Sennheiser’s first-ever soundbar shakes up CES with brilliant virtual surround

A long line of eager listeners stretches outside a small, dark room at the heart of Sennheiser’s CES booth. Inside, they will experience the new secret weapon in Sennheiser’s Ambeo arsenal: a 3D soundbar, its first ever. This is no ordinary soundbar, however. Armed with a suite of drivers developed by Neumann, the renowned professional audio brand Sennheiser acquired in the ’90s, this single strip of sound just might be the best 3D virtual surround soundbar ever created.

Sound was rich, smooth, and detailed, handling subtle nuances with a delicate touch, and never became strained or sharp in the upper register.

It’s just a prototype now, but the latest to grace Sennheiser’s 3D-audio arm has been thoroughly voiced by the German company’s masters of engineering, and, for now, is known simply as the Ambeo soundbar.

Within its sleek cabinet rest 13 four-inch Neumann drivers, tuned with DSP and calibrated with a Neumann microphone in an effort to faithfully re-create what Sennheiser calls 9.1 surround sound from a single, frontside unit.

Competitors like Dolby Atmos — a surround sound format the bar does support — would call this 5.1.4 object-based surround. Sennheiser prefers to call its Ambeo 3D surround configuration 9.1 surround, emphasizing a circular design in the horizontal plane that’s just as well-tuned for music as cinema sound.

We were among the first to hear Sennheiser’s 9.1 surround sound configuration (which includes elevated speakers at the front and back) firsthand a couple of years ago in London, where the brand showed off its system while live-mixing a concert by pop star Imogen Heap. To compare the soundbar’s virtual 9.1 surround to the real deal, Sennheiser set up a very similar speaker array as the one we heard in foggy London Town, utilizing nine Neumann Studio monitors, including KH 310s and KH 120s, along with a KH 810 subwoofer.

sennheiser first soundbar ambeo 3d surround dolby atmos ces 2018 15149
Ryan Waniata/Digital Trends
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

During the demonstration, Sennheiser switched back and forth between its bar and the array of professional studio monitors, and to our surprise, the little soundbar got damn close to matching up with the multi-speaker array. While auditioning the famous Dolby Atmos Leaf demo, sounds swept across the room with stunning realism, reaching up above us, to the left and right, and even behind us. When the demo switched to the full 9.1 array, it was cleaner, more detailed, and included more resonance to the sound coming from behind us.

The bar features a trio of HDMI inputs expected to support 4K/60 fps passthrough, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, digital Optical input, and an analog RCA input.

Still, the soundbar actually held up to the speakers with its DSP imagery pretty well, and our ears could easily pinpoint movements from the sides, back, and even above. But perhaps just as impressive was the way the bar continued to hold its own during a music demonstration. Sound was rich, smooth, and detailed, handling subtle nuances with a delicate touch, and, unlike so many virtual surround soundbars we’ve heard, sound never became strained or sharp in the upper register.

Instead, instruments fluttered, the soundstage swirled around us, and we just sank into the moment. We only had about five minutes with the Ambeo bar, but that was enough to know it’s something extremely special.

When it comes to features, the bar is loaded up, and includes a trio of HDMI inputs expected to support 4K/60 fps video pass-through, alongside Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, as well as digital optical and analog RCA inputs. It also offers a subwoofer output, though Sennheiser says it faithfully gets down to a burly 30Hz one its own, and we were quite satisfied if not entirely overwhelmed by the bass response. In other words, if you have to have some massive rumble, you’ll want to add a sub, but the sound won’t feel naked without it.

As mentioned, the bar supports Dolby Atmos, as well as Fraunhofer Society’s new MPEG-H codec, and it’s expected to add DTS:X in the future. And while a bar loaded with Neumann drivers sounds like it might be expensive as hell to those familiar with the storied audio brand, Sennheiser thinks the bar will be priced to compete with other object-based surround soundbars from the likes of Samsung, LG, Yamaha, and others.

