Soundbars have evolved since they first came on the scene, getting better each year while tackling ever more ambitions tasks. Certainly, the advent of the Dolby Atmos soundbar ushered in an era where you can achieve home theater-style immersion without having to install a large, expensive and complex AVR-based system. Now, Samsung has upped the ante by presenting a soundbar system, the HW-Q950A, that offers 11.1.4 3D immersive sound reproduction.

Samsung states the HW-Q950A offers “True 11.1.4” and by that what it means is there’s a driver dedicated to each listed channel, rather than this being virtualized surround-sound. The way this works, is the main soundbar is equipped with 9 discrete channels, including two of the height channels. The satellites add another two surround channels and two more height channels, and of course the system ships with a subwoofer, adding up to 11.1.4. And with it, support for Dolby Atmos as well as DTS:X.

When paired with select Samsung QLED TVs including 2021 Neo QLEDs, the Q950A can even go beyond the built-in channel count. Using a feature called Q-Symphony, the soundbar is able to also use the TV’s speakers, to further expand the soundfield. Another feature that depends on a Samsung TV (2021 QLED Q70 and above) is SpaceFit Sound that analyzes the sound of your room and performs room correction. So, there are specific benefits to pairing the Q950A with premium 2021 Samsung QLED TVs. But that’s all “gravy” for an already impressive soundbar that will work with any modern TV.

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Features and Specifications

This is a high-definition digital soundbar. That is, it lacks any type of analog input. On it, you’ll find find two HDMI inputs (4K/60p/HDR) and one ARC and eARC-compatible output, as well as an optical-digital input. The remainder of this soundbar's connectivity is wireless, either via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. Physically, the design is minimal with a high level of fit and finish. Grilles on the soundbar and satellites are entirely black cloth, with black brushed metal accents on the edges of the satellites. A low profile ensures it won’t block your TV, and of course it’s a “perfect fit” if paired with an appropriate Samsung model.

This soundbar is remarkable in its ability to adapt to its surroundings, and create a massive, all-encompassing soundfield. And yet, it is sleek and low profile, and incredibly simple to use. The Q950T system is comprised of a central soundbar, two satellite speakers, and a wireless subwoofer. The system's main unit and surround speakers both feature upward firing drivers that enable the system to generate immersive Dolby Atmos and DTS:X soundfields. The main bar features side-firing drivers, which allow for an expanded soundfield and all-encompassing 3D immersive sound.

Samsung’s top soundbar supports HDMI eARC. This critical feature enables you to connect to a television using a single cable, not only to transmit video to the television, and also to receive uncompressed audio from the television, including 3D immersive formats. This feature enables you to connect a gaming console or UHD Blu-ray player to a TV input while maintaining the fidelity of the highest-quality audio formats supported by the device. With this soundbar, you can even forego the cable altogether, courtesy of the WiFi TV connection feature. With supported televisions, you can send audio from the TV to the Q950T via a WiFi connection. Ideal for ultra-clean wall mounting. Additionally, you can connect to the TV via Bluetooth for wireless audio, though it will not be uncompressed.

This soundbar features wireless satellites that combine the drivers for a main surround channel, a rear-wide surround channel, and the rear elevation channel, into a single housing. These satellites, along with a well-tuned, 8-inch, wireless, ported subwoofer, are critical components that set this soundbar system apart. As for how it achieves 11-channel surround, not only do the satellites have 3 discrete channels per unit, the main soundbar also features two sets of side-firing drivers, each aimed at a different angle, which widen the soundstage and enable fully enveloping audio.

This Samsung includes a slim remote control with discrete volume and subwoofer controls, as well as buttons for input, user settings, and surround mode adjustment. Additionally, you can configure the soundbar to respond to the remote control of any television, not just Samsung televisions.... It is compatible with volume control commands from other manufacturers. Additionally, this Soundbar includes an integrated microphone, allowing you to control it via voice commands.

