Until recently, sound bars have remained a frustrating audio category dominated by extremes. On one end of the spectrum, you had your inexpensive sound bars which barely performed well enough to best most built-in TV speakers. On the other, you had your suped-up overachievers that cost so much, you might as well purchase an A/V receiver and small surround speaker package anyway. Neither did a great job justifying its existence.
We were beginning to wonder if a sound bar that could deliver what everyone actually wants was ever going to surface when we walked into Vizio’s display at CES 2013. There, Vizio gave us a pretty convincing demonstration of three new sound bar systems it had planned for release this year.
Two of the sound bars we saw featured proper surround speakers, one of which offered wireless signal delivery directly to those surround speakers. And then there was the included remote control, and less visible points such as individual channel level controls, and multiple inputs.
When we got done with our tour at the show, it was clear that Vizio – a company best known for its video products – decided to put the audio world on notice by showcasing what a little consumer-centric design could do, and we were excited about it. Now, we finally get our hands on the S4251W, a true 5.1 sound bar that, at an expected street price of about $330, may just force the rest of the industry to play a little catch-up. Here’s what we think.
Out of the box
Vizio’s got this funny little box design going for its sound bars. It seems a little odd until you realize that it wasted absolutely no space – an approach several other sound bar makers could stand to take a lesson from.
As we de-boxed the system, we noticed that the system’s sound bar had a respectable heft to it, indicating that the parts inside are probably of respectable quality. The subwoofer, while not especially heavy, didn’t sound hollow when we gave it a rap, so we held hope that it, too, would sound good in our evaluation. The included surround speakers, however, aren’t especially weighty, which generated some concern about potential sound quality.
The S4251W’s sound bar features a sort of industrial design that suits of most of today’s televisions. We especially appreciate Vizio’s decision to move its logo to the bottom right of its TVs and sound bars, keeping things inconspicuous and clean looking without necessarily coming off as generic. We also like that Vizio reserved the tacky, gloss-black plastic material for accents rather than shrouding the whole system in it. The predominantly matte-black finish helps to make the system more universally décor-friendly.
Vizio includes everything you need to get the system set up in the box. Along with the speaker hardware, we found an accessory box with two AC power cables, two 13-foot surround speaker cables, a coaxial digital audio cable, optical digital audio cable, 1/8-inch mini to RCA audio cable, mounting hardware, mounting template, and remote control.
Our only complaint at this point is that the surround speaker wire seems a little short. We would later find out that its length works fine in some setup scenarios but not nearly as well in others.
Features and design
From where we sit, it seems as if Vizio took a look at the sound bar market, poked a bunch of holes in it, then set about addressing those shortcomings in its new sound bar system designs. Let’s take a look at what makes this system different.
Surround speaker outs on the wireless sub
Rather than place the surround speaker outputs on the sound bar, Vizio delivers the surround signal to the system’s subwoofer wirelessly. Users will need to connect the surround speakers to two RCA jacks on the back of the sub. With a claimed wireless range of up to 60 feet, the sub could be placed just about anywhere. However, since the surround speaker wires only run about 13 feet long, the subwoofer will need to reside in the back half of most rooms. This could complicate matters for those without a power outlet in the right place, or for those that just prefer their sub in the front of the room. RCA-terminated speaker wires are available at much longer lengths from retailers like Radio Shack, but longer cables will cost more money.
LCD readout on the remote
As we listened, we had to remind ourselves several times over that this system comes in for about $330.
Multiple inputs (including Bluetooth)
Many sound bars only come with a single digital optical input. But not all TV audio processors are created equal, so the appeal of connecting everything to the TV and running a single audio feed to a sound bar, isn’t always the best-sounding option. Thankfully, Vizio offers enough options to satisfy almost anyone by including the requisite digital-optical input, then adding in a digital coaxial input, two stereo analog inputs, a USB input and Bluetooth wireless input.
No, there isn’t an HDMI input – but we don’t consider that an issue. Without several HDMI inputs and an HDMI output, the sound bar can’t function as a source switcher. Besides, many folks want to be able to watch TV without necessarily powering up their sound bar. We think Vizio made the right call here.
Independent channel and surround-balance control
This is a big one for us. The S4251W offers individual level control for the center channel, surround speakers and subwoofer. You can even adjust the surround speaker balance in case one speaker is closer than another, turn the surround speakers off entirely, and tweak basic bass and treble levels.
As for processing, Vizio includes TruVolume and Night Mode to keep the Slap-Chop guy from blowing your ears out unexpectedly, and to allow night viewing without necessarily shaking the rest of the family awake.
