(Pocket-lint) - Sound is a bigger part of your home entertainment setup than you might initially give it credit. Well, you know that, because you're interested in a Dolby Atmos soundbar, a way of bringing the latest in cinema surround sound excitement into your home in a compact form.
Dolby Atmos at its inception was characteristed by speakers surrounding not only the walls but the ceiling too, in expansive half-dome cinema setups to recreate a truly dynamic sound stage with immersive sweeping surround sound effects.
For the home the Atmos take is different. Indeed, the Samsung K950 - as one of the first generation of Atmos soundbars - is intent on making surround sound audio easier in a home setup, without needing to drill holes or connect dozens of speakers to various surfaces.
Achievement unlocked: Atmos audio couldn't be simpler than with the Samsung HW-K950.
Samsung HW-K950 review: Design
- Soundbar, subwoofer and two rear speakers included
- 1,210 x 81 x 131mm soundbar dimensions
- Upfiring speakers create Atmos soundscape
The Samsung HW-K950 can offer Dolby Atmos sound because it offers a wide range of drivers firing in a range of different directions. The main soundbar has speakers not only aligned along the front - divided into a common left, right and centre arrangement - but also diagonally positioned in the top.
It's these top speakers that fire upwards, to bounce sound off the ceiling and give the sound stage the height and overhead characteristics of Atmos. Incorporating those speakers also means that this soundbar is perhaps more basic in design than many others - and larger too.
The HW-K950 soundbar is big and presented as a rather rectangular block. There are some minor touches to reduce the hard corners and edges, but we doubt this soundbar would progress far in a beauty pageant. That said, it's solidly built, with the quality of build you'd expect at this price.
Both the front and top are grille covered, as you need to let that sound out without obstruction, while the black finish appears serious and unfussy. The ends are metal, with a range of button controls on the right-hand end, which, in reality, you'll probably never use, but look smart enough.
There's an LED screen on the front to display the input, sound mode or volume, which fades to invisibility behind the grille once you've made your selections.
The final flourish is a blue indicator at the right-hand end of the soundbar that will light up when you have a Dolby Atmos source, just so you know everything is doing what it should.
The rear channel speakers are wireless, as is the subwoofer, the latter the standard ominous black lump. Those rear speakers, however, like the soundbar, have a driver on the top to fire diagonally upwards, creating the rear parts of the overhead soundscape.
As wireless units, you simply have to plug them in - all parts automatically detect and connect without fuss. There are brackets for wall-mounting, as well as the option for stands for the rear speakers, which might be the easiest way to get them into an ideal position in your room.
There are also a couple of cunning little nipples on the underside of the soundbar. These align perfectly with the Y-shaped stand of Samsung's top TVs, meaning that you can place it right in front of these TVs, sitting on the stand.
Samsung HW-K950 review: Connections and setup
- Mains power required for sub and each speaker
- Rear speakers wirelessly connect
- Stand connection with top-end Samsung TVs
As we've just mentioned, setup of the system is as easy as taking it all out of the box and plugging it in. The main soundbar connects to your TV and other devices, the subwoofer and two rear speakers just need connecting to the power. We've been using the HW-K950 for over a month at the time of writing and we've had no dropout or disconnection, which gets a big tick in our book.
Accordingly, those rear speakers have coloured LED indicators, which are blue when connected, red when not. If you don't have the soundbar on, it's red that you'll see. These are very subtle and discreet, so don't worry about having a room full of coloured lights when you're watching the latest blockbuster movie.
The soundbar itself offers some essential connections. There's the optical audio option you'd expect, but it's also equipped with two HDMI inputs, and one HDMI output which supports ARC audio return from your TV. This takes care of things like your TV's internal tuner, or perhaps apps like Netflix or Amazon Video, feeding that sound back to your soundbar without delay.
As the HW-K950 supports 4K passthrough, the idea is that you connect your devices through the soundbar so it can handle the audio and pass the video on to your TV. We connected it to Samsung's Ultra HD Blu-ray player, the K8500 and through to the KS8000 TV and this next-gen combo sings in harmony very happily.
With ARC and passthrough you have numerous options for connecting your devices, but passthough isn't passive, you have to have the soundbar turned on for it to work. If you connect directly to your TV, you can use the TV's speakers - not that you'd really want to.
