Samsung MS650 Soundbar: Australian Review

Samsung's been making soundbars for a while -- and it sells the most of any A/V brand in Australia. Most of its soundbars have additional speakers or subwoofers to add a bit of extra audio oomph, but not the new MS650. Designed to operate without a subwoofer and still pump out dat bass, it's an all-in-one soundbar for small homes and apartments. But is it a waste of your time and effort?

What Is It?

The $799 Samsung HW-MS650 Soundbar Sound+ is the entry level in Samsung's Sound+ line-up, a series of soundbars that don't ship with separate subwoofers but instead try to get as much low-frequency oomph into a single unit as is humanly possible. With computerised frequency measurement and tuning done at Samsung's Audio Lab in Los Angeles, the company is able to optimise the woofer and tweeter drivers in the 9-speaker MS650 to sound better -- clearer and more detailed, and with lower bass extension with less physical speaker driver distortion. These are all good things, possible through the power of computers and a new approach to designing audio tech.

At 1060x130x78mm, the MS650 is quite chunky for a soundbar; it'll fit comfortably underneath any TV of around 50 inches and above, although it'll pair nicely with a 55- to 65-inch screen the best. Anything else might look a bit too small or a bit too big by comparison. Similarly, at 6.2kg, it's pretty hefty in weight -- but that's a good thing, since it's not like you're going to actually pick it up any time other than when you first install it. The dark grey gunmetal SM650 has a finely perforated metal grille at the front and on the top, although its nine speakers are all only forward-firing.

It has HDMI in and out for modern TVs with Audio Return Channel (ARC), as well as a single optical digital audio input and an analog 3.5mm audio input. Bluetooth either handles temporary smartphone/tablet connection or permanent wireless connection to your TV. Like Samsung's other Sound+ soundbars, you can plug your Samsung TV directly into the MS650 and then plug it into your wall's power outlet, using a single socket rather than two. And then, if you're using a Samsung TV, you can control the whole ordeal using a single remote control -- a nice bonus. Pro-tip: keep your other remote handy just in case, since you don't know when you'll need a specific button on it either for your TV or the soundbar.

In Australia, you'll be able to buy a separate SWA-W700 subwoofer for $799 that'll extend any Sound+ soundbar's low-frequency response as far as 27Hz, as well as a $249 SWA-9000 wireless rear speaker kit that'll give you a more realistic 5.1-channel-esque surround sound experience when you're watching or listening to content mastered for it. If you just want the soundbar, though, you don't need either of these to get good sound -- don't consider them as mandatory inclusions to your shopping list. I mean, sure, they're nice, though...

What's It Good At?

The time and effort that Samsung has put into designing the MS650's speaker drivers and then subsequently tweaking the sound that they produce clearly shows the first time you listen to a piece of music on it. As a general rule, soundbars are pretty trash when it comes to anything more than TV and movies -- they're optimised to push out relatively clear dialogue given their many size and packaging constraints, but their enclosures just don't -- usually -- have the volume to push out any kind of mid-range sound. The MS650 is different: it actually sounds good for music, and that's doubly notable given the fact that straight out of the box, it doesn't include a subwoofer to hit any properly low notes.

Also notable for a soundbar, which is by its nature a single speaker enclosure of a limited size, is the fact that the MS650's sweet spot is impressively wide. If you're looking for something with clear stereo imaging you should still opt for a properly separated set of speakers It doesn't have any hot spots in its centre like most soundbars do, where they'll sound significantly better and clearer than any other off-axis position. Sure, you'll still want to sit in the centre 45 degrees of its Samsung achieves this with some nifty wide-range tweeters that have a relatively low crossover before those mid-range drivers take over.

The maximum volume that the MS650 can hit is impressive for a soundbar, too. There aren't many soundbars that sound good in anything beyond a small living space -- they're regularly at the limits of their usefulness in the average Australian living room, in my experience -- but the MS650 can top out at an impressively high max power. It does that all the while not distorting significantly or noticeably, which is another testament to Samsung's tuning work and the engineering that's gone into making a soundbar that impresses in just about every category you could want a soundbar to.

