Having been well impressed by Samsung’s HW-K950 soundbar when it was released for the Christmas 2016 season (you can read our review here), we were keen to hear Samsung’s new updated version, the HW-N950, which is launching here in Australia in August, at the same price of $1999.
If that sounds pricey for a soundbar, and a Samsung one at that, take a look at the specs. This is a full 7.1.4 immersive sound system with dedicated drivers for each channel, rather than virtualisation (other than the side-surround position being delivered by side drivers on the front bar). There are physical wireless rear speakers, and four drivers dedicated to the height channels of Atmos and DTS:X —a pair of upfiring drivers on the bar, and two more at the rear, one on each rear speaker.
Atmos-enabled speakers completing a 7.1.4 immersive surround system
At the Sydney demonstration we asked for a Dolby Atmos 7.1.4 tone test to be played, and the result was impressive localisation even in the room Samsung had chosen for the demo, a screening cinema for Universal Pictures, which had a ceiling so high it disappeared into the darkness — nothing off which the Atmos-enabled drivers could bounce their ceiling sound. The sonic demonstrations were equally effective at image placement, though again the size of the room left the subwoofer more distant and the amplifiers pushing harder than they might need to in a more domestic environment.
The choice of a real cinema for the demo was to emphasise the aim of bringing real home cinema sound back to the home. The N950 uses 17 drivers, and the N850 model 13 drivers — this N850 version comes without the rear speakers, and so might be considered a 5.1.2 system, with rear channels thrown sideways by the front bar.
Samsung’s sound tuning has been revolutionised in recent years by its California Audio Lab, set up under the leadership Allan Devantier, formerly of Harman (which Samsung subsequently bought). During his time at Harman, Mr Devantier worked and learned under the great Floyd O’Toole, and it’s not too far a stretch to say that in the new Audio Lab, Mr Devantier is creating a modernised version of O’Toole’s legendary facilities at the National Research Council in Canada. Mr Devantier is also a Canadian (though he credits his Danish blood for bringing him inevitably into loudspeaker design, since it is practically a requirement for citizenship over there), and you can read more on the new Lab here.
The original 2016 K950 was developed prior to the new Laboratory, but in time to be tuned there. The new N950 model benefits from the Lab having been involved from the beginning at the hardware level. It incorporates the long excursion drivers which performed so well in the company’s Sound+Image award-winning MS650 soundbar, and also the software amplifier-distortion cancellation developed by the team's Pascal Brunet, which aims to introduce corrections via DSP which are the precise inverse of the distortion that is predicted to occur in the system from the current input. These distortions are established by the precise measurements available in the Audio Lab, but of course will vary with the specific material, so it requires, as Devantier says, a clever algorithm. The result, he says, is greater bass extension, with corrections also ensuring that the soundbar's woofers (and the subwoofer too) will never bottom out at high levels.
What rather bemuses us is that Samsung is proudly announcing the new L950 to be “certified by Harman Kardon” (as marked by the logo on the bar shown here).
This seems pretty daft given that:
a) Samsung owns Harman Kardon;
b) We don’t believe Harman Kardon to have audio facilities of the quality available at Samsung’s new Lab, unless they're using JBL's Northridge facilities;
c) Harman Kardon is signing off some pretty mediocre bars for other companies these days and we’re surprised Samsung wouldn’t rather stand on its own feet. Why give away the credit when Samsung is trying to build its own audio prestige?
So we cheekily asked Samsung Australia to find out whether Samsung California sent the bar away to Harman-Kardon for certification or allowed HK into its own shiny premises to measure it. We'll post the response here, though either option would seem redundant, as we can’t imagine Mr Devantier changing his carefully-honed tuning were HK’s certification team to suggest it were flawed! (Not that can we either imagine HK’s team telling him they thought so.)
In addition to playing native 7.1.4 material from Dolby Atmos and DTS-X, the N950 can ‘upscale’ lower channel-count material to its additional channels, and further upscales input signals to 32-bit depth for processing.
There are additional smarts, including Alexa compatibility and Samsung’s Smart Things app; Bluetooth is also included. We can’t pre-judge its quality with music reproduction, but the Atmos-music sample played to us at the launch was well handled, and the other Samsung bars from this source have all proven unusually musical for soundbars.
Obviously the Samsung bar has further merits in working with Samsung TVs, including single remote operation of most actions. But it should not be considered only in systems with a Samsung TV. Samsung’s soundbars these days are good enough to be considered on their merits for any system.
The HW-N950 retails for $1999 available mid-August.
The HW-N850 will retail for $1499, available end-August.