(Pocket-lint) - The Sennheiser Ambeo soundbar is the company's first speaker-based product to include its immersive audio technology, and as such is an obvious statement of intent. Sennheiser has taken an uncompromising approach to the Ambeo's design, creating what is intended to be the best single-box solution and possibly the best single-box soundbar ever made.
The Ambeo supports object-based audio in the form of Dolby Atmos, DTS:X and even the relatively obscure MPEG-H. It uses 13 high-end drivers in a cabinet so big it puts some floorstanding speakers to shame, and includes an HDMI 2.1 output with support for eARC audio passthrough, along with the the ability to pass HDR10+ and Dolby Vision high dynamic range formats.
The question is: does the Ambeo's sound quality justify its hefty price tag? Well, there's only one way to find out…
Design: We're gonna need a bigger room
- Brushed aluminium cabinet, available in matte black
- Dimensions: 1265 x 125 x 171mm
- Weighs: 18.5kg
OK, let's get this out of the way right up front: the Sennheiser Ambeo is the biggest soundbar we've ever seen. While it's clearly intended to be used with large screen TVs, it's so big you could even use it in conjunction with a projector screen.
The reason for all this girth is simple: the bigger the cabinet, the bigger the speakers; and the bigger the speakers, the better the sound. Sennheiser has crammed no less than 13 high-end drivers into this enormous soundbar, delivering a claimed 5.1.4 channel performance.
The downside to this approach is that the Ambeo is 125mm high (135mm if you attach the optional feet), which means it will block the screen if placed in front of a TV. So you'll have to get creative in terms of installation and position the soundbar lower down or mount it on the wall.
The latter approach requires buying an optional bracket for £50, and given the Ambeo isn't just big but weighs a hefty 18.5kg, you'll need to ensure your wall can actually support it. You'll also need to keep the front, sides and top clear of any obstructions so the speakers can beam sounds in every direction.
The build quality is exceptional, with a brushed aluminium cabinet and a sensible matte black finish. There's a black fabric grille that wraps around the front and sides; pop it off and you're confronted by a seriously impressive array of speakers. The two upward-firing drivers are on the top, behind permanently attached metallic mesh grilles.
Despite its size, the design of the Ambeo is a masterclass in minimalism. With the grille attached, the only features on the front are the OLED display and status indicator in the middle, and an illuminated Ambeo logo on the far right.
Connections and Controls
- 3x HDMI 2.0b input; HDMI 2.1 output with eARC
- Optical digital input; stereo analogue input
- Wi-Fi; Ethernet; Bluetooth; Chromecast
- Included remote control
- Smart Control app
- Subwoofer out
There are some basic controls on the top for mute, volume up/down, activating Ambeo, media playback, source, Bluetooth pairing and power on/off. There's also an NFC (near field communication) hotspot for quickly and easily connecting supporting devices.
The included remote is surprisingly small considering the size of the soundbar, but it's well made and includes all the controls you need for daily operation. There are buttons for power on/off, activating Ambeo, muting sound and selecting Bluetooth. You can also cycle through the sources, change the volume, and select sound modes: Movie, Music, News, Sports, Neutral, and Night.
The Ambeo works with the Google Home App, and there's also Sennheiser's Smart Control App (compatible with Apple iOS and Google Android). The latter provides all the controls found on the included remote, but adds more feedback, graphics, and the ability to adjust the acoustic settings and tailor the sound to your own personal taste.
All the physical connections are located in a recessed area at the rear, and it's an impressive selection for a soundbar. There are three HDMI 2.0b inputs and an HDMI 2.1 output that supports eARC (enhanced audio return channel). The HDMI connections can pass 4K/60p, wide colour gamut and high dynamic range (HDR10, HLG, HDR10+, and Dolby Vision).
There's also an optical digital input, a stereo analogue input with RCA connectors, an Ethernet port, and a subwoofer pre-out using a mono RCA connector. On the front is a 2.5mm jack for connecting the included set-up microphone. In terms of wireless connections you have a choice of Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and Google Chromecast, but no Apple AirPlay.
Features and specs: Fully loaded
- Dolby Atmos, DTS:X and MPEG-H decoding
- Ambeo processing (3D sound technology)
- Automated room calibration
- 5.1.4-channel configuration
- Hi-Res Audio support
The Ambeo Soundbar doesn't just boast 13 drivers, it has the kind of high-end woofers and tweeters normally associated with larger floorstanding speakers. These drivers are grouped into a total of seven speakers, with three firing forwards, two at the sides and two upwards.
The forward-firing speakers each use a 1-inch aluminium dome tweeter; there are two 4-inch long-throw woofers with a cellulose sandwich cone too. For the overhead channels, there are two upward-firing 3.5-inch full-range drivers, while the side-firing speakers also feature 1-inch tweeters. All the drivers are discretely powered by a total of 500W of built-in amplification.
The full-range woofers are not only designed to deliver mid-range detail but, according to Sennheiser, a frequency response of 30Hz-20kHz (-3dB). As impressive as that seems, if you feel the need for more low-end grunt you can simply attach a separate subwoofer using the included pre-out.
