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Bose Smart Ultra Soundbar review: Big sound whether you like it or not

Our Rating :
Price when reviewed : £899
inc VAT

There's lots to like about the Bose Smart Ultra Soundbar but it's held back by a few frustrating foibles


  • Balanced, insightful and widescreen sound
  • Lovely standard of build and finish
  • Several well-realised control options


  • Needs greater sonic height and punch
  • Glass surface is unhelpfully reflective
  • ‘TrueSpace’ should really be an option

Bigger isn’t automatically better – and with the new Bose Smart Ultra Soundbar, the American manufacturer has created a range-topping soundbar that’s big in every way except physical. It’s got the specification, the ergonomics, and the impeccable quality of build and finish to go toe-to-toe with every one of its price-comparable rivals. But it’s not the battleship so many of those alternative devices are – instead, it’s usefully compact and winningly discreet.

When it’s in position, and when it’s done its automatic room calibration thing, and when you’ve finally learned to ignore the way its glass top reflects the light of your TV screen, there’s plenty to like about the Smart Ultra. Its tonality is brilliantly consistent, it is attentive to even the finest details in a soundtrack, it creates a very wide and rigorously organised soundstage, and it has several very well-implemented control options.

There are issues, though, mostly centring around the soundbar’s relative lack of low-end clout and relatively circumspect way with the height channels of a spatial audio soundtrack. Add in some ‘TrueSpace’ technology that tries to turn every type of content into spatial audio content (not always with the greatest success) and the Bose Smart Ultra Soundbar is more of an impressive option than an absolutely sure thing. 

Bose Smart Ultra Soundbar: What you need to know

The Bose Smart Ultra Soundbar is the company’s new top-of-the-range soundbar, replacing the Smart Soundbar 900 – although replacing might be too strong a word when the two products are so very similar both visually and in terms of specification. There are some changes and upgrades, sure – but one of the biggest is the change of model name.

Just as with the model it replaces, the Smart Ultra Soundbar is designed to take the fight to Dolby Atmos-enabled subwoofer-less soundbars at similar money – most specifically, the Sonos Arc. If its physical dimensions, broad specification and wider connectivity is anything to go by, this Bose is equipped to at the very least be part of the Arc-centric conversation.

It’s fitted with nine speaker drivers, arranged to give as much expression to Dolby Atmos spatial audio soundtracks as possible. Because this is Bose, I can only speculate as to the type of amplification that drives this array, the frequency response the array produces or the amount of power the amplification generates.

Physical connectivity runs to an HDMI eARC socket and Ethernet input, a digital optical input and a selection of 3.5mm connections. One is for use with the room calibration mic, one is for connecting an IR blaster, one is for data and one is for hooking up an appropriate Bose bass module if you’re after some authentic Cineplex-style rumble and wallop. Wireless stuff is handled by Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 5.0 (with SBC and AAC codec compatibility), while Apple AirPlay 2 is available and Chromecast is built in.

As well as operating in isolation, the Smart Ultra Soundbar can accept bass and surround Bose speaker partners to create a true surround-sound system and form part of a multi-room setup using appropriate speakers.

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Bose Smart Ultra Soundbar review: Price and competition

Yes, everything about the Smart Ultra Soundbar – dimensions, specification, price, you name it – suggests it wants a piece of the Arc action. But the Sonos market leader is far from your only choice if you’re looking to spend £899 or thereabouts on a Dolby Atmos-enabled soundbar…

Sony’s excellent HT-A7000 is regularly available for less than £999, and thanks to its feature set and more expansive compatibility, it’s an even more adaptable product than the Smart Ultra. And though it’s admittedly a slightly more expensive option, the Sennheiser Ambeo Plus has plenty to recommend it – not least the sheer scale of the sound it’s capable of generating.

Bose Smart Ultra Soundbar review: Design and features

Design, at least where soundbars are concerned, is not to be trifled with. Some fiddling around the edges of the established template is probably permissible – but not too much. Not everyone can be Bang & Olufsen or Devialet, after all – because not everyone can afford to take liberties with the design of their soundbar and then have the neck to charge a premium for it afterwards.