This soundbar specifically caters to gamers with its Game Mode Pro, which puts an emphasis on dynamic sound which helps you hear what direction sounds are coming from by boosting the effects. It engages automatically, but you can always bypass it by choosing another mode. Of course, even if a game has Dolby Atmos, this soundbar can handle it, as well as the usual 5.1 or 7.1 surround.

As with its predecessors, one of my favorite features of this soundbar that the remote sports a dedicated button for subwoofer level adjustment, and it’s located next to the volume control. You can dial in precisely the right amount of bass at any given time, whether it's to avoid disturbing your neighbors late at night, or to boost the bass and add some extra impact to a film-watching experience. Samsung's remote is compact and simple, with an elegant, sculpted shape.


Setup & Hands-On

A large part of the appeal of soundbar-based systems is their ease of setup. Installing this soundbar in my living room is significantly easier than wiring and configuring the 5.1.2 AVR-based speaker that I personally use and is a manageable task for non tech-savvy owners. This sort of “plug-and play” surround-sound solution should be particularly appealing to renters, owners of urban condominiums, or even homeowners who have zero hope of getting a full-size audio system in the living room approved by committee. Indeed, it can and should appeal to anyone who wants a simple yet impressive way to experience truly immersive theatrical surround-sound. And, of course, select Samsung QLED owners (2021 Q70 and above) can leverage Q-Symphony.

Samsung wisely packaged this soundbar in a rectangular box, rather than one of those cumbersome "guitar case boxes" used for soundbars. This made unpacking simple, the main unit was located directly on top of the box, and all the parts (soundbar, satellites, subwoofer, accessories) being easy to get to.

I decided to do something a little unorthodox for this review. Rather than pairing it with a TV, I used in in conjunction with a Samsung The Premiere UST laser projector I pulled this off by using a monitor riser with the projector, thus giving the soundbar a little space to rest in front of the projector. After all, if this soundbar offers full-on 3D immersive surround, why not put it in a “living room home theater” style setup! And it totally worked.

Bonus points to the soundbar and projector for showing some real smarts during setup. The projector informed me that a Dolby Atmos capable source was connected, but noted the need to use the HDMI 1 input for eARC support. I switched the input. It further intuited that a PlayStation 4 Pro is connected to the soundbar HDMI 1 input. Very user friendly.

Once connected and running, the system immediately sounded great. If you are the sort of person who does not believe that a soundbar can compete with an AVR-based system, if the HW-Q950A does not change your mind, nothing will. But, these jaded ears could not help but appreciate the quality this system achieves. Samsung has tremendous resources at its disposal when it comes to audio, and the fruits of its efforts are apparent here. As background, the company’s testing facility is world-class, and with Harman under the Samsung umbrella, the technical and engineering and R&D talent under one roof make for an unbeatable combo. Harman did the legwork when it comes to scientific research into what makes for good sound, and you hear it in Samsung’s top soundbar, the tuning is close to ideal for my living room, no adjustments needed to have a nicely immersive listening experience.

Now, were this soundbar paired with a compatible QLED, it would be possible to run a room correction routine called SpaceFit Sound+, which accounts for soundbar position and also the shape of the room and the presence of sound absorptive surfaces like drapes. But to be honest, the only adjustments you need to get ideal tuning is the subwoofer, which has that handy dedicated control, and the surround levels if they stick out as being too loud or too quiet. Also, the subwoofer has an Auto EQ function that is not dependent on having any particular TV. This helps resolve the wide variations in response that result from positioning, and room interactions with subwoofers. It’s almost impossible to have really good bass without applying some EQ to compensate for the effects of any given listening space.

The system I assembled for the review is, in a real sense, an expression of what’s possible when lifestyle-friendly products evolve to the point where their performance catches up to their aesthetics. The notion of having a 110” screen and a full Atmos surround-sound system that’s close to plug-and-play, with a total system cost under $9000 (including a screen) while having the bulk of the system fit on a credenza from IKEA, and with the satellites and sub being wireless (albeit not cordless, you still need to plug into the wall for power), the whole thing is game-changing. I was able to set the whole thing up in a couple hours, solo, and I only needed a couple of short HDMI cables to connect everything.

