(Pocket-lint) - Bouncing sounds off walls or tricking the brain with processing wizardry works to a degree, but nothing can replace actually having speakers at the rear. The Samsung HW-Q90R soundbar kit does exactly that, immersing you in sound thanks to wireless surrounds and four upward-firing drivers.
Indeed, Samsung is the only manufacturer to deliver a genuinely immersive sonic experience from this soundbar. While the competition offers support for object-based audio formats like Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, they do so by using sound projection or psychoacoustics.
The Q90R - which shares its name with the company's top-end QLED TV - builds on the success of 2018's HW-N950 with a beefed-up subwoofer and the addition of active sound modes. A recent price drop also doesn't hurt, making the Q90R an even better option for those who don't want to compromise.
Design: Business as usual
- Main soundbar: 1226 x 83 x 136mm; 8.8kg
- Speakers (ea): 120 x 210 x 144mm; 2.1kg
- Subwoofer: 205 x 403 x 403mm; 9.8kg
- Available in Carbon Silver (black)
The Samsung HW-Q90R looks identical to last year's N950, with a large but surprisingly unobtrusive cabinet. It's designed for bigger TV sizes, but is low enough that it shouldn't block the screen. If you'd rather wall-mount, Samsung provides brackets for that purpose. The 'bar is well made, with metal grilles at the top, front and sides, and a fetching brush metal finish.
There's an LED display at the front, and while it provides basic feedback it's not very informative. This wouldn't be so bad if there was an on-screen display, but absent of one it makes setting up and interacting with the soundbar less than user-friendly. At the top centre are some touch-sensitive controls for power, input selection and volume.
The included wireless rear speakers appear to be identical to last year, too, each well-made with a finish that matches the soundbar itself. The speakers are wireless but do need to plugging in – this powers the built-in amplification driving the surround and rear upward-firing speakers.
The Q90R's wireless subwoofer is the first major difference from last year, with the new boom-box using larger dimensions, intended to improve the bass response and control. This new design retains the rear bass port, side-firing 8-inch driver, and finish that matches the rest of the system.
Connections & Controls
- 2x HDMI input
- Wi-Fi & Bluetooth wireless
- Optical digital audio input
- Included remote control
- Alexa voice control
The provided remote looks very similar to the controller that Samsung includes with its TVs, and that makes a nice change from the easily lost credit card-sized zappers that come with most soundbars. It's ergonomically designed, intuitive to use and includes all the buttons you'll need to effectively control the Q90R.
There are two other methods of control: the SmartThings app and Amazon Alexa. The former makes setting up and controlling the soundbar easier because it bypasses the front display and provides more informative feedback. The latter provides basic hands-free voice control and allows you to listen to music via Spotify Connect.
The Q90R has two HDMI inputs and an output, all of which support 4K/60p, wide colour gamut, and high dynamic range (HDR). Two inputs seems a bit mean considering the price, but on the plus side they support HDR10, HLG, HDR10+, and Dolby Vision, which is more than can be said for most soundbars. Note: Samsung has not added eARC, so there's no support for lossless audio to be sent back via HDMI at present.
The only other physical connection on the HW-Q90R is an optical digital input, but in addition there's also Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. However, there's no support for Chromecast or Apple's AirPlay, with is disappointing at this price point.
Genuine 7.1.4 channel setup
- 7.1.4-channel configuration
- 17 drivers in total
The Samsung HW-Q90R is different from all the competition in that it delivers a genuine 7.1.4-channel immersive audio experience. But what do we mean by that?
Well, the main soundbar has seven speakers built into it: three firing forwards for the front left, right and centre channels; two firing either side to produce the left and right width channels; and two firing upwards to create the front left and right overhead channels. The two wireless speakers each have forward- and upward-firing drivers to deliver the left and right surround and rear height channels, while the wireless subwoofer does all the heavy-lifting at the low-end.
When you add all that up, you've got sounds flying at you from every direction, and it's something that just can't be replicated by reflecting acoustic beams off side walls or applying psychoacoustic sorcery. However there is one caveat: the Q90R creates the overhead channels by literally bouncing sounds off the ceiling, and while this works, for the best results you need a low and reflective surface. So if you've got a vaulted ceiling, this approach is a non-starter.
Complex yet simple setup
Despite its apparent complexity, the Samsung is surprisingly easy to setup. All you need to do is place the soundbar at the front of the room under the TV, stick the surrounds at the back (ideally just to the side and rear of the main listening position) and put the sub at the front (due to the side-firing driver the right hand side is best, but avoid corners).
