Atmos without the atmosphere – the Philips Fidelio B8 is expensive and disappointing
- Supports DTS Digital Surround
- Sleek, low-profile design
- Plenty of inputs
- Harsh-sounding top end
- No Wi-Fi connectivity
Dolby’s Atmos surround-sound technology is becoming increasingly prevalent these days. We’ve seen it featured in soundbars, of course, but lately I’ve seen it in laptops, it’s coming to phones, and broadcasters are beginning to add it to their programming. It’s certainly no longer the sole domain of home-theatre geeks. The price of entry is steadily falling in the home-theatre space, too, and the Philips Fidelio B8/12 soundbar (recently renamed the Philips SkyQuake) is the latest to join the fray.
An Atmos soundbar is still an investment, however, and the SkyQuake demonstrates that you don’t currently get a huge amount for your money. Just like the Samsung HW-K850 (£900), the Philips Fidelio B8/12 keeps the price down by not including rear or side speakers. In the (enormous) box is a soundbar, wireless subwoofer and a remote control. That’s slim pickings for £900.
So, why would you want to shell out for Atmos if it costs so much? Simply put, because it adds another dimension to surround-sound audio height. A fully fledged Atmos setup adds either two of four channels to your usual – upper front left/right and upper rear left/right – and these are usually delivered by ceiling-mounted, downward-firing speakers.
Atmos soundbars such as the Philips B8 rely instead on upward-firing speakers that bounce the sound off your ceiling. If you have a ceiling of the right height, it’s an effect that can be effective, and indeed it did work well with the Samsung HW-K850. Despite its lack of side and/or rear satellite speakers, there was a distinct height to the sound and a surprisingly wide, deep three-dimensional soundstage.
The Philips Fidelio B8/12 is, in comparison, a disappointment. It offers a similar Atmos configuration to the Samsung, with a pair of upward-firing drivers providing the two height channels in a 5.1.2 setup. There are a total of 18 drivers in the soundbar, driven by 180W of amplification, and a single 8in driver in the subwoofer, driven by a 220W amp.
All impressive-sounding stuff. Alas, sound effects lacked the pinpoint positional accuracy of the HW-K850 and, more importantly, the three-dimensional quality that its rival soundbar brings to the party is mostly lacking.
Philips B8/12 SkyQuake review: Features and connectivity
If you’re still with me, it’s worth noting that the Philips Fidelio B8/12 isn’t a poor soundbar. Indeed, it offers some significant advantages over the Samsung. The main one is native compatibility with DTS Digital Surround signals (although not DTS-HD or Master Audio) where its main rival supports only stereo DTS audio.
It’s also slimmer and sleeker than the Samsung soundbar, a consideration if you plan to position the bar in front of your TV. The Samsung was so tall I had to contort my body, reaching up and pointing the remote control down in order to turn my TV on and off.
And I rather like the Philips’ matte-grey finish and remote control. The latter isn’t as small and neat as the Samsung HW-K850’s, but it’s easier to understand and get to grips with and it’s also more responsive. The subwoofer is wireless, so you can position it wherever makes most sense, but it’s imposingly tall and won’t stow out of sight particularly easily.
As for physical connectivity, the Philips is right up there with the HW-K850. You get two HDMI inputs with support for 30fps 4K passthrough and one output that’s ARC-enabled so your TV can pipe audio back down to the soundbar. There’s also a pair of S/PDIF outputs – one optical, one coaxial – plus a 3.5mm jack input and a USB port for connecting thumbdrives and MP3 file playback.
There’s also Bluetooth with NFC for easy pairing, and support for aptX, AAC codecs and SBC. Surprisingly, though, you don’t get any kind of Wi-Fi connectivity, so you miss out on multiroom, Spotify Connect and DLNA server playback.
Philips Fidelio B8/12 / SkyQuake review: General sound quality
I’ve already covered Atmos sound quality, but you don’t buy a soundbar just for Atmos. It also needs to play nicely with other surround-sound content, music and TV. And here it’s a bit of a mixed bag.
Place the subwoofer in the right location and you can have some fun with the Philips Fidelio B8/12. Music is presented in an engaging manner, and the system delivers movie soundtracks with plenty of get-up-and-go, while explosions and sound effects are administered with plenty of power and drive.
You can even add fake height to non-Atmos content by choosing between low, medium and high levels on the remote control. With live recordings, this can give music a touch more ambience, heightening background noises and widening the soundstage.
But be careful with it, especially when watching films: even without the Height effect applied, the soundbar has a tendency to over-accentuate the high frequencies; with Height enabled to any degree, the B8/12 sounds harsh at the top-end and sound effects such as gunfire frequently overpower speech in the centre channel.
The subwoofer, although powerful, can’t match the promise of its large dimensions. It simply doesn’t reach down that low, rolling off as it does at 40Hz, and although it delivers movie sound effects with plenty of impact, the deep bass rumble that the very best low-frequency speakers provide evades it entirely. You need to be careful where you put it, too.
The elephant in the room, though, is the Samsung HW-K850. It costs the same as the Philips, yet produces audio that’s infinitely superior, delivering a richer, more tonally balanced sound, with far sweeter-sounding treble and a much more convincing Atmos effect.
Philips Fidelio B8/12 SkyQuake review: Verdict
The trouble with producing Atmos surround-sound products right now is that, although on the increase, they’re still comparatively thin on the ground, and the competition that does exist is extremely strong. If you’re not as good as the competition, it’s plainly obvious.
That’s the problem for the Philips Fidelio B8/12 / SkyQuake. In isolation, it isn’t a bad soundbar, but at this price it comes into direct competition with Samsung’s HW-K850 and unfortunately it doesn’t come close.
It doesn’t sound as good; it doesn’t produce as convincing a height effect; and it doesn’t offer as comprehensive a list of features. It would have to be £200 cheaper to even start to offer a tempting alternative.