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.
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.
I've been listening to a lot of soundbars lately, and the majority of them have been of the multi-channel, single-cabinet, faux-surround type. In other words, the ones that don't include surround speakers and instead rely on acoustic trickery to fool your ears into thinking sound effects are coming from the sides and (maybe) a bit to the rear of the room. I may therefore have been predisposed to like a system with honest-to-goodness speakers in the back of the room, or it may be that I simply wasn't expecting much from the S4251w-B4 because of its low price tag. Regardless, I was quite impressed with the S4251w-B4's performance, especially considering what you would get from a traditional multi-component home-theater-in-a-box system for the same money.
Unlike with simulated-surround systems, there's no sense of gimmicky soundstage-expansion wizardry going on with the S4251w-B4. Instead, in a song like The Blind Boys of Alabama's "Go Tell It on the Mountain", the music filled the front wall of the room - more so, in my opinion, than what you'd hear from most "normal" sub/sat speaker combinations in this price range. While the instrumentation sounded big, however, the vocals in this track, which are supposed to be spaced out across the soundstage, were bunched together near the center. In A Fine Frenzy's "One Cell in the Sea," the singer's voice was in clear focus in the center of the music. While the bass response was surprisingly respectable, the upper frequencies had a tendency to sound a bit brittle and rough.
This same brittleness was noticeable in the scene in The Hunger Games (Lionsgate) when Katniss is running through the burning forest as fireballs are being shot at her. The crackle of the flames could be a bit harsh, although I tamed it somewhat by reducing the treble a click or two. This scene is alive with movement in the front and back, and the S4251w-B4 system did a very good job of immersing you in the action. The sound was not totally seamless, as effects moved from front to rear or vice-versa, but the small surround speakers sounded much bigger than they actually are when they completely filled the back of the room with the sound of burning trees.
I listened to this scene from The Hunger Games with the optical output from my Oppo Blu-ray player directly connected to the S4251w-B4, as well as with the audio signal going through the Samsung plasma TV. I was quite impressed with the way the system handled the down-mixed soundtrack from the TV. There were plenty of effects in the rear, and the dialogue was quite clear and intelligible. In fact, the brittleness even seemed toned down a bit. Switching back to the direct connection and the full DTS mix, the system became livelier and more dynamic. Individual sounds seemed more defined, and the surround soundfield seemed more spacious. Obviously, I'd recommend using the system with your AV sources connected directly to the S4251w-B4, but you'll still get good performance if you choose to go with the easier setup instead. (Vizio's new TVs are capable of sending the full multichannel Dolby Digital signal through the optical digital audio output, but not DTS.)
One issue most soundbar systems suffer from is localization of the subwoofer in the room. The problem comes from the soundbar itself not being able to play frequencies down to the ideal of at least 80 Hz. Many soundbars can't even come close to 100 Hz. When that's the case, the subwoofer needs to output the missing frequencies. Unfortunately, the higher the frequency is above 80 Hz, the more directional it becomes - and the more likely it is that you'll notice where in the room the sound is coming from. Vizio says the S4251w-B4 soundbar plays frequencies as low as 90 Hz, a capability that is somewhat surprising based on the soundbar's physical size. In reality, it must come close to that, because I often didn't have a sense for where the subwoofer was in the room. One instance, though, was during the storm scene in Prometheus (20th Century Fox), when the crew is racing to reach the ship before being overtaken by the immense sandstorm heading their way. Although the sub did fill the room with a respectable amount of bass, it was clear at certain times that the bass was coming from behind me in the back left corner of the room. The same thing also occurred with music, when I was listening to Linkin Park's "When They Come for Me".
The solution is to move the subwoofer to the front of the room, preferably to the center of the front wall under the soundbar. Placed there, the subwoofer and soundbar functioned as one seamless speaker system without any sense of bass directionality. The difficulty, of course, is that this may not be a convenient place for you to install the subwoofer. More problematic is the fact that you'll then have much longer runs of speaker wire to the surround speakers.
Comparison and Competition
Although soundbar systems with wireless subwoofers are quite common nowadays, soundbars with discrete, wired surround speakers are becoming harder to find, as most companies opt to use simulated surround sound technology in order to get rid of the extra speakers. All the major TV manufacturers offer soundbars with wireless subwoofers; some, such as Panasonic's SC-HTB20, can be had for close to $200. In the $300 to $400 range, there's a bigger variety, including the Yamaha ATS-1010 ($299.95), Sony HT-CT260 ($299.99) and Polk SurroundBar 3000 Instant Home Theater ($349.95), but again, none of these comes with dedicated surround speakers. Without a doubt, from an overall surround-sound immersion experience, the Vizio S4251w-B4 is the way to go over any of the others in the price range. The Polk, for example, might sound slightly smoother and more natural on the high end but, as good as it is, Polk's Digital Logic processing technology can't come close to stretching the surround soundfield in an arc completely around you. For more on these soundbars and others like them, please visit Home Theater Review's Soundbar page.
Vizio's S4251w-B4 is one heck of a deal for someone on a budget who wants the best surround experience for the buck in a convenient package and doesn't mind the minor hassle of running wires from the subwoofer to the surround speakers. Since the S4251w-B4 soundbar can learn the volume up/down and mute commands from your TV's remote control, the system can be configured in a way that anyone can use it without giving it much thought. So, in addition to being a sweet-sounding, very affordable system, it's a great system for grandparents and kids, too.