It’s not often you get to witness a true revolution in sound technology, but that’s exactly what happened when Dolby Atmos burst onto the scene a few years ago. Often referred to as “object-based surround sound,” Atmos (and its counterpart DTS:X) revolutionized cinematic sound with a variety of technologies at play, including overhead speakers that spin sound effects in a hemispheric pattern, engulfing listeners in a globe of sound.
Dolby Atmos’ expansive sonic reach isn’t something you’d expect to get out of a soundbar, but some impressive innovation from some big names has helped bottle it for those into the minimalist approach. Samsung’s HW-K950 is the latest, and the first to offer not only satellite speakers with integrated Atmos drivers, but wireless surrounds at that. The jewel of Samsung’s audio lineup and the first to be fully developed in-house at its new California audio lab, the K950 is a big gamble for Samsung, and potentially a major foothold in Samsung’s quest to dominate home audio. But at $1,500, is it worth it?
Out of the box
Contrary to other speakers in Samsung’s lineup, like the pyramid-shaped M7s or the lantern-like Ring-radiators, the K950’s exterior design is its least extraordinary feature. In fact, it’s almost obstinately ordinary, composed of four components cut into plain black cubes. The bar itself is exactly that: a long black bar, exceptional at the outset only for its sprawling length of 48-inches. There’s nothing wrong with a low profile for a soundbar, and the unit is also thin enough to rest beneath your TV. Zooming in, the drivers nestled in the tops of both the bar and satellite speakers forecast a powerful cinematic foray and an excellent example of innovation in compact design.
Accessories in the box include an HDMI cable, a wall-mounting kit, and a stylish wand remote with batteries.
The K950’s physical setup really couldn’t be easier since there’s only one way to connect for Dolby Atmos: HDMI. A single connection to your TV’s ARC input via the bar’s own ARC HDMI port sources audio from your TV while passing video to the TV at up to 4K UHD. The unit also offers two HDMI inputs for your high-end components (we wish there were three at this price), along with a digital Optical input, Bluetooth connection, and Wi-Fi via Samsung’s multiroom app. The wireless speakers and subwoofer (which must be plugged into a power source, of course) pair automatically to the soundbar. Unlike Yamaha’s Atmos/DTS:X YSP-5600 bar, there’s no auto calibration, so you’ll need to adjust each channel manually to get the balance you want. Samsung recommends setting the surrounds at the same distance from the listening position as the soundbar.
For the best Dolby Atmos experience, you’ll also need to set your Blu-ray player’s audio output to Bitstream (rather than PCM). The Dolby Atmos signal is registered by a blue LED at the bar’s right corner and a flash of “Dolby Atmos” across the display. You could stick with PCM (which puts the processing onus on your player), but you’ll only be getting virtual Atmos via the bar’s surround sound effect setting. In a head-scratching move, Samsung has included zero DTS surround sound decoding. That means any DTS surround — DTS:X or otherwise — will need to be rendered from a two-channel mix, though most discs you’ll find these days have Atmos or both, and streaming services like Netflix have adapted Dolby Atmos.
Features and design
The system offers nine channels (5.1.4), including the five standard surround channels, four “overhead” channels via speakers designed to bounce sound off the ceiling, and a bass channel. The bar houses dual 2.5-inch midrange drivers and a single 1-inch tweeter for each of its three channels, along with dual 2.5-inch height drivers for Atmos. Each of the satellite speakers boasts a 2.5-inch speaker each for the height and surround channels, and an eight-inch side-firing driver sits inside the sub cabinet. The power plant offers a claimed 500 watts — it’s a whole lot of power, and you’ll feel it when you’ve got Atmos firing on all cylinders.
Thanks to some system smarts and ARC HDMI, setup couldn’t be easier.
Basic playback controls rest on the bar’s right side panel, but you’ll (of course) be spending most of your time with the little chic remote. Minimalist though it may be, the unit works quite well for basic functions — we especially like the two silver hot buttons for volume and subwoofer control, which are easy to access even in a dark room.
While the remote’s succinct and ergonomic layout is attractive, it makes digging into the settings tougher than many top-tier bars — especially since there’s no on-screen menu (another surprising omission). Many buttons are dual-functioning: The Source key can be held for Bluetooth pairing, the Effects key can be held to turn off dynamic range compression (volume limiting), and so on. Most impressive, the Sound Control key — which scrolls through treble, bass, and audio sync — can be held for five seconds to call up a 7-band equalizer. Be aware, however, that it only works without DSP effects engaged.
Speaking of DSP, the system comes with six available effects, including choices like Clear Voice, Sports, etc. We recommend sticking with the Standard or Movie options for best results, even for music playback, as most other modes sound too boxy and compressed in the midrange for our taste. As mentioned above, each of the individual surround channels must be adjusted manually, and it’s limited, offering only 3 points in either direction.
