Soundbars represent a conundrum for budding AV enthusiasts—is buying one a cop-out? Or is it the first step to appreciating what home theater has to offer? The answer depends on who's buying the system. If you've never owned asubwoofer in your life, and you use your TV's speakers to listen to movie soundtracks, then a 5.1 soundbar system is a serious upgrade. On the other hand, many AV enthusiasts look at the limitations of soundbars with disdain for the compromises in sound quality that the form factor demands.

If sound quality is a high priority, an AVR-based system with carefully chosen speakers is a good approach. When space limitations, budget, and aesthetics enter the equation, sometimes a full-fledged 5.1 or 7.1 system is simply not an option. In addition, the rules of domestic audio acceptance dictate that visible cables are largely unacceptable, both aesthetically and as a matter of complexity. It's a real plus if a modern soundbar-based audio system includes wireless connectivity.

A few months ago, I had a chance to audition one such system based on Sonos components—a Sonos PlayBar, a SonosSub , and a pair of Sonos Play:1 speakers pulling surround duty. However, there were many limitations to that system—for example, it only provides an optical S/PDIF input—and the price was not exactly pocketbook-friendly.

Enter Vizio, the US-based company that's best known for its high-performance, low-cost TVs. Vizio has another claim to fame—in the US market, it sells the most soundbars of any brand. At CES 2014, I checked out Vizio 's audio offerings as well as its new TVs, and what I heard was surprisingly good, so I agreed to audition a Vizio soundbar-based 5.1 system at home. A box containing just such a system—the S3851W-D4—arrived at my doorstep last week, and I've spent a bit of quality time listening to it.

Vizio's soundbar system came in an oddly-shaped box that accomodates the subwoofer

The subwoofer itself is wireless, and it powers the rear speakers, which connect to the sub with wires. While the "wired to the sub" approach is not as elegant as the (almost) entirely wireless Sonos system, even those speakers needed to be plugged in for power, so they were merely wireless, not cordless. Moreover, like any soundbar, the Sonos PlayBar still requires a physical connection to the TV. Vizio's approach provides most of the benefits of an all-wireless system, likeSonos, at a considerably lower price point. Now, I'm not saying it matched the sound quality of the Sonos rig, but setup was quick and easy for both systems, and I found Vizio's approach very well considered. For example, the provided speaker cables for the surround channels are quite long (25 feet each), making it easy to place the sub wherever you want.

My first thought when I fired up the Vizio soundbar was, "Uh oh, what have I gotten myself into?" I played a few tracks from my laptop using the analog stereo input—I appreciate that Vizio includes cables for each of the soundbar's inputs, including analog (1/8" to RCA) as well as digital TosLink optical and S/PDIF coaxial (RCA). It even offers support for Bluetooth audio. Vizio's soundbar does not provide an HDMI input, but at its price point, I would not expect that.

Vizio made sure the box contains a cable for every kind of connection the soundbar supports

Initially, the sound coming out of the system was rather midbass-heavy—I could easily hear the subwoofer's location, and the surround channels were far too loud compared to the soundbar itself. Clearly, the default settings were not appropriate for my room. In fact, I am not sure the initial settings are appropriate for any room, but that's the nature the beast.

The first thing I did was allow for mechanical break-in on the system's drivers—nothing fancy, just an hour of pink noise to loosen up any mechanical stiffness. Then, I used the "Speaker Test" feature to set levels; it only took a couple of minutes to dial in a much better balance. One thing I found was that the subwoofer module was surprisingly competent at belting out bass. It's not capable of reproducing tons of very deep bass, but it is a real subwoofer—punchy and accurate enough to handle music as well as movie soundtracks. In fact, playing Daft Punk's "Doing It Right" from the album Random Access Memories provided a mini thrill ride as I kept anticipating that the little sub would choke on the bass line , but it didn't.

Vizio's soundbar uses small full-range drivers, in this picture you can see one of the two the front-facing bass ports on thesoundbar

When playing music, the 38-inch Vizio sounded better with surround sound turned off. I'd pin that on the small size of thesurround speakers, but also on the fact there is no distance adjustment for the rear channels. The result is a fuzzy soundfield that sounds expansive, but a bit artificial. With surround turned off, music sounded more natural—the highlight of the soundbar's performance was the relatively accurate bass reproduction coming out of the diminutive sub. When I measured the subwoofer's output, I was surprised to find that it exceeded the company's own published specs—Vizio says the sub is good for bass down to 50 Hz, but I heard and measured usable output down to 35 Hz.

