Sound bars have always been a bit of the redheaded stepchild of the home theater world for me, a replica of sorts for those unable to accommodate or afford a proper home theater. Of course I jumped to this conclusion before I had actually heard or even experienced a sound bar system and now that I have, I’m prepared to modify my views. I totally get it now. While I’m not about to ditch my reference home theater, I’ll be the first to admit I’ve enjoyed my time with Vizio’s new sound bar and wireless subwoofer – so much so, I actually found myself carting Blu-rays up to my bedroom system over my reference rig.
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The Vizio VSB210WS retails for a very attractive $349.99 and is sold direct through Vizio’s own site as well as through a bevy of retailers like Costco. Your $349.99 buys you a single speaker that looks a bit like a Bang & Olufsen product (if I’m honest), that houses four three inch mid/bass drivers and two three-quarter inch aluminum dome tweeters. Visually, the main speaker is quite stunning and is wall mountable or table ready via its attached stand. However, upon closer examination – especially to the touch, the materials are a bit “budget” – but then again, how often do we physically interact with our speakers? The grill is technically removable, but I get the feeling Vizio would prefer you didn’t. A peek behind the curtain reveals the drivers are situated in stereo configuration with the tweeters resting along the outside edges of the sound bar. While the driver placement is better left a mystery, the inputs offered are not; located dead center on the back of the sound bar. The VSB210WS’s sound bar features two stereo RCA inputs and a single optical Toslink input allowing for a total of three sources to be connected to and switched between via the main sound bar’s remote. Source as well as input and volume control can also be handled via the VSB210WS’s top mounted manual controls, though I doubt many users will rely to heavily on these.
Along with the VSB210WS’s main speaker it also comes complete with a wireless powered subwoofer, which features a Class D amplifier driving a six and a half inch long throw driver, giving it a reported frequency response of 35Hz up to 80Hz. Not exactly a barnburner but then again the VSB210WS is built for convenience, stealth and affordability, not earth-rattling bass. The VSB210WS’s sub can be placed virtually anywhere within 60 feet of the main sound bar so long as the two share a line of sight and there is a nearby power outlet. The sub itself features no crossover and/or volume controls, those are handled by the VSB210WS’s remote, which I’ll get to later.
Unlike sound bars from the likes of Yamaha or Polk, the Vizio VSB210WS doesn’t decode and/or playback Dolby or DTS formats in a sort of faux surround sound presentation. The VSB210WS uses SRS TruSurround HD to reproduce a virtual surround sound experience from any mono, stereo or matrix encoded content. Along with the SRS TruSurround HD processing, the VSB210WS also has SRS TruBass and SRS Dialog Clarity for enhanced bass and vocal response and SRS Definition for sound enhancement and SRS TruVolume to eliminate the volume spike between program material and louder than thou television commercials. Take that Sham Wow guy.
Aside from the sound bar and subwoofer, the VSB210WS can also support up to three SRS wireless headphones and control them via the remote. Speaking of remote, the VSB210WS’s isn’t all bad. It’s compact and very thin yet feels good in the hand. There is no backlighting or even glow-in-the-dark keys here, but with only nine buttons of control, you quickly memorize the remote’s layout. From the remote you can control power, input and volume, as well as activate the various SRS features, as well as turn the sub up or down.
The VSB210WS doesn’t have a display screen nor a video out to accommodate an on-screen display, so all of the remote’s commands are displayed via a series of small white and red lights that can be a bit difficult to decipher at first but after about a day’s use begin to make total sense.
The Vizio VSB210WS arrived right on the heels of the Anthem D2v A/V processor and boy talk about polar opposites. The hardest part about installing the VSB210WS is taking it out of the box. I placed the VSB210WS below my Samsung LCD HDTV which resides in my bedroom and set the wireless subwoofer next to my bedroom rack a few feet to the side of the sound bar and voila. Oh, and I connected a single optical cable (not included) from my Samsung’s optical audio out to the VSB210WS’s single optical audio in, which automatically muted the Samsung’s internal speakers. Okay, that was it.
Once powered up I didn’t bother with the manual and pretty much had the VSB210WS figured out in about two minutes. It’s that easy. Getting the subwoofer to communicate with the sound bar was a snap. However getting it to blend seamlessly with the sound bar took some time and a wide range of source material for me to find the proper balance. I say balance because the subwoofer level control isn’t a picture of precision, as I found a click of the remote plus or minus would result in just a bit more adjustment than I was hoping for. Nevertheless, I found a reasonable setting and once set I never gave it another thought. Vizio would have you believe that you can place the sub virtually anywhere, it is wireless after all, but don’t be fooled for the rules of proper subwoofer placement still apply and will pay dividends in the overall sound quality if adhered to.
