In 2015, I got an early look at the first Dolby Atmos soundbar ever created, Yamaha’s YSP-5600. Devised as a singular solution to all your Atmos and DTS:X needs, the 5600 foregoes discrete surround speakers for gobs of “beam drivers” that bounce audio off your walls to immerse you in 3D sound. With similar aspirations — and a ton of homegrown innovations — Sennheiser’s first soundbar, the Ambeo, takes that idea to a whole new level.
Packing glorious detail, rich and lyrical performance for both music and film, and shockingly realistic Dolby Atmos virtualization, Sennheiser’s $2,500 Ambeo soundbar isn’t some vanity system for the wealthy. It’s designed as a holistic sound solution to please audiophiles, cinephiles, and everyone in between. And on almost all accounts, it does just that.
Unfortunately, as with a lot of new tech, there are some nagging issues inherent in Sennheiser’s first shot out of the gate — namely some latency problems for sound sourced directly from a TV — that (sadly) keep me shy of clicking my heels together and stamping the Ambeo as the soundbar of the year. Ambeo is perhaps the best sounding bar for all formats I’ve heard. But whether or not you should throw down the big money depends heavily on how you’ll use it.
An Atmos beast
The Ambeo soundbar’s $2,500 price is, shall we say, outside the range most people expect to pay — an upsell add-on for that new TV you’ve been eyeing, this ain’t. But Sennheiser has loaded this massive block with powerful hardware and impressive future-proofing features in an effort to ensure that, straight away, you know where your money is going.
Once you’ve hoisted the 40-pound monster out of its box, the first thing you’ll notice is that you’ll need to wall mount either the bar ($60 mounting kit not included) or your TV because, like the YAS-5600, the Ambeo is unapologetically beefy. At 50 x 5 x 7 inches, it simply leaves no room for your TV, and it might just weigh more, too.
After gingerly — and awkwardly — putting the bar on its front face (Sennheiser recommends you use foam from the box) you’ll find a generous array of ports on the back, including three HDMI 2.0a inputs, HDMI eARC for future-proof connection to your TV, digital Optical out, subwoofer out, and an RCA analog input for legacy devices; this thing sounds so good, vinyl fans will actually use that one. You can also stream music over Chromecast Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.
TV sound arrived just behind video for multiple TV models.
Set within the Ambeo’s mighty frame are 13 individual proprietary drivers, including two 3.5-inch top-firing drivers, five 1-inch aluminum dome tweeters, and six 4-inch long-throw woofers. Real speakers reproduce real, authentic sound for both music and film, including powerful bass, though some users may want to attach a sub for full-scale cinematic-rumble.
Ambeo also packs a loaded clip of audio formats, from Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, to Dolby TrueHD, a swell of DTS formats (including DTS 96/24), and MPEG-H, a 3D audio solution developed by Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute (co-developer of the MP3). Along with eARC connection, the system supports 4K passthrough with Dolby Vision, HDR10, and HDR10+.
Connecting directly to your TV via HDMI ARC is the only way to source Dolby Atmos content from on-board apps. Unfortunately, with either eARC or Optical connection, TV sound arrived just behind video on multiple TV brands during my evaluation.
The issue felt like a nagging fly, buzzing around my head whenever I’d try watching content directly from my TV. It’s only a slight delay, but in some ways that makes it all the more vexing as it’s so close to correct I found myself staring at lips for almost everything I watched.
Since Ambeo incorporates eARC, the lip sync issues may be corrected with newer TVs, as eARC is designed to provide mandatory lip sync, as well as faster bit rates and uncompressed audio. But eARC requires a compatible TV, and most TVs on the market right now don’t have it yet. For now, the workaround is to connect playback devices directly to the soundbar’s ample collection of HDMI ports, but if you use any onboard apps (or source other content) from all but a few new TVs, it could be a problem.
While the sync issues certainly take away from the experience, the Ambeo’s sleek and intuitive interface definitely promotes a luxury vibe, allowing even A/V newcomers to easily navigate the well-appointed system. That starts with intuitive calibration.
After you’ve plugged Ambeo into your TV via HDMI ARC and connected your major devices, powering on the system emits a musical chime alongside simple instructions from the LED display to plug the calibration mic into the front face. (Note: HDMI ARC is the only way to source Atmos from your TV and use its remote for volume and power.)
You’ll likely want to connect to Wi-Fi for Google Chromecast streaming.
Shaped like a cross between a WWII radio antenna and a Scorpion harpoon from Game of Thrones, the mic goes in your room’s pole-position seat. Once there, simply press the Ambeo button on the slim remote and step aside. After some frequency spanning tones (and looong processing) comes your first hint at what Ambeo can do via a surround demo that bounces eerily around the room. Sounding more like a gaming console than a soundbar, the music seems to say, “This isn’t just a soundbar, it’s a surround sound entertainment system.”
From there, Ambeo’s polished interface is a breeze to navigate, with seamless volume and power control from your TV remote (you may need to switch on HDMI CEC in your TV’s settings) and only a couple of learning curves from Ambeo’s smartly designed remote. Those include the Ambeo key, which turns Ambeo surround DSP on or off, and the target-shaped Multi-function key, which controls streaming music.
