(Pocket-lint) - The Vizio SB36512-F6 is a competitively-priced soundbar system that delivers a genuine Dolby Atmos experience thanks to the inclusion of upward-firing drivers, a wireless subwoofer and a pair of wired rear speakers.

All this means it doesn't need to resort to psychoacoustic trickery to immerse you in object-based audio, making it a potential one-stop home cinema solution. It's very fairly priced, too, but does it cut any corners to make all that possible?

Industrial aesthetic

  • Soundbar: 914 x 64 x 81mm; 2.54kg
  • Subwoofer: 177 x 290 x 290mm
  • Satellites: 68 x 145 x 65mm

The Vizio SB36512-F6 keeps things simple with an unassuming and somewhat boxy design. The soundbar itself is wrapped in black fabric, with grey metallic plates at either end. These are embossed with the Vizio logo and sport screws in each corner, creating a machined look. It's ideal for 55-inch TVs and smaller.

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Along the top of the soundbar are basic controls for power, input, Bluetooth and volume up/down. The soundbar's display – for want of a better word – consists of a series of coloured LEDs down the left-hand side. The manual provides detailed explanations for all the different combinations, but good luck remembering any of them.

The included wireless subwoofer retains the same industrial aesthetic, with black wrap-around fabric, grey metallic sides, and matching logos and screws. The same look applies to the wired rear speakers, which come with colour-coded 8m cables. Both the soundbar and the satellites can be wall mounted, with Vizio including a template and brackets for both.

Features

  • 5.1.2-channel audio
  • Dolby Atmos
  • Wireless active subwoofer
  • Wired passive rear speakers

The Vizio SB36512-F6's main feature is its ability to deliver a genuinely immersive Dolby Atmos experience using actual speakers, rather than resorting to artificial processing. To achieve this it sports three forward-firing drivers for the front left, right and centre, along with two upward-firing drivers that literally bounce sounds off the ceiling, creating the illusion of speakers overhead.

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The wireless active subwoofer employs a 6-inch forward-firing driver to generate low frequencies down to 40Hz. It doesn't just do all the bass heavy lifting, but also provides amplification for the wired rear speakers, which are connected using the provided cables. Having satellite speakers at the back of the room is important, creating an encompassing surround sound field.

The SB36512-F6 can decode Dolby Atmos object-based audio, but also handles less immersive formats like Dolby Digital and DTS. Sadly it doesn't support DTS:X, despite including sufficient speakers to effectively deliver this alternative to Atmos. But in reality it's Atmos that dominates object-based audio.

Vizio provides everything you need to quickly and easily setup your system, including HDMI, optical digital, and 3.5mm to stereo phono cables. The wired rear speakers might not appeal to everyone because running cables around the living room is never popular, but on the plus side they won't suffer from drop-outs, which sometimes happens with wireless surrounds. 

Connections and controls

  • 1x HDMI input; HDMI-ARC output
  • 1x optical digital input; 1 x 3.5mm input; 1 x USB
  • Wi-Fi; Bluetooth
  • SmartCast Mobile app (iOS/Android)

The Vizio SB36512-F6 houses all its connections in recesses at the rear of the soundbar. The HDMI connections support 4K/60p HDR (that's high dynamic range - including the Dolby Vision format), and the HDMI-ARC output allows you to send audio back from a compatible TV (including Dolby Atmos from built-in apps). Finally there's USB (MP3 and WAV), along with Bluetooth and Wi-Fi for wireless streaming.

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The single HDMI input isn't unusual at this price point, but limits the number of lossless Dolby Atmos sources you can connect directly to the SB36512-F6. You can still connect additional sources to your TV's HDMI inputs and send the audio back to the soundbar via ARC; but without support for eARC this audio won't be lossless and you won't get the full benefits of Atmos.

