Bob Barrett is a versatile writer and knowledgeable hi-fi enthusiast whose work for HomeTheaterReivew.com runs the gamut from mid- to high-end home theater to audiophile components and speakers. He also specializes in high-performance and high-end headphones.
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).
Continue Reading for Performance, The Downside, Comparison & Competition, and Conclusion...
With everything operational, I decided to start off by watching some sports on DirecTV and as such selected the Sports preset on the remote. Tour de France in particular proves to be as much a travelogue of the beautiful country, with cameramen in helicopters and motorbikes filming it, as it is a grueling sports competition. Watching Stage 8, the most exciting stage in years, commentator voices were always crystal clear and detailed, with good body, even when mixed with the sounds of thousands of roadside fans cheering the riders on. I found that with this content, my preferred Ambeo setting was Boost (highest level), which makes voices more pronounced and forward with crowd noise more immersive compared with Ambeo off. When the cyclists were riding up steep inclines, the sound was three dimensional, putting me in the middle with the fans screaming all around me.
I played several movies while experimenting with the various Ambeo settings. One scene I used to test both the soundbar's ability to accurately reproduce Dolby Atmos sound effects as well as low bass was the helicopter scene of Jumanji: Welcome to The Jungle (Sony Pictures Entertainment). First, the charging albino rhinos provide plenty of low bass sound effects as they charge after the low flying helicopter. I could almost feel the ground shake with the six bass drivers of the soundbar going lower than I've ever heard from a soundbar without a separate subwoofer attached. The low end of the Ambeo's rated frequency range is claimed to be 30 Hz, and that's accurate based on what I was hearing.
When I added the JL Audio sub to the soundbar, the bass was a bit fuller sounding but not by a large amount. I could easily live with this soundbar and thoroughly enjoy it without ever adding a sub. For those who want to eke out every last bit of deep bass impact, though, it's nice to know that adding a sub is an option.
Next, when Franklin (Kevin Hart) drops the jewel from the helicopter, pilot Alex (Nick Jonas) turns the helicopter around to go back to recover it. As the helicopter turns around, I could pinpoint the sound of the helicopter come from above and behind me as it flew back the way it came. The Atmos effects were reproduced in a very natural way, never sounding contrived or artificial. The Ambeo brought a greater sense of realism to the sound than I've heard from other Atmos-capable soundbars.
I also played the scene of the onstage performance of the song "Shallow" by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper from A Star Is Born (Warner Brothers Pictures) in Dolby Atmos.
Soundbars are typically designed for movies, but very few have been optimized for music reproduction, yet played through this soundbar with the Ambeo setting at Standard, the soundstage was impressively wide, much like you'd expect of a concert. From my listening position, I heard crowd noise all around me, including from behind. The immersive sound created by the Ambeo soundbar placed me right in the audience.
Playing the track "Another Brick in The Wall (Part 2)" from Pink Floyd's The Wall, I selected the Music preset from the remote and then switched back and forth between the original stereo mix and the Ambeo up-mix using the app. I preferred the Ambeo up-mix version, to my surprise. While sounding more immersive, I also found it to sound quite natural. Instruments and voices were still placed appropriately, but there was greater depth and width to the soundstage when engaging Ambeo.
Late in the track, there is yelling between two people, with one voice distinctly coming from much farther away. Highs were crystal clear but not harsh. There was proper weight to both the drums and bass guitar, providing a richer, fuller sound. Finally, the width of the children's chorus was expansive, extending almost from wall to wall. With Ambeo processing turned on, the listening experience was more engaging and fun.
Listening to Ella Fitzgerald's version of "Cheek to Cheek" (Qobuz, 192/24) from her album Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Irving Berlin Songbook (Verve Reissues), I made similar comparisons with and without Ambeo engaged. Frankly, the recording sounded terrific either way, with just a bit wider and deeper soundstage with Ambeo turned on. The soundbar presents music just the way you'd expect to hear it through a well assembled sound system.
On this swing music track, the trumpets had that wonderful metallic, bright and intense quality but not to the point of sounding harsh. Saxophones sounded laid back in comparison, as they should. It sounded almost as if I were sitting in a room listening to orchestra playing live. Ella's voice had that wonderfully sweet, silvery tone. The layered details of her inventive vocal improvisations were teased out nicely by the soundbar, too. The faithfulness with which recordings were reproduced is evidence to me that Sennheiser really made music reproduction a priority in designing the product. In my opinion, this puts the Ambeo soundbar clearly ahead of the competition. Hopefully other soundbar manufacturers take note and up their game.
Placement options for the Sennheiser Ambeo soundbar are more limited given its large size. Small living spaces may not work. If you're planning on placing the Ambeo on a credenza in front of a television, in most cases the television will need to be wall mounted to avoid blocking the bottom of the screen with the height of the soundbar.
And as mentioned previously, for those wanting to wall mount the Ambeo, the wall mount bracket accessory is not included, so you'll have to pony up an additional $59.95 for the privilege. Given its size, I imagine Sennheiser believes that most people won't go the wall-mount route. Still, at the premium price already asked for this product, I would have liked to see it included, for convenience if nothing else. Imagine getting your soundbar home, only to find out you need to go back to the store (or online) to purchase the mounting bracket.
Comparison & Competition
The $1,699.95 Yamaha YSP-5600 (reviewed here) outputs 7.1.2 channels (44 beam drivers and two 4.5-inch woofers) with a total power rating of 128 watts compared to Ambeo's 5.1.4 channels through 13 speakers and 250 watts RMS. Yamaha incorporates their own DSP technology, MusicCAST streaming, and the ability to play both Dolby Atmos and DTS:X sound formats, among others. While the Yamaha can also be mounted on a wall, it's about five inches shorter in length than the beefier Ambeo. In my experience though, the Yamaha requires a subwoofer connected to it in order to play bass as low as the Ambeo is capable of without a subwoofer. It's also not as good at reproducing music as the Ambeo, nor is it quite as natural sounding when playing Dolby Atmos encoded material.
Another option to consider is the Sony HT-ST5000 7.1.2 channel soundbar ($1,499.95). The Sony is not a true one-box solution like the Ambeo because it's designed to require an accessory subwoofer in order to experience true full-range sound. Again, in my experience the Sony is not quite as good as the Ambeo at playing Dolby Atmos tracks, and music playback is not as detailed and balanced.
After my experience at CES, I went into this review cautiously optimistic, having been disappointed more than once by soundbars claiming to be equivalent to surround sound speaker systems. By the end of the review period, I became convinced that the Sennheiser Ambeo is the current state of the art for powered soundbars. True, we're getting into serious premium territory here in terms of price, but the Sennheiser Ambeo is not a typical soundbar. When you think of it more as a good 5.1.4 speaker system and receiver, which it is, the price actually starts to make a lot of sense. No other soundbar that I've auditioned can deliver even close to the same low bass extension of the Sennheiser without adding a separate sub. And no other current soundbar reproduces Dolby Atmos soundtracks with the natural immersive quality or the same level of accuracy.