Total system setup time, from box to bomb blast, took about 15 minutes (without any speaker mounting). Making connections was easy, though we were a little miffed we’d have to settle for placing the sub in the back of our room in order to place the surround speakers properly. Placing it in front usually results in a smoother transition from sound bar to subwoofer and calls less attention to the sub in general.
With everything in place, we ran an audio calibration disc of our own making to try to balance channel levels and subwoofer output. Given our configuration, we found we had to bump up the center channel a few decibels, back down the surround speakers, and calm the sub down a little.
Before our evaluation, we allowed the S4251W system about 30 hours of break-in time. Associated equipment for this review included the Oppo-BDP-103 Universal Blu-ray player, an Anthem MRX300 receiver, Comcast cable box and Vizio 37-inch TV.
Normally we jump into our sound bar evaluations with some music, but since we already had a surround demonstration disc loaded up in our Oppo BDP-103, we went ahead and sat down for some movie clips first. After queuing up a scene from X-Men: First Class, we let the system rip.
Vizio’s SB4251W is one of the best values in audio we’ve seen in some time.
As we listened, we had to remind ourselves several times over that this system comes in for about $330. Not only were we caught up in a whirlwind of stereo and surround effects, but the fidelity of the sound coming from the sound bar was better than we had expected.
The center portion of the sound bar was especially clear, rendering dialog with clarity and definition that never left us wanting to reach for the remote. For a sound bar, this is especially notable. Of course, had we ever wanted more center channel output, we could have bumped it up on the fly without much effort.
Stereo effects panned across the front of the soundstage were also impressive. The S4251W sound bar manages to provide a good level of stereo separation, and sound seems to leap well beyond the edge of the sound bar. To that end, off-axis listening was also better than we had expected, with crisp treble response easily audible from outside of the sweet spot.
We were further impressed by the fact that the subwoofer managed to integrate well with the sound bar, despite being placed at the back of the room just 5 feet from the listening position. This would typically make it easy to localize the sub (hear it as a distinct sound source rather than as a part of the whole system), but we had no such problems from the couch. We credit the sound bar’s speakers, which reach down low enough in the frequency spectrum that they don’t demand too much of the subwoofer.
Aside from its smooth integration with the sound bar, the subwoofer also impressed with bass response that was forceful when called to be, yet smooth during quieter moments. While the sub in this system can’t compete with those made by dedicated audio manufacturers, it is one of the better “system-in-a-box” subwoofers we’ve heard (Klipsch’s SB-3 still gets the honor of having the best included sub, though) with tuneful bass that, on a musical level, was plenty sufficient. For movies, we would have liked some deeper response, and the sub did have a tendency to have a sort of perpetual thump to it that drew our attention from time to time, but we only expect so much from a compact sub in an inexpensive system.
From a perspective of fidelity, the surround speakers were the least impressive. We didn’t feel like they offered nearly as much articulation as the front end of the system, producing a sort of “wash” of sound effects rather than a contiguous surround sound stage. Still, the effect was several levels better than any virtualized surround processing we’ve heard; further proof that you can’t fake good surround.
Finally, we have a sound bar that people will actually want to buy.
When paired to our iPhone, the system defaulted into 2.1 mode, omitting any output to the center and surround channels. We appreciated this, but for those that like having all of the their speakers on, the system is equipped with DTS Circle Surround, which converts the 2-channel audio signal for 5.1 channel playback.
With just the two front channels active and working with the subwoofer, it was easier to pick out some of the S4251W’s shortcomings. There is a bit of a hole in the upper midbass region, leaving certain bass guitar notes sounding thin in places. We also noted that the 3/4-inch tweeters, while articulate and sparkling, had a bit of hardness to them that we might be a little tougher on were this a dedicated music solution. The thing is, it isn’t. This system will likely be used primarily for movies and TV with the occasional passive music listening session. For that, we think most folks will be quite satisfied.
Our final complaint regards the volume control, which moves up and down in what we feel are unnecessarily large increments. We found it difficult to achieve just the right volume at times.
Vizio’s S4251W is one of the best values in audio we’ve seen in some time. It delivers the sort of features and control that users have been longed after for years now, and does it with style, finesse and surprisingly good audio quality. Sure, we could have done with some longer surround speaker wire lengths, and the sub can’t reach low enough that it will tickle your undercarriage, but that doesn’t change how much the system brings to the table. Getting these features and sound quality for around $330 is nothing short of astonishing to us. Finally, we have a sound bar that people will actually want to buy.
- Remarkable sound quality for the money
- LCD display on remote
- Comprehensive channel controls
- Wireless subwoofer and surround signal delivery
- Multiple inputs
- Short surround speaker wires
- Sub doesn’t get incredibly deep