Samsung HW-Q90R 7.1.4 Atmos & DTS:X Soundbar Review

The evolution of the premium soundbar continues at a frenzied pace. Witness the Samsung HW-Q90R, which is able to deliver 7.1.4-channel 3D immersive sound in a package that installs in minutes and features both a wireless subwoofer and wireless surrounds. The HW-Q90R is the flagship soundbar from Samsung and is “optimized for QLED” meaning it is a functional and aesthetic match for the company’s latest TVs. However, this soundbar is an excellent choice for any system where high performance is needed but a large AVR-based system is not wanted.

In other words, the HW-Q90R not just for Samsung TVs, even though it’s designed to offer incredible synergies when paired with a QLED.


The Samsung HW-Q90R 7.1.4 soundbar – Photo by Mark Henninger

For this review, I did something a bit unconventional. I skipped pairing the soundbar with a TV and instead used it as the audio for a living room front-projection system that uses an ambient light-rejecting screen. The challenge is to deliver 7.1.4 sound that does justice to a UHD presentation mixed in DTS:X or Atmos and shown on a 110” screen. Moreover, since it’s in my living room I also used it for music, which I upmixed with the HW-Q90R’s Surround mode.

Read on to find out how it went.


Features

This is a digital soundbar. What I mean by that is it does not feature any sort of analog input. Rather, you’ll find a couple of HDMI inputs (4K/60p/HDR) and one output that supports ARC, as well as an optical-digital input. The rest of this soundbar’s connectivity is achieved though wireless, be it Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. The physical design is minimalist with high quality fit and finish. The soundbar and satellites feature grills made of all-black metal mesh with black brushed metal accents.

While you’re almost certainly going to use either an app or your TV to adjust the menu items, it has a monochrome LCD display that’s visible through the front grill. Notably, you can control this soundbar with Amazon Alexa.

Samsung advertises that a total of 17 drivers provide this soundbar system with its immersive capabilities. This soundbar includes wireless satellites that feature both the main surround channel and the rear elevation channel drivers in one housing. These satellites, as well as the 8-inch wireless ported subwoofer, are key elements that elevate this soundbar system above what the competition offers. It also has a side-firing drivers, which add width to the soundstage and allow for full 7.1.4 audio.

This soundbar offers four different sound modes: Standard, Surround, Game Pro and Adaptive Sound. It’s equally at home on a TV stand or mounted on a wall, and the package does include wall-mount brackets.

One of my favorite features of this soundbar is how the remote control includes a dedicated button to adjust the subwoofer level, which is located right next to the regular volume adjustment. This lets you dial in just the right amount of bass at any given point of time, whether it’s to spare your neighbors thumps late at night, or to add impact to a movie that doesn’t have enough oomph, having that control at your fingertips is a nice feature.

The remote itself uses Samsung’s signature, sleek and sculpted design. despite having relatively few buttons, actually offers a lot of control thanks to hidden features such as seven band EQ and channel level adjustment.

Learn more about the HW-Q90R by following this link.


Setup

Part of the appeal of soundbar based systems is how easy they are to set up. It is far easier to put this soundbar in the living room than it is to wire up and configure a 7.1.4 AVR-based system with separate speakers. A solution like this is especially appealing for renters, or owners of urban condominiums where running in wall wiring and cutting holes in the walls for speakers is forbidden, but also where space is also the premium, so putting standalone speakers out in the room is not an option.

Samsung smartly packaged this soundbar in a rectangular box, instead of one of those “guitar case boxes” that are quite difficult to deal with. This made unpacking even easier than typical soundbars, with the main unit right at the top of the box and immediately accessible. The ergonomics of s soundbar box may not seem that important, but this is a large and heavy system (for a soundbar) so it makes an appreciable difference.

I set this soundbar up the way I expect most consumers would. I relied on default settings and plugged things in based on intuition, with the expectation that they would “just work”. It was very gratifying to see the system come to life with no fuss. Of course, I can’t promise that everybody’s set up will be this easy, but I am impressed with the plug-and-play nature of the Samsung HW-Q90R soundbar. It turns adding 7.1.4 Dolby Atmos/DTS:X to your living room into a 15-minute, near foolproof task.

