Samsung HW-K950 Dolby Atmos Soundbar: Australian Review

Soundbars are great. They don't add to the bulk of your home entertainment system, since they can easily hide away underneath your TV, but they add a huge boost in sound quality over your TV's tinny integrated speakers. If you want surround sound, some have wireless rear speakers. If you want Dolby Atmos for overhead surround sound, though -- you need something special. And that's where the Samsung K950, a slim soundbar that can bounce sound off your ceiling, comes in.

What Is It?

Specifications
  • Power: 500 Watts (RMS)
  • Speakers: Soundbar, 2x rear surround (wireless), subwoofer
  • Surround Sound: Yes, up to Dolby Atmos (5.1.4-channel)
  • Bluetooth: Yes
  • Wi-Fi: Yes
  • Connectivity: 2x HDMI 2.0 input, HDMI output (ARC), optical audio input, 3.5mm audio input

The retail box for Samsung's $1999 HW-K950 Dolby Atmos soundbar doesn't just include a soundbar. It includes the soundbar, a subwoofer and two wireless rear speakers, as well as a remote control, HDMI cable and wall mounting kit -- the soundbar itself can be placed in front of your TV on an entertainment, or mounted below one on a wall. At 120mm long it's the right size to fit underneath a 55-inch TV or larger, and at a 81x129mm cross section it'll hide underneath your TV bezel without getting in the way too much. That doesn't mean it's light and flimsy, though -- it's actually reassuringly weighty.

That's because the K950 soundbar hides away 11 separately-amplified speakers in its own chassis, two of which are angled upwards diagonally to project sound up towards the ceiling of your living space, while each of the wireless rear speakers has both forward-firing and upward-firing drivers. When most soundbars have three or five drivers at best, it's a big advantage for the Samsung. 500 Watts of audio power is pretty damn decent for a combined soundbar-and-subwoofer setup, and it's enough to drive those extra positional speakers as well.

The K950's sound was tuned at Samsung's million-dollar sound lab to get the best out of its speaker setup and to achieve Dolby Atmos certification that sets this soundbar apart from the rest of the home audio crowd. To get that overhead sound, you'll need a flat overhead roof anywhere between 2.3 metres and 4.3 metres in height, says Samsung, although the centre of that is the sweet spot and an "acoustically reflective" material like plasterboard or hardwood is best.

The Samsung K950 is the first soundbar from the smartphone and home entertainment technology giant to include built-in support for Dolby Atmos, the latest and greatest in surround sound. Atmos is an audio standard that adds in audio tracks not just for stereo front and left and centre or rear left and right surround channels, but also for overhead sound -- and that means the K950 can bounce sound off your ceiling using upward-firing speakers hidden away inside its soundbar and wireless rear speaker enclosures. The effect is best on a low, flat ceiling, but it should work in a range of different living environments and the setup can easily be tuned for the best possible sound.

What's It Good At?

When you're playing a movie with an appropriately well-mastered audio track -- and since the K950 supports Dolby Atmos, a Blu-ray or 4K Blu-ray with that codec supported is the best choice you can make -- their Samsung K950 sounds pretty damn good, better than most other sound bars on the market. The wireless subwoofer does an excellent job of adding in punchy but not boomy low-frequency oomph to movies and music alike, and the rear speakers provide generally excellent (but not always -- more on that later) ambient fill for movies. As a standalone stereo experience, the soundbar is very good, but the addition of the wireless rear speakers elevates the surround sound experience massively.

And then you get to Dolby Atmos. If you've gone from good with stereo to great at surround, Atmos just takes that to the next level again. With a good movie, or even with a good demo track to really emphasise the overhead-channel value that Atmos adds to surround sound tracks, the K950 sounds excellent. It's the biggest praise possible to say that it sounds like it has speakers hidden away in the ceiling above your head, especially when well-coded Atmos surround tracks -- like the hackneyed example of a helicopter flying around the room and overhead -- show it off to its best effect. Atmos media is going to become more prevalent in the next couple of years, whether it's through a high quality audio track on a Blu-Ray or even in a streaming environment on Netflix and the like, and the K950 is well positioned to stay future-proof and relevant.

