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.