The K950 is a real flag waver for Samsung’s audio division. It’s been designed and built completely in house, working closely with Dolby’s engineers to perfect the Atmos capabilities – and the results are more spectacular than any sound bar we’ve heard before.
- Incredible sound quality
- Dolby Atmos support
- 4K passthrough
- Good value
- Only stereo DTS support
- Needs specific room setup
- Needs the right sources
- Expensive vs non-Atmos products
Anyone who’s experienced Dolby Atmos sound at the cinema will know that it rocks. The addition of height channels to a surround sound mix takes your sense of immersion in a movie’s world to a phenomenal new level.
You can now get Dolby Atmos at home too, of course – and it’s growing in importance now that Atmos tracks seem to be arriving almost by default on the latest Ultra HD Blu-ray releases.
There’s usually a catch with embracing Atmos at home, though: either you need to somehow fill your room with speakers – including fitting some into the ceiling – or else you have to make do with a compromised system that strives to deliver an Atmos effect by carefully angling multiple drivers from a much reduced number of speakers.
Here, though, we’re looking at a new domestic solution to the ‘Atmos problem’ that solves it better than any other ‘convenience’ system released to date. In fact, despite its rather prosaic HW-K950 name, I’d say Samsung’s ingenious new Atmos solution (designed and built in Samsung’s high-tech new audio facility in California) is simply the best soundbar I’ve heard, so much so that calling it a mere soundbar feels like an injustice.
Let’s look first at what the K950 package consists of. The ‘main event’ is a surprisingly traditional-looking (considering what it does) black bar that’s designed to sit under your TV; an optional wall mount system is available if you’ve hung your TV up.
The bar is joined by a fairly large wireless subwoofer and a pair of conventionally sized – but again wireless – rear speakers.
The system is not, in truth, especially easy on the eye compared with some of today’s soundbar and multi-channel speaker packages. But the design takes on technical marvel status when you realise what each unit’s got crammed inside.
The K950’s driver system is designed in a 5.1.4 configuration, which translates into five channels in the main soundbar, one bass channel from the subwoofer, and four channels from the two rear speakers. As is necessary for any Atmos system, the sound produced by the K950 includes front and rear height channels, delivered by top-mounted drivers firing up at just the right angle to create the ‘sphere of sound’ that’s an Atmos trademark.
Talking of drivers, remarkably for its £1,300 ($1,799, about AU$2,399) price the K950 system carries no less than 16 of them, each with its own dedicated amplifier (total amplification is 500W). That breaks down as three 1.2-inch tweeters, six 2.5-inch mid-range drivers and two 3-inch full-range drivers in the sound bar, four 3-inch full-range drivers in the surrounds, plus the 8-inch bass driver in the subwoofer.
The K950 also stands out from the pack with its connections, as it’s the first Atmos-capable soundbar to support 4K pass-through via HDMI. So you can attach 4K sources such as Ultra HD Blu-ray players, the Xbox One S, and a cable box to its two HDMI inputs, and have the Ultra HD (and high dynamic range if available) picture part of the feed passed on to your 4K TV via the K950’s HDMI output while the K950 deals with the audio.
It’s a pity, perhaps, that the AV pass-through feature only works when the soundbar is switched on. But if you’ve spent big bucks on an audio system like the K950 you’ll probably want to get as much use out of it as possible.
Aside from the key HDMIs, the K950’s other connections comprise an optical digital audio input and a 3.5mm analogue audio input, plus Bluetooth and Wi-Fi network connectivity.
The network options, in conjunction with Samsung’s smartphone app, mean you can stream music into the K950 from a wide range of online sources, including TIDAL, Amazon Music, Spotify, TuneIn Radio, Deezer, Napster and – since the system can play back high-resolution audio formats – the ‘7 digital’ website.
If you’d rather look closer to home for your music sources you can use DLNA to stream music stored on your PCs and NAS drivers. Plus the Bluetooth can be used for wirelessly sending sound from compatible Samsung TVs to the K950.
Domestic Dolby Atmos systems usually require you to sit in a quite specific ‘sweet spot’ to get the optimum listening experience. For the K950 series, though, Samsung has used specially designed dome-style tweeters to expand the sweet spot area to a degree where, it’s claimed, a family of three or four should be able to sit in a row on the sofa and still experience pretty much the same level of audio immersion.
This is a great touch for sure, although there are still some quite specific room conditions you’ll need to satisfy if you really want the system to sing – more on this in the Usability section of this review.