The connections are on the rear underside of the soundbar, in a cut-out section, and that means there are no plugs jutting out the rear, so it's still wall-mountable. There are no cables supplied, so you'll have to provide your own, remembering that if you are connecting 4K devices, some of your older cables might not support the latest standards - just check you're using a high-speed HDMI cable.
The other aspect of setup is speaker positioning. Naturally, the soundbar is designed to sit centrally under your TV. The rear channels, however, will want to be behind you. You can place them to the side of your seating position, but you'll find the effect is dampened quite considerably compared with having them properly behind and angled.
That might present some limitations: if your sofa is against the back wall and you can't get the speakers farther back, you're not getting the full experience. If you can place your favourite armchair in the sweetspot for movie watching, you can get round that, but this is a consideration for anyone looking at this sort of audio system.
Samsung HW-K950 review: Wow time performance
- 15 speakers within four piece setup
- 500W total power
- 5.1.4 channels
Dolby Atmos might be something rather special when it comes to the cinema, but it's more common than you might think. There are already a lot of Blu-ray discs offering Dolby Atmos, but if you're yet to have an Atmos system, you'll probably never really have looked for it.
Some of the latest Ultra HD Blu-ray discs offer it, like Mad Max Fury Road, which seems to be the poster child of the next-gen Blu-ray. Slip that disc in and your room comes to life as you're hit with the full effect of that immersive Dolby Atmos experience and the crisp and rich Ultra HD Blu-ray visuals.
The HW-K950 comes to life when fed an Atmos source, creating a dome of sound that envelops and draws you into the movie. Equipped with 15 speakers in a 5.1.4 configuration, there's some 500W of power and this is put to good effect, punching out the bass when it's needed, filling the room with detail and giving you a soundstage that will put a big smile on your face.
At first we were sceptical about whether the K950 was going to be able to really recreate this wider, immersive effect. But it does work: put a child or a dog into the sweet spot and you'll see them follow the sound around the room (that's science for you).
Some of this you'll get from surround sound, some you'll get from good stereo, but the way you then have the sound of a drip that appears to be hanging in mid-air, where there's no speakers, confirms you're getting sucked into the Atmos action.
There's control for the levels of each of the different set of speakers. The subwoofer is easy enough thanks to a dedicated button on the remote, so if you want to crank up the bass when listening to music, or turn it down at night, it's easy to do.
Changing the levels of the other speakers takes a little effort as the only display you have is the scrolling LED display on the front of the soundbar - and we can't help feeling that some sort of HDMI overlay would make things much easier, so you can see the settings on your TV and make changes as you need.
That said, when you're pumping Dolby content out of the soundbar, you probably don't need to change anything. Both the Atmos and surround sound effects are really effective.
The hole in the HW-K950's skills is with DTS Master Audio. There's no native support in the soundbar, meaning that any Blu-rays you have that come with this audio format will only play in stereo. That's a massive shame, because flicking through our collection, many discs are DTS Master Audio encoded. If you want to play them you'll have to find another route to decoding and repackaging if you want surround sound. Some Blu-ray players will do this for you, but it's something of a compromise.
The Samsung HW-K950 offers an easy option for getting Dolby Atmos in your front room with minimal fuss. Saving you from the need to install ceiling speakers or anything else, you'll be up and running with Atmos in about 15 minutes. Offering 4K passthrough and its own HDMI ports, the K950 will sit at the centre of your home entertainment system feeding you wonderful immersive sound.
The design might be a little less exciting than some soundbars, but that's mostly down to the need to provide space to the top-firing speakers. Some might baulk at the £1,299 asking price, but as an effective one-box solution (plus subwoofer and rear speakers), without the hassle of getting involved with a full system of separate speakers and a receiver, that's a price that's worth paying.
The only real downside is the lack of DTS Master Audio support, meaning that while you'll get exhilarating 360-degree audio from some Blu-rays, a large number of the latest discs will play in rather flat stereo.
Samsung HW-K950: Alternatives to consider
It's early days for Atmos soundbars, with the only alternative at present coming from Philips. It's a cheaper overall solution, in a 5.1.2 arrangement - meaning no rear speakers come as part of this kit, but you do get a subwoofer.