Since the VSB210WS was hooked up via a single optical cable from my Samsung LCD my sources were limited to what was hooked up to my television, mainly an AppleTV, Sherwood Blu-ray player and AT&T U-Verse HD DVR.
Read The High Points, Low Points and Conclusion on Page 2
Also, I should point out that I carried out the review with the VSB210WS’s SRS Surround feature turned on, for when it’s off the VSB210WS’s sonic performance becomes decidedly one-dimensional and boxy if I’m honest. The SRS processing transforms the VSB210WS’s sound so dramatically, I’m curious as to why Vizio made it an option you can turn off and on. Leave it on and break the button that can toggle it off – I did.
Kicking things off, I decided to cue up some two-channel music on my AppleTV, which was streaming the music, wirelessly, from my iTunes library in the adjacent room. I started things off with Jason Mraz’s Live and Acoustic (Jason Mraz) album I had downloaded from iTunes. Live and Acoustic features Mraz, playing a solo acoustic guitar, accompanied by Noel “Toca” Rivera, Mraz’s vocussionist. I cued up “Common Pleasure” and found the VSB210WS to be quite a capable performer. The spatial separation between Mraz and Toca was impressive as was the soundstage, which proved to be equal parts depth and width. Throughout Mraz’s vocals were very much presented dead center of the soundstage and didn’t really project nor wander far from the soundbar itself. While “Common Pleasure” is hardly a barnburner when it comes to bass, the VSB210WS’s wireless sub proved nimble and was able to keep pace and beat with the somewhat frenetic pace of the track. In terms of vocal presentation, the VSB210WS was, again, quite impressive, possessing a nice touch of warmth throughout its midrange that helped curb a bit of the digital nastiness that seems to come standard with downloaded music. The tweeters were smooth, though not quite as airy or as pronounced as you’ll find with metallic based designs; however for the source material they were more than adequate. In terms of volume and dynamics the VSB210WS can play quite loud, or at least loud enough for my bedroom without distortion. Though there is definitely a volume range where the VSB210WS is most happy and if you play within this range life is good. Step outside of it and you’ll be sorry. In terms of dynamics, well, that might have been the most startling aspect of the VSB210WS’ performance thus far.
Since I threw the VSB210WS a bit of an underhanded pitch to start with I decided to kick it up a notch and feed it something a bit harsher, harder and funky. I cued up No Doubt’s Rock Steady (Interscope/Geffen), and the track “Hella Good.” “Hella Good” is quite an impressive mix, even with a lower res download, and features one hell of a bass track. The opening drum and bass guitar tracks were rendered surprisingly deep given the VSB210WS’s construction, but more importantly possessed enough detail and speed to keep the two instruments from blending together and becoming a sort of sonic sludge, which is what most budget systems do with this track. Obviously, a more robust, full-range speaker or larger satellite subwoofer combo can out-muscle the VSB210WS; however for its asking price of $349, it’s no dunce.
When the song kicks into high gear the VSB210WS’s composure remains quite focused and with the SRS Surround feature engaged the spatial presentation is rather enveloping given its single speaker configuration. The midrange is quite nice and rather refined, with a good amount of inner detail and weight from the VSB210WS’s four small bass/midrange drivers. However, vocals do seem locked within the confines of the main speaker itself, which makes for a solid center image but doesn’t fully allow the main speaker to “disappear” sonically quite the way you’d get in a traditional two channel speaker setup. The high frequencies aren’t as nice at the extremes with “Hella Good” as they were with the Jason Mraz album, flattening a bit and sounding more digital in their reproduction of the cymbal crashes as well as the myriad of overly produced high frequency sound design. If you throttle the volume everything from the bass on up does thin out a bit and become a bit aggressive though, once again, keep the volume within the VSB210WS’s comfort zone and the experience is quite enjoyable.
Realizing that the majority of the VSB210WS’s potential customers will be using it in conjunction with movies versus music I switched my focus away from two-channel fare and cued up a few movies via my AppleTV and Blu-ray player. The first film on my list was John Woo’s box office flop, Paycheck (Paramount) starring Ben Affleck, Uma Thurman and Aaron Eckhart. Skipping ahead to the film’s climax, featuring a battle between Affleck and Aaron Eckhart in a sort of Wizard of Oz fantasy biology lab, the VSB210WS showcased that while capable of convincingly playing back two-channel music, its mission in life has and will always be movies. The virtual surround performance was quite impressive and far more immersive than the faux surround I managed to coax from two-channel music. Though it never fully surrounded me by making me think there were speakers behind my listening position, it came very, very close. So close, my fiancée (who hates when I review things in the bedroom) asked where I had hid the other speakers. Dialog was clear and possessed a solid sense of scale and weight that was much larger than the image it was supporting, and even amidst the chaos of the scene itself remained intelligible.