If ever there were a “Dolby” system, the K950 is it. Along with Atmos, the system offers Dolby TrueHD and Dolby Digital. However, it decodes DTS in stereo. The design leaves DTS-only discs to be handled by the bar’s surround sound DSP. It works alright for basic surround mixes, but DTS:X mixes like Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Of Gods and Kings leave something to be desired. Luckily, Dolby Atmos comes with most newer discs, so it’s not much of a concern these days.
Other features include the aforementioned multiroom support, allowing the system to link up with any Samsung multiroom speakers or soundbars, as well as control via Samsung’s remote app. It’s also worth noting that CEC control works flawlessly with other Samsung gear, allowing you to easily control volume with your Samsung TV remote. That’s a big plus if you’ve already got a Samsung TV, though results will vary with other brands, ARC or no.
When it comes to Dolby Atmos, the HW-K950 offers nothing less than heart-pounding, pupil-dilating thrills. Don’t be fooled by its demure exterior, this baby is powerful. Bass is weighty enough to rattle your windows (in that pleasantly bombastic kind of way) while handling the boomiest tracks with a tranquil authority that catches you off guard. The sub is also quite musical, and it compensates for the bar’s smaller drivers seamlessly from the lower mids down, accounting for a large swath of our favorite moments with the system.
Don’t be fooled by it’s demure exterior — this baby is powerful.
The K950 handles the swirling vortex of object-based surround sound with exceptional grace and fluidity, handing off the baton of sound from speaker to speaker like an Olympic relay team. Be it up to down or front to back, the system is exceptional in its ability to make seamless transitions from speaker to speaker. The Awake sound sample, Dolby’s specially mixed track of jungle noises, flocking birds, and pouring rain, is pretty astounding. The system also presents engaging playback of full features, including plenty of thrilling moments in films like J.J. Abrams’ first Star Trek, as well as the pounding waves and edge-of-your-seat underwater mayhem of The Shallows.
Outside of the Atmos experience, however, the K950 comes back down to earth a bit. That’s especially true in the middle of the sound, where the bar gets caught between the excellent subwoofer’s upper bass range and the bottom of the zinging tweeters. Look, there’s only so much you can do when it comes to creating an open, organic sound with a bunch of tiny drivers, and most of those sonic flaws show up in the middle. Whether its dialogue, effects, or instruments like snare and brass, the midrange is often rendered with a boxy, flattened resonance that just doesn’t convey a high-end experience. As you might imagine, that makes music playback, well, rather ordinary. The system will play your favorite tracks with solid performance — we even enjoyed listening to some of our best acoustic tracks in surround sound. But it’s clear that, like the Yamaha YSP-5600 (and most soundbars, really), music is an afterthought here.
Another of the K950’s rather pedestrian traits is the white noise exuded from the wireless surround speakers, which is substantial. We applaud the wireless approach, especially since, unlike most soundbars’ satellite speakers, which must be plugged into the sub, going wireless allows the K950’s sub to be properly placed for the best performance. However, we wish we didn’t have to trade one performance issue for another. That said, it certainly wasn’t a prohibitive issue, and those who mount their surrounds a little farther back probably won’t even notice.
On a brighter note, the system provides plenty of detail in the subtler moments. Lip movements in quieter dialogue, wandering footsteps, and the whiz-bang cuts of the higher register effects — especially notable in all those retro beeps and whistles from Star Trek — are cut with impressive clarity and presence.
In short, with either choice, there are compromises to be made. Which bar is best for you will likely depend on a mix of your own preferences and the layout of your home.
Samsung’s default warranty applies here. It covers only manufacturing defects for 12 months. You can find out more about the warranty here.Our Take
You’ll pay handsomely for it, but Samsung’s HW-K950 soundbar offers a thrilling Atmos experience that really must be heard to appreciate.
Is there a better alternative?
Perhaps the best competition we’ve tested at this general price point is Yamaha’s YSP-5600, but it’s a tough comparison. The 5600 is more versatile thanks to both DTS:X and Atmos decoding, and it also bests the K950 in the midrange, offering a higher-quality performance there. Though the 5600’s towering height means it essentially must be mounted below a wall-mounted TV, its singular design makes it somewhat more discreet as well.
On the other hand, Yamaha’s beam-driver design relies on your ceiling and walls to create surround sound — not just overhead, but behind you as well. That means the layout of your listening room plays a big role. Though both soundbars have dropped in price since their initial debut, the 5600’s lack of a dedicated subwoofer can still make it a pricier venture unless you can find it for a real bargain. Generally speaking, the Samsung HW-K950 is much more versatile.
How long will it last?
The HW-K950 is built from solid materials and backed by a solid brand. It should last you a good long while, especially for a soundbar.
Should you buy it
Yes. If you’ve got to have real Atmos surround sound in a small package — and you don’t mind dumping DTS:X — the HW-K950 is well worth its fee.
Updated 6-11-2018: The HW-K950 has yet to be matched in the marketplace, while its lack of DTS:X is now less significant thanks to wide adaption of Dolby Atmos. While it’s still a pricey proposition for a soundbar, its score has been raised to reflect its standing.