So Bose has, very sensibly, stuck with the discreet, understated and quite sophisticated design it hit upon with the Smart Soundbar 900. That means usefully low-rise dimensions of 1,045 x 107 x 58mm (WDH), an unburdensome weight of 5.8kg (a wall bracket is a cost option) and a combination of metal, plastic and glass that looks and feels good but isn’t quite the most practical selection of materials.

To be fair, there’s nothing impractical or in any way low-rent about the plastics or the metal that goes into the Smart Ultra Soundbar. The perforated metal that acts as a speaker grille looks particularly good, in fact, thanks to the way it wraps around the end of the chassis, and the standard of build and finish that’s on display here is basically impeccable. And where look, feel and perceived value is concerned, the tempered glass that constitutes the top surface of the soundbar is not to be sniffed at, either. The problem, such as it is, concerns practicalities – glass in this position is more than happy to reflect the images on the screen above it, and glass in this position picks up fingerprints more readily than a police officer.   

Behind all of these premium materials, there are six 100 x 50mm racetrack transducers and three 25mm tweeters to do the audio business. There is a full-range transducer behind each of the perforated metal grilles exposed in the glass top plate of the soundbar, angled to create some sonic height, while the other four sit fairly near the centre of the front of the chassis – there are two on either side of a central tweeter. The other two tweeters are at the far ends of the front face, each one behind some phase-guide technology designed to create a sensation of width to the Bose presentation.

This layout is augmented by a couple of rear-facing bass reflex ports for additional low-frequency presence and is of course arranged to create as convincing a sensation of Dolby Atmos spatial audio. In fact, the Smart Ultra Soundbar is compatible with Dolby Atmos, Dolby Digital, Dolby TrueHD and Dolby Digital Plus audio formats. But naturally, Bose doesn’t want sub-Dolby content to miss out on all its clever engineering and processing – so its ‘TrueSpace’ technology will attempt to force a sensation of spatial audio, no matter what you’re listening to and regardless of whether you’d like it to or not.

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Bose Smart Ultra Soundbar review: Controls

In what is far from a first where Bose products are concerned, the Smart Ultra Soundbar is easy to control – and you have a gratifying number of options to choose from.

There’s a tidy, tactile little remote control in the packaging, for example. Its soft, long-travel buttons take care of all of the basics, including powering the bar on and off, adjusting the volume, playing and pausing content and selecting your input.

The Smart Ultra is compatible with Amazon Alexa and can be used with Google Assistant if there’s an appropriate smart speaker on a common network. There’s a touch control on the top surface of the soundbar if you want to defeat the integrated mics – but leave them enabled and it’s quick and reliable to get what you want from the Bose simply by asking for it.

To cover every functionality eventuality, though, you need the Bose Music control app that’s free for iOS and Android. It can all be accessed here – from the nuts and bolts of volume control and source selection, through EQ adjustment and level control for bass, treble, centre and height, to integrating further Bose speakers to create a multi-channel or multi-room system, the app is where it’s at. It’s where you set up Alexa voice control, enable Chromecast, integrate your music streaming of choice, and add up to six presets for playlists or internet radio stations. It’s also where the ‘Adaptiq’ automated room calibration system, the ‘Voice4Video’ feature and ‘AI Dialogue Mode’ can be accessed.

‘Adaptiq’ is a rapid, accurate and mildly amusing way of ensuring the Smart Ultra Soundbar is calibrated to your specific environment as accurately as possible. The calibration mic is connected to a length of cable terminating in a 3.5mm jack at one end – this plugs into the corresponding socket on the rear of the soundbar. At the other end, the mic is connected to a headband, which the lucky Bose owner gets to wear in order to help the calibration process along. Wear your plastic mic headband in your favourite viewing position and wait while the Bose fires off a series of test tones to establish exactly what’s what – and then move into four different positions to help the system get a proper read on your room. Then, when you’re set-up, put the mic headband away and hope no one saw you wearing it.

‘Voice4Video’ allows control of your soundbar, television, and cable or satellite TV box, via Amazon Alexa – provided your equipment is compatible, of course. If it is, you can turn on the TV and switch inputs between your connected devices simply by requesting it out loud.

And ‘AI Dialogue Mode’ is a straightforward on or off choice. Unlike more common News, Dialogue or Podcast EQ presets, which simply give the midrange a nudge towards the front of the soundstage, AI Dialogue Mode assesses the content you’re listening to on the fly in order to balance voices against surround-sound effects for optimum clarity.