The thunderous booms from the indoor weather generator were more than enough fodder for the wireless sub to sink its teeth into, though at high volumes it did tax the woofer beyond its abilities and caused some serious cabinet rattle as well as some sonic separation between the sound bar and the sub itself. However, bringing the volume down just a click or two allowed for the VSB210WS system to regain its composure and redeem itself. Within reason the sub proved to be quite good and surprisingly articulate though I found a little more adjustment was needed to mate it more seamlessly with the main speaker with the film Paycheck versus the setting I had for music playback.
The upper frequencies were very well composed but aggressive when called for and injected a bit of energy into what was playing out on screen, which helped draw me into the film in ways the story could not.
I ended my time with the VSB210WS with the director’s cut of David Fincher’s masterpiece, Zodiac, on Blu-ray (Paramount). Zodiac wasn’t a huge success financially at the box office and I don’t believe the home video release faired any better; however the director’s cut on Blu-ray is stunning and a reviewer’s dream come true. I skipped ahead to the scene where Robert Greysmith, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, is in a cellar with a former movie theater manager and it seems there is someone else lurking about upstairs. The scene itself is an exercise in subtlety and nuance and tests the true mettle of any system without ever being overt or bombastic.
Through the VSB210WS this scene was rendered wonderfully and retained all of the suspense and drama my reference system provides but on a smaller scale. The movement of sound through the VSB210WS was not as extensive as you’ll get through 5.1 or 7.1 system; however what was present was very good indeed and a testament to the strength of the internal SRS processing. What was more impressive is that the VSB210WS didn’t really miss any of the faintest sound cues. While costlier, traditional systems will present all of the elements a bit more clearly and place them more firmly in space, the fact that the VSB210WS didn’t subtract any sonic information from the scene is good enough for me.
While the VSB210WS has a tendency to lock vocalists and actors inside the main speaker, with Blu-ray material like Zodiac, it gave them a little more leash to roam, which in turn gave the entire dialog track a bit more heft and weight as well as allowed the actors to sit more naturally in the space than what I previously experienced.
Overall, the VSB210WS proved to be more focused on enjoyment than analytical detail, which is what a sound bar should be about frankly. A sound bar should provide you with most of, if not all of, the enjoyment you’d derive from a costlier, traditional home theater with none of the headaches, and on that level the Vizio VSB210WS delivers. Will it replace a traditional home theater, even a budgetary one costing twice to three times as much? No, but I’d argue the Vizio VSB210WS stands a greater chance of getting people into the idea of owning a home theater than any traditional, budget home theater could.
There’s only so much criticism you can give a $349 sound bar without sounding like a bully. So let me say this: I like the Vizio VSB210WS, however there are a few items I would love to see addressed, perhaps for future incarnations. For starters, I kind of wish there was a small display screen somewhere on the front of the sound bar to indicate actual volume and input. While I never really switched between inputs on the VSB210WS, the few times I did it would’ve been nice to identify them by name on a screen versus guess which dot means what interface it has now.
The remote is simple and easy enough to memorize though I think glow in the dark keys would be helpful, full back lighting would be ideal but I’m being realistic.
Blending the sub seamlessly with the main speaker does take a bit of time and effort but can be done; however I would’ve liked to see a few more steps in the volume path to facilitate finer tuning versus kind of having to settle for close enough. Also, I would’ve loved to have had two subwoofer settings that could be stored into memory, one for music the other for movies.
Despite the current economic situation our need for entertainment continues to grow, though our ability to pay for costly entertainment-driven expenses and/or luxury goods, like a dedicated home theater, is dwindling. What’s a person to do?
HDTV’s are getting cheaper everyday, a charge no doubt led by Vizio, one of the nation’s largest HDTV manufacturers, and now with the introduction of their VSB210WS sound bar the promise of an affordable complete home theater solution may be upon us. While not quite as robust or completely immersive as a traditional 5.1 or 7.1 home theater system, the Vizio VSB210WS sound bar gets you more of the way there with less than any other sound bar before and all at a price seemingly everyone can afford. If you’re looking to build a no-frills home theater for a small to medium sized living room or simply want to add a bit of cinematic punch to your bedroom or office system the Vizio VSB210WS is a great way to go.
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