Sennheiser Ambeo soundbar review: Killer Atmos sound
“The Ambeo is a paradigm-shifting sound machine.”
- Incredibly detailed sound for all formats
- Breathtaking Atmos virtualization
- Polished, intuitive interface
- Loaded with features
- Dolby Atmos, DTS:X, and MPEG-H decoding
- Beefy size (and no IR repeater) requires mounting
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 forgoes 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 a holistic sound solution designed to please audiophiles, cinephiles, and everyone in between. And on almost all accounts, it does just that.
As with a lot of new tech, there were some nagging issues inherent in Sennheiser’s first shot out of the gate when I initially received it — namely some latency problems for sound sourced directly from a TV — that kept me shy of clicking my heels together and stamping the Ambeo as the Atmos soundbar of the year. Following a recent firmware update, however, Sennheiser has addressed all of the bar’s major caveats (except the high price, of course), making it the most luxurious and impressive way to source virtual surround sound from a single bar.
(Editor’s note: Following a firmware update from Sennheiser that addressed the Ambeo’s latency/sync issues, I’ve updated this review and score to make it congruent with the bar’s incredible performance. You can find out more in the section labeled “Sync issues no more” below.)
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 you know exactly 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 likely need to wall mount either your TV or your TV and the bar ($60 mounting kit not included) because, like the YAS-5600, the Ambeo is unapologetically beefy. At 50 x 5 x 7 inches, it simply leaves no room on the console for most TVs, 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 want to use that last one). You can also stream music over Chromecast Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.
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. Full-sized 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 pass-through with Dolby Vision, HDR10, and HDR10+.
Sync issues no more
Connecting directly to your TV via HDMI ARC is the only way to source Dolby Atmos content from onboard apps. In our first outing, with either ARC or Optical connection, TV sound arrived just behind video on multiple TV brands. Luckily, Sennheiser’s new firmware update has addressed the problem directly.
Here are all the issues corrected in the update according to Sennheiser:
- Solved lip-synchronization problems in HDMI ARC input for some TV models
- Improved (reduced) processing time for PCM audio signals for all inputs
- Solved bug with multichannel PCM content via Apple TV 4K
- Google Chromecast built-in safety update (version 1.40)
- Google Chromecast built-in bug fixes
- HDMI eARC and HDMI CEC bug fixes
- Improved connection to the Smart Control app
- Minor additional bug fixes
Following the update, the bar had no more issues with the TCL 6-series TV I used for testing. Such a relief. Sennheiser says it can’t guarantee all affected TVs will be fixed by the update, and Dolby’s own website has a disclaimer about the growing processing time for both TVs and audio devices as more virtualization is developed. But this update, along with eARC, has me pretty confident the vast majority of users have very little to worry about there.
Sennheiser claims current owners and new buyers will be notified about firmware updates through the app, so if you already have the bar and are experiencing sync issues, you should see some sort of indication there. Alternatively, you can check the Sennheiser website.
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 the 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 sources Dolby Atmos sound from your TV and allows you to 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 audio 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 for Ambeo’s smartly designed remote. Those include the Ambeo key, which turns Ambeo surround DSP on or off, and the target-shaped multifunction key that 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 those 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 at first. The app dropped the Ambeo multiple times when trying to connect, but seemed to catch on after I unplugged the bar for a few seconds. Following the firmware update, however, I had no further trouble with the app when connecting to the bar.
The app offers customization for A/V pros, including a multiband EQ. If your content with the base settings, you’ll still 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.
From the start, the Ambeo is a wonder to behold. The system is 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 more difficult to create a balanced surround sound bounce.
Effects like a fluttering bird circling my ears or a 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. 2, 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 everywhere.
And that’s just for starters.
Ambeo’s DSP also blooms boldly for 5.1 surround fare, such as the wonderfully mixed Skyfall. As James 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. It’s not as immersive with 5.1 as with Atmos, but it’s still incredibly enveloping.
Sennheiser’s new Ambeo soundbar is a wiz 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 wiz machine for music, films, and especially Dolby Atmos content, easily standing as one of the best-sounding bars you can buy and the singular virtual Atmos system of choice.
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 with more muscular bass and true surround satellites, however, Samsung’s powerful HW-N950 is a more affordable alternative, with solid music playback and serious Atmos chops of its own — though you’ll need to make room for those extra speakers.
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.
Should you buy it?
Yes, as long as you can afford it. The Ambeo is a paradigm-shifting sound machine when it comes to quality, convenience, and performance.
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