The K950 offers a decent selection of sound presets for different types of music, and supports Dolby Digital 5.1 and 7.1 mixes as well as Atmos ones. It even carries processing that can create an Atmos ‘sound sphere’ effect from non-Atmos sources.
There is one thing the K950 does not do, however, and that’s play DTS soundtracks in anything more than stereo. Samsung has opted to do this in order to keep licensing costs down, and to ensure that the K950 produces an absolutely uncompromised performance with Atmos tracks. But it’s clearly a significant limitation when you consider how many Blu-rays only carry DTS soundtracks for their main English language mixes.
A quick rummage through the 20 most recent Blu-rays I’ve bought reveals that no less than 17 of them use DTS Master Audio for their main English language tracks. Assuming this is representative of the wider Blu-ray world, that means more than 75% of Blu-rays you already own or intend to buy may only play in stereo on the K950. And while the K950 does provide a processing option that attempts to turn these stereo feeds into surround sound, it inevitably doesn’t work too well (as we’ll discuss in the Performance section).
Fortunately, there is a solution of sorts to the DTS problem. The thing is, some Blu-ray players carry re-encoding systems that can convert DTS to Dolby Digital ‘on the fly’. So if you want to get surround sound from a DTS soundtrack you can go into one of these player’s menus and switch the re-encoding to Dolby Digital on.
Apparently, all of Samsung’s Blu-ray players for the past three years have carried this re-encoding feature, as does Samsung’s K8500 Ultra HD Blu-ray player. It seems some Sony players support it too. The problem is that it’s not possible to provide a comprehensive list of every Blu-ray player that supports DTS to Dolby Digital conversion; and so far as I can tell, no Panasonic Blu-ray players – not even, sadly, the brand’s high-end UB900 Ultra HD Blu-ray player – support the feature.
Even if you have or buy a suitable Blu-ray player, if you switch DTS-to-Dolby Digital re-encoding on for a DTS Master Audio Blu-ray, you need to remember to go back into your player’s menus and switch the audio output back to ‘Unprocessed bitstream’ when you want to play a film with a Dolby Atmos track.
One bit of good news in all this is that Dolby Atmos tracks are starting to appear on pretty much all the latest Ultra HD (rather than standard HD) Blu-ray discs, so unless the DTS:X equivalent format suddenly starts to make a comeback, the K950 is looking well set to provide stunning audio company for the next generation of AV sources.
Naturally, I couldn’t wait to put the K950 through its Dolby Atmos paces – and to say it didn’t disappoint was an understatement.
For starters, the sheer power of the system is insane for such a compact and, in the circumstances, inexpensive system. The sound comfortably filled my large test room with a huge but also outstandingly cohesive soundstage – and when I say filled, I mean in terms of height as well as front and rear audio. It’s like you’re sitting in a huge bubble of stunning sound.
This means, of course, that you feel like you’re right there in a film’s world – and you really can’t overstate how much such a convincing sense of height adds to the audio experience.
It’s not just the general sense of height in the audio mix that’s so effective either. The accuracy of effects placement in the vertical domain is also startlingly effective, letting you experience a real sense of layering when objects are passing overhead at different heights. I’ve never heard this sort of audio detail delivered so effectively on a home cinema system that doesn’t include physical speakers in your ceiling.
Atmos transitions from front to back and back to front are outstanding too, with the rear’s matching perfectly the tone of the fronts. Kudos is due as well to the way the main soundbar throws effects to the side, as well as out in front and above.
Having so much power to play with, meanwhile, enables the system to swell and ebb effortlessly during a movie without the soundstage ever starting to sound strained or short of sensitivity.
The subwoofer is much more effective than it perhaps looks, delivering rich, deep, responsive bass that melds effortlessly into the bottom end of the main soundbar’s bass capabilities.
Nor is there a hint of distortion, phutting, drop-out or crackle from any of the speakers, even at volume levels far higher than most people will feel comfortable with.
The audio isn’t just about brute power and bold dynamics, though. It’s also got the finesse to reveal subtleties and details in the mix that even many pretty serious separates systems don’t manage. In fact, I’d even say it’s with quieter, subtler but still very effective Atmos mixes like the one for Eddie The Eagle that you really appreciate the full quality of the K950, as things like subtle ambient and spatial effects emerge with outstanding finesse and subtlety across all channels.
Vocals sound beautifully rich and clear, but also fully integrated into their in-movie surroundings. They also, thankfully, sound like they’re coming from the screen, rather than the soundbar underneath it.
Really, the only area where I felt the K950 could have done more in full Atmos mode was with the sides of the audio mix; there sometimes seemed to be small left and right gaps in the otherwise immaculately immersive sound ‘bubble’. But this is such a small negative amid all the great stuff that I feel almost embarrassed mentioning it.