There’s nothing showy or even particularly exciting about any of the control options available to you here. But they’re all well-implemented, all reliable and, in the case of the control app, absolutely rock-solid in its stability. So it’s difficult to know what more you might realistically ask for.

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Bose Smart Ultra Soundbar review: Sound quality

A Dolby Atmos soundbar ought to do its best work when given a Dolby Atmos soundtrack to deal with – that’s hardly a peculiar concept, is it? And there’s no doubt the Bose Smart Ultra Soundbar performs to its maximum when given the tools to work with – in this instance, the Dolby Atmos soundtrack to a 4K UHD Blu-ray disc of No Time To Die.

In lots of ways, the Smart Ultra is a deeply competitive product. Its powers of detail retrieval, for example, are remarkable – it identifies and contextualises even the most fleeting, most minor, most marginal details in the soundtrack and gives them exactly the weighting they require. This is a trait that’s particularly welcome when it comes to midrange reproduction – there’s no nuance of speech that eludes the Bose, and the sensation that dialogue is as complete as possible where character, motivation or emotional state is concerned is strong. The detail levels are such that it seems unlikely in the extreme that you’re missing out on some subtlety or transient occurrence buried somewhere in the soundtrack.

At the top of the frequency range, there’s plenty of bite and attack, to the point that the Bose can threaten to become a little bit edgy. It never quite happens, though, even at significant volume – and there’s substance to treble sounds to even out their shine. Down at the opposite end, meanwhile, bass information is properly controlled, straight-edged and speedy – and, just as elsewhere in the frequency range, it’s loaded with fine detail. But it’s short of outright punch and presence, and consequently lacks a little of that visceral impact that soundtracks such as this one rely on. Tonality is consistent from the top of the frequency range to the bottom, though, and that goes a long way towards delivering a unified, coherent and convincing overall presentation.

And the same is true, broadly speaking, of the soundstage the Smart Ultra generates. There’s significant width to the stage, as well as appreciable depth – which means the Bose can individualise elements of a soundtrack without making them sound remote or removed. There’s plenty of elbow room for every strand of a soundtrack to express itself, and the Smart Ultra pays just as much attention to the silences and absences as it does the sonic events. What there isn’t though, is a particularly pronounced sensation of sonic height. Despite the presence of dedicated up-firing height channels, the Bose doesn’t throw effects up with much conviction.

Non-spatial audio content is given the once-over by the soundbar’s ‘TrueSpace’ technology in an effort to present it in as spatial a way as possible – and with the relative lack of sonic height kept uppermost in mind, the effect on the 5.1-channel soundtrack to Zidane: a 21st Century Portrait is quite pronounced. Certainly, the Smart Ultra keeps up the good work where detail levels are concerned, and the same unity of tonality is in evidence. The soundstage maintains its generous dimensions, too – although a little of the positivity regarding positioning goes astray, replaced with a slightly vague and hazy alternative.

Stepping down to stereo content, no matter if it’s broadcast TV or some music, exposes the TrueSpace technology somewhat. Aside from the remarkable facility with detail retrieval, every aspect of the soundbar’s performance takes a hit: treble reproduction finally makes good on its threat of hardness and edginess, low frequencies lose some discipline where attack and decay is concerned, and the definition of the soundstage is compromised. If TrueSpace could be switched off, there’s a chance the Smart Ultra might prove a decent stereo speaker – but it can’t be, and so we’ll never know.

Bose Smart Ultra Soundbar review: Verdict

If you fancy top-end features and premium build quality from a soundbar that’s more compact and more usable than the overwhelming majority of its rivals, then step right up: the Bose Smart Ultra Soundbar might be just the ticket. And if every soundtrack was a Dolby Atmos soundtrack, you’d only have to reach an accommodation with a slight lack of audio height and a slight shortage of low-end wallop in order to justify your outlay.

But the chances are that quite a lot of the content you’re going to hear will be sub-Dolby Atmos – and then the Smart Ultra becomes a victim of its own cleverness. Sometimes stereo content sounds its best when delivered in stereo – but the Bose tries to force every piece of audio content it receives back out through nine drivers and in a spatial audio style – and that’s not, it seems, automatically a recipe for success.  

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