Samsung HW-K850 Dolby Atmos Soundbar Review
Does 3.1.2 channels constitute a genuine Atmos experience?
What is the Samsung HW-K850?The Samsung HW-K850 is a 3.1.2-channel soundbar that supports Dolby Atmos. It sits just below Samsung's HW-K950 in terms of the company's soundbar range and uses the same main unit and wireless active subwoofer but doesn't include the wireless rear speakers with upward-firing drivers. So whilst the more expensive model can deliver a full 5.1.4 Dolby Atmos experience, the K850 is rather more limited in terms of immersive audio. In all other respects it retains the strengths and weaknesses of the higher model and at a retail price of £899 as at the time of writing (February 2017) it's also cheaper. The Samsung HW-K850 could be ideal for someone who wants a taste of Atmos but doesn't have enough room for rear speakers. The big question is whether or not the 3.1.2-channels are enough to deliver a genuine Dolby Atmos experience. Let's find out...
DesignThe main soundbar unit of the HW-K850 is laid out in exactly the same way as the K950, with three front-firing drivers for the left, right and centre channels, each composed of two mid-range drivers and a wide dispersion tweeter, along with two upward-firing drivers, one for the front top left channel and the other for the front top right channel. The soundbar uses a black finish with a dark brushed metal trim and the build quality is excellent, measuring 1210 x 82 x 131mm (WxHxD) and weighing in at 6.7kg. You can position the K850 beneath your TV if your stand is wide enough or in front of the TV if there's sufficient clearance beneath the screen, although the soundbar also comes with dedicated brackets if you would rather wall mount it instead.The wireless active subwoofer is also identical to the one included with the HW-K950 and is ported at the rear, with a side-firing driver on the right hand side as you face the subwoofer. Samsung recommend that you position the subwoofer at the front and to the left hand side of the room but they also appreciate that subwoofer placement is often limited and so have designed it to be fairly flexible. As always, we would recommend experimenting with different positions at the front to see which delivers the most even bass. The subwoofer has a matte black finish, with a black cloth grille covering the sideways-firing driver and it measures 204 x 399 x 414mm (WxHxD) and weighs 9.6kg.
The soundbar is identical to the more expensive K950 and comes with the same sub
Connections & ControlAs with the K950, all the connections are located in two recesses on the underside of the K850 soundbar. The first recess is on the left hand side as you face the soundbar and here you'll find two HDMI inputs and an HDMI output. All three HDMI connections support 4K/60p and HDCP 2.2, whilst the HDMI output also supports ARC (Audio Return Channel). There is an optical digital input and an auxiliary analogue input using a 3.5mm jack. Over on the right hand side you'll find the connection for the AC/DC power adaptor and a micro USB port for firmware updates. The K850 also includes built-in WiFi as part of Samsung's Multiroom system and support for wireless connection to Bluetooth enabled devices.On the right hand end panel of the soundbar itself there are some basic controls for volume up and down, source select and on/off. All the other controls are on the remote, which is small but comfortable to hold and easy to use with one hand. In the centre are the navigation and play/pause buttons and above those are the surround upmixer control, the source select button (which also doubles as the Bluetooth pairing button) and, in the top left hand corner, the power button. Under the navigation controls are the sound effects button, the level control for setting the volume of each channel and the sound control button for setting treble, bass and audio sync. Finally there's the volume button and the subwoofer level control.
There are plenty of connections including two HDMI inputs and a well-designed remote control
Features & SpecsThe HW-K850 has plenty of features, of which the main one is the inclusion of Dolby Atmos multi-dimensional audio. The Samsung is capable of decoding and delivering a 3.1.2-channel Dolby Atmos experience using a total of 11 built-in drivers with dedicated amplification, nine of which are used for the front three channels in the soundbar itself and two for the front overhead channels. The three front channels are composed of two mid-range drivers and a newly designed inverted-dome tweeter with a lower cross-over for wider sound dispersion, with each of these drivers driven by 18W of amplification, whilst the wireless active subwoofer has 162W of built-in amplification.
