When I reviewed Vizio's $270, 38-inch, 5.1 soundbar system a few months ago, I complained about the constrained front soundstage that results from having the speakers so close to each other. Several members suggested that I review the company's $400, 54-inch soundbar , stating that the additional width makes a real difference when it comes to stereo imaging. Because the 54-inch soundbar includes numerous performance upgrades versus the 38-inch version, I decided to give it a listen.

Vizio's 54-incher offers a size and performance upgrade versus the 38-inch model I tested a few months ago.

Features

Spending an extra hundred $130 on Vizio's 54-inch soundbar buys more than 16 inches of extra width. The wider model includes an HDMI input, a beefier subwoofer—8" instead of 6"—and larger surround speakers. With the wider model, you get significantly improved performance for a relatively modest increase in price.

The 54-inch soundbar's subwoofer (on the right) is larger and digs deeper than the 38-incher's sub (on the left).

The 54-inch soundbar decodes both Dolby Digital and DTS Digital Surround. It is unique among Vizio's 5.1 soundbars in that it uses a custom method to expand 2-channel content into surround-sound: Vizio Sound Matrix. Vizio's smaller 5.1soundbars use DTS Circle Surround instead.

Inputs include HDMI with ARC (audio return channel), Bluetooth, USB, digital coaxial, digital optical, analog RCA, and an analog 3.5mm mini jack. The soundbar also supports HDMI pass-through, including 3D—it added no perceptible delay when I tried it with video games.

Ergonomics

The remote control features an integrated monochrome LCD that shows menu items and related settings. It's small and lacks any type of backlight, making it tough to use at night. On the other hand, the remote is very easy to use with a simple layout.

The remote features a simple layout and a built-in LCD display.

The soundbar itself offers buttons for power, input selection, Bluetooth pairing, and volume adjustment. The buttons are located on the back of the unit, so they are out of sight and out of mind. The upshot is the clean look of the front of the Vizio—it virtually disappears thanks to its clean and simple design.

Physical buttons to control power, input, Bluetooth, and volume are all located on the back of the unit.
The graphical display is minimalist—a row of twelve white LEDs on the bottom left of the unit. One LED stays on to indicate that it is powered up. When you use the remote control to adjust menu options, the LEDs interactively indicate the chosen levels by lighting up.

The Vizio 54-incher is wall-mountable; it also features rubber pads for secure placement on a TV stand .

Setup

The S5451w-C2 was a cinch to set up. I connected it to my HTPC and to my Samsung PN64F8500 plasma—using HDMI cables—in a HTPC to soundbar to TV configuration. I placed the subwoofer against the back wall of my studio, behind my couch, and plugged it in.

The subwoofer connects to the soundbar wirelessly and automatically; it powers the wired rear speakers, which connect via the supplied 25-foot cables. While the "wired to the sub" approach is not as elegant as some wireless systems—Sonos, for example—even those surround speakers need to be plugged in for power, so they were merely wireless, not cordless.

Once the soundbar, sub, and surround speakers were in place, I adjusted channel levels using the soundbar's built-in test tone. I managed to get all the channels to within approximately 1 dB of each other, when measured at my main listening position.

Performance

Of course, the main question is, how does it sound? In order to perform the best possible comparison between the two, I asked Vizio to let me hang on to the 38-incher until I finished the review of the 54-inch model.

A close-up view of an active driver and passive bass radiator from the 54" soundbar .

I found the larger surround speakers improved the overall performance of the system; they were a better match for the capabilities of the soundbar itself compared to the 38-inch model's surrounds. Also, the extra width of the 54-incher had a positive effect on the front-channel stereo separation. It is an improvement over its smaller sibling.

The 54-inch Vizio strikes me as the right tool for the job if you are looking to boost dialog clarity and enjoy surround sound
with quality bass—especially if space is at a premium. In a pinch, it can rock at surprisingly high volume—I suspect it could even handle party duties in an apartment or condominium.

