Samsung launched its latest Series 7 MS750 soundbar at $999 with great fanfare at the Sydney Opera House, bringing in Allan Devantier from Samsung’s California Audio Lab to explain what makes it special.
Regular readers of Sound+Image will know how rarely we ourselves find soundbars to be special, but we were keen to attend the launch because of two things — firstly, the chance to chat to both Mr Devantier and the switched-on AV Product Manager of Samsung in Australia, Himal Jekishan, and secondly because of all the soundbars in all the world to have entered our listening rooms in the last few years, the two that impressed us most have come out of — or at least been tuned by — Samsung’s California Audio Lab.
Samsung Electronics Australia VP Carl Rose opened proceedings, letting us know that Samsung leads the market for TVs and soundbars in Australia, and how well the K950 soundbar has performed here. With its Atmos upfiring speakers and wireless rears, the K950 “introduced a level of sound quality that most people had yet to experience”, he told us. You can read our review of the K950 here, and you’ll see we don’t disagree.
The California Audio Lab
Then came Mr Devantier, who introduced us to the California Audio Lab. With its three listening rooms, rapid prototyping lab and two anechoic chambers, this facility is, he said, second to none in the world.
And he is in a good position to judge. He formerly worked with Harman, on such illustrious projects as the JBL M2, and the Infinity Prelude MTS, generally regarded as being the first room-adaptive loudspeaker design. On this he worked with the great Dr Floyd E. Toole, who was largely responsible for the legendary sound facilities at Canada's National Physics Laboratory (NPL), where he famously installed hydraulic systems to switch loudspeakers as rapidly as possible for A-B comparisons, not merely switching the cables, but physically whisking away two speakers and replacing them with two others in a matter of seconds, for proper single-speaker listening.
Like Dr Toole, Allan Devantier is 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). He knows the National Physics Laboratory well, and it was used in the development of those Infinity speakers.
The penny then drops that in building the California Audio Lab, he has created a new updated NPL, one funded from the cash-rich reserves of one of the world’s biggest companies, rather than the cash-strapped funding of a national government. For speaker comparators he hasn’t gone with Dr Toole's spectacular hydraulics, but has fashioned a series of turntables that can quickly rotate four speaker pairs (indeed LCR threesomes) into position. He has done the same for wall-mounted TV sound comparison with a rotating wall that quickly switches models for comparison. And the anechoic chamber design has a wonderfully clever system for moving the measurement microphone on a tensioned wire that does less to interfere with the non-reflective silence of the space than would a robotic structure that lifts and moves the speaker itself (though speaker movement is also possible).
Most importantly, he began gathering a team — including former colleagues from Harman — far before there was an inkling that Samsung might come and buy the whole of Harman last year for $8bn cash (a purchase believed to be driven primarily by Harman’s automotive electronics expertise, but sucking in all of JBL, harman-kardon, Mark Levinson, AKG, Lexicon, Infinity, and Revel in the process, plus following the announcement this month, the UK’s Arcam too). He is proud to note that the Samsung Lab's 23-strong team can muster four PhDs and seven Masters theses between them, but we were delighted to note he ranked rather higher the fact that eight of the team are active musicians (though he is not one of them, he says sadly).
We had some time to chat with Mr Devantier after the launch, and we’ll publish that transcript alongside an upcoming review of the MS650 soundbar, for which we’ll hereby deliver a spoiler — it’s the first smart soundbar under $1000 we’ve ever not wanted to remove from our system as soon as possible. It is remarkably musical, and a balanced performer even without a subwoofer. The only rivals we’ve heard that come close are Q Acoustics’ M4, which is a sound-first design (unusually shaped to that end) with no smarts except Bluetooth, and some ‘base’ designs like those from ZVox. Hence we attended the launch because we wanted to find out what, exactly, Devantier and team had done to achieve this.
One of the key technologies appears to be a form of software amplifier-distortion cancellation developed by the team's Pascal Brunet, which was explained only briefly, but appears to introduce corrections via DSP which are the precise inverse of the disortion they predict will occur in the system from the current music input. These distortions are established by the precise measurements available in the Audio LAb, but of course will vary with the specific music, so it requires, as Devantier said, a clever algorithm. The result, he says, is greater bass extension, with corrections also ensuring that the soundbar's woofers never bottom out at high levels. This goes much of the way to explaining what we were hearing. The fact the MS650 is highly musical speaks to the linearity delivered by this process, and we were impressed that Himal from Samsung Australia demoed the MS750 with two music tracks before moving on to movies.
The Series 7 SM750 soundbar
So yes, that new MS750 soundbar, then. It’s 115cm wide, and uses 11 drivers for five channels of sound, which include two tweeters that fire vertically upwards.
This is not for Dolby Atmos sound — there is no Atmos decoding (and Atmos-enabled speakers, as in the K950, would fire at an angle to bounce sound off your ceiling). But Samsung says they deliver vertical effects, dispersing sound upwards and into the room. “Make your screen feel bigger than it is”, says the blurb.
The tweeters, top and forward-firing, are specified as wide-range — this seems not so much to take them into high-res audio territory, since although 32-bit processing is used throughout (in a soundbar!), the frequency response is quoted up to 20kHz and no further. Rather it seems the range extends downwards, allowed a much lower crossover than would be usual, at 700Hz rather than, say 2000Hz, and as Mr Devantier explains it, this eliminates the lobing interference that can seriously affect off-axis listening, allowing this ‘Sound+’ range of bars to deliver wider and more even dispersion.
(Off-axis performance is a specialty of his, as his work formed a large part of the off-axis loudspeaker measurement standard called CEA-2034.)
As with the MS650, the MS750 soundbar has Bluetooth for direct music streaming, and it works with Samsung’s multiroom app, giving Wi-Fi access to internet radio, Spotify, Pandora (sadly not after July 31 in Australia, when Pandora rudely exits our region), Deezer, Tidal and DLNA network shares around your home (audio, not video).
And there’s an optional subwoofer and optional wireless surround kit (which is wireless to a base station, which requires a power cable and then uses wires to the individual speakers, so not really very wireless at all), so if you want to get a real home cinema level of performance, you can expand things.
But if the performance of the MS650 is anything to go by, and we assume it will be since the MS750 is primarily a larger version with the same technologies, then it’s the bar’s ability to deliver on its own that is the great selling point here. No intrusive sub-bass, but balanced sound performance nevertheless. We look forward to playing.
Pricing for the MS750 is $999 with the optional SWA-W700 subwoofer available at $799.