I don’t think anyone who has read through this website thinks there is any doubt I believe buying a soundbar is a bad decision. I’ve explained, at length, in the past why a soundbar isn’t conducive to quality audio. But despite my pleading, the widespread interest in soundbars continues unabated.
So I decided to find a soundbar that I could test and see how it stacked up against some of the cheap speakers that I’ve reviewed.
I decided to go with the 38″ Vizio soundbar as it is currently the best seller on Amazon for soundbars. It is the sound bar that comes with the Vizio SB3821 and Vizio SB3851. If anything represents the zeitgeist on home theater audio today, this is it.
As promised, its much sleeker than a regular pair of bookshelf speakers. It is even smaller than a pair of Micca Covo-S mini speakers.
When I first turned on the soundbar, I found it was exceptionally easy to setup. It has a auto-input detection feature and did a Bluetooth sync quickly and easily. All and all, I was able to get it running off of my computer and smartphone in about 2 minutes.
Then, I decided to play some music.
It was an experience that barely lasted a whole song. It is legitimately difficult to write down anything more detailed than “bad” when listening to it. The music felt like there were large parts missing, and songs just didn’t sound correct.
If these are “way better” than what comes with a TV, TV’s should just stop having speakers at all.
Now, you may say I’m biased, you may say I wanted them to sound bad. So I went and did some measurements just to show you all the problems with this soundbar.
At the suggestion of the writer of Average Joe Audiophile, I took a shot at using the software he uses for his tests, REW. It is advertised for room measurement, but working to eliminate reflections with proper windowing, it serves as a good speaker analyzing tool. I can’t get the numbers to show up well on the axes, but I’ll do my best to describe what’s going on. You can click on the caption links for a full-resolution version. I should also note that the algorithm implemented in REW is based on the same academic work I’ve been using in previous reviews.
At almost 500Hz, there’s a large null, for some reason. As following measurements show, this is not an effect of my room. I wouldn’t expect it to be from the room anyways; I am using a 15ms window with a treated floor and ceiling. The first reflection ends up coming in right after the 15ms mark, and my microphone is ~8ft in front of a wall; so the travel time for the reflection works out.
The variation in the middle range is about 9dB, and after 2Khz there is a steady roll off. This is just completely unacceptable for sound reproduction of anything. It doesn’t have enough flat-ish area to cover human voices, much less a range of musical instruments.
From 6Khz on up, it is just a complete mess. I wondered if something was broken and tested the other half of the soundbar. No difference.
There is a good bit of distortion at low frequencies too, and I can’t tell if it is a speaker or amplifier problem, but it certainly isn’t the fault of the Schiit Modi I was driving the soundbar with from my computer.
So how does the Vizio soundbar stack up to cheap passive speakers?
Lets start with the Dayton B652, dark red in the frequency response curve below:
The Dayton B652s are a pair of $40 speakers (going for $30 during the Christmas season in fact) that are regarded as surprisingly good for the price. Once you factor in a cheap amp and cables, a setup with the Dayton speakers would cost about $70 versus the soundbar at $90.
The Dayton speakers are much less variable, and even with the mess from 3.5Khz to 5Khz, overall it does better in treble. It certainly gets more bass and is lacking in any large nulls. That’s not to say the Dayton B652’s are anything great, they really aren’t, but it just shows how much you give up with a soundbar.
Another pair of speakers equally cheap to the Dayton B652’s but also much smaller is the Micca COVO-S. Its not all that great, but its small and I said it could work for a surround speaker.
The Micca COVO-S is hardly a good speaker. It has very similar coloration problems to the soundbar. It even has some nasty resonances and nulls. But it doesn’t have the constant swings of the soundbar over small frequency ranges. Ultimately, the soundbar sounds worse than a speaker I couldn’t recommend for use as main speakers.
So there you have it, the best selling soundbar is pretty bad and doesn’t hold up against the most rudimentary and cheap passive speakers. So before you go out and buy a soundbar, remember that it won’t hold up performance-wise against a setup with real speakers at the same price.