One of the reviews posted really resonates with me:
5.1 made easy!
By Harun Ar-rashid - July 11, 2013
If you'd asked me a couple years ago which 5.1 sound system to buy, my answer would have been simple: "none."
They were a big expensive pain. It seemed like my friends who had these systems would either have them only half set up (say, ditching the surround speakers) or fully set up but not used (because the input selection or the remote was too much of a pain). My previous roommate had a 5.1 "surround" system - with all five speakers under the TV. We rarely used it because we had to change 3 settings in 3 different places to make it work.
Let's review the misery of yesterday's 5.1 systems, shall we?
1) You needed to place and wire six speakers: left, center, right, left surround, right surround, plus a bass module. That's a lot of wires, speaker stands, and connections.
2) To connect the left and right surround speakers, you needed to run wires across your seating area. That's pretty ugly unless you go through the effort to make conduits or buy a special rug.
3) You needed to purchase a separate receiver to power those speakers - and connect it too.
4) You paid for all that - an absolute minimum of $400, with nicer gear easily double that.
5) You needed to manage additional remotes and settings. Good luck if you ever asked a friend to change the volume.
Well, it's almost as though Vizio started with this list, and then eliminated these problems one by one when making this 5.1 soundbar. The soundbar itself combines Left, Center and Right channels into one thin module that will fit in front of your TV, assuming you use a TV stand with at least two inches of space there. There are no speaker stands or speaker wires, and no separate receiver - the amplifier is built in! The only wires are the ones you absolutely need: sound input (an optical cable in most cases) and power.
But what about the bass module and surround speakers? This is where the Vizio really shines. Low frequency sounds like those from the bass module cannot be well localized by the human auditory system. Simply put, you can place the bass module anywhere in the room, and it will sound nearly the same to a human. So why not place it behind your seating area where it can also connect to the surround speakers? Tada! You plug the bass module into a power outlet behind your seating area and the surround speakers into the bass module. No wires run across your living room. The audio signal is sent wirelessly, with pairing automatically set up when you plug in the bass module. Just try to keep the bass module within 60 feet.
But what about the remotes and connections? Again this product is one step ahead. Through an easy setup process, you can program the soundbar to respond to the volume commands from your TV remote. No need to dig up the sound bar remote. Now, even your drunk football buddy can change the volume. But what about turning the sound bar on and off? You must need the sound bar remote for that right? Nope. It also has a power saving feature, so it turns itself off automatically. To turn it back on, just turn up the volume on your TV remote. Genius: these three tweaks mean you don't even need the sound bar's own remote after day one. Something lots of other reviewers have noted (which I somehow took for granted) was that the remote includes a small LCD display to help you navigate options without commandeering your TV's UI or cluttering the appearance of the soundbar itself. Nicely done; other UI designers would do well to copy this.
A point for the fellow TV audio nerds out there: according to various internet sources, "most" televisions downmix the 5.1 audio signals they receive to stereo at their outputs, meaning that if you connect the optical audio output from the TV to a sound system, your sound system only gets two channels, even if the TV received 5.1 input. To work around the curse of those TVs, you need to plug the cable box, TiVo AND Blu-Ray player directly into your sound system, possibly using a switcher, which is a pain! However, there's good news here for Vizio TV owners like me: Vizio is one of the brands of TVs that outputs true 5.1 audio from its optical output. (Or at least it does on my VF550M which is a few years old.) I even borrowed a bitstream analyzer from a coworker and verified it. But you don't have to go that far to check on yours: the soundbar lights up with a "Dolby Digital" light for about two seconds when it detects a Dolby Digital bitstream, which is generally 5.1. Pretty cool.
Even if you don't give 5.1 input to this system, it can create 5.1 for you through a built-in upmixer provided by audio tech company DTS. Just give it stereo and the upmixer takes care of the rest. It's not as good as real 5.1 but it makes pretty good use of all the speakers. I enjoyed this feature when playing my iPod music on the system using its Bluetooth option. Which reminds me: this system has a Bluetooth option. It makes a damn loud party sound system, which Vizio claims outputs 102 dB SPL. I verified that it will indeed put out sound at or above what psychoacousticians call the "threshold of pain."
A few nits. First, the soundbar isn't quite as wide as I'd like: the left, center and right channels in it are all too close to each other. I use my sound bar with a 55 inch HDTV that I sit about 8 feet from. Unless I sit closer, audio from the sound bar generally fails to sound well "spread out." I kind of wish the sound bar would telescope so I could spread the left and right speakers wider! Second, when using Bluetooth the sound quality can be poor - kind of like a pirated MP3 rather than the high quality iTunes audio I'm streaming. I work around this by using the Spotify app on my TiVo to stream music directly from the internet to the soundbar. A final issue, which might be a soundbar bug or a weakness of digital audio in general, occurs when initiating or restarting digital audio, such as on Netflix or TiVo-played cable TV. The sound will either begin after a quick loud "snap" noise, or take a couple seconds to fade in after video has begun playing. Obviously, it should be instant and flawless.
The overall package though is a total winner. As you may know it's won consumer awards including a Best of CES award from CNET. It's priced aggressively at $330 and the convenience is liberating. I recommend buying it and freeing yourself from the headaches of yesterday's 5.1.
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