Budget Bars: Soundbars from Vizio, Samsung, LG, and Harman Kardon Page 2
Vizio, in typical fashion for the company, brings low price and a slightly different design aesthetic to the party. Where the Harman Kardon and Samsung bars go round and the LG goes boxy, the VHT215 is all triangles and corners. Inside are four 2.75-inch midrange drivers and two 0.75-inch tweeters (split between the left and right channels). The wireless subwoofer holds a 6.5-inch woofer. The power for all these drivers isn’t specified, so we’ll say “some.” Two HDMI ins and one out are the big connections, but there’s also one each optical and coaxial digital, and a 3.5mm analog minijack. The remote control is a little smaller than a pack of cigarettes and has all the basic buttons on its front. A hidden slide-out compartment reveals bass, treble, and subwoofer controls, plus input access and SRS mode selection.
The Vizio’s (and also the Samsung’s) HDMI output features Audio Return Channel (ARC). This means that if you have a “smart” TV (like one with Netflix or Hulu Plus built in) that also has an HDMI jack with ARC, you can send the audio back out to the soundbar via the same cable connecting the soundbar and the TV. It also means you can use the TV to switch sources instead of the soundbar.
My first thought upon hearing the VHT215 was: Huh? When manufacturers aim to hit a specific price, adding features usually means diminished performance. But the Vizio is the cheapest soundbar in the group and has HDMI switching, so imagine my shock at hearing the huge sound coming from it. As with all soundbars, the fidelity isn’t as good as what you’d get from a decent pair of bookshelf speakers, but the VHT215 is notable in its lack of significant vices. The Vizio, despite costing one-third as much as the HK, gives it a run for the title of “most listenable.”
I started with music, mostly because it’s far more useful than movies for revealing overall sound quality. Tom Waits’s The Heart of Saturday Night seemed fitting, and “Please Call Me, Baby” has the right mix of piano, vocals, strings, and percussion. For a soundbar, the Vizio’s overall balance was quite decent. Few frequencies really jumped out over others. Vocals sounded a little forward, but they were not as bad as on some of the other soundbars. Bass extended quite low, but it also lacked any real definition.
Billie Holiday’s “You Can’t Lose a Broken Heart,” from The Complete Decca Recordings, starts with some loud horns, and then, of course, you hear her amazing voice. The latter was a little forward-sounding and the brass a bit bitey, but compared with the LG and Samsung, both aspects were quite good.
To hear something harder, I put in the Faces’ “Stay With Me.” Not necessarily a band you’d find in a bar, but I’m also not convinced they weren’t all drunk during every recording session, so close enough. The VHT215 compressed the tune at high volumes, but it was still listenable.
Part of its charm is its SRS TruSurround HD processing. This greatly expands the soundstage both vertically and horizontally, and it also increases depth. I didn’t hear any serious artifacts with it enabled, and I ended up using it in this mode the entire time.
The VHT215 plays pretty loud for the most part, though all of the bars here could be drowned out by a good shout. It could go slightly above a “normal” listening volume, but if you play much higher than that, it starts to distort slightly.
Movies about bars, or people in bars, don’t exactly make for the best audio demos, so I put in John Carter (aka Tim Riggins of Mars). Interestingly, the SRS processing didn’t expand the soundstage as well with movies. It was still big, and better than on the LG or Samsung, but I wasn’t as impressed as I was with music. Also, when the action really got going, the VHT215 couldn’t handle the excitement, distorting and compressing more than the other bars at higher volumes. Its HDMI jacks did pass 1080p video without incident, however.
For $269, the VHT215 is a shockingly good value. It generally performs better than the competition, and it has both HDMI switching and ARC (something that some of the more expensive soundbar systems don’t offer). It plays loud enough, has a big sound, and looks decent, too. If an affordable soundbar is what you’re looking for, look here first.
(2) 0.75-in tweeters,(4) 2.75-in mid/woofers; 40.1 x 4.1 x 2.1 in; 5 lb
6.5-in woofer; 8.5 x 12.8 x 11.3 in; 11 lb