less than $500. Let’s see if it can live up to the hype.
The MS650 works either perched on a TV stand or fixed in a wall-mount installation. The package includes generic brackets for wall-mounting, but Samsung also sells a Seamless Mount bracket ($50) that attaches it to compatible TVs; the TV supports the soundbar. Cleverly, this soundbar includes a TV power-out socket, so you only need to plug in one power cable for both devices.
This soundbar comes with a slim remote that incorporates discrete volume and bass controls, as well as buttons to change input, user settings, and surround mode. It can even control a connected, compatible Blu-ray player, and it works seamlessly with Samsung’s One Remote, which comes with select TVs.
Samsung packed this soundbar with an impressive array of features and then focused on fidelity. There are nine drivers total, each with its own discrete 20-watt amp—total system power is 180 watts RMS. Bass comes from an array of six mid-woofers that complement the three wideband tweeters. Frequency response is specified from 40 Hz to 20 kHz. Have a look at that driver lineup, it’s formidable for a soundbar.
An exploded view of the MS650’s nine drivers.
You get generous connectivity options with the MS650. It supports the ubiquitous and reliable TosLink (optical digital) connection, or it can get sound from your TV through the HDMI 2.0/HDCP 2.2 output by using ARC. Furthermore, it provides one HDMI 2.0/HDCP 2.2 input with full support for HDR and up to 60 Hz 4:2:0 or 30 Hz 4:4:4 4K video.
This is a 3-channel soundbar. However, you can add SWA-9000S wireless surround speakers ($180/pair) to the MS650 for a true surround-sound experience. At CES 2017, I saw a sneak peek of Bass+ wireless standalone subwoofers, designed to be compatible with Sound+ soundbars. But part of the pitch for this soundbar is that it does not require a separate subwoofer, and I did not have one for this review.
Per the manual, the MS650 decodes Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 2.0, PCM 2.0, and a variety of audio-only formats: AAC, AIFF, ALAC, FLAC, MP3, OGG, WAV, and WMA. Although the manual does not explicitly discuss it, playing the Ultra HD Blu-ray of Planet Earth using the DTS HD Master multichannel track (unprocessed bitstream) caused no issues and sounded great. Similarly, converting that audio to PCM in the Blu-ray player still worked perfectly—no missing dialog or other weirdness. The soundbar simply worked as expected.
This is a surprisingly substantial device. The MS650 weighs 13.67 pounds and measures 41.73″ (wide) x 3.07″ (high) x 5.14″ (deep). The chassis has an understated, sophisticated yet industrial look to it. The dark brushed-metal finish of the housing complements the logo-free black metal grill. The soundbar’s text display is behind the grill, which renders it invisible when not in use; it’s basic and text-only, but it gets the job done. I have never before seen a sub-$500 soundbar that looks and feels so well made.
Wi-Fi connectivity supports 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz connections. You can stream music to the MS650 with Samsung’s Multiroom app and add the soundbar to a wireless multi-room network of Multiroom-compatible devices.
With the app, you can adjust settings such as volume and input, plus you can play audio from the following cloud-based, ad-based, and subscription services: Amazon Music, TuneIn, Pandora, iHeart Radio, 8tracks, Spotify, 7digital, Napster, Murfie, Tidal, and SiriusXM. You can also play tracks stored on your Android or iOS device.
In addition to Wi-Fi, the MS650 has Bluetooth, so anyone can stream audio to it directly using their phone, tablet, laptop, or audio player. And if you need it, there’s even a 3.5mm stereo-analog auxiliary input.
The soundbar offers a number of listening modes:
Standard is very flat, neutral, and sounds a lot like a good stereo system.
Music sounds similar to Standard.
Clear Voice is for watching TV; it highlights speech at the expense of full-range fidelity. It may be useful for the hard-of-hearing.
Sports has an amped-up sound that appears to be intended to make voices clearer without diminishing the rest of the audio, unlike the Clear Voice mode.
Movie makes things sound more expansive without mucking up the tonal balance.
I thought Standard and Movie were the two most useful and overall best-sounding modes.
