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When soundbars first started their rise, they generally pretended to be a more home-friendly substitute for a full surround system, given that few living rooms really suited the installation of rear speakers and trails of cables around the room. These days the pretence of achieving surround from a front bar is often dropped, and soundbars have become promoted as a straightforward TV audio solution.
With the HW-K950, Samsung is squaring that circle, creating a soundbar which comes with not only a separate subwoofer but also a pair of rear speakers. None of these requires a connecting cable, as they are wirelessly linked with the soundbar, though they do each need a mains socket and cable, four in all.
And there’s more. The soundbar provides not just a tweeter and two midranges for each of three discrete front channels, it also has speakers on top to bounce height channels off your ceiling. So do the rear speakers. So yes, this K950 is a 5.1.4 Dolby Atmos soundbar.
The bar part of the set-up is solid and purposeful, yet applaudably discreet in being entirely black with no distinguishing marks except a quiet logo top left, which you won’t even see from your usual couch position. It is 121cm long and 13cm deep, while its 8cm height is low enough to keep it under the screen of a Samsung TV. (Note, however, that the enormous stand on the Samsung KS9000 TV with which we reviewed the K950 extended so far forward of the TV that you’d need a bench depth of 56cm to accommodate both the TV and the bar on the same surface.) Wall-mounting brackets are provided.
Knowing as a reviewer how long it can take to set up a complete 5.1-channel surround system, let alone the Atmos-enabled 5.1.4 configuration here, the Samsung was delightfully easy to get running, with a good manual explaining things fully, not just with incomprehensible pictograms. There are a number of possibilities, however, because in addition to the options of connecting your TV to the K950’s inputs by analogue minijack, optical digital or HDMI with the Audio Return Channel, there is a wireless option. Recent Samsung TVs equipped with the company’s multiroom audio system can also use your home Wi-Fi to send audio to the K950, since it has similar wireless multiroom abilities. These, plus Bluetooth streaming, allow app control and music streaming to the soundbar system as part of an extended Samsung multiroom system.
If you want to take advantage of true Dolby Atmos, however, you must use the soundbar’s HDMI connections. The K950 has two HDMI inputs and one output, all HDMI 2.0 sockets with HDCP2.2 support, so you can play UHD Blu-rays (most likely from a Samsung player!) or 4K content from games consoles through the system to your UHD TV.
We wired our sources in by HDMI, another HDMI to the Samsung TV’s ARC-equipped HDMI input, positioned the rears as indicated in the manual (between 90 and 110 degrees behind your listening position), connected the four power cables, and powered up the soundbar.
At this point you check the back of the sub and rear speakers to see what colour light they are showing. The satellites went solid blue immediately (connected), the subwoofer stayed red just long enough for us to read the manual re-pairing section of the guide, but then went blue on its own.
We switched the TV to free-to-air channels — and the sound was thin, the presenters tinny and nasal. It took about a minute of alarm to realise we hadn’t selected the ARC input on the soundbar, so were listening to the TV’s own speakers — duh! So, we selected ARC input and — delight, things sounded immediately ‘right’, a good balance of sound, with no obvious honk or bloat. The tennis was on, and if its commentary was just a little peaked and fizzy, the surrounding atmosphere was palpable, even when coming through in mere stereo.
We accessed Netflix through the Samsung TV’s Smart Hub and the 5.1 soundtracks came through to the K950 almost too strongly; the rears were a little hot with the surround effects; we moved them to a distance of 1.2m slightly behind us, which created a realistic and diffuse soundfield (though twin surrounds inevitably deliver a balanced soundfield only to one central position).
Massive bass pulses over the opening scene of Spectre were low and strong enough to feel physical, rather than merely audible, and this was with the sub level dialled down by one notch in our initial set-up. In Bond’s ensuing helicopter fight, the rear rotor does a good few spins of the surround stage, and the Samsung system delivered this with not quite ‘man walks around the room’ accuracy but with a real sense of home cinema steerage, something even clever front soundbars simply can’t do.
We got tough and gave it some music — most soundbars can make movies sound good, but not so much music. This one does, quite beautifully with our opening salvo of music from Netflix, before switching to Bluetooth and finding that to be slightly muddier and more likely to congest.
We then took a moment to load Samsung’s multiroom app. With this we got the K950 on our Wi-Fi network (second attempt) and then signed off Samsung’s alarming set of T&Cs (love that third-party recording and storing of everything we say clause, guys), in order to stream across the network and, with great success, from Tidal at CD quality (only the desktop Tidal accesses more so far, see p83), delivered with great musicality. Were this a pair of hi-fi speakers, we might point to a slight lack of lower mids so that male vocals are thinned a little, or a bass that is not musically fast enough (we would have ridden the bass level more according to individual songs had we not misunderstood the remote, see below). Really, from a soundbar arrangement this was impressive musical performance.