My point of reference for how this soundbar performs is an AVR-based 7.1.4 system featuring a Denon AVR-X8500H and KLH speakers  consisting of Quincy towers, Stage center, Broadway Atmos modules, Beacon surround speakers, and a Stratton MH212 subwoofer.

An Xbox One X served as a source, as well as a Chromecast Ultra. Visuals came courtesy of a Sony VPL-VW295ES projector paired with a Seymour Screen Excellence Ambient Visionaire XL 110” ALR fixed-frame screen. A 30-foot Phizli fiber-optic HDMI cable connected the soundbar to the projector.


Optimized for QLED

It’s CRUCIAL that this soundbar not be viewed as JUST a complement to Samsung’s’ QLED lineup. Performance wise, it is worthy of consideration for any premium TV system where a soundbar is the preferred option for adding sophisticated surround-sound. But, if you use it with a QLED you can control the TV and the soundbar with Samsung’s OneRemote, as well as adjust soundbar settings using the TV menu. It is a more integrated, unified experience.

If you are going to pair this a soundbar with a Samsung QLED television, it’s worth clicking here and taking a deep dive into the HW-Q90R’s full feature set. Certainly, there are synergies to be found in using a soundbar from the same manufacturer as the TV.

While most of my time with this soundbar was spent using it in a home theater configuration, I did have a chance to hook it up to a 75” Samsung Q90R QLED to experience it as a complete system. I have no compunction stating that this combo delivers a complete, state-of-the-art home theater experience along with ease of use.


Performance

Samsung is on to something with its Dolby Atmos/DTS:X soundbar systems. The tuning is clearly influenced by Harman Kardon’s extensive research into what makes for “good” sound. I found the tonal balance was close to what I’d expect from an AVR based system with basic room correction applied.

OK, first a word on the listening modes. After a bit of fiddling, I set the HW-Q90R soundbar to “Surround” and did not look back. The only adjustment I made was to turn down the levels of the surrounds a couple notches as they seemed too prominent. This is a good adjustment to make for any new install as the placement and seating position will create some variables.

But what’s key, to me, is that this soundbar system is a legit alternative to an AVR-based system of similar cost. This is especially true if saving some space is a goal, but also applies to situations where running all the needed speaker wire to an AVR presents obstacles.


Music

In the Surround mode, even 2-channel music sounds like it’s being played through a real stereo system. It presents music with a soundstage other soundbars , even at this rarefied price point, do not offer. In this mode, the system uses all 7.1.4 channels, even for stereo music playback. The effect is to eliminate the sound staging limitations suffered by soundbars that (by their physical nature) must place the left and right channels very close to each other.

But it’s not just those side speakers that are creating the enveloping audio illusion with music. All of the speakers play a part, each adding dimension to the virtual recreation of a proper stereo soundfield—the kind you get from a quality 2-channel system that’s able to present a soundstage with depth to it.

The one big caveat here is that the HW-Q90R soundbar relies on reflected sound to achieve its impressive soundstage and 3D immersion. That means it works best in a room with acoustically reflective walls and ceilings. Having said that, there are guidelines for optimal placement and seating that need to be followed to get the best 3D immersion from any speaker system that relies on reflected sound, not just this soundbar.


Speaker placement graphic taken from the HW-Q90R manual.

The main thing I got out of listening sessions is that the sound stage was neither overly constrained, nor artificially expansive. To my ears, the tuning achieved proper scale and proportion, putting musicians where they are supposed to be on the front stage while conveying ambience and a sense of space. Carefully crafted studio recordings, such as Sounds from the Ground’s new album Binary or Metallic Spheres by The Orb and David Gilmour had the mix of grandeur and hyper-detail that makes music listening on a nice system fun.

The subwoofer in this soundbar system was able to deliver the “feel” and “punch” of kick drums and bass lines. It’s powerful and did not falter with more challenging, bass-rich material like dubstep, industrial and hip hop. As usual, I spent some time blasting Bassnectar through this soundbar and kept thinking “Sheesh, this sounds so good, I could live with this system.”