Everything else is self-explanatory, including keys for source switching (the bar usually switches automatically) and EQ modes such as Movie and Sports, all of which sound quite good, adding their own tweaks to the soundstage. Since the processing is so well done, channel levels should be perfectly balanced — just plug and play.
That said, you may want to make a couple more quick tweaks, and for that you’ll need the app.
Apps are hard
First things first, you’ll likely want to connect to Wi-Fi for Google Chromecast streaming. Full disclosure: I’m not fond of Google’s somewhat stubborn Home app, and it again gave me trouble during setup, seeming to freeze when the bar updated firmware. Luckily, the soundbar display showed update status, so even though the app got confused, I didn’t. After restarting the app, Chromecast streaming worked fine.
The system is near-magical when swirling Atmos effects.
Sennheiser’s Smart Control app handles all the system’s deeper functions, and it too had some hiccups. The app dropped the Ambeo multiple times when trying to connect, but seemed to catch on after unplugging the bar for a few seconds. A day or two later, it again had trouble finding the system when I moved the bar from my home back into the office, eventually catching on. Whether or not these app issues were anomalies I can’t say, but I expect this will be something Sennheiser may have to tool with via update before it’s totally solid.
Once connected, Smart Control offers customization for A/V pros, including a multi-band EQ. If your content with the base settings, you’ll probably want to dig through and turn off Eco mode, which delays the bar’s start time by 20 seconds, and maybe dim the white-hot Ambeo light on the bar’s front face. Unfortunately, the lip sync feature — which only further delays audio — is of no use to the bar’s sync issues.
With sources plugged in directly to the bar, however, the Ambeo is a wonder to behold. The system was near-magical when swirling Atmos effects from demo’s like Amaze and Leaf, even in my living room where the right wall is twice as far as the left from the bar’s side-firing drivers, making it all the harder to create a balanced surround-sound bounce.
Effects like the fluttering bird circling my ears or the leaf floating around my head buzzed shockingly close from the sides and even back, while overhead effects like a tropical rainstorm were almost scary-realistic. Even in regular films where Atmos is more limited, like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. II, I found myself engulfed in sound and taken aback by the accurate placement of effects in the room; an alarm buzz here, a frog’s croak there, or Yondu’s strafing magic arrow.
And that’s just for starters.
Ambeo’s DSP also blooms boldly for 5.1 surround fare, such as the wonderfully mixed Skyfall. As Bond falls into the river during the intro scene, the walls seem to collapse on the center position in a splash of icy white water. Just as importantly, details — from the softest expression of a raspy throat, to sweet and resonant brass — are beautifully and delicately rendered, so your ears are left with no doubt this is a high-end machine.
Sennheiser’s new Ambeo soundbar is a whiz machine for music, films, and Atmos content.
Did I mention music sounds fantastic? That may seem like a given, what with all the gushing, but I assure you, with most Atmos soundbars it’s anything but. Samsung’s HW-N950 does well with Atmos effects (though I prefer the more musical touch and broader expanse of the Ambeo), and also wins the battle for rattling bass with its separate sub. But when it comes to music, the Ambeo’s collection of larger drivers crafted with trickle-down Sennheiser tech take the gold, creating among the best musical experiences I’ve heard in a soundbar.
Perhaps most surprising for music is the pleasant DSP, which is subtle enough to keep instruments well placed in an expansive mix without making your favorite tracks sound silly. Of course, you can switch off Ambeo DSP for stereo, but either way, you’ll be getting exactly what you’d expect from Sennheiser: A smooth and warm midrange, glittery high frequencies, and powerful bass for sound on par with some of my favorite traditional speaker sets.
Sennheiser products are warrantied for two years for manufacturer defects. You can find out more about its policies on the Sennheiser website.
Sennheiser’s new Ambeo soundbar is a whiz machine for music, films, and Atmos content, easily standing as one of the best sounding bars you can buy and the singular virtual Atmos system of choice. Unfortunately, its latency issue stands in its way of total soundbar domination.
Is there a better alternative?
There is no better bar I’ve heard on the market right now when it comes to Atmos virtualization, musical reproduction, and sheer sound quality. If you’re looking for something that works better for TV sound, however, Samsung’s powerful HW-N950 is a more affordable alternative with decent music playback and serious Atmos chops of its own, though, you’ll need to make room for the extra speakers.
In addition, Yamaha’s aforementioned YSP-5600 is another solid option, offering similar Atmos virtualization in a singular system, but you’ll likely want to add a subwoofer for the full cinematic experience.
How long will it last?
With state-of-the-art processing, eARC, and HDMI 2.0a inputs, the Ambeo is a well-equipped soundbar for the segment’s future, assuming its sync issues are resolved.
Should you buy it?
Maybe? Setting aside the latency trouble, the Ambeo is a paradigm-shifting sound machine when it comes to quality, convenience, and performance, and the latest TVs with eARC may also be immune to the sync issues. But for now, if your TV is your primary source for everything you watch, you’ll probably want to look elsewhere.