The soundbar comes with a well-designed remote control that includes a small LED screen at the top, allowing you to scroll through the settings in the menu system. However the best approach is to use Vizio's SmartCast Mobile App (iOS and Android), which not only eliminates any need to use the annoying display, but also makes setup more intuitive thanks to a clearly laid out interface.

Genuine immersion

The Vizio SB36512-F6 might have a relatively limited set of features compared to the competition – with no multi-room capabilities or built-in smart assistants – but it delivers where it counts. It's also worth taking the time to set this system up properly, because you can actually adjust the channels independently. This is a particularly useful feature that's often missing from more expensive models. 

The SB36512 is certainly able to produce a front soundstage that feels much wider than its size would suggest, and there's some decent stereo imaging from the left and right speakers. The dedicated centre channel ensures dialogue remains clear and focused on the screen; the rears provide plenty of surround activity behind you; and the subwoofer lays down a solid foundation of bass

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While it's good news that the Vizio is using upward-firing drivers to create the overhead effects, their effectiveness will largely depend on your ceiling – the lower and more reflective it is the better. Vizio recommends a flat ceiling with a height of between 2.2 and 3.6m for the best overhead effects. The effective sweet spot is also relatively small, so bear that in mind. 

However, when you combine all these speakers the result is a genuinely immersive sonic experience, particularly with Dolby Atmos. The SB36512-F6 makes full use of those rear speakers that differentiate it from much of the competition, skilfully placing effects in three-dimensional space, and creating a hemisphere of sound that extends to the sides, behind and above you.

The steering of sounds around the room is pleasingly precise, and the overall presentation retains a balanced tonal cohesion that ensures effects sound the same as they move from one channel to the next. The subwoofer is also smoothly integrated with the rest of the soundstage, ensuring it delivers impact where needed, without swamping the system with bass. 

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This soundbar might struggle in a larger room but it's ideal for the average living space, with enough power to lend Godzilla: King of the Monsters suitable scale. The sub gives the battling behemoths plenty of heft, and explosions hit with a force that's seismic. Effects move seamlessly from speaker to speaker, but no matter how chaotic the action, dialogue retains clarity.

The height channels help make the various monsters in that movie seem larger, while aircraft seemingly roar above you in the battle sequences. These effects tend to be focused at the front of the room because there are no rear height channels, but overall the SB36512-F6 delivers an authentic Atmos experience that's sure to please anyone looking for full-on surround sound.

The front speakers ensure this 'bar sounds good with music as well, producing excellent stereo imaging that's combined with a detailed and clear reproduction. The sub adds a well-timed low-end kick to percussion, and there's an exacting precision to the location of individual instruments. The mid-range is uncongested, while the higher frequencies never sound sharp or strained. 

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There's a choice of direct, movie, music and night modes – all of which are self-explanatory. There's also a useful volume leveller to mitigate loud advert breaks. The surround mode up-mixes non-immersive material, using all the available channels to give regular soundtracks a more open and expansive presence that creates the illusion of greater immersion.

Verdict

Its looks might be a tad industrial, but the Vizio delivers excellent sound – resulting in an engaging and entertaining three-dimensional experience for your 55-inch or smaller telly. So whether it's a TV show, movie or music, the results are sure to please.

However, the lack of DTS:X is a disappointing omission, the wired rear speakers might put some off, and the front LED display is frustrating in the extreme to comprehend.

Overall the Vizio SB36512-F6 is an impressively capable Dolby Atmos system which manages to deliver a genuinely immersive soundstage from a compact and well-thought-out package. It's exceptional value for money too.

Also consider 

Samsung

Samsung HW-Q800T

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This includes support for both Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, and like the Vizio it delivers an immersive experience using upward-firing drivers. The Samsung doesn't come with rear channels, although you can buy optional wireless speakers, but it does include eARC support and built-in Amazon Alexa. This particular 'bar and sub combo not only sounds fantastic, but is also attractively designed and well put-together, helping to justify its higher price tag.

Writing by Steve Withers. Editing by Mike Lowe.