While there is no auto-calibration feature, Samsung gives the bass its own volume control, right next to the main volume control on the remote. You can tweak the bass level to taste, or turn it down to avoid waking your neighbors. You can adjust treble as well, but that requires a trip to the Sound Control menu. Based on what I heard and measured, it should not be necessary to adjust it, at least in most cases.
If you do want or need more control over tonality, there is a “hidden button” setting that grants access to a 7-band EQ. But again, this soundbar’s performance with default settings makes it unlikely you’d need to tinker with that.
For this review, I used all of the MS650’s inputs with multiple sources. For a display, I connected it to a Samsung 65″ Q9F QLED—which I recently reviewed here—using the ARC-compatible HDMI input on the TV, and I placed it on the stand in front of the TV. Even though the Q9F is also a Samsung, I had to raise the TV a couple of inches for an ideal setup.
I tested the one HDMI input with a Windows 10 PC, a Sony PlayStation 4 Pro, and a Samsung UBD-K8500 Blu-ray player. I also used the TosLink digital-optical connection with all three devices as well as a Chromecast Audio. I used the 3.5mm Aux input with the Chromecast Audio, and I streamed music to the MS650 using the Multiroom app running on a Galaxy S7 Edge. Finally, I set up Bluetooth streaming using the same phone.
The Wi-Fi setup with the Multiroom app was pleasantly fast and easy. When prompted, I pushed the speaker-connect button, entered my Wi-Fi password, and it was done in seconds. However, to start streaming, I also had to sign into Tidal and Amazon through the app.
Networked streaming audio is part of this soundbar’s feature set, and Samsung’s system worked for me. Having said that, I’m committed to the Google Cast wireless multi-room music ecosystem, and I appreciated being able to plug a Chromecast Audio into the Aux port.
I did not encounter any glitches during setup. It was super easy, and the manual was thorough.
Importantly, the default settings in Standard mode delivered a finely tuned listening experience. Samsung is paying close attention to audio fidelity these days, taking cues from its recent acquisition of Harman. The MS650 has what I’d call “room friendly” tuning. Overall, this soundbar behaves like a good pair of bookshelf speakers.
Performance and Measurements
The MS650 delivers great sound for the money. It’s competitively priced for a device that can fill a room with neutral, clean sound. Without any tuning or adjustment, it stayed within +/-3 dB from 60 Hz to 17.5 kHz. The -10 dB point is located at roughly 45 Hz, and 20,000 Hz is down by -6 dB. This is a great response curve that translates to a smooth yet detailed sound.
An in-room frequency-response measurement from 1 meter revealed an EQ curve that’s close to ideal.
Of course, there’s a price to be paid for the compact form factor of a soundbar. The MS650 is limited in terms of output as compared to an AVR-based system using bookshelf speakers. I measured pink noise at 90 dB from 1 meter away (C-weighted) and 82 dB at 10 feet. Those figures are identical to what the Sonos PlayBase ($700, reviewed here) delivers.
With music, I got higher C-weighted peak readings. I measured up to 93 dB at 10 feet without distortion and 101 dB from 1 meter. With music, running full-tilt did not appear to tax the amplification.
The MS650’s performance reminded me of pricier soundbars. This is the least expensive package I have reviewed to offer such a degree of fidelity. Typical soundbars that cost less than $500 either have terrible bass response, or they come with a subwoofer that is crossed over at a frequency so high that it becomes localizable.
The beauty of the MS650 is that its soundfield is cohesive. In many instances, it’s good enough to create a stereo image that renders the soundbar invisible—like the effect you get with stereo speakers.
While the audio performance of the MS650 is impressive, so is its ability to switch between sources quickly as well as its overall reliability. There was no discernable delay in source switching, even when choosing HDMI. Plus, it passed HDR to the TV from the UBD-K8500 perfectly.
Samsung was smart to program the volume and bass control of the MS650 for foolproof operation. You can’t get it to distort; even if you crank the volume to max and then turn the bass all the way up, it still maintains its composure.
While a soundbar will not replace a good stereo, what you get out of the MS650 is audio that’s a cut above cheaper soundbars, like the Vizios I’ve reviewed in the past.
