I've never been a fan of soundbars but to be clear, I find their convenience really appealing. There are certain applications where a one-box setup is preferred. It's just that I've been disappointed time and again in my attempt to find a soundbar solution that approximated the performance of a dialed-in surround sound system without serious compromise. There have been one or two that were pretty decent when combined with a good subwoofer, but none that could stand up on their own and deliver truly cinematic bass, much less an enveloping sound field. At least, that's been my experience.
Then I went to CES this year and heard a demo of Sennheiser's first foray into the soundbar market: the new Ambeo soundbar. Over the past few years, Sennheiser has been doing a lot of developmental work of their own 3D sound technology called Ambeo for incorporation into applications like VR, gaming headsets, and headphones. But they've now applied this technology to their very first production home theater product. I thought maybe, just maybe, this time would be different. Maybe this soundbar could be that one-box solution that doesn't feel like a big compromise in sound reproduction. But well-orchestrated demos are one thing. Living with a product daily in your own home is what really matters. I asked for a review sample so I could check it out under real world conditions and Sennheiser graciously obliged.
Unboxing the Sennheiser Ambeo soundbar, I was immediately impressed by the build quality of the unit. This is no petite, plastic box. The first thing one can't help but notice is that the Ambeo is large, measuring 49.8 inches long by 4.9 inches tall by 6.7 inches deep, and tipping the scales at just less than 41 pounds. The cabinet has an extremely high-end fit-and-finish, with a brushed graphite metal top plate flanked by black perforated metal grilles covering right and left up-firing speakers.
The sides and front of the soundbar are covered by grill cloth concealing the rest of the drivers. In all, there are 13 drivers, including six four-inch long throw woofers, five one-inch aluminum dome tweeters, and two top-firing 3.5-inch full-range drivers, all driven by an amplifier with 250 watts RMS (500 watts peak) power consumption. Push button controls are located in the center of the brushed metal top plate, and all connections except a 2.5mm microphone jack are found around back. There is an Ambeo logo on the lower right of the soundbar that lights up whenever the Ambeo 3D sound technology is engaged.
Also included in the box are the instruction manual, remote control, calibration microphone, HDMI cable, and power cord. What you won't find is a wall mount, which Sennheiser sells as an optional accessory for an additional $59.95.
The 3D audio standards supported by the Sennheiser soundbar include Dolby Atmos, DTS:X, and the lesser known MPEG-H. In case you're not familiar, MPEG-H has some unique features of its own that may make it more popular soon. It can support up to 64 loudspeaker channels, and Sony announced its 360 Reality Audio music service based on MPEG-H. So, you can expect to hear more content encoded in that standard.
Other audio standards supported include LPCM up to 7.1 channels, Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby True HD, DTS, DTS-ES Discrete 6.1, DTS-ES Matrix 6.1, DTS 96/24, DTS-HD LBR, and DSD. Suffice it to say; no matter the audio standard, the Sennheiser Ambeo soundbar most likely can play it.
Connections around back include three HDMI 2.0a inputs, one HDMI 2.1 eARC port, one optical input, one auxiliary stereo RCA input, one USB input for manual firmware updates, one Ethernet input for a wired network connection, and one subwoofer out. The aforementioned 2.5mm microphone calibration jack and a Power On/Standby indicator light both flank an LCD screen in the middle lower edge of the front of the cabinet. The LCD screen provides useful information such as the active input, microphone calibration status, and volume level.
The soundbar also supports Bluetooth, Google Chromecast, and UPnP Media, and can be connected to a Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac network by downloading the Google Home app to a smartphone or tablet and selecting the Ambeo soundbar from the list of available devices in the app setup. This process was simple, quick, and straightforward, and it allowed me to stream music from Qobuz at much higher resolutions than the maximum supported by Bluetooth.
I connected the Ambeo soundbar in my reference theater room, which could well make me the first person to ever use a powered soundbar with a 106-inch Stewart Filmscreen, but the calibration works best in a room with four walls. My family room has a 4K OLED, but is open on two sides. It doesn't mean you can't use the Sennheiser in that type of environment. I just thought it only fair to place the Ambeo in a room where I could evaluate its full sonic potential.
I covered the top of my stand-mounted center channel speaker with felt material to avoid scratches and then placed the Ambeo soundbar directly on top. I connected a DirecTV Genie, Oppo UDP-205 Ultra HD Blu-ray player, and Apple TV into the three HDMI inputs. I also connected my Sony projector to the HDMI eARC port of the soundbar. I used WireWorld HDMI cables for all of these connections.
For a small portion of the review I also connected a JL Audio F110 sub to the subwoofer output. But most of the time I used the soundbar without the subwoofer to see how well it performed solely on its own merit.
With the connections made, I turned on the soundbar, connected the calibration microphone to the jack on the front, and placed the mic in the listening position at ear height. I should comment that the microphone assembly is very sturdily built. It consists of a heavy-gauge metal bottom plate with the microphone itself at the tip of a hinged metal rod, making it adjustable in height. Next I pushed the Ambeo button on the remote control and stood to the side as the calibration test-tone sweep began. After a few minutes, the LCD screen indicated the measurement and processing was done. I pressed the Ambeo button again and received a welcome message indicating the soundbar was now ready for use. The whole calibration process took maybe five minutes.
The remote control for the Ambeo soundbar is 1.5-inches wide by 6.25-inches in length, a good size for a soundbar remote. At the top of the fourteen-button remote, you'll find the Power, Ambeo, and Mute buttons, as well as one button with multiple functions, most related to media playback. In the middle, there are source up and down buttons as well as volume up and down buttons. Both sets of these buttons are identifiable by touch, with the up buttons being convex in shape while the down buttons are concave in shape. Providing an intuitive tactile shape is a nice touch given that the remote lacks backlighting.
At the bottom, there are six audio preset buttons for different program material types, including Movie, Music, News, Sports, Neutral, and Night mode. In addition, the preferred Ambeo intensity level of the three choices (Light, Standard, and Boost) is saved with each of the program types upon exiting, making switching between audio types convenient.
Sennheiser has also built a Smart Control app for the Ambeo soundbar that can be downloaded to your mobile device. I personally found using the app preferable to the remote control in making quick adjustments to the settings on the fly during content playback (though your mileage may vary).
Click over to Page Two for Performance, The Downside, Comparison & Competition, and Conclusion...