If you're the kind of person that only has a couple of A/V devices connected to their TV, then the K950's connectivity has you taken care of. Two HDMI inputs and an Audio Return Control HDMI output means modern devices can connect to the K950 devices and then throughput video to your TV, and older devices can use either of the soundbar's legacy optical audio or 3.5mm auxiliary analog audio jack. There's Bluetooth too, and multi-room Wi-Fi, that is easy to switch to and throw some music from your phone or tablet if you have friends over and need a bit of ambience. As a central speaker system in your living space, whether it's a larger house or a smaller apartment, these are the important things to have, and the K950 ticks those boxes nicely.

I want to give a special shout-out to the K950's standalone wireless subwoofer. The subs that come with soundbars are almost universally terrible, cheap flimsy enclosures with relatively tiny woofer drivers inside that try and cover far too wide a range of frequencies to make up for inadequacies in the soundbar's audio coverage. Because the K950's soundbar is chunky and heavy and hides some surprisingly large full-range driver, the subwoofer doesn't have to work so hard and can focus on lower frequencies -- at which it does an excellent job, definitely the best of any soundbar that I've heard from a mainstream home electronics brand. And that means your movies have excellent bass, which is so important for that at-home blockbuster feeling, but it also makes for a soundbar that can handle most kinds of music without sounding awful. Oh, and there's also a night-time mode that cuts out bass to keep your sleeping family and neighbours from killing you.

What's It Not Good At?

If I had a criticism of the K950's sound, it would be that the rear speakers are under-utilised in their stock form. Smaller satellite speakers are almost always just used for fill rather than for actual atmospheric effect, but the K950's rears are quite large -- almost like actual bookshelf speakers, with forward- and upward-firing two-inch full-range drivers. With a bit of tweaking and a volume boost to the rears, they really come into their own and improve the surround sound quality of the speaker system overall -- especially for music.

The Samsung K950 has some pretty tough opposition from one particular soundbar, one that has been a top recommendation of ours for quite a few years now. Sonos' soundbar is roughly the same size as Samsung's, and while it doesn't have the K950's upward-firing speaker drivers it is just as powerful, possibly more so, in the clarity of treble and the quantity of bass that it has. I wouldn't normally compare these two products since they're almost aimed at different markets, but a K950 versus a Playbar and Play:1 wireless rear speakers does fulfil that same niche at roughly the same price.

The difference between the K950 and the Playbar is difficult to find a clear winner for, to be honest: the Playbar is more powerful as an all-in-one unit, smaller and cheaper and has the advantage of Sonos' excellent multi-speaker wireless integration, but the K950 has the advantage of a standalone subwoofer for much more powerful lower bass overall and is a much more versatile unit when it comes to plugging in multiple HDMI input devices. What you need most will determine which you should pick. It's worth noting, though, that both your Blu-ray player and TV will have to support Dolby Atmos decoding for the K950 to play the positional audio.

Also, as soundbars go -- even soundbars that bridge the gap to a full home-theatre-in-a-box like the K950 does -- this one is pricy. When you're paying $2000 you can build yourself a pretty serious audiophile-grade two-channel home speaker setup, or even a basic surround sound system from your local hi-fi enthusiast store. To make the K950 really worth it, you need to want the small size and convenience that the soundbar form factor brings, but also the extra surround audio fidelity of Dolby Atmos -- for which you'll need a high-quality Blu-Ray player and library of movies. And look, you'll probably be pairing it with a massive pricey TV in the first place. So it's an expensive proposition overall.

Should You Buy It?

Samsung HW-K950
90

Price: $1999

Like
  • Excellent sound for its size.
  • Dolby Atmos overhead sounds great.
  • Excellent wireless subwoofer.
Don't Like
  • Rear speakers need a volume boost.
  • Strong competition from non-Atmos alternatives.
  • Expensive.

The $1999 Samsung K950 is an expensive piece of home audio hardware, but it justifies its price. It's one of only a precious few soundbars that you can buy with Dolby Atmos, and that means it's directly competing against an extremely small group of alternatives. Against the soundbar we think it should be compared against, from Sonos, it more than holds its own in terms of overall sound quality and distinguishes itself with the value-adding extra of Atmos.

As long as you have a TV and Blu-ray player that have Dolby Atmos support and that can take advantage of the video quality of a 4K HDR Blu-ray disc, then the HW-K950 is a worthwhile investment. You probably won't get as much value if you're just buying it to augment an existing TV, but splash out on it as part of the home theatre setup of your dreams. Its specs and design, and the fact that it actually sounds good, is what earned it a place in my own perfect home theatre setup.

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