Samsung HW-N850 Soundbar

The Samsung HW-N850 comes hot on the heels of the manufacturer’s flagship HW-N950 ‘Cinematic’ soundbar, and is essentially the same but without the wireless rear speakers. That means you still get upward and side-firing speakers at the front, a wireless subwoofer and support for Dolby Atmos and DTS:X.

Since the soundbar itself is identical to the N950, you also get the same excellent build quality, Harman Kardon tuning, hi-res audio support, and wireless streaming via WiFi and Bluetooth. Throw in a handy remote control, HDMI connections that pass HDR10 and Dolby Vision, and Samsung’s SmartThings app, and the N850 looks like a tempting prospect.

The question is: does the N950 justify the extra cost, or is the N850 enough for most living rooms? Let’s find out.

Price and availability

The Samsung HW-N850 actually offers decent value, especially if you shop around. It has a list price of £1,199/$1,199, but is widely available for just £999/$999. When you consider you’re getting a 5.1.2 system with support for Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, that’s an attractive price.

There are other soundbars from the likes of LG and Sony which offer similar features at comparable prices. However if you’re considering the N850, the real question is do you spend the extra £500/$700 and go for the more immersive HW-N950?

There’s is the option to buy the SWA-9000S (£129/$179) wireless speaker pack, turning your N850 into a 7.1.2 system with genuine rear channels. However, unlike the N950, this would still lack rear top channels, resulting in a front-heavy overhead presence in longer rooms.

How important these factors are will depend on your room and your budget, but the N950’s ability to deliver a full 7.1.4-channel immersive audio experience does go some way towards justifying its higher price tag.

Design

The Samsung HW-N850 uses an identical casing to the top-of-the-range N950, so you get the same minimalist design, and the same superb build quality. You also get the same black finish, with metal grilles at the top, front, and sides, and brushed metal edges and rear panel.

The N850, like the N950, is intended for larger screen sizes of at least 55-inches, yet despite its size the soundbar is surprisingly discreet. You will need at least 83mm of clearance beneath your screen, but there is the option to wall mount thanks to an included wall bracket.

The size and weight of the N850 is understandable, when you consider there are a total of 13 drivers built into the cabinet. These drivers form seven speakers, with three front channels, two width channels, and two upward-firing drivers for the front height channels.

The minimalist approach extends to the LED display, which is located on the front at the far right of the soundbar. It lights up when it receives an instruction, and provides feedback on the volume, inputs, various settings, and whether the signal is Atmos or DTS:X.

This simple display gets the job done, but we would like to see it provide more information, especially given the lack of any onscreen menus. The same simplicity applies to the controls on the soundbar, with basic touch sensitive buttons for power, input selection and volume.

The provided remote is ergonomically designed and comfortable to hold, with all the necessary buttons sensibly laid out, making controlling the N850 an effective and highly intuitive process. If you connect using HDMI ARC, you also have the option to use your TV remote as a controller.

In a recessed area under the soundbar you’ll find the connections, which include two HDMI inputs and an HDMI output with ARC (Audio Return Channel). All the HDMI connections support 4K/60p, 4:4:4, Rec.2020, High Dynamic Range (HDR10 and Dolby Vision), 3D and HDCP 2.2.

There’s also an optical digital input, and built-in WiFi and Bluetooth. On the underside you’ll find a USB port for service updates, a connector for the two-pin power cable, a button for WiFi setup, and a button for pairing the wireless subwoofer if necessary.

This sub is a bass-reflex model with built-in amplification and a side-firing 8-inch driver. It complements the design of the soundbar, and should pair automatically. If not, you can manually pair by pressing the pairing button, and there are indicator LEDs to show the connection status.

Features

The Samsung HW-N850’s primary feature is its support of both Dolby Atmos and DTS:X. This is less common than you might imagine amongst soundbar, with even LG’s flagship SK10Y only supporting Dolby Atmos.

The N850 isn’t quite as immersive as the N950, with no surrounds or rear height channels, but it still boasts no fewer than seven speakers. The front three channels are composed of three drivers each, while the height and width channels use single drivers.

The drivers are individually powered by a total of 372W of built-in amplification, and the soundbar and sub reportedly have a frequency response that goes from 34Hz to 17kHz. Samsung doesn’t break these numbers down, but it’s safe to assume the sub is handling all the lower frequencies.

Unlike the N950, it doesn’t include wireless rear speakers with upward-firing drivers, so it can’t deliver genuine 5.1.4 with rear surround and overhead channels. You can buy the SWA-9000S wireless speakers separately, but that only adds surrounds, creating a 7.1.2 system.

The N850 has been tuned by Harman Kardon, ensuring a sound that is both open and dynamic, whilst retaining clear voicing. The soundbar supports Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD and Dolby Atmos, along with DTS Digital Sound, DTS-HD Master Audio and DTS:X.

There are three sound modes to enhance the audio: Standard, which decodes the incoming audio; Surround Sound Expansion, which upmixes the audio to use all the available speakers; and Smart, which analyses the incoming signal, and chooses the best available processing.

To allow users to easily access their music libraries and streaming services, the N850 includes built-in WiFi and Bluetooth capabilities. The former is easy to setup using Samsung’s SmartThings app, and the latter can be paired by simply pressing the pairing button on the remote control.