Its HDMI input and output is both ARC compatible and supports 4K passthrough, so this soundbar is future-proofed as far as the screen and source you connect to it both go. Some other soundbars with HDMI pass-through don't support 4K, which means you'll be up for a less convenient wiring mess hooking your source up to the TV and then running a separate cable to your soundbar. Having Bluetooth and optical digital and 3.5mm analog covers all the major bases when it comes to hooking up a screen to the MS650, and I daresay it's just about idiot-proof. Of course, plugging in a cable is than it is hooking up Bluetooth -- more on that later.

What's It Not Good At?

Samsung's Bluetooth connection between soundbar and TV makes sense, at least in theory -- it saves you from hooking up another cable. But it's finicky, and it doesn't always work, and in reality it just makes more sense to connect your TV to your soundbar with HDMI and call it a day. I've simply not had the same fire-and-forget luck with a Bluetooth hookup as I have the good ol'-fashioned wired way. It takes a few seconds to get its act together when you turn the TV on. Oh, and it only works with Samsung TVs, obviously. It's not a bad thing, but it's not the godsend you might think it could be.

At $799, it's also at the upper end of what you should be looking to pay for a single-speaker soundbar. $1000 is the absolute top of that price bracket -- and this is the lofty territory occupied by its bigger and nastier MS750 older brother or the Sonos PLAYBAR -- but even $800 is a lot to ask for anyone already spending at least a couple of thousand dollars on a new TV. It distinguishes itself from the crowd with that built-in bass, too, but if you want proper bass then the add-on SWA-W700 subwoofer is a $799 extra ask; the rear speakers are $249 more. At that kind of money, you really should abandon the MS650 and just jump straight to the HW-K950 Dolby Atmos setup.

Samsung includes a Multiroom app for controlling all the MS650 soundbar's features while you're away from it, but I genuinely found it more trouble than it was worth. After initially connecting to the soundbar and making a couple of changes, it would hang and then subsequently crash. I tried it on a couple of different phones and still no dice. Stick to the remote -- you know that it works, at least. In theory, the MS650 supports multi-room audio, but I didn't get a chance to try it. Similarly, you can hook a Samsung TV up for wireless audio streaming over Bluetooth, and that works well, but it's a finicky setup and not as straightforward as cables.

Similarly, any speaker setup beyond the actual plug-in, fire-and-forget setup is a little complex. The slim candybar remote that Samsung includes with the MS650 includes dedicated volume (great) and bass (good) adjustment, but if you want to adjust individual channels -- to give the centre channel a little more oomph versus left and right, for example -- you'll be tapping half a dozen buttons and looking at the MS650's tiny LED read-out on its extreme right to see what you're changing. It's fine, just not great -- why not have more buttons on the remote?

Should You Buy It?

The $799 Samsung MS650 is a soundbar at the end of the day, and by pure amplifier power and speaker size and enclosure size it's not going to stand up to the power of a proper home theatre system -- that is, a system that has full-size floorstanding or bookshelf speakers and a full-size home theatre subwoofer. But that's telling in itself; the fact that Samsung has been able to create a small single-speaker system that, like the $999 Sonos PLAYBAR that has long been my benchmark soundbar, can handle enough bass that you don't need a dedicated subwoofer in a small listening space.

Soundbars sound their best in smaller living spaces -- apartments and dedicated TV rooms, not large combined kitchen-and-living-and-dining rooms like Australia's massive suburban homes have. The MS650 will sound good there, but if you've got a big space you'll need to think bigger, either by adding some rear speakers or by choosing a more powerful system altogether. But across the board, for its size and for its price, Samsung's MS650 impresses in the overall quality of its sound and the convenience of its setup. If you've got a Samsung TV and you want it to sound better, this soundbar gives you a clear upgrade path.