Highly impressive sound quality, but one too many caveats for a wholehearted recommendation
- Atmos Blu-rays sound amazing
- Completely wireless setup
- Good support for streaming services
- DTS soundtracks are decoded in stereo
- Occasionally hissy rear speakers
- Expensive for a soundbar
Home surround sound systems promise to envelop the user in movie theatre audio but to get the full effect you’ve typically had to position multiple speakers around your living room, which can be fiddly and inconvenient. That’s why soundbars are so popular, producing pseudo-surround in a slim, discreet package. Samsung’s Atmos-toting HW-K950 aims to take that surround convenience to the next level, promising 5.1.4 channels of audio without the fuss of trailing extra cables and mounting speakers on your ceiling.
Samsung HW-K950 review: Atmos in a box
It isn’t quite as tidy as a single soundbar, but by golly it gets close. In the box is the soundbar itself, plus a wireless subwoofer and a pair of wireless rear speakers, designed to be positioned behind the listener for maximum effect. It’s as simple to set up as any full surround-sound system I’ve used, and much less intrusive than the only other Atmos soundbar currently on the market — the Yamaha YSP-5600.
How does it pull off the feat of producing ten-channel audio from so few boxes? The answer is drivers – lots of drivers. Into the soundbar, subwoofer and satellite speakers, Samsung has squeezed an Olympian 16 of the things, with 11 in the soundbar (three each for the right, left and centre channels, plus a pair of upward-firing drivers for the front height channels), two each in the rear speakers (a forward- and upward-firing driver in each one) and a single 8in driver in the subwoofer. The whole system delivers 500W of total power output, with a dedicated amp for each and every one of those drivers, and it’s enough to fill even a sizeable room with sound.
Samsung couples this with an understated, robust design that should blend in with most living rooms’ decorative schemes. Black aluminium grilles protect the speakers at the front and top, with black brushed aluminium trimming the front edge and sandwiching the bar at each end. There’s a minimalist OLED display beneath the grille, slightly off centre to the right, a blue LED in the corner that lights up to confirm the presence of an Atmos soundtrack, and a series of basic controls on the right end.
A couple of things get in the way here. First, it’s big. The soundbar itself measures 1.2m long and 82mm high, meaning it’s best suited to screens 50in and above, and the height can get in the way of your TV’s remote sensor if the gap between the bottom edge of your TV and your unit is particularly narrow. The subwoofer is pretty beefy, too, and with dimensions of 41cm deep and 40cm high, those with smaller living rooms will find it tough to find a cubby hole to stash it away in.
Second, Samsung has been a little stingy with the connections, here, with only two HDMI inputs (albeit both 4K-passthrough enabled) and an ARC-enabled HDMI output set into a cavity in the soundbar’s belly. In fairness the presence of the audio return channel does mean you can use the spare HDMI sockets on your TV to supplement those on the soundbar, sending audio back over the HDMI link to the HW-K950, and you can also connect via optical S/PDIF and 3.5mm audio, but I’d expect a touch more flexibility than this on a home theatre product costing well north of £1,000.
Still, the system is a doddle to set up – just take everything out of the box, switch it on, and all the components connect to each other with no further action required on your part – and if it’s music you want to listen to, there are plenty of other ways of streaming to the soundbar aside from HDMI.
Via the accompanying app, you can stream local and network-based music files via DLNA, plus there’s support for Spotify Connect, Tidal, TuneIn and Amazon Music, and a decent list of others as well. Add any of Samsung’s wireless R3, R5 or R7 speakers and you have a full multi-room setup, and you can hook up your tablet or smartphone via Bluetooth if you’re so inclined.
Samsung HW-K950 review: Sound quality
Impressive though the specifications sound, they’re useless if the soundbar doesn’t sound good. Fortunately, Samsung’s audio engineers’ tireless hours of tweaking in their new lab in California have paid off, because it sounds utterly amazing.
With a correctly encoded Dolby Atmos soundtrack, the Samsung HW-K950 produces a bubble of sound that not only surrounds the listener in the horizontal plane but also vertically.