For one thing, the wide-range tweeters are much better at teasing out fine detail in a transparent manner. And compared to the tweeter array of the Sonos PlayBase, the 3-way design of the Samsung can deliver just as wide a soundstage.
I appreciated how Standard mode on the MS650 closely simulated the soundfield of a pair of properly placed stereo speakers. Listening to music, I could hear individual instruments and visualize them in their proper places. Boards of Canada’s Geogaddi is full of floating psychedelic synth sounds, and—much to my surprise—that aspect of the production was audible in this soundbar’s output.
The bass performance was sufficient to make many recordings feel punchy and lively. Thievery Corporation’s new album The Temple of I & I sounded really good, with enough detail wrung out of the mix to make it intriguing and not fatiguing. The bass line in “Strike the Root” could be felt, and it was tight, not flabby.
“Disc Wars” from the Tron: Legacy soundtrack makes mincemeat out of anything but the stoutest AVR-based systems with high-performance subs doing the heavy lifting. Unsurprisingly, the MS650 did not bother with reproducing that super-deep content. I’ve never encountered a soundbar, or a bookshelf speaker for that matter, that can handle the track. It’s a reminder that some music demands the power of a full-sized stereo or surround system.
After Such Knowledge, What Forgiveness by Submerged (featuring Bill Laswell) is my nod to readers who want dense, guitar-heavy, thick, and energetic music to be a part of my review repertoire. Right away, my cat went INSANE when I blasted “The Driven.” The SPL reading from 10 feet hovered around 91 dB, with plenty of dynamics to boot. This soundbar loves to jam. “Servant” is thick and loud, and somehow the MS650 peeled through the layers without stumbling, a shockingly nimble performance for any soundbar.
Black Hippy is an album by Black Hippy, a rap supergroup featuring Ab-Soul, Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q, and Jay Rock. The 2014 album sounded good; the MS650 had no issues with bass or dynamics, and it rendered the rap vocals faithfully. I’ve listened to the album through enough high-quality headphones and speakers to recognize that Samsung’s soundbar was not fudging it.
Unlike most music, movies were more of a mixed bag. As I noted in my recent Sonos PlayBase review, I’ve grown spoiled by the multi-sub, AVR-based systems I’ve lived with for over two decades. No stand-alone soundbar can hope to challenge that. But, I’ll give credit where it’s due—most people will be thrilled that a soundbar can get as low as this one.
Watching The Martian on Ultra HD Blu-ray, with HDMI going through the MS650, was a surprisingly good experience. The Movie mode expanded the soundfield enough to make it engaging, if not fully immersive. I’m sure that adding surrounds would provide a more compelling effect. Using the Surround function made the sound seems a tiny bit more processed, but it did prove effective at expanding the soundstage considerably.
I’ll be interested to revisit this soundbar in a full 5.1 rig when the Bass+ subwoofer ships. I suspect that’ll be enough to scratch the home-theater surround-sound itch.
Of course, soundbars are also for watching TV, a task the MS650 handles excellently. The clarity is such that you can use any mode and not miss any dialog. Having said that, Standard and Movie modes are the best-behaved and what I’d use for TV, music, and movies. It’s mostly a matter of which mode’s soundstage you prefer.
With its Sound+ HW-MS650, Samsung has created perhaps the finest sub-$500 soundbar I’ve heard. It plays deeper and cleaner than anything near its price point and keeps up with the new Sonos PlayBase, which is an impressive feat.
It’s no mystery how Samsung has managed to step up its game. The company’s new and expanding, world-class audio research lab in Valencia, California played a major role in its development. Scott Wilkinson and I met the engineers who work there; I can vouch for the talent; it’s a top-notch team and facility. The goal is to create objectively great-sounding products, and the MS650 is proof that the effort pays dividends.
There are tons of soundbars out there, in all shapes and sizes. The Samsung HW-MS650 happens to be a great performer that looks good, is easy on the wallet for what you get, and connects to your other gear just about any way you want.
And if you want more performance, the cost of wireless surrounds is reasonable. Plus, if you are the sort who needs more bass, you can look forward to supplementing its capabilities with the forthcoming Bass+ wireless subwoofer. In all, the Samsung MS650 is a very well thought-out system that outperforms relative to its price point.