While most Dolby Atmos soundbars still cost more than $1,000, Vizio sets a new standard for value with its $500 SB36512-F6. The unit doesn't offer the fine detail that more-expensive soundbars do, but it's a relatively cheap way to try out the latest surround-sound technology.
You can't tell just by looking at it that the SB36512-F6 is any different than Vizio's existing soundbars that have surround sound. The 36 x 3.2 x 2.5-inch main soundbar is narrower than most Atmos-enabled systems, making it a good fit for smaller rooms, but that size may limit the impact of the soundbar when it's paired with a large screen. (Vizio will also offer a 46-inch version, so look for that if you have the space).
In keeping with the size of the main soundbar, the 7 x 11.4 x 11.4-inch wireless subwoofer and 5.7 x 2.7 x 2.6-inch satellites are also on the small side.
Two upward-firing drivers on the top of the unit add the height aspect of Atmos sound. The drivers bounce sound off the ceiling, a common approach for soundbars to handle height in the mix.
The soundbar includes one HDMI input and one HDMI ARC output, as well as an optical digital audio input and a 3.5mm stereo-analog input. To actually hear full Atmos, you have to use HDMI (in addition to source material and a playback device that are properly encoded). The unit also connects wirelessly via Bluetooth or over Wi-Fi through Chromecast Audio.
For a relatively small soundbar, the SB36512-F6 creates a full sound. The upward-firing speakers aid in that, and the tiny satellites make a big difference in creating an encompassing viewing experience. The subwoofer produces a good rumble, though it can be a bit muddy.
Thanks to that subwoofer, I could feel the impact of Danny Rand's Iron Fist slamming into the ground. The upward-firing drivers also helped the sound fill my room. Dialogue sounded clear, although the sound field wasn't as wide as on other, similarly priced soundbars, such as the $400 Sonos Beam.
Thanks to the subwoofer, I could feel the impact of Danny Rand's Iron Fist slamming into the ground... As a leaf fluttered, I clearly sensed its movement around the room.
As I watched clips from Dolby that are intended to show off Atmos mixes, the SB36512-F6's satellite speakers really improved the experience over other Atmos soundbars. Those systems use processing instead of actual speakers for the surround channels. As a leaf fluttered on screen, I clearly sensed its movement around the room.
The SB36512-F6 is a capable music machine, too, though the bass tends to dominate. On Silk City's "Electricity," the bass line rumbled nicely, and Dua Lipa's vocals were clear — though narrow in the mix. Similarly, the instruments on Amanda Shires' "Parking Lot Pirouette" sounded full, but her vocals didn't soar as much as on the Sonos Beam.
Setup and Features
To get the most out of the SB36512-F6, you'll want to connect the unit to your TV's HDMI ARC input; the optical digital audio cable can't handle Atmos encoding.
Vizio's wireless surround-sound approach uses wires to connect the satellites to the wireless subwoofer. This is not ideal for subwoofer placement, but that's one of the trade-offs you make when you get a $500 Atmos soundbar.
Vizio includes several ways to adjust the sound to your environment, including levels for the center, subwoofer and surround volume; however, there's no way to adjust the level of the upward-firing speakers — another small sacrifice you make. As a result, the Atmos experience isn't as precise here as on more-expensive systems.
The unit includes Movie, Music and Direct sound modes; you'll want to choose Direct when watching a film with Atmos. To engage the height speakers when you're not watching an Atmos video, you can choose Virtual, though that works only when you also use Movie mode.
Vizio's remote lets you access the many functions that the soundbar can perform, but the remote's poorly lit and small display is hard to see. Instead, I recommend downloading the free SmartCast app, which makes accessing the features — and seeing which modes are active — easier .
Vizio's first Atmos soundbar is an achievement, because it shows that you can get the latest surround-sound technology without spending $1,000. This soundbar offers plenty of features and ways to adjust the sound. While it can't match the sound quality and precision that more-expensive Atmos systems offer, it still delivers an encompassing experience for $500.
We're still in the early days of Atmos soundbars, and we can expect more-affordable units to arrive soon. In the meantime, Vizio has set the bar for how an affordable Atmos soundbar should perform.