At CEDIA 2014 , Dolby held an excellent Atmos demonstration for AVS members, and everyone who attended received an Atmos demo disc. Although my system is not Atmos-enabled yet, one of the beautiful things about the format is its backward compatibility. Because I've already seen and heard the same content in over a dozen different home-theater setups—ten of them at CEDIA 2014 —the Dolby clips are an exceptional reference point.

With Dolby's clips, the 54-inch model created a surprisingly immersive soundfield . The front sound stage was limited to the width of the soundbar itself; nevertheless, it was an improvement over the 38-inch model's smaller front stage. As a bonus, the front soundstage matched the width of my 64-inch TV. The larger Vizio's rear surrounds are much better speakers than the ones that come with the 38-incher, with better timbre matching and higher output, resulting in greater immersion.

I noticed something else about the 54-inch Vizio—music sounded as good or better with surround-sound turned on. That was not the case with the 38-inch model, where the difference between the front and rear speakers created a distraction. When playing 2-channel music, the 54-inch model sounds natural with surround-sound turned on or off—when it's on, thesurround speakers helped expand the stereo image to fill the room without sounding artificial. I preferred the way Vizio Sound Matrix expanded audio versus the DTS Circle Surround expansion featured on the 38-inch model, although I suspect the larger surround speakers also helped improve the quality of the effect.

The Dolby Atmos demo disc includes a surround-encoded mix of an Enrique Iglesias video for the song "Bailando." It serves as a reference because, at CEDIA 2014 , it was something of a crowd favorite. Plus, it's a lot longer than the Dolby trailers. In addition, it's music as opposed to sound effects that are designed to show off surround systems. The soundbardid a better job than I expected, even when I turned off the surround sound, but it's still no substitute for a decent AVR-based surround system.

Dolby's Unfold trailer is very short, but it gives any system a full workout in under 25 seconds. The sound effects are such that you can visualize the soundfield. It confirmed what I already knew—a soundbar's width remains a limiting factor. I wrapped up my testing by playing a few scenes from Transformers: Age of Extinction through the Vizio , and the system handled it very well. 3D HDMI pass-through worked like a charm with my Samsung F8500 plasma. The soundfield was cohesive and immersive, and the improved subwoofer performed extremely well during explosion-heavy action scenes. I think Vizio did a really great job tuning the 54-inch 5.1 system for multichannel Blu-ray playback. I streamed a portion of Transformers via my HTPC, and it sounded about as good as the Blu-ray.

Transformers: Age of Extinction showed off the Vizio's surround-sound capabilities.

Conclusion

For $400, the Vizio S5451w-C2 5.1 soundbar system performs better than any built-in TV speakers I've heard. The 8" wireless subwoofer produces bass that is on par with entry-level standalone models, it digs deep and plays clean. The inclusion of an HDMI input means it plays nice with Blu-ray players; not all TVs
output surround-sound via theiroptical/coaxial digital outputs. It is both clear-sounding and loud, which is all I'd ever ask of such an appliance.

Importantly, the upgraded performance of the 54-inch model helps to justify the $130 premium over the 38-incher. If you are trying to decide between Vizio's 38-inch and 54-inch 5.1 soundbar systems, the 54-inch model is worth the extra money, regardless of what size TV it's paired with. Aesthetically, it's a better match for larger TVs than the 38-inch model. For anyone who desires a genuine 5.1 surround-sound experience without breaking the bank or cluttering up a room with speakers and wires, Vizio's 54-inch soundbar is a good choice.

I'll have both units in my studio for another two weeks or so. The S5451w-C2 is already shipping and sells for $400. If you have any questions about either Vizio soundbar, let me know.

Equipment
Sony BDP-S5100 Blu-ray player
DIY PC running Windows 8
Samsung Galaxy S4 (Bluetooth)
Samsung PN64F8500 plasma