We’re not sure when the bar will ship, but Sennheiser is pushing hard to have it out by the end of the year. You can be sure we’ll also be pushing hard to be among the first to give the finalized product a go, so check back with us to find out if the Ambeo soundbar really is the last word in virtual 3D surround.

Product Review

Samsung’s Galaxy Buds are a brilliant combination of value and comfort

With six hours of battery life, an extremely comfortable fit, sweatproofing, and a very palatable price tag, Samsung’s Galaxy Buds are putting all other true wireless earbuds on notice.
Home Theater

Bask in the glory of your home theater with these 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray movies

What good is a 4K TV if you don't have the means of pushing it to its limits? Here are our favorite 4K Ultra HD Blu-rays, all of which are nothing short of stunning. It'll make you wonder why you haven't always watched movies this way.

Great PC speakers don't need to break the bank. These are our favorites

Not sure which PC speakers work best with your computer? Here are the best computer speakers on the market, whether you're working with a tight budget or looking to rattle your workstation with top-of-the-line audio components.
Home Theater

The best Dolby Atmos movies for your home theater sound as good as they look

If you've got your hands on some sweet Dolby Atmos gear, the next step is to find films that take advantage of it. These are our picks in several genres for the best Dolby Atmos movies currently available on Blu-ray and streaming services.
Home Theater

If you've got questions about Ultra HD Blu-ray, we've got answers

Ultra HD Blu-ray discs and players are a killer way to beef up your home theater. Here's everything you need to know about one of the most significant advances to hit home entertainment in years.
Movies & TV

LeBron James’ Space Jam 2 gets an official release date

LeBron James has brought on Black Panther director Ryan Coogler to produce his upcoming Space Jam sequel, with Terence Nance attached to direct the film. Space Jam 2 is expected to hit theaters in July 2021.
Home Theater

Apple is arming up to redefine TV just like it did the phone

Curious about what Apple's answer to Netflix will be? Us too. So we combed through some patents, and looked at the landscape, to come up with a bold prediction: Apple's streaming service will be way bigger than anyone thinks.
Home Theater

Apple may be making noise-canceling headphones safer to use on the streets

Over-the-ear headphones are massively popular, but they block a lot of outside sounds, which increases the risk of accidents. A new Apple invention hints at a way to have great sound, and great safety, and it might be coming soon.
Movies & TV

Battle of the movie ticket sites: How to make sense of the fledgling industry

MoviePass may be the industry leader in subscription-based movie ticket sales, but the company's troubles have opened the door for competitors AMC Stubs A-List, Sinemia, and Cinemark Movie Club. Here's how the services compare.
Home Theater

Get the most boom for your buck with the best headphones under $100

Everybody wants a bargain, and this list has a bunch. For those looking for a solid set of headphones without spending a big stack of cash, this list is is your starting point. Check out our picks for the best headphones under $100.
Home Theater

Wireless headphones are finally awesome, and these are our favorites

With sleek form factors, prime audio quality, and the freedom of untethered listening, there has never been a better time to pick up a pair of wireless headphones. These are the best ones currently available.
Home Theater

The best noise-canceling headphones paint your music on a cleaner canvas

Drowning out the sound of babies, jet engines, and the outside world isn't as difficult as it seems. Here are the best noise-canceling headphones, whether you're concerned with style, comfort, or sound.
Movies & TV

The best shows on Netflix right now (February 2019)

Looking for a new show to binge? Lucky for you, we've curated a list of the best shows on Netflix, whether you're a fan of outlandish anime, dramatic period pieces, or shows that leave you questioning what lies beyond.

Amazon delivers a sale on Sony wireless noise-canceling headphones

Among the most popular noise-canceling wireless headphone brands are Sony, Beats by Dre, Sennheiser, and Bose, but they can all be expensive. Amazon is discounting Sony's WH-CH700N wireless headphones now. Pick up a great pair of…