This isn’t the only website to have noted that the sound your lovely new TV makes is a significant let-down compared to the images it produces. This isn’t the only place you’ll be exhorted to set some of your ‘new TV’ budget aside in order to bring your audio experience a little closer in line with the picture quality you’re enjoying.
But the idea of spending the same (or more, even) on a TV-complementing audio system as you spent on the TV in the first place isn’t all that prevalent. And even among people who subscribe to George Lucas’s assertion that “the sound and music are 50 per cent of the entertainment in a movie”, dropping well over £2,000 on a massive soundbar isn’t generally the first option that springs to mind.
So who is the massive, and massively expensive, new Sennheiser Ambeo Soundbar for, exactly?
Yes, it promises state-of-the-art Dolby Atmos 3D surround-sound from a single enclosure. Yes, it has support for DTS:X (the Dolby Atmos that dare not speak its name) too. But this is the sort of money that will buy an actual, amplifier-plus-multiple-speakers, Dolby Atmos system. And that’s a system which by rights ought to offer a fair bit more of the audio experience you’re after than a single box like the Ambeo Soundbar.
Can Sennheiser make good on everything the Ambeo Soundbar promises? Can it possibly be worth the outlay? And why would a company that’s never launched a consumer-orientated loudspeaker before (even one with brand recognition as sky-high as Sennheiser’s) decide to pop its cherry with the biggest, priciest soundbar the market has ever seen?
We have to start with the size – the Sennheiser Ambeo Soundbar is an elephant in anybody’s room, no matter how large. At 12.5cm x 126.5cm x 17cm (h x w x d), it’s an absolute biffer. At this width it needs at least a 65in TV to sit under, and at this height there’s not a TV on the market with the space between its stand and the bottom of its screen to accommodate it.
Wall-mounting it is, then. Except that the Ambeo Soundbar weighs 18.5kg, which will make some home-owners think twice – and (less critically but more irritatingly) Sennheiser has the neck to charge £50 for a wall-mounting bracket.
There’s just no disguising bulk like this and, to be fair, Sennheiser hasn’t even tried. This is a big black box, very sturdily made and flawlessly finished, and ‘purposeful’ is about as much as can be said for the styling. There’s a modicum of relief thanks to the small, bright and crisp display at the bottom-centre of the front panel, and that really is your lot.
Where the outside of the Sennheiser is nondescript, on the inside there’s quite a bit more to discuss.
The Ambeo Soundbar is intended to replicate a Dolby Atmos 5.1.4 system – that’s five speakers forming a traditional ‘three up front/two behind’ surround circle, a subwoofer, and four overhead channels bringing the height to the sound. To achieve this, Sennheiser has deployed a total of 13 speakers powered by a total of 500 watts: six 10cm cellulose mid/bass drivers, five 25mm aluminium dome tweeters and a pair of 9cm full-range drivers firing upwards from behind the grilles at either end of the top of the bar. Nine of the drivers fill the front of the Ambeo Soundbar, and the remaining two fire outwards from either end.
Part of the reason for the Sennheiser’s heft, and the size of the drivers (far bigger than any nominal rival uses), is to negate the need for a subwoofer. With a claimed frequency response of a deep 30Hz up to 20kHz, the Ambeo is intended to be an entirely self-contained system.
Connectivity is as ample as the soundbar itself. Recessed into the rear of the Ambeo are four HDMI sockets, one of which incorporates Enhanced Audio Return Channel and all of which can deal with 4K and HDR (up to and including Dolby Vision). There’s plenty of 4K HDR content on Netflix, Amazon Prime Video etc, some of which is in Dolby Atmos – and all you need is one cable from your TV to the Sennhesier to enjoy it at its fullest.
There are also stereo RCA analogue inputs, a USB (for servicing and updates only), a digital optical input and an Ethernet socket. Wi-Fi, naturally enough, is on board too. And with Bluetooth 4.2 (with NFC pairing) and Chromecast included too, it’s difficult to imagine a home cinema scenario the Sennheiser isn’t ready for.
The Ambeo Soundbar is supplied with a calibration microphone almost as ostentatious as the soundbar itself. Plug the long, slender wand into the fascia socket, position the top of it around head-height and the Sennheiser fires out a brief series of test-tones. It’s one of the swifter and more accurate mic-assisted set-up processes around, and when it’s finished the Ambeo Soundbar is optimised for its environment.
(It almost, but not quite, goes without saying the Sennheiser likes a bit of breathing space. Drivers firing in all directions, including upwards, means it can’t sit beneath a surface, and the amount of heat the amplification generates means the vents that wrap around the top rear of the bar shouldn’t be obstructed either.)
There are a few physical controls on the top panel of the bar, and these are duplicated on the weighty remote control – they’re all useful to a lesser or greater extent, but the ‘Ambeo’ button (which turns the virtual surround processing on or off) is the one that really demonstrates what the Sennheiser is capable of. Well, that and the ‘volume up’ control.
There’s also the Sennheiser Smart Control app, which is clear, stable and logical. None of those three things can be taken for granted where control apps are concerned, so Sennheiser deserves congratulations here.
The Ambeo Soundbar does without any voice-control operability. At first glance, that seems an opportunity to pander to the lazy missed – but in all honesty, the Sennheiser is capable of such prodigious volume you’d have to absolutely yell to be heard above it.
500 watts of power, 13 drivers… it looks promising on paper, and proves to be extremely impressive in practice.
Initially, though, it’s not the out-and-out power that impresses about the Ambeo Soundbar – it’s the size and spaciousness of the sound it delivers. The Dolby Atmos soundtrack to Guardians of the Galaxy vol.2 streamed from Netflix is absolutely wide open, with so much space available that even the finest details are made completely explicit. This isn’t the only soundbar that’s able to offer a wide and deep stage, far from it – but it’s the only soundbar currently available that gives an impression of height that’s as solid and convincing as this.
Other Dolby Atmos material just reinforces the Sennheiser’s credentials. A disc of Blade Runner 2049 stretches out in all directions, the Ambeo Soundbar delivering all the bottom-end punch and presence the soundtrack calls for, while making the harmonic subtleties in the midrange obvious. There’s bite and well-judged attack at the top end, and more than enough power in reserve to put impressive (and absolutely immediate) distance between ‘silent’ and ‘all-action audio overload’. This combination of delicacy and dynamism is pretty rare.
The Sennheiser is able to generate a sound stage almost as convincing from regular 5.1 or even stereo soundtracks. An antique soundtrack like that to The Harder They Come isn’t the most promising source material, but the Ambeo Soundbar gives significant height and width to the audio, and dishes every detail available. It’s convincing and unobtrusive enough to make everything worth listening to in ‘Ambeo’ mode – sport, music, current affairs, you name it.
The ‘bar’s tonality is natural and neutral, and the integration of the frequency range is smooth too. But it’s the 3D element of its performance – the way it distributes audio alongside and above you, as well as the width of its horizontal sound – that makes this the premier soundbar currently available. The biggest, yes, and most certainly the most expensive – but also the best.
Price: £2,199 | Check price on Sennheiser | Richer Sounds
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