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Samsung’s Dolby Atmos sound bar will dazzle your ears and drain your wallet

Don’t have room for a hulking pile of incredible-sounding Dolby Atmos speakers from Pioneer? Samsung has a tidier solution. After announcing its HW-K950 and HW-K850 Atmos sound bar surround systems at CES 2016, Samsung showed off the final versions — and rather shocking prices — at a launch event in New York City. We had a chance to give the HW-K950 a prolonged audition, speak with some of the engineers responsible for designing and voicing the home theater rig, and learn a little about how this is a departure from Samsung’s earlier audio efforts.

Called the K950 for short, the sound bar-anchored system is made up of four components: the sound bar, a wireless subwoofer, and two wireless surround speakers.

Hidden in the low-profile sound bar are three front-firing arrays of speakers, supporting left right and center channels, and two up-firing channels for the first half of the Atmos surround experience. The sound bar has two 2.5-inch drivers paired with a 30 mm tweeter each of the three front channels, while the Atmos array up top is made up of two 2.5-inch drivers. Each driver in the sound bar gets its own 20-watt amplifier. The sound bar also has a user-facing LCD display, two HDMI inputs, and one HDMI output.

The surround speakers are similar, except there are no tweeters. Instead, the outward and upward firing speakers are full-range 2.5-inch speakers like those used up front, each getting 35 watts each. The only thing to plug in for the surrounds is a power cord: The two surrounds get their signals wirelessly from the sound bar and only need power for the built-in amplifiers.

The sub, also wireless save for a power cord, packs an 8-inch driver paired with a 160-watt amplifier, and is ported on the back.

This gives us a 5.1.4 surround system, with the last digit there referring to the four up-firing drivers, which bounce sound off the ceiling for a more immersive experience. That being the case, you’ll want relatively flat ceilings in reasonable proximity to the listening area to get the most from this system.

The cabinetry for each of these parts felt fairly substantial, but we’re not talking furniture-grade MDF here. We are pleased to see wood instead of plastic in use.

Samsung says it poured many, many man-hours into developing this system, and you can hear that immediately. This is easily the best home-theater sound system Samsung has made yet, and you can really hear that in the treble response, which is not harsh, sibilant, or shrill as has been the case in previous systems. Actually, it’s a pretty warm sound, and that’s a significant change for Samsung. It’s obvious audio engineers put a lot of time into voicing this system, not just pulling parts off a shelf, slapping them together in plastic boxes, and calling it good. In fact, we’re told the system has been re-voiced several times since it was originally heard at CES, so the first impressions reports from the big electronics show no longer apply.

Overall, we were impressed with the improvements Samsung has made, and the system managed to pull off Dolby Atmos effects fairly well. You don’t get the fine detail that you will from a set of well-made individual satellite speakers run by a more powerful receiver, though. And because the system relies on very small drivers, it tends to lean too heavily on the subwoofer, resulting in an occasionally chesty, booming sound during some dialog.

Are you ready for a shocker, now? The K950 system is being introduced at retail for $1,500. That’s a seriously premium price, and we’re not sure the performance and convenience of the system matches up. We could recommend A/V receivers with full sets of speakers at that price, and one would get superior performance, though you’d have to give up a lot more space for it.

Granted, you do get wireless surround speakers with the K950, which will be a big convenience to those unwilling or unable to run long lengths of speaker wire, and, again, the Dolby Atmos effect is pulled off convincingly. Also, Samsung has a smaller K850 Sound bar and wireless sub for a more affordable option, but you give up the rear channels, and you’re still paying $900 in that case.

We get that Samsung wants to be taken more seriously in the audio department, and we agree it deserves recognition for its efforts on this new system Still, such lofty pricing, right or wrong, is a big reach for Samsung, and is going to be a tough sell to its customer base. We’ll look for these new systems to come down in price in the coming months , and in the meantime, we’ll be pulling in the K950 for a full review just as soon as it is made available later this year.

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