I'm beginning to believe that I might owe Vizio an apology. Somewhere in the miasmic swirl of mistaken notions and half-baked prejudices that exists inside my head, I've ignorantly clung to the idea that Vizio is near-single-handedly culpable for all the woes that plague the AV world. "They're nothing but mass-market whores who couldn't care less about picture or, especially, sound quality," I often mumbled to myself. Of course, it's easy to understand why I came to that conclusion when you learn that the majority of my experience with Vizio gear has come from quick glances at "stack 'em deep" displays in the zoo-like atmosphere of the local Sam's Club.
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So I wasn't expecting much when Vizio's new S4251w-B4 soundbar and wireless subwoofer arrived in a golf-bag-shaped box. I'm not as phobic about soundbars as some people are, but a soundbar with surround speakers and a wireless subwoofer for $329.99 seems like a surefire recipe for disappointment. Still, I wanted it to sound good ... for a variety of reasons. For starters, there's the affordable price tag. Then there's the bit about the subwoofer being wireless. (Wires, however, are used to connect the surround speakers to the sub.) Although it's not earth-shatteringly unusual, the fact that the S4251w-B4 has an attractive, narrow profile and comes with brackets for wall-mounting is a big plus. An even bigger plus is the system's Bluetooth connectivity for pairing with smartphones, tablets and the like. But for me, the system's most compelling aspect is a remote control twofer: 1) the system comes with a small but powerful remote control that sports a very simple, intuitive button layout along with an LCD status/menu window at the top, and 2) the S4251w-B4 has the limited ability to learn the IR commands for volume up/down and mute from your TV's remote control. For me, remote controls can make or break a system, and too often the remote control is an aspect of a product that gets shortchanged in the design process. In this case, though, the remote control and the learning capability that comes with the S4251w-B4 looked quite promising.
The S4251w-B4 soundbar is a hair over 42 inches in length and well under four inches in both height and depth. At 9 pounds, it has just enough weight to make you think that there's either a small brick or some serious (as in, this ain't no toy speaker) electronics and amplification inside. The industrial design is traditional: a long rectangle covered mostly by a black grille cloth that's spruced up with a bit of silver and shiny black plastic stretching across the bottom of the bar. The audio-only jack panel (the S4251w-B4 does not do video switching) is recessed in the back on the left side, and the jack for the removable AC cord is likewise recessed on the back of the right side. It's a good design, because all the connections are easy to access if you choose to use the two threaded inserts on the back of the soundbar - in conjunction with the included brackets - to mount the speaker on the wall. The inserts are thoughtfully spaced 16 inches apart in order to align with the studs in a standard wall. The brackets, which are not much more than small, bent pieces of steel, have keyhole slots to be used for securing the soundbar to the bracket. Buttons for power, source switching, and volume are on the back but, since that part of the soundbar's cabinet narrows near the edge, the buttons are relatively easy to reach. Two thin rubber pads on the bottom of the S4251w-B4 help keep the bar from sliding on a stand or shelf should you choose not to mount the soundbar on the wall.
The S4251w-B4's subwoofer is a slim, rectangular black box with a six-inch subwoofer driver covered by a black grille on one of the long sides and a three-inch port on one of the short sides. On the side opposite the port is the power cord, the power switch, a pairing button, and two RCA jacks for speaker-level connection to the surround speakers. The system's two small surround speakers cosmetically match the soundbar, have rubberized bottoms, and include wall-mount brackets very similar to the ones that are used with the soundbar. If any component piece of the S4251w-B4 system is underwhelming in heft and feel, it's the surround speakers. They're a mere 7.5 inches tall, a bit over three inches wide, and about 2.75 inches deep. Although they're not quite as light as a feather, they do feel as if they'd blow away in a heavy wind.
Just like the brackets for the soundbar, the surround speakers' brackets are an easy two-screws-and-you're-done install; the downside is that they don't allow the speakers to be angled toward the listening area when mounted on the sidewalls of the room. I think this is one reason why Vizio recommends positioning the surround speakers, along with the subwoofer, in the back of the room. Another reason for placing the surrounds and sub near one another along the back wall is that it minimizes the required length of the speaker wires running from the sub to the surrounds.
The S4251w-B4's remote control is sparse in design, sporting only six buttons and a navigation pad; however, it's notable for the presence of the small LCD window at the top of the remote. Since the S4251w-B4 lacks a video output, it also lacks an onscreen menu or GUI. Instead, the remote's LCD window allows you to move through and adjust multiple menu options and parameters, such as surround levels, bass and treble levels, subwoofer level, Bluetooth pairing and more. It's a clever design that keeps the remote simple and uncluttered, while still allowing for higher-level manipulations. The low-res LCD, however, is not backlit, so it can be very difficult to see in a darkened room.
Whether you mount the soundbar on the wall or set it on a cabinet, setting up the S4251w-B4 is extremely easy. I placed the soundbar on top of the lowboy-style BDI cabinet that sits under my wall-mounted Samsung plasma TV. Even though the BDI cabinet has a glass top, the rubber pads on the bottom of the soundbar would not let the speaker budge. Because my room is 24 feet long, I decided to mount the surround speakers on stands along the sidewalls and angle them in toward the listening area accordingly. As the manual suggested, I initially installed the subwoofer in one of the room's back corners. The wireless subwoofer automatically pairs with the soundbar, and the surround speakers use the aforementioned RCA-jack connectors instead of spring-clip terminals for the speaker-wire connections. This means they're quick to hook up and impossible to wire out of phase (although it doesn't prevent even a highly trained professional like myself from getting the color-coded left and right channels backwards). The drawback of using speaker cables with RCA-jack connectors, however, is that if the wires aren't long enough, you have to add to them using barrel connectors or buy a longer RCA cable.
The S4251w-B4 does not include test tones or auto-calibration circuitry, nor does it include HDMI connectivity. As mentioned previously, it's an audio-only system with five inputs: an optical digital input, a coaxial digital input, two analog stereo inputs, a USB port (for .WAV file playback), and the Bluetooth input. This audio-only configuration means you'll have to choose between best performance and easiest operation. Hooking up your AV sources - let's say a Blu-ray player and a cable/satellite tuner - to the HDTV and connecting the HDTV's digital audio output to the S4251w-B4 will allow you to use the HDTV for video switching. In this situation, you'll also want to take advantage of the learning capabilities of the S4251w-B4 and teach the soundbar the IR commands that your TV remote control uses for volume up/down and mute. Then you can set the S4251w-B4's remote aside and use the TV's remote for day-to-day movie/TV watching. Although this setup requires minimal brainpower, the audio signal that comes out of the HDTV and into the soundbar will be a two-channel down-mixed version of the original DTS or Dolby Digital soundtrack.
From a sound-quality standpoint, you're better off connecting the digital audio outputs of your AV sources (up to two of them, anyway) to the S4251w-BW. Because the S4251w-BW is capable of decoding Dolby Digital and DTS bitstreams, the resulting audio quality will be more dynamic and slightly cleaner, with more discrete surround effects placement. However, this setup will force you to switch inputs on both the HDTV and the S4251w-BW when going from one source to another. It's your call; I'll give you my thoughts on the performance differences in a moment.
Read about the performance of the Vizio S4251w-B4 soundbar on Page 2.