MORE: What is Dolby Atmos?
The K850 includes Surround Sound Expansion Plus, which takes non-Atmos sources and upmixes the audio to 3.1.2 channels to provide a more immersive experience. Although the K850 supports Dolby TrueHD and Dolby Atmos, it only currently supports DTS two-channel audio, which is a shame as it means the soundbar can't support multi-channel DTS, DTS-HD Master Audio or DTS:X. In terms of other features, as already mentioned the K850 includes HDMI inputs and outputs with support up to 4K/60p and HDCP 2.2. The soundbar also supports Samsung's Multiroom system allowing you to stream all the popular music services as well as AAC, WAV, OGG, ALAC, MP3, WMA and FLAC file types.
Setup & OperationIn terms of setup Samsung recommend that the soundbar is positioned at least 5cm below your screen, so you'll need a large enough space underneath your TV or, if it's wall mounted, you can use the provided brackets. Whichever installation option you choose, make sure the soundbar is level, isn't blocking your screen and also that there's nothing in the way of the drivers (particularly those firing upwards). As we mentioned earlier the subwoofer is best positioned at the front of the room and to the left or right of the soundbar and don't forget that although it's wireless, you're going to need a power socket. Since the HW-K850 works by literally bouncing sounds off the ceiling of your room, the effectiveness of the front overhead channels will depend on the type of ceiling you have but ideally you want a flat ceiling that isn't too high above you.
For Dolby Atmos you must use HDMI and make sure your Blu-ray player is outputting Dolby TrueHD as an unprocessed bitstream and if your player has a Secondary Audio option, make sure it's turned off. One point to note is that the K850 doesn't allow for HDMI passthrough when in standby, so if you have sources connected to the soundbar and then the TV, you'll need to turn the soundbar on first. For testing we also connected other devices via HDMI such as a PS4 and a YouView set top box and we also connected an Apple TV. However since the K850 only has two HDMI inputs, we mostly tested the soundbar with the Blu-ray player and YouView box connected via HDMI and the Apple TV connected via the optical digital input. We also connected an Amazon Dot via the 3.5mm jack and we paired the K850 to our iPhone 7.
The subwoofer should automatically pair with the soundbar when you first turn everything on but if it doesn't, there is the option to manually pair the two units. The Level button on the remote control allows you to cycle through each channel and adjust the volume using a SPL meter and you can also use the Woofer button on the remote to adjust the volume of the subwoofer. Once you have everything setup and connected, controlling the K850 is simple, thanks to the excellent remote control. You use the Source button to cycle through all the available inputs and if you are watching non-Atmos content and want to use all the available speakers then just use the Sound button to turn surround sound on. There is also a button marked Effect which allows you to select from six different sound modes – Standard, Music, Clear Voice, Sports, Movie and Night Mode.
Samsung HW-K850 Video Review
PerformanceAlthough the HW-K850 is primarily marketed as a Dolby Atmos capable soundbar, it's worth remembering that the majority of the content you watch won't be immersive audio. So let's start by taking a look at the K850 as a normal soundbar and in this respect it's as solid and as impressive as the HW-K950. Samsung have spent a lot of time developing their own audio products and their recent acquisitions would suggest they have further ambitions in this area. The results of their recent efforts can be heard in both the K850 and the K950, with a lovely audio performance from TV, movies and music. The soundbar is balanced and clean, with a neutral sound that reveals clarity and detail.
This means that the K850 is a surprisingly good soundbar when it comes to music, with the Samsung handling the complex arrangements of Kate bush's Before the Dawn live album extremely well. The mid-range handled the various instruments effectively, whilst the subwoofer gave the bass and drums some weight. The good high frequency performance delivered Kate's vocals without sounding shrill and the baritone vocals during 'The Ninth Wave' were underscored by the subwoofer nicely, creating a sense of depth. Overall the performance was impressive and selecting the Music sound mode delivered the audio in a clear and balanced manner, making it our preferred setting.
