Vizio 5.1.4 Dolby Atmos soundbar review

Vizio's best-ever soundbar brings Dolby Atmos theater magic to the living room

When it comes to offering brute-force Atmos punch at a bargain, this soundbar delivers.
When it comes to offering brute-force Atmos punch at a bargain, this soundbar delivers.
When it comes to offering brute-force Atmos punch at a bargain, this soundbar delivers.

Highs

  • Clear, immersive Atmos sound
  • Potent, musical bass
  • Slick, understated design
  • Multiple ways to play

Lows

  • Unintuitive menu and controls
  • Height speaker volume not adjustable

One could say Vizio’s motto has long been “Anything you can do, we can do cheaper.” It’s worked out pretty well for the brand’s TVs — including the feature-packed (and gorgeous) Vizio P-series — and it’s also a pretty good way to win the soundbar war. The company’s latest effort on that front is a 5.1.4 Atmos soundbar, which goes by the title “Vizio Home Theater Sound System with Dolby Atmos,” or the exceedingly long model number, SB46514-F6.

Bad names aside, the SB46514 offers a powerhouse of features, including discrete surround sound and four upfiring drivers to closely model Samsung’s popular HW-K950 and HW-N950 bars, both of which helped set the standard for potent Atmos sound in an all-in-one solution. The twist? At $1,000, Vizio’s version undercuts those rivals by as much as $700. We spent some quality time with the bar to find out if Vizio’s new Atmos value proposition delivers.

Out of the box

We’re used to some heavy lifting when it comes to Atmos bars, but the SB46514 wins the prize for most awkward gear haul. This thing is heavy, so lift with caution. Opening the L-shaped box is also an awkward affair, flush with foam packaging, a sizable accessories box, and plenty of flaps and inserts to unfurl.

Vizio Dolby Atmos Soundbar
Rich Shibley/Digital Trends

It didn’t take long to discover what was weighing down the package, as we nearly slipped a disk pulling out the massive subwoofer block. It’s outfitted in Vizio’s signature black-and-silver color scheme, including a layer of black grill along the top and front that’s matched by slick aluminum slabs at the sides for some impressive style. A sizable bass port sits at the backside next to inputs for the included satellite speakers (more on that below) and a power port.

The pint-sized satellites and soundbar are similarly adorned, with the latter spanning a healthy 46-inches across and bearing a rubberized control pad on top. Riding in the package are a litany of cables and other accessories, including power cables for the bar and sub, connector cables for the dual surround speakers, multiple digital and analog connection cables (including HDMI), and the same recycled remote packed with virtually every Vizio bar, complete with basic navigation keys and a Casio-style digital menu screen.

Getting going

Setup is relatively straightforward, though a multi-component system such as this takes a bit more effort than your average soundbar. As referenced above, one indicator of the SB46514’s semi-budget status is that, unlike Samsung’s bars (among other offerings), the surround speakers aren’t wireless and require you to plug them into the sub via lengthy wires. The speakers are color-coded to help with connection, but the fact that the left is colored (blue) and the right is white threw us off (RCA cables are the reverse) — and we connected it incorrectly at first.

ARC HDMI is the best method for connecting the system to your TV if your TV supports it, allowing for the best sound, as well as control of volume and power from your TV remote. (Note: You may need to engage CEC in your TV’s menu, as well as set sound output to Speakers or Receiver). If your TV doesn’t have ARC, there are numerous other ways to connect, and you may also be able to program your TV’s remote to control the bar. If you want to stream music over Wi-Fi via Chromecast, you’ll also want to download the SmartCast app and follow the instructions to connect to your network.

Speakers to spare

It takes a lot of drivers to cover all those channels, with eight speakers in the bar alone, including an oval-shaped driver matched by a ¾-inch tweeter for the left, center, and right channels. There are also dual upfiring drivers set at an angle. That’s an impressive collection at this price. For comparison, an extra $500 for Samsung’s HW-K950 gets you an additional 2.5-inch driver per channel, though Vizio also includes dual-passive radiators at the sides to beef up midbass, as well as a ported center channel.

Eight speakers in the bar alone is an impressive collection at this price.

The SB46514’s satellite speakers add four more drivers (two of which are upfiring), while the subwoofer cabinet sports a 10-inch woofer — a massive cone for a soundbar system that outdoes (as far as we can remember) every other bar we’ve come across.

As referenced above, there are multiple ways to connect, including digital Optical and Coaxial inputs, 3.5mm analog connection, and Bluetooth to go along with Wi-Fi streaming. There’s also Ethernet, as well an HDMI input to connect a component directly to the bar for uncompressed sound, though we would have liked to have seen at least one more added at this price.

Vizio Dolby Atmos Soundbar
Rich Shibley/Digital Trends

Other features include 4K HDR passthrough (including HDR10 and Dolby Vision), and of course, Dolby Atmos decoding alongside Dolby TrueHD and Dolby Digital Plus. Most DTS formats are also supported, including DTS-HD, but DTS:X, the biggest Atmos rival, is not. When using the system’s Direct EQ mode, you’ll only get 5.1 sound from DTS:X content, but using Movie mode will allow Dolby processing to feed the height speakers for 5.1.4 sound. Frankly, DTS:X is getting harder and harder to find in the wild, anyway, and for those keeping score, Samsung’s HW-K950 only offers stereo DTS decoding.