The reason for all these speakers is the soundbar's support for Sennheiser's Ambeo 3D sound technology. Developed in conjunction with the latest virtualisation technology from Fraunhofer, it uses the seven speakers to produce a virtual recreation of a genuine surround sound system. The result is a single soundbar that Sennheiser claims can deliver a 5.1.4 immersive audio experience.
In order to achieve this the Ambeo supports a host of audio formats including Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, plus all their variants. It can also handle LPCM at 2.0, 5.1 and 7.1 channels, DSD and even MPEG-H (which is popular in Asia). In fact, the only formats missing are IMAX Enhanced DTS:X and Auro-3D, but neither is a great loss.
Sound quality: Speakers, speakers everywhere
- 13 high-end drivers in total
- 500W of built-in amplification
- 30Hz to 20kHz frequency response
Despite its size and apparent complexity, the Sennheiser Ambeo is surprisingly easy to setup. For a start there's just the one unit – no surround speakers or subwoofers to worry about.
The soundbar comes with a dedicated microphone that you plug in at the front and place at the sweet spot. Then all you need to do is follow the automated calibration routine, which provides audible feedback as it runs through a series of frequency sweeps, measuring the reflections and acoustic properties of your room. After a few minutes you'll be good to go.
Watching TV shows and movies
And when you do go, your jaw is liable to hit the floor. This is the best sounding single-unit soundbar by a country mile. The sheer size of the Ambeo guarantees a fairly weighty presence, but it still manages to create a huge wall of sound at the front of the room. The audio spreads out on either side, dialogue projects from the centre and sounds emanate from above.
It's an impressive performance that creates a compellingly immersive sonic experience. However it has limitations, in part because there are no actual speakers behind you. As a result the Ambeo never sounds as immersive as a genuine 5.1.4-channel system. It's also dependant on the room for maximum effect, because it uses acoustic reflections to create the illusion of immersion.
All that being said, stick on a full-bodied Dolby Atmos mix like Mad Max: Fury Road and the effect is often stunning. The rumble of engines will have you looking for a separate subwoofer that isn't there, while effects are placed with precision across the first third of the room. There's an epic sense of scale to the sonic onslaught released by this soundbar.
It isn't just Atmos that sounds great, the DTS:X soundtrack of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is equally as impressive. The sounds of the jungle envelop you, as velociraptors seemingly tear through the room with terrifying speed. The roar of the T-Rex has a guttural depth that will have you cowering, while thunder rolls overhead and volcanoes erupt.
You can use Ambeo processing to give these immersive audio soundtracks even more impact, with a choice of Off, Light, Standard, and Boost. Standard (which is the default selection) results in the most balanced effect, whereas Light is too subtle, and Boost makes the soundstage too big, thus losing some focus.
Since most content doesn't use super-immersive object-based audio, what about regular 5.1? Here the Ambeo is equally as convincing, producing excellent stereo separation, clear dialogue, deep bass and a sense of width and depth. The Amazon series The Boys sounded fantastic, with the soundbar delivering the super-heroic shenanigans with style.
If you fancy giving regular audio greater presence, there are a number of sound modes: Movie, Music, News, Sports, and Neutral. Each mode is self-explanatory and generally effective. There's also Night mode, if you don't want to disturb the rest of the house, and with Dolby content a similar function called DRC (dynamic range compression).
Listening to music
If there's one area where the Ambeo Soundbar has no equal, it's with music. The use of large, high-quality speakers results in superb stereo imaging, incredible clarity, remarkable detail retrieval, and a deep but perfectly integrated bass. Listening to music is an absolute joy, and in terms of pure two-channel content the Sennheiser ranks as the best performing soundbar on the market.
There's no denying the Sennheiser Ambeo Soundbar is a seriously impressive bit of kit. You won't find a better made or more feature-packed soundbar on the market, and it's suitably future-proofed thanks to support for Dolby Atmos, DTS:X, HDR10+ and Dolby Vision.
Despite being a single unit without even a separate subwoofer, this soundbar can deliver a big, dynamic and enveloping soundstage that fills the room with sonic delights. Whether you're watching TV, enjoying your favourite movie or listening to music, the Ambeo is sure to please.
As impressive as its multiple drivers and state-of-the-art processing is, this soundbar never quite immerses the listener as effectively as a genuine surround sound system. It delivers remarkably deep bass and creates the illusion of overhead channels, but lacks any real presence at the rear.
It's also massive, which rather defeats the idea of an unobtrusive solution to boost the sound quality of your TV, and it costs more than a decent multi-channel AV receiver and speaker package. However, if you're looking for the best single-box soundbar solution – you've found it.
If you're not stuck on the idea of a single-box solution, the Samsung HW-Q90R is hard to beat. This impressive soundbar delivers a genuine 7.1.4 channel system thanks to three forward- two side- and two upward-firing drivers, a separate wireless subwoofer, and two wireless rear speakers that also include upward-firing drivers. It can decode Atmos and DTS:X and passes Dolby Vision and HDR10+. There are only two HDMI inputs, but the Q90R is less intrusive and considerably cheaper than the Sennheiser.