As far as music playback goes, the N850 supports various lossy and lossless audio formats including AAC, WAV, OGG, ALAC, AIFF and FLAC, with high resolution support up to 32-bit. Samsung also includes UHQ 32-bit upscaling for the highest quality audio playback.

The N850 includes Alexa skills, so using the Alexa app you can enable Samsung Wireless Audio, then under Smart Home select devices and discover the soundbar. This will enable the 3PDA skills and allow you interact with your N850 using Alexa voice control.

Performance

Before you get on to actually listening to content, you’ll need to setup the Samsung HW-N850.

Thankfully this process is relatively easy, and all you need to do is place the soundbar beneath your TV (making sure you don’t obstruct any of the drivers) and position the subwoofer towards the front of the room (but not in the corner).

The soundbar and sub should pair automatically, creating a 5.1.2-channel system. Then all you need to do is set the levels for the front, centre, side, top, and sub channels using an SPL meter. If you don’t have one, there are plenty of free SPL meter apps available.

Since the setup of the N850 is largely identical to the N950, we have the same criticism we did for the flagship soundbar. Set-up is too basic compared to some of the competition, with no dedicated microphone or set-up app for room equalization.

Taking the time to set the speaker levels correctly will pay dividends, resulting in a cohesive system with well-integrated bass. There’s an impressive front soundstage that has width and space, and great tonal balance thanks to the use of the same drivers on all the speakers.

Considering its the N850’s main feature, we immediately started by testing its performance with immersive audio. Kicking off with Dolby Atmos, the Samsung revealed a wall of sound at the front of the room that had both height, width and plenty of bass.

This was hardly unexpected, with the side-firing drivers helping to widen the front soundstage, and the upward-firing drivers creating the front overhead channels, while the wireless subwoofer has plenty of oomph. What was missing was any sense of surround or rear overhead channels.

As a result this wall of sound was decidedly front-heavy, with all the sonic action in the first half of the room. Whether it’s an issue will depend on the dimensions of your room and the size of your budget. If you have a long room, then the sense that sound is primarily focused at the front will leave an aural gap behind you.

To fill this gap you have two options, you can either buy the SWA-9000S (£129/$179) wireless speaker pack and add actual surrounds, or get the N950. However even if you do get the wireless rear speakers, you still won’t have rear overhead channels: only the N950 can deliver full 7.1.4.

This difference between the two soundbars was evident when watching Ready Player One in Dolby Atmos. The N850 created an impressive front soundstage that had great width, and a plenty of height to the effects.

The dialogue was clear and focused on screen, and the sub delivered the big bass moments with real impact. However the sense of immersion that was apparent when testing the N950 was simply not there, especially as vehicles roared all around you during the chase sequences.

It was the same when watching Atomic Blonde in DTS:X. The N850 handled dialogue and the 80s soundtrack well, while also deliver the bone-crunching action thanks to the sub and a solid mid-range. However the sense of complete immersion in an environment was sometimes missing.

When listening to standard Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks, you have the choice of decoding the soundtracks in their original form, or using the surround sound expansion mode to take full advantage of all the available speakers.

We often use Gravity to test a system’s tonal balance and effects steering, and aside from the soundstage being focused at the front, the N850 did a great job in Standard mode. Switching to the Surround Sound Expansion mode and the mix felt slightly more open and immersive.

The front-heavy nature of the N850’s soundstage is irrelevant when dealing with two-channel content, and thanks to Harman Kardon’s tuning it’s an excellent soundbar when it comes to music. Whether we listened to Guns ’n’ Roses, Nick Cave, Suede or Kate Bush, the Samsung handled them all with clarity, detail and impressive stereo separation.

Other soundbars to consider

As we’ve already mentioned, the LG SK10Y is worth considering. It’s priced in the same range as the Samsung HW-N850, and offers the same 5.1.2 configuration using a soundbar and subwoofer combination. It’s been developed in conjunction with Meridian, so it sounds great. But while it does support Dolby Atmos, there’s no DTS:X, which gives the N850 the edge.

The Sony HT-Z9F supports both Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, and is considerably cheaper at £649/$898. However it’s also limited to 3.1 channels, using three speakers on the soundbar and a wireless subwoofer. Sony claims it can create a 7.1.2-channel experience thanks to virtual surround technology, but while this might work to a degree, it can’t compare to the more immersive N850.

Final verdict

The Samsung HW-N850 is an excellent soundbar that delivers an impressive all-round performance. Thanks to the combination of forward, side, and upward-firing drivers, along with a wireless subwoofer, it is able to produce a 5.1.2 immersive audio experience.

The soundbar is attractively-designed and extremely well-made, while the N850 as a whole offers plenty of useful features. It can detect and decode both Dolby Atmos and DTS:X without any issues, and was equally as effective with regular soundtracks.

The sense of immersion is good, although the lack of rear speakers does mean the soundstage is also rather front-heavy. However, if your interests go beyond simply TV and films, that wall of sound really lends itself to music, regardless of whether you stream via WiFi or Bluetooth. 

If you truly want to immerse yourself in object-based audio, then the Samsung HW-N950 is your best bet. However for those with smaller rooms or a limited budget, the HW-N850 is a great alternative.



from TechRadar - Technology Reviews http://www.techradar.com/reviews/samsung-hw-n850-soundbar