Actually we'd say the setup can be a bit too simple. A flagship product like this should have some form of automated calibration with internal test tones, a microphone and room equalisation. The Sennheiser Ambeo is a great example of a complex soundbar that boasts an easy-to-use but very sophisticated auto EQ. Samsung basically leaves you to it, and given all the channels involved that can be confusing.
Immersive sound quality
- 512W of built-in amplification
- 34Hz to 17kHz frequency response
- Dolby Atmos and DTS:X decoding
- Hi-Res Audio support
Watching TV shows and movies
That minor gripe aside, the Q90R is an immersive audio sensation. Pop on an aggressively mixed object-based soundtrack like Shazam and the benefits of real immersion are obvious. The effect is simply huge, with a wall of sound at the front of the room that gives the film a real sense of scale. The side channels add much needed width, the surrounds ensure that effects are actually coming from behind, and the use of identical drivers throughout ensures a tonally balanced soundstage.
That movie's Dolby Atmos soundtrack deliberately amps up the immersion during the super-powered scenes, and all the channels are engaged. The result is a hemisphere of sound with lightning crackling all around and above you, while effects fly at you from every direction. The bass also gets dialled up to 11 in these scenes, and the redesigned sub digs deep, delivering a solid low-end foundation without overpowering the rest of the speakers.
The 4K Blu-ray of Jurassic World has a cracking DTS:X soundtrack, allowing the Samsung to really show off. Dinosaurs run across and through the room, while helicopters pass overhead. The Indominus Rex sounds suitably guttural and its roar will almost blow the roof off. The music also sounds fantastic, with the instruments spread across the front of the room, while the dedicated centre channel ensures that dialogue always remains clear and focused on the action.
The Q90R will work in a smaller room, but give it some space and the results are often epic. You can also crank the volume up to unsociable levels without it sounding strained or running out of steam. Crucially this soundbar also delivers the goods at lower volumes, which can prove handy at night. You don't even have to feed the Samsung an Atmos or DTS:X source for it to impress, the 5.1 mixes on Peaky Blinders (BBC) and Mindhunter (Netflix) sound equally as impressive.
There's a host of sound modes available, but the new Adaptive Sound mode is the most interesting. It's very effective at bringing more detail of soundtracks, but tends to work best with sports broadcasts and less dramatic TV shows. For a show like Star Trek: Discovery, the Surround mode is great because it up-mixes the soundtrack to make use of the overhead channels. The Game mode is also useful, and with a Samsung TV it can create a seamless gaming experience.
Listening to music
Finally, the HW-Q90R is also no slouch when it comes to music. While most people considering this soundbar probably have multi-channel audio in mind, the high quality front speakers and well-integrated subwoofer combine to create a detailed stereo presentation that retains excellent localisation and clarity. Whether your source is disc or streaming, stereo or multi-channel, this soundbar is sure to please.
This latest immersive audio sensation from Samsung builds on the success of last year's N950 – but adds exciting new sound modes and a beefed-up subwoofer.
If you're looking for a genuine object-based experience from your favourite Dolby Atmos and DTS:X soundtracks, this is the soundbar to buy. It's well made and has most of the features you'd expect from a soundbar in 2019, except for eARC, which still hasn't materialised several months after it was promised.
It's not exactly cheap, but it's nearly £1,000 less than the Sennheiser Ambeo and it doesn't resort to processing trickery to create the sense of immersion. Feed this soundbar a good multi-channel mix and you'll be rewarded with an epic soundstage that throws effects at you from every conceivable direction. You can drive it hard, but it remains composed at lower volumes. It even sounds good with music, and boasts some useful gaming functions.
If you're in the market for a new soundbar the HW-Q90R should be top of your list, because quite frankly it has no equal. It produces the kind of genuinely immersive experience that single-unit bar and sub combos claim to but never really can.
This article was originally published September 2019 and has been updated to reflect the absence of eARC update
Sennheiser Ambeo Soundbar
Sennheisers all-singing, all-dancing Ambeo Soundbar is the only alternative that comes close to the HW-Q90R. The Ambeo is a single unit solution, which means no rear speakers or even a separate subwoofer, but don't let that put you off. Thanks to state-of-the-art Ambeo processing sounds will be flying all over the room. So if you’re looking for a single-box solution and you've got the budget, this is the soundbar for you.