Is it just me, or is the premium Dolby Atmos soundbar category exploding?
Last week’s IFA 2022 in Berlin was a literal showcase for upscale, full-featured soundbars, with Philips unveiling the powerful and stylish Fidelio FB1 ($899 / €899 / $1,316 AU) and Sennheiser the Ambeo Plus ($1,499 / £1,297), a compact version of its regular Ambeo offering (now upgraded in name to Ambeo Max).
Based on specs alone – as well as my subjective impressions following demos at IFA – both of these models are clear contenders for our list of the best soundbars alongside the formidable Sonos Arc. But they weren’t the only premium soundbars to make their debut in Berlin. TCL was also showing its X937U, a 7.1.4 soundbar system that really looks primed to steal some of the Arc’s thunder.
At around $800 / €800 / $AU 1,200, or $100 less than the Sonos Arc, the X937U is a very potent soundbar package for the price. The 7.1.4-channel system features both Dolby Atmos and DTS:X processing and supports Dolby Vision pass-through on its 3 HDMI ports (including one with eARC).
Beyond making a TV, streaming box, or disc player HDMI connection to the X937U, listeners can wirelessly beam high-res music to it using the DTS Play-Fi protocol. It also supports streaming via AirPlay, Chromecast, and Spotify Connect, and works with Alexa and OK Google voice commands.
Unlike the Sonos Arc, the X937U comes bundled with wireless surrounds (with both front-facing and upfiring speakers for Atmos) and a wireless subwoofer. Three 2-way speakers are used for the left, center, and right channels, and full-range speaker drivers for the remaining channels, with power specified at 1,020 watts total.
What you see on the surface of the X937U soundbar is an attractive gray fabric wrap (TCL says it uses “eco-friendly” materials) that’s also applied to the surround speakers. What you don’t see is the Ray-Danz acoustic lens design that works with the speaker drivers to expand the soundstage and create a more immersive effect without digital processing.
Sitting down to give the X937U a listen, I was impressed with the powerful, dynamic sound the system was able to muster in TCL’s sprawling, but not overly crowded, IFA booth. Achieving sufficient loudness will not be a problem with this soundbar! While the high-ceilinged exhibit hall was a way less than optimal environment for demonstrating Dolby Atmos, I still experienced some degree of immersion, and certainly heard the wraparound effects of surround sound.
(Image credit: Future)
Premium soundbars: the (sound) wave of the future
Two days prior to my encounter with TCL’s X937U soundbar at IFA, I sat through a Philips presentation for its new Fidelio FB1 where the company shared data indicating that premium models were the fastest growing segment of the soundbar market – rivalling even the inexpensive entry-level offerings that have continually been popular. The upshot of the presentation was that viewers are eager to get not just better sound with their TVs, but fully immersive 7.1.4 Dolby Atmos sound.
Systems like the TCL X937U, Philips FB1, and Sennheiser Ambeo Plus that were all introduced at IFA are all well-engineered premium offerings that deliver 7.1.4 sound in a compact form factor – in the Sennheiser’s case, from a single, fully integrated soundbar.
Both the Philips and the TCL models also feature DTS Play-Fi, a wireless streaming tech similar to AirPlay and Chromecast that distinguishes itself through its support for up to 24-bit/192kHz high-res audio. Not only that, but Play-Fi also supports multi-channel streaming, and at IFA DTS parent company Xperi announced an update to Play-Fi expanding its capabilities to 7.1.4 immersive sound.
Between these three new offerings alone, the Sonos Arc will imminently be getting serious competition in the premium soundbar space. TCL’s new system looks particularly promising in that it delivers 7.1.4 sound using a full array of physical speakers instead of Atmos virtualization processing – something used by both the Sonos Arc and Sennheiser Ambeo Plus. And it’s priced at $800, making it more affordable than most other premium 7.1.4 Atmos sound packages by a long shot.