Not many discs in my Blu-ray collection have an Atmos soundtrack – just Batman vs Superman and (bizarrely) Minions – but on both the sense of immersion within the 3D soundscape was pronounced, with effects easy to locate all around the room and dialogue remaining clearly and easily audible in the centre channel.
The Atmos demo disc supplied by Samsung along with the soundbar takes this to the next level, demonstrating exactly how good the extra sound “height” that Atmos brings to the table can sound. Rain appears to fall from above you as well as all around, a 747 taking off passes over your head, almost making you duck, and special effects, particularly explosions, appear to surround you in 3D space.
Considering no form of special calibration is required this is hugely impressive, although before you splash the cash it might be worth checking that your room is suitable. Since the upward firing speakers work by bouncing sound waves off your ceiling, Samsung recommends that your ceiling is flat and not too high or low.
The sense of immersion is less marked with non-Atmos material, but still impressive, with both 5.1 soundtracks and stereo audio bursting with detail and room-filling atmospherics. I’m not normally a fan of the way most soundbars and surround sound systems in general lack mid-range warmth and balance, robbing the overall sound of body and richness, but the Samsung HW-K950 bucks that trend; it’s as good as any I’ve listened to.
It’s highly musical, delivering most genres with a foot-tapping agility and authority that makes it easy and enjoyable to listen to for hours on end. I’d happily have this as my main music system, and even with Samsung’s Surround sound “upscaling” effect works well, filling the room with sound without overpowering the listener with extraneous, unnecessary noise.
The only thing I’d say against it is that I found the subwoofer occasionally overpowering, and irritatingly there’s not much scope for adjustment. You can nudge the levels down by six, but at that point, if you want to reduce the bass further, it oddly jumps straight to -12, which annoyingly doesn’t deliver enough low-end.
Samsung HW-K950 review: Problems, problems, problems
There are, however, some more significant issues with the Samsung HW-K950, not least of which is its inability to natively decode DTS soundtracks in anything but stereo. This is, frankly, a crazy limitation on a flagship soundbar, especially when you consider how many current Blu-ray discs are limited to DTS exclusively on their English language soundtrack.
I was most put out to discover that Star Wars: The Force Awakens would only play back in stereo, but this isn’t the only recent Blu-ray that lacks a Dolby Digital. Ghostbusters, X-Men Apocalypse, Captain America: Civil War and Eddie the Eagle (non-4K release) all lack a Dolby Digital-compatible lead English language soundtrack, to name but a handful of recent blockbuster releases.
If you’re lucky enough to own a recent Sony or Samsung Blu-ray player, you’ll be able to set it to convert from DTS to Dolby Digital on the fly before the audio stream reaches the soundbar, but if you haven’t then you’re going to have to budget for a new deck, otherwise you’ll be watching most of your Blu-rays in stereo.
And that isn’t the only irritation I experienced with the Samsung HW-K950, either. With some content, there was a quiet but clearly audible hiss coming from the rear speakers, something I was able to resolve by turning the system on and off again, but you don’t want to be doing that too often before it becomes annoying. A loud, sharp snap would occasionally intervene as I was watching. I found the K950 infuriatingly slow to respond to its remote control, and that it would occasionally refuse to power on using the remote, forcing me to raise myself from the sofa and turn it on using the power button on the right-hand fascia.
Samsung HW-K950 review: Verdict
Despite all this, I’m a big fan of the HW-K950. Sonically, it’s the most accomplished soundbar I’ve ever had the pleasure to clap ears on. It sounds equally at home with music as it does with movie surround-sound source material, and puts in a truly awesome performance when fed with a proper Atmos soundtrack.
And although the price is rather high at £1,299, with Bluetooth, multi-room and Wi-Fi capabilities added to the mix, plus the convenience of wireless speakers satellite speakers and subwoofer, you’re actually getting rather a lot for your money. This is no ordinary soundbar system.
Which makes it such a shame that it has so many irritating shortcomings, especially that it doesn’t deal with DTS-encoded soundtracks properly. In every other sense, the HW-K950 is a five-star product, but such a crazy limitation knocks it out of Best Buy award contention.