Upper mid-range soundbar/subwoofer combi has no trouble immersing you in cinematic audio
Soundbars continue to be the home entertainment sound system of choice for most people. Even those with a serious multichannel setup may well have a soundbar in another room to bolster a TV without the fuss of amps and speakers. But not all claim to create a surround sound experience – a feature which tops the spec sheet of Samsung's HW-N650.
This £700 system packs Acoustic Beam Technology (ABT). Developed by Samsung’s California-based Audio Lab, the system uses two horizontal pipes with a tweeter firing down the length of each. The pipes are tuned with a series of holes on their upper edge, acting like a flute. As the holes are different sizes, they resonate at different frequencies, and output from adjacent holes combines to give directivity to the sound. Surround sound information is aimed upwards and out towards the sides of the soundbar, reflecting off walls and ceilings to, the brand says, create a surround effect. And, yes, it works. A decent-sized room is preferable for the sound to expand into something resembling an immersive soundstage, but the effect is noticeable even in a smaller space.
Give the HW-N650 a Blu-ray signal and Dolby and DTS formats are decoded into 5.1, with surround channel information fed to the ABT tubes. Atmos and DTS:X formats default to the standard 5.1 core. Stereo sources are upmixed using Samsung’s ABT steering algorithm to create a pseudo surround sound from pretty much any source. If you do want to upgrade to more traditional rear speakers, however, Samsung SWA-8500S wireless package is an optional extra.
The rest of the N650’s specification list befits its fairly premium asking price. Described as offering Panoramic Theatre Sound, this 5.1 design claims a healthy 200W of amplification in the 'bar itself. Its eight drivers each have their own power amp – one each for the ABT tweeters and bi-amped for the mid-range and high-frequency units of the front LCR channels. Build quality is solid, the unit feels weighty for its size and at 110cm wide it’s ideal for largescreen TVs.
For device hookup there's a single optical digital audio port, a 3.5mm stereo input, and HDMI in/out with 4K (but not HDR) video passthrough. The HDMI output supports ARC. Bluetooth and USB are also provided.
If those connections are not enough for TV use, and you own a recent Samsung TV, you can connect wirelessly, eliminating TV-to-soundbar cables altogether. And the HW-N650 has another trick up its tubes if connected to a current Samsung TV. Detecting metadata on Blu-ray film and gaming titles, the N650 will automatically switch to game mode or movie mode as the disc boots up. This could be ideal for those using their games console also as a BD player.
Control is by Samsung’s sleek little remote, Samsung’s Audio Remote app (via Bluetooth), or manual buttons on the side when the remote has gone AWOL. A three-character LED display in blue shines through the metal grille to the right side of the bar. This stays illuminated for a few seconds after any key-press and then switches off so as not to distract viewing. Wall-mount brackets are also supplied.
The compact, wireless-only sub has a whole lot less to shout about. It is an innocuous box with a 6.5in bass driver and its own 160W power amp. The rear panel is clean save for the mains socket, wireless link button and large, flared reflex port.
With the benefit of a Samsung Q7 TV, the HW-N650 does indeed offer a seamless setup and operational experience. The bar’s remote is idiot-proof and, connected to a PS4, it switched between gaming and standard EQ modes automatically. The Audio Remote app looks slick but was far less impressive in operation; while it functioned okay once connected, it disconnected itself often and would declare ‘not supported file format’ when playing FLAC music, despite actually playing the track anyway.
Yet the HW-N650 more than makes up for this niggle with a wholesale sonic improvement over any standard TV performance. As we've come to expect from Samsung's Audio Lab products, its solid sound is blessed with impressive fidelity. There is none of the ‘cuppy’ character of low-cost models, and it really sings with stereo music. The subwoofer rolls along with the show as much as it can, but its sonics are a bit one-note and boomy compared to the more sophisticated soundbar.
The litmus test is surround sound material, where the ABT system comes into its own. Using the cleanly crafted and precision-engineered soundscape of Paddington 2 (Ultra HD Blu-ray), the N650 doesn't disappoint in impact or enveloping surround. The balance is neutral and punchy, the dialogue articulate, and the sub adds hammer-weight to action albeit with a rubber mallet rather than a sledge. Close your eyes and the effects-laden barbershop scene is delivered with a wide soundstage and a feeling that the soundscape is emerging from a whole lot more enclosures than you're using.
It’s not a full 5.1 system experience, though. There isn’t the defined and accurately positioned effects behind and to the sides one would expect from a discrete setup. The N650 does pump up the ambient information to create an immersive soundfield, though.
Like many reflective surround sound implementations, the performance here will be very dependent on room positioning (for instance, when a door was left open on one side of my room, it had a clear negative impact on the Samsung's presentation), but it definitely works. My only question would be how much better (or not) is the surround sound effect from the complex ABT system, compared to a more traditional, angled driver array?
With a re-run of Thor: Ragnarok (Ultra HD Blu-ray) in full flight, it’s a bit of a moot point, though. The N650 is highly entertaining. It is at its most immersive through calmer scenes; the ambience of the great chamber where Thor is hanging by chains in the opening sequences is well defined. When the going gets tough, such as the gladiator fight against Hulk, it does find itself a little out of its depth as effects tends to blur together. Experimenting with the tone settings, I suspect the subwoofer is the weak link here as its gets swamped by LFE-heavy scenes. The large rear port makes the cabinet quite excitable and, ironically, I found it sounded tightest with its port pointing into the room and the driver facing a wall. That’s not a great look though…
Samsung’s Acoustic Beam Technology can be effective at creating surround sound ambience in the right room, and if you really can’t install rear speakers it is a nice addition. Yet the HW-N650’s real sonic charms are perhaps its solid, nuanced front-of-house sound and articulate dialogue – not to mention ease of operation. The HW-N650 is no budget soundbar solution but its performance prowess and slick simplicity make it a worthy contender at the price.
We say: Samsung's ABT gives a good impression of surround sound but the N650’s real strengths lie in its solid sonic presence and excellent ease of use. LFE is a bit unrefined.
Drive units: 5 x tweeters; 3 x midbass units
Onboard power (claimed): 6 x 30W + 2 x 10W
Connections: HDMI input; HDMI output; USB; optical digital audio input; 3.5mm jack
Dolby TrueHD/DTS-HD MA: No – downmixed
Separate subwoofer: Yes. 6.5in woofer; 160W amplifier
Remote control: Yes
Dimensions: 1,100(w) x 59(h) x 100(d)mm
Features: Acoustic Beam Technology; wireless connection from Samsung TVs; wireless subwoofer; game mode; Bluetooth; wall bracket supplied; HDCP 2.2; Audio Return Channel (ARC); WAV, MP3, WMA, OGG, FLAC and AAC file support; 42Hz-20kHz claimed frequency response; Samsung Audio Remote app
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