Soundbars occupy the zone between built-in TV sound and full-fledged AVR-based surround sound. Thanks to the simple installation, these slender all-in-one speakers have supplanted the “home theater in a box” as the go-to approach for affordably improving audio fidelity. TV maker Vizio sells a ton of affordable soundbars that sound great for the price. This review is about the 36″ SB3651-E6, which has an MSRP of $249.99 for the 5.1 system but is currently only $199.98 on Amazon.
Features and Specifications
This system consists of a 36″ 3-way soundbar and a “subwoofer” that features a 5.2″ driver. This combo is good for a published frequency response of 50 Hz to 20 kHz, which is roughly what you’d expect from a pair of modest bookshelf speakers. You can read up on the full specs (including format support) of the SB3651-E6 using Vizio’s website by clicking here.
Notably, this soundbar is packed with inputs and that includes one HDMI port. There’s also an HDMI out that supports ARC, for a one-cable connection to your TV. If you don’t use HDMI ARC, you can rely on optical-digital, coaxial-digital and analog stereo 3.5mm connections. This soundbar also has a USB input, plus there’s plenty of wireless connectivity with support for SmartCast functionality and Bluetooth.
You can connect just about anything with all the cables Vizio includes with the 36″ 5.1 SmartCast Soundbar SB3651-E6.
This 36″ soundbar is wrapped in black cloth and a vertical strip of LEDs on the left-hand side provide basic feedback for settings when you use the buttons or remote. With Vizio, you gotta give the credit where it’s due, this is a slick feature set for the price, period. Audio settings let you rename inputs, tweak speaker levels and global EQ, activate or deactivate Night Mode, TruVolume, Surround Sound and choose an EQ preset from Movie, Music or Direct. You can turn audio input (source) detection on and off, decide if you want to control it with a Vizio TV remote, program it to work with another remote, and test speakers with tones. And the user manual is built right into the app, which makes this a thorough yet consumer-friendly system if I’ve ever seen one.
As a SmartCast device with Chromecast built-in the SB3651-E6 features Wi-Fi connectivity. The included infrared remote has a directional pad for menu navigation, a small, monochrome LCD display for adjusting settings and inputs, and dedicated buttons for power, input, volume level and mute. There are also physical buttons on the soundbar that include power, source, Bluetooth and volume up/down. But pragmatically, the way you want to control this soundbar is with the SmartCast app, keep the remote around for quick adjustments but use the app for anything more.
Setup and Performance
You can’t expect miracles from a $250 soundbar, but the capabilities Vizio offers with this model and at this price point are impressive. I misjudged this soundbar because of its price; I expected it to be a simple system and to have a short feature list, but in reality it is full of features that I simply don’t see on other soundbars at the SB3651-E6’s price point.
Foremost, you get legitimate surround-sound thanks to the rear satellites; at this price point competing systems tend to rely exclusively on beamforming to achieve some surround effect. And, the soundbar has three channels, not the two you usually see in the budget soundbar segment.
The satellites come with rather long cords (25 feet) which offer some flexibility in subwoofer placement. This flexibility is handy because you’ll want to find a good spot for it, and since it’s so compact there’s an opportunity to hide it. I put the sub behind my chair, against the back wall.
Physical setup is easy enough, especially thanks to the generous inclusion of all the different cords to support each input type. The instructions take a “good, better, best” approach to describe which connection type to use, with HDMI being the preferred option and optical-digital being the second choice. For connecting to your TV, those two options cover almost any installation I can think of, aside from a vintage television. You must find good spots for the surround speakers, but they are both small and heavy so they fit in tight spots and stay put.
I configured the SB3651-E6 for first use with Vizio’s SmartCast app, which began the process automatically when I placed it close to the soundbar, as depicted in the app’s instructions. Everything flowed from there and in a minute I was connected to Wi-Fi, fully in control of the soundbar. Gotta give the credit where it’s due, this is a slick feature set for the price, period.
