This Soundbar Proves You Can Set Up a Solid Home Theatre for Cheap

This Soundbar Proves You Can Set Up a Solid Home Theatre for Cheap
Photo: Victoria Song/Gizmodo

If you’re not an audiophile, navigating the world of speakers and home entertainment can be insufferable. Everyone’s got an opinion, and it’s easy to get turned around by buzzwords like “simulated height” or “360-degree immersive sound.” What if all you want is a system that does its job, won’t look hideous in your home, and won’t blow a gaping hole in your wallet? That’s Vizio’s V-Series V51x-J6 in a nutshell.

For $US200 ($270), the V51x-J6 is a 5.1 channel system. In addition to the soundbar, you get a wireless subwoofer and two satellite speakers. Like with most systems, you get the ability to choose between various preset sound profiles. The soundbar, satellites, and subwoofer are also fairly compact, making this a good option for apartment dwellers or anyone who doesn’t want their home theatre system to stand out. But to get that affordable price, you will have to sacrifice features like support for eARC, Dolby Atmos, and DTS:X, as well as fancier upgrades like automatic room adjustments and built-in voice assistant support. Whether or not these omissions matter depends entirely on how you plan to use this system.

Editor’s Note: Stay tuned for local Australian pricing and availability.

Vizio V-Series 5.1 V51x-J6

WHAT IS IT?

A budget home entertainment system

PRICE

$US200 ($270)

LIKE

Easy setup. Compact subwoofer and satellite speakers. Good sound quality for the price.

NO LIKE

Lacks Full HDMI In port so no high-quality passthrough. Not future proof as doesn't support Dolby Atmos, no eArc support, and no wifi connectivity (which means no AirPlay 2, Chromecast, etc.).

A Basic Soundbar for Simple Needs

If you’ve seen one soundbar, you know what the V51x-J6 looks like. Spoiler: It’s a long black box with controls on top. The subwoofer is a bigger black box, and the satellites are small black boxes. They’re mostly made of textured plastic with fabric covering the front.

The soundbar itself measures 36 by 2.2 by 3.2 inches (WHD), and should easily fit on most TV stands. It’s also not too tall, so you don’t have to worry about it blocking your screen unless you have one of those extremely low-profile TVs. Meanwhile, the subwoofer is much smaller than most others I’ve tested at 7.7 by 8.5 by 7.7 inches (WHD). Unless you have a particularly cramped room, you should easily be able to find a place to stick this thing. Likewise, the satellites are teeny weeny, at just 4.8 by 2.2 by 3.2 inches (WHD). I was able to put them on our nightstands and they were discreet enough that they didn’t stick out like a sore thumb. You do have the option to wall mount, but I can’t say how easy that process is as my landlord would have my head.

The subwoofer is small and compact. (Photo: Victoria Song/Gizmodo) The subwoofer is small and compact. (Photo: Victoria Song/Gizmodo)

Setup is ridiculously easy. There aren’t too many ports in the back, so all you have to do is plug it in, and hook it up to one of your TV’s HDMI ports. The subwoofer is wireless, so you don’t have to do anything but plug it in. As for the satellites, they’re colour-coded so you just plug the appropriate cable into the matching port on the back of the subwoofer. The most complicated thing about this whole process is hiding the wires.

The lack of fancy features helps keep things simple. You don’t have to wave your iPhone around your room to calibrate sounds like with the Sonos Arc, and your limited port options in the back of the soundbar mean you can’t get too complicated with your setup. All you have is an optical audio in, 3.5mm aux port, HDMI ARC port, and USB-A port — that’s it. There’s no option for ethernet, nor is there a Full HDMI In port. That only really matters if you want to use this as a hub for several devices or for 4K or HDR10 passthrough. You can technically plug in a smart speaker and use the soundbar to amplify, but that’s not quite the same thing as having Alexa or Google Assistant built in. Also, don’t expect to use wifi, AirPlay 2, or Chromecast. This baby is Bluetooth only.

The satellite speakers are also compact and unobtrusive. (Photo: Victoria Song/Gizmodo) The satellite speakers are also compact and unobtrusive. (Photo: Victoria Song/Gizmodo)

Another note: You can’t play Dolby Atmos or DTS: X content on the V51x-J6. That may or may not mean much to you! There’s a lot of hullabaloo over Dolby Atmos and spatial sound right now. However, unless you have a device or app that can handle the format or content that’s optimised for it, it doesn’t really matter. This soundbar supports Dolby Digital, which is the most common form of surround sound. Will it be as immersive or impressive? No, and it’s not exactly future-proof either. However, it’ll get the job done and it’s the simplest option for, say, a parent whose eyes glaze over when you try to explain what Dolby Atmos is in the first place.

For $300, It Sounds Pretty Dang Good

This might not be the soundbar you’d trot out to impress your friends, but that doesn’t mean the sound quality is bad. On the contrary — it’s actually decent.