Normally, I would not be so concerned with how a soundbar deals with music. However, a system like this is likely to be the primary audio system for whatever room it’s in. Moreover, people tend to arrange seating around the TV, so you’ve got listeners in the sweet spot already. Factoring in the new ambient mode on Samsung QLEDs, not to mention how easy it is to get an all-day playlist of whatever music you want on YouTube, and you got a strong argument for ensuring that your TV’s soundbar system also offers high fidelity music playback.


Movies & TV

While being good at playing music is a welcome bonus, the main duty of any soundbar is to improve upon a TVs built-in speakers when playing TV shows, movies and games. This soundbar goes far beyond what any TV has ever been able to do on its own, delivering fully enveloping 3D immersive sound that’s clear, precise and free of distortion.

As I have done for past reviews, I played numerous demo clips from Dolby’s Atmos Blu-ray demo. I got the full Atmos effect and was satisfied that the system works as expected when it comes to rendering discrete object-based effects.

The Xbox One X provided the playback of both Ultra HD Blu-ray and streaming content, as well as games. Long story short is it works better than I had hoped, or quite frankly imagined was possible from a soundbar system. Granted, the AVR-based system was better, but you’d hope so at 5X the cost, 5X the weight, 5X the space and an installation that takes at least 5X longer.

Movies with well executed 3D immersive audio mixes provide the fully enveloping experience that goes beyond what any 5.1 system can achieve. I heard plenty of overhead action in movies like Glass and Captain Marvel along with 360 surround-sound effects coming from the sides and rear. And thanks to its potent sub, the HW-Q90R soundbar stood out for its ability to make effects like guns and explosions “feel real” with its tight delivery.

If there’s a performance limitation here, it’s mostly one of output levels and bass extension. The AVR system can play louder, and the dual-opposed 12” sub plays deeper than the 8” sub that ships with the HW-Q90R soundbar. But, as far as the tuning goes, and overall listenability, as well as sense of immersion, with movies and games (and still just using the “Surround” mode) the soundbar came a lot closer to the AVR system’s overall sound than you’d expect. It’s not something I can precisely quantify, but can say this system is closer in character to a “full-sized system” than it is to its soundbar brethren.


Games

Unlike TV, music and movies, where accuracy is the name of the game, gamers can sometimes have different priorities for sound. The HW-Q90R caters to this with a Game Pro mode that really accentuates each individual sound, so you’ll catch those crucial audio cues and hear dialog with crystal clarity.

Personally, the fact that Surround mode upsamples everything to 7.1.4 makes it the go-to for all uses, including gaming. What I can say, unquestionably, is that this is the very finest soundbar that you can buy for gaming purposes. Given that Dolby Atmos is the dominant format for 3D immersive sound in games, having that complete “dome of sound” that comes from true 7.1.4 puts you right in the middle of the action.


Conclusion

It’s been three years since Samsung introduced its first Dolby Atmos soundbar system, the 5.1.4 channel HW-K950. This iteration of the company’s flagship soundbar, the HW-Q90R, is the direct result of refining an already great design. You get two additional channels for 7.1.4 3D immersive sound, in a system that is elegantly simple to set up and use.

Given the dropping cost of TVs these days, a $1397.99 soundbar might seem expensive at first glance. However, here you are getting a tremendous amount of technology and capability for your money. You could easily spend more money than this on just an A/V receiver, or just a single pair speakers, or just a subwoofer. You’d also be incredibly hard pressed to put together a decent 7.1.4 system using separate components, no matter how steep the discounts.

One of the most crucial performance related attributes of the system is its rocksolid reliability. The Samsung HW-Q90R behaved well from the moment I plugged in, to the moment I sent it back to the company. There were no dropouts, no connection issues, really nothing but sweet sound that was easy to tailor to my room with a few simple adjustments.

If you are looking for a premium soundbar system to add to your Samsung QLED TV, this should be at the top of your list. However, as I stated earlier in the review, it is such a good soundbar that it should be seriously considered for any situation where high quality 7.1.4 Atmos/DTS:X playback is desirable. Samsung’s HW-Q90R soundbar is proof that technological progress continues to deliver dividends in a soundbar form factor. This is a definitive Top Choice among soundbars for 2019.


Main image by Mark Henninger

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