The EQ modes are interesting as they are more than just EQ. Whether you use the Surround Sound function or not, using Music or Movie EQ activates the center channel, even with 2-channel music. Both appear to use beamforming to render a wider soundstage than Direct EQ mode, with Movie providing more of an expansion effect. You can then mix this with Surround Sound upmixing to get a good, enveloping, yet not unnatural sound stage for music listening. Better that you expect, I promise.
Some soundbars (including models from Vizio) have more woofer-power packed inside the soundbar chassis. I did not expect any similar behaviour from this soundbar but Vizio went above and beyond the call of duty. Many times, with cheap soundbars, if you place this sub too far off to the side, you may start to localize some bass frequencies due to the high subwoofer crossover point. But this subwoofer is silent above 100 Hz, meanwhile the soundbar keeps making bass right on down to 50 Hz. That, combined with the fact the sub plays clean (no port noise, no distortion) means this system sounds cohesive, more so than Vizio soundbars I reviewed just a few years back.
The sub may work well but it really is quite modest that’s the limiting factor in turning this system up. But I gotta say at comfortable yet spirited output levels things sounded nice and clean.
For an apartment dweller, bedroom system, or a modest living room TV system, the SB3651-E6 36″ SmartCast soundbar brings enough output, enough immersion and enough bass response to make a huge difference over a TV’s built-in speakers. I found that at normal volume levels (i.e. you can talk over it and will not disturb your neighbors) the soundbar did well with the usual batch of test material I use. Grand Theft Auto had a sense of surround and directionality that complemented gameplay. Explosions, and the bass to much of the soundtrack are not exactly what I’m used to from a reference AVR system but are way beyond what I’d even think $250 could get you in a 5.1 system with HDMI.
I’m always a bit shocked and embarrassed when I wind up enjoying listening to music on a soundbar, but that’s what happened here. I tried out the progressive rock classic Skylarking by XTC, which I’ve heard on every stereo and every pair of headphones I’ve owned since I had a paper route back in 1986. I found the Direct mode by far the most preferable as it sounded the most natural, there was no need or need to meddle with that sound. But I did like having Surround Sound turned on, it expanded things a bit without messing with the sound. Nobody’s going to mistake this for a million-dollar stereo system, but I’m not sure the “spend $250 on a pair of powered speakers instead” argument can be made anymore.
W:/2016ALBUM/ by Deadmau5 need not sound “authentic” it just needs to bump and come across as massive. Here, the Music EQ mode turned in a great performance, sweeping me into the song more completely than any system at this price has the right to, and it’s a more satisfying than headphones. I can’t emphasize how clean this little sub is, it’s invisible and tight and it bumps. Turning off Surround Sound took away the expansiveness but the track still sounded good, ah the miracles of DSP.
Schoolboy Q’s Blankface EP also came across great in Music EQ with Surround Sound, which turned out to be my go-to for music streaming. With Chromecast built in, it’s all to easy to play music on the SB3651-E6 all day and night.
Of course you will use a soundbar to watch TV and movies and here it does not miss a beat, either. I mostly stream UHD movies these days, with some sports mixed in. I enjoyed the thick, trippy soundtrack of Annihilation, but again turned to Music EQ, instead of Movie. I guess… I think that’s my Goldilocks zone for soundstage expansion. Anyhow, there’s plenty of clarity to go around and I may understate how much you can turn it up and still get undistorted sound. Just a note, this soundbar’s volume control will let you push it too far, so use discretion.
This soundbar shows how refining a proven design that focuses on essential elements while eschewing frivolity can pay off, especially when a product is widely distributed so you have an economy of scale on your side, too. That’s what Vizio’s got going with its soundbars and most definitely the SB3651-E6 slots in as one of the least expensive ways anyone can quickly add some surround sound plus better bass to their TV.
This is an entry level 5.1 model for Vizio and the company offers a lot of other soundbar options. So, if you are looking for an AVR alternative, this system will not be it, and is priced accordingly. But for those more modest systems that just need something affordable and easy and decent to upgrade built-in TV sound, while adding wireless streaming to the mix with SmartCast, the SB3651-E6 is worth a look. It sounds way better than I expected and looks good too. When you consider the totality of its feature set and its price there’s no way to avoid the obvious conclusion, it is a “Top Choice” in the ultra-budget 5.1 segment.
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