As far as sound profile goes, the V51x-J6 keeps things neutral with a little extra bass. That makes it suited to handle a variety of content, and there are also several presets to enhance music, dialogue, games, bass — you name it. If all you want is clearer audio for your TV shows, this is a definite step up from the average TV’s native speakers. Voices sound clear, so it’s good if you watch a lot of documentaries or dramas heavy on dialogue. I tend to watch shows with captions on because accents can be hard to parse on my TV’s crappy speakers, but the dialogue EQ made a noticeable difference. I watched several episodes of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown and Ted Lasso, and everything from Bourdain’s mumbling to Ted’s quirky twang sounded much clearer.

The Vizio remote isn't anything special, but makes controlling presets easy. (Photo: Victoria Song/Gizmodo) The Vizio remote isn’t anything special, but makes controlling presets easy. (Photo: Victoria Song/Gizmodo)

It’s not quite as good for more cinematic content, but it still does an alright job. On a normal volume, you won’t get any distortion in explosions and you get a hefty rumble from the subwoofer (though it’s not as impressive as some other systems I’ve tested). You run into some distortion at higher volumes, but that’s not unheard of with speakers. You also won’t need to crank up the volume unless you plan on sticking this in a large room. I had this set up in my bedroom, which is medium-sized, and never needed to go too loud to hear things clearly.

The soundstage is also good. Is it quite as detailed as what you’d get with a 7.1 or Dolby Atmos system? No, but I suspect many budget-minded folks won’t care. I watched several space and lightsaber battles from various Star Wars films and you can tell if laser pew pews are coming from left rear. Lightsabers hum. In the cave scene on Ahch-to in The Last Jedi, you can hear the Rey clones snapping in sequence. Overall, action scenes emphasise the bass a bit too much for me, to the point where it can sound muddled. This is a quibble though, and it’s not so bad as to distract you from what you’re watching.

The top of the soundbar features physical controls. (Photo: Victoria Song/Gizmodo) The top of the soundbar features physical controls. (Photo: Victoria Song/Gizmodo)

The V51x-J6 handles music well too, though again, the muddy bass issue sometimes rears its head. It’s not too noticeable on poppier songs — like Exo’s “The Eve” — but it definitely shows up on bassier tracks like Joji’s “Slow Dancing. in the Dark.” The only way to listen to music is via Bluetooth, however, and while it’s easy to pair to your phone I had a few connection issues. Whenever I’d switch to a different app, there’d be a hiccup in the music. Again, not a dealbreaker, but something to note given that many Bluetooth speakers and soundbars now support wifi and protocols like Apple’s AirPlay 2.

Easy, Convenient, and Affordable — But Not Futureproof

This is the soundbar I’d buy my mum, who absolutely does not want a soundbar because it’s “too techy” but complains about not being able to hear any audio on the Samsung TV she’s had for 10 years. It’s also the one I’d recommend to my friend who’d like better sound than her tinny TV, but lives in a tiny, cramped studio apartment. Basically, this is a good option for folks who don’t want to spend a lot, don’t want a lot of fuss, and don’t have a lot of space.

I’d also recommend it to anyone who’s just dabbling in the idea of a home theatre, but is intimidated by the outrageous price tags you find on some soundbars these days. You can’t build it out over time, like you can with the equally affordable Roku 5.1 Surround Sound System, but the ease of setup and compact subwoofer/satellites is a good tradeoff. It’s also a decent option if you want something cheap to use with an older TV that for whatever reason, you’re holding off on upgrading.

Photo: Victoria Song/Gizmodo Photo: Victoria Song/Gizmodo

It’s not worth it, however, if you’re someone who wants to hook up your gaming PC to your TV and play Halo in Dolby Atmos. (Cough, my husband, cough.) Anyone who wants high-quality passthrough will also be disappointed, as this isn’t capable of handling that. If you just bought a shiny new TV with eARC ports, this is also not the best use of your moolah.

Dolby Atmos-compatible systems are getting cheaper and more abundant by the year. Companies are increasingly experimenting with Atmos content. Depending on what you’re looking for, there are several other options for under $US1,000 ($1,352) that might suit your needs. For instance, there’s the $US300 ($406) Panasonic SoundSlayer for gamers, the $US800 ($1,082) Sonos Arc for people who might want to build out a multi-room system, and Sony’s $US600 ($811) HT-G700 for folks who want something that sounds great but doesn’t take up a lot of space. But honestly, the best budget option akin to the V51x-J6 is probably Vizio’s slightly more expensive M-Series M51a-H6. It’s nearly identical, but supports Dolby Atmos, has more drivers, and a slightly larger subwoofer. It’s got a suggested retail price of $US350 ($473), but you can find it cheaper if you hunt around.

In any case, you have options, but $US200 ($270) for decent 5.1 surround sound is hard to beat. If what you really value is savings and simplicity, you could do far worse than the V51x-J6.