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

You can't get convincing surround sound with a single speaker, right? Wrong

LG’s latest Dolby Atmos soundbar is loaded with power, features, and quirks, including the lack of a center channel. That said, this distinctive soundbar offers powerful Atmos immersion for a two-piece system, making it worth…
Home Theater

What is Dolby Atmos Music, and how can you experience it?

Dolby Atmos is a surround sound format that creates immersive, 3D soundtracks to make movies come alive. But the same technology is also being adopted for music creation, and it's a game-changer. Here's everything you need to know.
Home Theater

These awesome A/V receivers will swarm you with surround sound at any budget

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to shopping for a receiver, so we assembled our favorites for 2019, at multiple price points and all loaded with features, from Dolby Atmos to 4K HDR and much more.
Deals

The best soundbar deals for June 2019: Vizio, Samsung, and Polk Audio

We've rounded up all of the best deals on the top soundbars that the leading manufacturers have to offer, so you won't have to traipse all over the internet looking for a bargain.
Home Theater

Select YouTube TV subscribers are getting a summer of Showtime for free

If you're a long-time YouTube TV subscriber, you may be in luck: The service is giving free access to Showtime until September 5, 2019, according to reports. Unlike other free trials, it does not become a paid plan on expiry.
Home Theater

HDMI ARC and eARC: What they are, and how they can simplify your home theater

HDMI ARC is one of the coolest TV features at your disposal. But if you're like most folks, you have no idea how it works, if you even know what it is at all. Here's our primer on HDMI ARC, as well as the next-generation technology, eARC.
Movies & TV

Stranger Things season 3 gets some new photos and an official synopsis

With a sophomore season as strong as its first, Stranger Things is now moving on to season 3. Here's everything we've learned so far about the Netflix series' upcoming third season, premiering in July 2019.
Deals

You won’t find a better deal on a 55-inch LG 4K TV than this

Another day, another fantastic deal on a 4K TV. This time, we're looking at a 55-inch LG 6-Series, which has had its price hacked from $500 down to $350 — and that's a deal that's not to be missed.
Home Theater

Throw away those EarPods — we dug up the best headphones in every style

Trolling the internet for hours to find headphones is no way to live. Instead, leverage our expertise and experience to find the best headphones for you. Here are our favorites, with all the features you want.
Movies & TV

Will Smith’s best movies ranked, from Bad Boys to Ali to Hitch

A ranking of Hollywood actor Will Smith's best movies to date. From his early roles during the Fresh Prince days to his Oscar-baiting dramas, Smith has played all kinds of characters in a wide array of beloved films.
Deals

The best 4K smart TV deals for June 2019: Samsung, LG, and Vizio

A good 4K smart TV is the only way to enjoy all your favorite shows, movies, and games in glorious Ultra HD. If you're looking to take your home entertainment to the next level, then we've got the best 4K TV deals right here.
Movies & TV

The best shows on Netflix right now (June 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.
Movies & TV

Who needs sunshine? Stay inside and watch the best movies on Netflix instead

Save yourself from hours wasted scrolling through Netflix's massive library by checking out our picks for the streamer's best movies available right now, whether you're into explosive action, witty humor, or anything else.
Deals

Amazon drops prices on Bose and Plantronics wireless noise-canceling headphones

Earlier this week, Dell dropped the price of Bose's QuietComfort 35 II noise-canceling wireless headphones. Amazon has now matched Dell's price, dropping the price of its stock down to $299.