Having had a dedicated home theater as recently as 2 years ago, I can state in no uncertain terms, it is shocking how close to that experience this system comes. When it’s night, and I’m playing a 4K title through a Kaleidescape Strato, overall effect beats what I could achieve in the dedicated space just a few years ago. Sure, the sub could play deeper, and the soundbar will never reach “reference” levels like a multi-sub system with huge tower speakers, but in terms of clarity and sense of immersion this Samsung soundbar has the goods and can handle blockbuster action film-level sound effects without tripping up or losing focus.

Now, a quick word for the “soundbars are sacrilege” crowd. I ask you this… in situations where dedicated home theater and/or full-sized sub/speaker/AVR/amp systems are simply not viable, would you rather have nothing, or would you rather have an option that gives you a nice slice of what the “full” experience is all about? I’m all for the latter, I like that there’s a soundbar that can do this much in terms of 3D immersive envelopment and really putting you into movies, video games, and even stereo music that comes across as if playing from a “real” stereo system. The thing about soundbars is that they rely on DSP and active amplification, to the opportunity is there to tune it so it sounds good. And this is a powerful soundbar, so it is not limited to sounding good at lower volumes. It’ll work in a larger room and you can get away with “movie night” listening levels.

OK, let’s talk about the channel count question. If you are skeptical about whether this soundbar really offers 11.1.4, here’s the scoop. It has that many discrete channels in the system. It works, if you have a room that works with it. In the strictest terms, it is a 11.1.4 soundbar system. There are nine actual channels on the soundbar (two are height) and six more channels (two more height) in the satellites, for a grand total of 15.1.

Of the channels on the soundbar itself, three constitute the LCR channels, and four side-firing drivers make up the rest. So, these side-firing drivers are positioned at two different angles, and have focused dispersion characteristics that allow them to bounce beams of sound off of side walls, just like how the Atmos channels bounce sound off the ceiling. The two different angles result in that reflected sound seeming to come from two different locations, basically front “Wide” and “Side Surround” with the physical satellites acting more like “Rear Surround”. And the satellites (also) each have a side-firing driver. The effect of these six channels that rely on reflected sound is to dramatically widen and deepen the soundstage.

In terms of immersing the listener in a "bubble of sound", It’s legit. But just like 4K video capture in a smartphone is really like 1080p on a pro camera, this 11.1.4 soundbar is more like a 7.1.4 system that's based on discrete speakers and an AVR. And that is in fact a huge compliment.

It's important to note, to get the best effect you need the right setup. Not every room will facilitate the proper reflections for the full effect. For that matter, not every ceiling works with reflected-sound Atmos height channels. But, rectangular rooms with flat ceilings do work, especially when the TV or display is centered on a wall—these are the conditions I had for my review.

It may be “subjective” but I have a simple enough way to test the how enveloping a surround system is. Take a video game with surround-sound and a detailed soundscape (for me it’s almost always GTA 5 Online) and have your character spin around 360. A good system will allow all the sounds to rotate around where you are seated, as your character’s perspective changes. You can easily hear if there are gaps. Anyhow, in my living room this soundbar’s soundfield is “complete” in that it totally surrounds me without gaps. And the result can be quite startling when sounds are coming from just about any direction (aside from underneath you).

Movies, and in particular Atmos mixes, sound great on this system. Not “good”… great. Yes, if you throw thousands of dollars at a system, you’ll do better. But, try and beat what this soundbar offers listening experience-wise for the same money, and you’ll find it’s much, much harder and there’s no way it’ll look as good, of fit in front of a TV on a stand.


Conclusion

Samsung helped pioneer Atmos in a soundbar format and each year the company has increased the capability of its top tier soundbar offering, which is notable for the wireless satellites that incorporate up-firing drivers. The HW-Q950A is the fastest and easiest route to getting this many channels of quality surround-sound installed, with a minimum of space taken up. If one simply forgets the marketing claims, and just listens to what this Samsung is doing, the conclusion is clear: It is a Top Choice for 2021 among premium soundbar systems.