We even enjoyed engaging the ‘surround’ button, which spreads a stereo or 5.1 signal across all its speakers — and with the height speakers also lifting things vertically, there is a great sense of space added by this processing, and without the usual side effect of buggering up the sound too much. Generally preferring our audio as nature intended, we rarely touch this stuff, but it was hard not to like what it did with everything from Green Onions to ‘Lemonade’... Joni Mitchell’s Carey came out sounding positively quadrophonic. It was great for the tennis as well. (This option is disabled when playing Atmos soundtracks via HDMI.)
Less enchanting the various ‘Effects’, which just mess with the EQ, though the ‘Night’ mode has its uses, damping down the exuberance and excitement rather, to protect the innocent. There is also bass, treble and (forward only) audio sync. All these could be adjusted via the remote control.
This musical clarity and smoothness would seem to indicate a low distortion performance and significant power. We discourage, of course, taking much note of power claims on soundbars — most use the digital AV standard of measuring with up to 10% THD, which allows some wildly generous wattage claims compared with proper hi-fi standards. With the K950 the reverse measurement would be more interesting, to know how low is its distortion at a level which is loud but not too loud (somewhere below 40 on its scale of 50, see below); we suspect it would score creditably low.
Time to switch to true Dolby Atmos via Blu-ray. As our copy of Star Trek Beyond usefully reminded us when we selected its Atmos soundtrack, you must set your Blu-ray player to bitstream out and disable secondary audio. Gosh this was fun. Tannoy announcements came from the high ceilings of Yorktown arrivals lounge, the Enterprise’s whooping red alert popped out of the skies; the dialogue remained clear and the widespread music intact through most of the action. If not the crystallised hemisphere we’ve heard from true 5.1.4 or 5.2.4 Atmos in a dedicated room (at oodles of multiples of the price), it was thoroughly enjoyable and impressive from a soundbar package. And the Dolby Atmos test disc’s Leaf Trailer performed as perfect a loop around our heads as we’ve heard. The subwoofer is perhaps the weakest link, delivering a high level of bass even when tamed a notch or two, not going low enough for that truly stomach-frightening bottom octave, and consequently booming out rather too much in its efforts to do so.
The provided remote control confused us, and its hard ridges hurt our thumbs. The four-direction circle didn’t control volume, while pressing the ridged ‘Vol’ button usually muted it, but often wouldn’t then unmute it. Only after several days and downloading the longer manual did we find that the ridged button could be pivoted up and down to control volume; right dim we felt for not realising earlier. We had been using the Samsung TV’s remote, which communicated through to the soundbar for volume control and reliable muting. You’ll need the soundbar remote when streaming via Bluetooth, however, since that TV connection is then broken, and you use a combination of the soundbar remote and your smart device’s own volume controls. Having the volume right up on the soundbar gives you the full range from your smart device — much louder, but distorted. Of the 50 stops of level available, we reined it back to 42 (the answer, of course, to everything) and then had a good control range available from our iPhone without incurring the distortion. Doing this iteratively we also found that every time we left the Bluetooth input and returned, it required reselection on the iPhone. (We quite accept that this is likely our own fault for not having a Galaxy to hand.)
This soundbar is more than twice the price of the preceding models, and proves that if you have the budget to spend, you can achieve impressive performance and a heap of useful features, including Samsung’s multiroom system, and some less useful too. Enjoy the K950 as we did, there are a few key qualifying questions before you consider it. First, do you really want rear speakers in your lounge, remembering they’ll both need power connections and that only one person gets the sweet spot? Secondly do you have a Samsung TV, preferably a recent one? Because it was much easier to use in partnership than on its own.
Two yeses? Then we can recommended the Samsung K950, which succeeds in fitting a true 5.1.4 Atmos-enabled set-up within a $2000 package. It can’t challenge a good dedicated AV receiver and speaker package, but you won’t get that (particularly Atmos height), and wireless rears too, for this price. Which is why soundbars came to the fore in the first place. This system brings soundbars back into a proper home cinema space, with real rears and bounced height channels delivering an enveloping surround sound which impresses with movies and, we’re delighted to say, with music.
Samsung HW-K950 soundbar system
+ Powerful immersive sound, good with movies, TV & music
+ Good multiroom app control
+ Wireless rear speakers
- Do you really want rear speakers?
- Best for use with Samsung TV
Drivers: 3 x 43mm tweeter, 6 x 66mm midrange, 2 x 66mm height (bar);
1 x 8-inch woofer (sub); 1 x 66mm surround, 1 x 66mm height (each rear); 16 drivers in all.
Quoted power (all THD <10%):
Soundbar 11 x 18W; subwoofer 162W, rears 2 x 35W each
Inputs: 2 x HDMI 2.0 , 1 x optical digital, 1 x analogue minijack, Wi-Fi networking, USB (service only), Bluetooth, micro-USB (service)
Outputs: 1 x HDMI 2.0 with ARC
Network file type support: MP3, WMA, AAC, OGG, FLAC, WAV
Streaming services: Spotify Connect, Deezer Premium+, TuneIn
Dimensions (bar): 1210 x 82mm x 131mm
Dimensions (sub): 204 x 400 x 414mm
Dimensions (rears): 120 x 211 x 141mm
Weight: 6.7kg (bar), 9.6kg (sub), 2.0kg (rears)