If you’re an audiophile, the days when when you had to spend thousands of dollars on a receiver and persuade your contractor uncle to show you how to run cables through the wall are long gone. Soundbars, especially those with dedicated rear surround speakers, have gotten so good that most of the time there’s no real need to splurge on the old-school gear.
In particular, systems like Samsung’s flagship HW-Q990B sound more and more like your traditional high-end home theater. This 11.1.4-channel soundbar package is the first ever to feature wireless Dolby Atmos, and all you need to set it up is four power outlets and a short HDMI cable.
In mere minutes, you’ll find yourself engulfed in pretty astonishing object-based surround sound. Dragons, alien ships, and helicopters whirr overhead, bullets whiz to the left and right, and even James Earl Jones’ baritone comes through full and clear in the center channel. Unless you’re willing to spend much more time (and money), it’s downright hard to get a system that sounds this good in most living rooms.
While the inside of the black-on-black HW-Q990B features plenty of cool and interesting technology, the outside of the bar is extremely boring (and thus easy to hide below a TV screen). The bar is a long hexagon, with angled corners to bounce sound off the walls, and the rear surrounds are large, with angled tops to spray sound up and bounce it down as height channels.
The included wireless subwoofer is the most nondescript of the bunch, a simple rectangle that could easily be hidden in any corner of my studio. Put the surrounds on stands. Plug them in along with the subwoofer. Plug the main bar into power, and also into your TV or projector via the HDMI eARC port. Then you’re off to the movies! Seriously, it’s that simple.
Those with higher-end systems, or who are super picky about their interior design, might want to mount the main bar or the surrounds. But that can be easily done with a few drywall anchors and a power drill (not included).
The Price of Entry
Spending $1,700 on a soundbar—significantly more than I’d recommend most folks spend on a current-generation TV—might seem foolish. But then, think about the last time you bought a new pair of computer speakers to go with a new laptop. You tend not to replace your audio gear as frequently, because they tend to last longer. In the home-theater world, good sound isn’t by any means a static enterprise, but it isn’t developing as quickly as image processing and screen technology are.
If you get a soundbar that’s this high-end, with Dolby Atmos and all the modern processing that comes with it, I’d expect it to last through at least two TV generations. So if you expect your TV to last three to five years, a soundbar of this quality would last five to 10 years, which makes the price per year even by comparison.
Personally, I find more-immersive audio brings me more deeply inside the action than a higher-end screen. It might sound like sacrilege coming from a TV and projector reviewer, but truly engaging surround sound is one of the few things that most theaters do significantly better than we do at home. Whenever you bridge the gap with a good audio system, it really does a lot to bring you back to that movie theater headspace.
After all, a significant part of most movies and TV shows is the sound. You’ve probably seen most shows in full resolution on a pretty decent quality screen, even if you’ve only seen them on a cell phone, but have you heard them with full quality sound, through good speakers or nice headphones? Maybe not.
I’ve heard excellent center-channel soundbars before—Sennheiser’s heinously expensive Ambeo comes to mind—but I’ve never heard a bar with such excellent surround speakers. The large two-way surrounds pump out more volume and better fidelity than I’ve ever heard from a bar-plus-speakers setup before, providing head-turning tire squeals and whooshes behind your head. At one point while watching the latest Fletch movie, I swore that a real fire alarm was going off behind me. Nope, just the movie.
The bar, subwoofer, and surrounds combine with Samsung’s excellent digital signal processing to do everything from big boomy action movies to sultry vintage detective movies with theater-like ease. Bass is great, but not massive. You get enough rumble from the included woofer to hear and feel each step of an evil monster in Stranger Things, but not enough that apartment dwellers need fear retribution from their neighbors.