Old-school control

Yet another indication that Vizio has saved its marbles for the sonic punch is the SB46514’s interface, which uses the same pedestrian interface as Vizio’s cheaper bars. All menu controls, including channel levels, Bluetooth pairing, and the bar’s sound processing modes (Movie, Music, and Direct, listed under “EQ Mode”), appear on the remote’s black-and-white screen that looks a bit like an ‘80s Game Boy. Corresponding LEDs on the bar’s left corner offer a vertical indicator for your levels, including a pair at the center that act as the zero meter for functions like left and right balance. It’s not exactly convenient, but it works.

If you’re watching TV, then decide to fire up your soundbar-connected game console, the unit won’t auto-switch to it.

Unlike most newer soundbars at this price point (or below), the bar doesn’t intuit input switching very well. For example, if you’re watching TV, then decide to fire up your soundbar-connected game console, the SB46514 won’t auto-switch to it, so you’ll need to keep the remote on hand. That said, control freaks like yours truly actually appreciate having more direct control of the system.

One parameter you can’t control, unfortunately, is the level of the height-channels. There’s plenty of leeway for the center channel, surrounds, and the subwoofer, but heights are set. We didn’t need to adjust them in testing, but this could equate to less Atmos return on investment for those with high ceilings.

Vizio Dolby Atmos Soundbar
Rich Shibley/Digital Trends

One other quirk is that turning Surround off doesn’t seem to do so. Instead, you’ll need to switch to Direct mode for stereo sound, even when streaming Spotify or other stereo sources. In fact, on occasion, the bar just seemed to default to surround, even when we’d previously chosen the Direct mode over Music or Movie modes. According to Vizio, the bar sometimes reads a stereo source as 5.1. We’d normally expect Music to default to stereo when Surround is turned off.

Performance

As we find often find ourselves saying about Vizio products, we didn’t mind a few quirks or lapses in luxury with the SB46514, because what it lacks in premium trappings, it makes up for in performance for your dollars: When it comes to offering clear, immersive, brute-force Atmos punch, this soundbar delivers.

Revving up the system with Dolby Laboratory’s luscious collection of demo tracks got our hearts racing from the get-go. We began with Dolby’s Amaze track, and the name was appropriate, as the system loaded our room with crashing thunder, whistling crickets and swirling wind, and pouring rain that started at eye-level before tricking us into staring toward the ceiling to watch the virtual drops careen down on us.

What the system lacks in premium trappings, it makes up for in performance.

While the small drivers inside the satellite speakers tend to lean a bit light when it comes to reproducing brass or lush strings, they flow wonderfully with the rest of the system, and their height speakers seemed to meet with the front-firing set in a perfect apex to brilliantly complete the 3D hemisphere of sound.

As we continued down the list of Atmos showcases, we marveled at how well the system held up to Samsung’s HW-N950 when it comes to sheer accuracy of the many effects in play. The Atmosphere demo, a set of animated musical balls bouncing in all directions allowed us to pinpoint each element perfectly in space, while the brash spaceships in the Horizon clip careened overhead with impressive gravitas.

Vizio Dolby Atmos Soundbar
Rich Shibley/Digital Trends

Speaking of gravitas, believe us when we say the SB46514’s subwoofer is for real. Whether pumping up the muscle-car engines of Star-Lord’s ship in our favorite Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 space battle, or reaching down into the basement with oak-like rigidity on The Weeknd’s Starboy at room-shaking volumes, those who like to jam out the bass will find a friend in that 10-inch sub.

The system does pretty well with less specialized soundscapes, too, though it comes down a few levels from the soaring heights proffered by our favorite Atmos scenes. Don’t get us wrong, there are plenty of details revealed by the bar’s front channels, and dialogue is always clear and present, but lesser-produced content like sitcoms or your local news broadcast sound a little flat and lack the scrumptious textures and colors you’d get from, say, a nice pair of bookshelf speakers or Atmos-free flagship soundbars at this price point.

The same can be said for less bass-heavy music like acoustic tracks or jazz. These tracks are perfectly listenable and accessible — we spent a few moments remarking on the lovely resonance in a guitar or piano track here and there — but it won’t wow you in the same way as the Atmos content. Still, if you’re here for compelling, palpable cinematic sound first, you won’t be disappointed with the sonic value on offer.

Our Take

Vizio’s 5.1.4 Dolby Atmos soundbar is a brute-force bomber with power to spare and a compelling dose of cinematic 3D audio. While the system doesn’t offer all the fancy features you’ll find in pricier Atmos bars, it brings the noise in all the right ways and does so at a price that comes in well below comparable systems in the space.

Is there a better alternative?

If you must have the top dog, you’ll want to check out Samsung’s oft-referenced HW-N950, which offers better features and improved performance for non-Atmos content. That said, we’d take Vizio’s SB46514 over Samsung’s previous HW-K950 at $500 less, and Vizio’s bar also beats the N950 when it comes to bass output. Vizio also has a 5.1.2 soundbar that costs just $500, though it’s also quite scaled down.

If you’re looking for impressive virtual sound for a bit less cash, you could also check out Sony’s powerful HT-Z9F, which goes for as little as $700, but can’t immerse you like a discrete surround system. Of course, there are also plenty of traditional Atmos systems on offer, but they cost a lot more and take up more space to boot.

How long will it last?

While the build quality is more midrange than premium, Vizio’s 5.1.4 soundbar should last a good while, and features like 4K HDR passthrough and Atmos will keep it current for years.

Should you buy it?

Yes. If you’re looking for the absolute most bang for your Atmos buck in a 5.1.4, all-in-one solution, Vizio’s SB46514-F6 will be hard to beat.

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