Shifting to native Dolby Digital 5.1/7.1 mixes (and DTS mixes that have been re-encoded into Dolby Digital), while I obviously really missed the Atmos height effects the K950 still sounds fantastically precise and dramatic – again, better than any other similar system I’ve heard.
Activating the unhelpfully named ‘Surround Sound’ mode to apply an Atmos-like effect to multi-channel Dolby Digital mixes proves surprisingly effective. There’s an immediately obvious and startlingly convincing increase in the scale of the sound, especially in the vertical domain, which definitely increases your sense of immersion in what you’re watching.
The ‘pseudo Atmos’ upscale of 5.1/7.1 sources does see voices losing a touch of clarity, partly because bass becomes a touch over-emphasised. I also felt, as before, that there could be a little more audio information in the mid left and right areas of the sound ‘bubble’. But again, these are minor points in the context of everything the K950 does spectacularly right.
The only spoiler for the K950’s truly unprecedented performance is the stereo DTS issue if you don’t have a Blu-ray player capable of re-encoding DTS to Dolby Digital.
The stereo feeds are handled very nicely, of course, but having a system with the surround sound capabilities of the K950 playing mere stereo just isn’t right.
Activating the pseudo surround mode with stereo DTS creates a much bigger soundstage, and does manage to get at least some sound into the rear speakers. But inevitably there’s only so much that even the cleverest processing can do with a mere stereo source, so there’s no sense of accurately placed surround details or a real sense of movie space.
In fact, the pseudo surround mode has an unnerving habit of reproducing voices in the rear speakers at the same time as the front ones. In short, even ‘souped up’ stereo on the K950 is about as far from the quality of the system’s true Atmos experience as you can get.
It really wouldn’t be fair to finish this section on a negative note, though. The most important thing about the K950 is that, provided you do everything in your power to feed it a non-DTS diet, it sets a phenomenal new performance benchmark for the compact, all-in-one audio package market.
As noted in the introductory section, Samsung has tried to make the K950 a little less demanding in terms of speaker positioning/room conditions than other domestic Atmos systems. But there’s still a lot to think about.
For starters the speaker bar ideally needs to be set against a flat wall, rather than in a corner of your room. You’ll also need a flat ceiling, largely free of beams and definitely free of vaulting, if you want the height aspect of an Atmos mix to work properly, and the rears benefit from being fairly precisely and evenly positioned behind your seating position. So have a think about your room layout to check it’s going to be compatible with the way the K950 works.
One big plus point about the set-up, though, is that since the subwoofer and rears are all wireless you don’t have to worry about spooling cable all over your room.
Other issues that make the K950 trickier to use than it might ideally be are that you can’t adjust settings via on-screen menus on your TV, and the faff surrounding DTS that I discussed earlier.
The K950 has been designed and built entirely by Samsung’s new Californian audio laboratory, and it’s clearly been a labour of love. It crams an incredible number of individually amplified speakers into its four component parts, and all are mounted and tuned with enough precision to show that brilliant Dolby Atmos really can be done without ceiling-mounted speakers.
I can’t think of any separates-based system – amplifier plus speakers – that you could buy for £1,299/$1,799 that could rival the K950 for either compact design or sound quality.
Obviously, if you’re not too bothered about Atmos then you could save hundreds of pounds by getting a standard 5.1-channel soundbar system; but if you’re not bothered about Atmos, then you clearly haven’t heard it on the K950.
Even with normal Dolby Digital 5.1/7.1 sources, the K950 is the best soundbar I’ve heard. Add Dolby Atmos to the mix and you’ve got sound quality that simply has no right to be coming from such a compact, convenient and, all things considered, affordable package.
The absence of DTS multi-channel support is a pain, given how many DTS-sporting Blu-rays there are. You really have to commit to getting a Blu-ray/Ultra HD Blu-ray player that supports DTS to Dolby Digital conversion if you’re going to buy the K950. Remember, too, that your room characteristics need to gel with the fairly specific Atmos set-up requirements to get the best from the system.
Judged on sound quality alone, the K950 deserves a stone-cold 10 out of 10. It delivers Atmos soundtracks with the sort of authority, precision and soundstage scale you wouldn’t imagine possible from such a compact package. It also sounds explosively brilliant with Dolby Digital soundtracks, either in their native form or with Samsung’s unexpectedly good Atmos-like processing applied to them. It’s just a shame that the lack of DTS support limits which Blu-ray players you can realistically partner it with.