Vizio's surprisingly capable compact subwoofer , with the grill taken off

I didn't spend too much time listening to 2-channel music; after all, it is a TV-centric device with surround-sound capabilities. Plus, it can't replicate the soundfield of a decent 2.0 or 2.1 stereo system with optimally placed speakers. Even a sub-$20, 15-watt Lepai amp connected to a pair of Pioneer bookshelf speakers using a retired iPhone as a source outperforms Vizio's soundbar when it comes to 2-channel music reproduction. However, that was hardly a surprise; fans of 2-channel music consider soundbars anathema to proper audio reproduction.

As I mentioned earlier, this soundbar does not include HDMI; it relies on a S/PDIF (optical or coaxial) connection. That limits surround-sound decoding to compressed formats, namely Dolby Digital and DTS. This isn't a system for Blu- ray fanatics who insist on ultimate fidelity and uncompressed audio, but it's great for watching surround-encoded videos on Netflix, iTunes , and other online services that offer it—as well as cable and broadcast TV. Of course, it'll also handle DVD and Blu-ray soundtracks, and it was surprisingly competent at that task.

Since Vizio's soundbar can't compete with a decent pair of bookshelf speakers when it comes to music, I spent most of my time testing its performance as a 5.1 surround system for watching TV and movies. That's where the Vizio's dedicated rear channels ought to make the most difference, and they did. There are a lot of soundbars that offer fake surround, and Yamaha even makes a few "sound projector " soundbars that can bounce sound beams around a room to create a true 5.1 soundfield. Vizio opted for actual surround speakers, and when the system plays real multichannel content, that decision pays off.

Vizio's surround speakers are very compact, but they get the job done better than any synthetic surround processing I've heard on a soundbar

In order to test the full capabilities of the Vizio, I played my go-to reference scene for evaluating surround sound and dynamic range—the helicopter-attack scene near the end of Skyfall. I connected the soundbar directly to my Sony BDP-S5100 Blu-ray player using the coaxial S/PDIF connection. I also had my main system connected via HDMI, and I set the volume so that the average decibel level was (approximately) the same on the two systems—I measured under a half-decibel difference during dialog. Then, I used the mute button to switch between the two.

While the Vizio was no match for my 2500-watt main system, it was a bit more compelling with 5.1 movie soundtracks than it was with music. In fact, I would describe the sound as immersive, punchy, and crisp. Dialog was clear, and the subwoofer accentuated the action scenes by adding just the right amount of slam to explosions and gunshots. The Vizio soundbar achieved surprisingly high sound levels without distorting. In fact, I maxed out the volume using the provided remote and measured 90 dB peaks from my main listening position during the most intense action, yet the soundbarshowed no signs of stress. Finally, the surround effects were distinct and easy to pinpoint.

Many soundbar owners will use their TV as the primary audio source. To test that sort of connection, I hooked thesoundbar up to my Vizio M3D550KD HDTV using the optical S/PDIF cable that came in the box. It worked as advertised; with the TV's remote controlling volume. I detected no difference between using the TV as a source, and connecting the soundbar directly to a Blu-ray player. Not all TVs output 5.1 audio; however, if yours does then this soundbar offers full surround-sound capability. My TV has both Dolby Digital and PCM as output options; the Dolby Digital 5.1 stream worked as advertised.

If I have one major complaint about this (or any) soundbar, it's the constrained front soundstage—if a sound panned from left to right or vice versa, it barely moved away from the center. I suspect that a physically wider soundbar would help to remedy that issue. (Vizio makes a 54-inch version.) As it was with music, with movies the soundbar can't compete with the soundfield created by optimally placed speakers.

Considering the size, price, ease of setup, and compactness of the Vizio S3851W-D4 , it's hard for me to be too critical of its shortcomings when compared to a full-sized system. The gap between this system and a full-sized 5.1-channel rig as about as large as the gap between a TV's built-in speakers and a soundbar. It represents a big step up in sound quality for someone who has never owned a surround-sound system before, and it's an economical, space-saving alternative to traditional AVR-based 5.1 systems. Although it is a compromise in terms of overall audio fidelity, especially when compared to a full-sized system, the Vizio's performance was more than good enough for movie watching, and it can handle music in a pinch. When you factor price into the equation, it even starts to look like a bargain. If a 38-inch soundbar is the right solution for your audio needs, Vizio's S3851W-D4 is worth consideration.

Vizio expects to ship its 38-inch 5.1 soundbar package in late July 2014 at a price of $279.99.