If the majority of the content that you watch is from TV, DVD and video streaming services, then the K850 is capable of an excellent performance. The soundbar delivered an open and wide front soundstage with TV programmes via our YouView box and larger budget shows like Agents of SHIELD sounded particularly impressive. The same was true of the various streaming services, with the complex soundtracks of Netflix's Stranger Things and Amazon's Mr. Robot being delivered with precision. We watched a found footage movie called Operation Avalanche on DVD and the K850 reproduced that film's soundtrack very effectively, whilst Blu-rays with Dolby TrueHD soundtracks sounded excellent.
The size of the soundbar and its multiple drivers gave TVs shows and films plenty of presence, filing the room with sound, whilst the subwoofer delivered plenty of low-end impact. The sub could be a little heavy-handed at times, so careful placement and setup is important but once you have an even response it integrates perfectly with the soundbar itself. The Dolby Surround upmixing mode meant that you could also enjoy a sense of overhead presence from non-Atmos soundtracks and this feature was surprisingly effective, creating sounds from above that seem as though they were always meant to be there. It's more than just a gimmick and can certainly give regular soundtracks an added dimension.
Of course once you actually listen to a Dolby Atmos soundtrack you realise the full potential of the format and with a really well designed mix the results can be breathtaking. The film Deepwater Horizon has a particularly impressive Atmos sound design and the K850 delivered this barnstorming track to the best of its ability. There was certainly a big front soundstage and plenty of bass energy as the oil rig began to disintegrate in the second half of the film. A sequence where a crane collapses was very effective, making full use of the overhead channels, whilst sounds were bouncing off the side walls and ceiling.
However, we said to the best of the K850's ability for a reason. We have heard the Deepwater Horizon soundtrack on a full 7.2.4 setup, so we know exactly what it can sound like and the lack of rear speakers and rear overhead channels does leave a hole in the overall soundstage. The idea with an immersive and object-based format isn't just that there are overhead channels but that there is a 360 degree multi-layered sonic sphere around the listener through which sounds are moved. The more speakers you have the more effective the sound design is in moving sounds around the room.
The fact that the K850 is a 3.1.2 system means that there is no real 360 degree soundstage, the audio is very much focused at the front and the two overhead channels. As a result whilst you will get an Atmos experience in the sense of overhead channels you won't get the full immersive sound field that a system using rear speakers can deliver. Obviously if you only have room for a soundbar and a subwoofer but want to experience some aspects of Dolby Atmos then the K850 can be effective but if you want the full monty you'll have to look elsewhere. Our only other real complaint about the K850 is that it only supports two-channel DTS, which means that those with large Blu-ray collections won't be able to get the full surround experience from most of their discs. This limitation also applied to the K950 and it seems a strange decision from Samsung on what is a premium soundbar.
The K850 is a good soundbar that can deliver a front-heavy Dolby Atmos experience
- Good audio performance
- Dolby Atmos support
- 4K/60p and HDCP 2.1 compliant
- HDMI connections
- Samsung Multiroom
- Attractive design
- Excellent construction
- Wireless subwoofer
- Dolby Atmos very front heavy
- No DTS multi-channel support
- Bass can be a bit heavy
Samsung HW-K850 Dolby Atmos Soundbar Review
Should I buy one?
The appeal of the Samsung HW-K850 will very much depend on your requirements and your budget but there are certainly situations where it can provide a viable alternative to the more expensive HW-K950. If you don't want to go down the AV receiver route with multiple speakers in the lounge and you feel that even the K950 is too intrusive with its wireless rear speakers, then the K850 might be just the ticket. It's attractively designed and despite being reasonably large, the understated styling and black finish means that it can be very unobtrusive at the front of the room. The same goes for the wireless subwoofer and the pair are easy to install, setup and control. The included remote is well designed and effective, whilst the HDMI inputs allow for a greater degree of flexibility. There are plenty of features including built-in Bluetooth and WiFi, with the latter allowing the K850 to form part of a Samsung multiroom system, and decent audio file support.
The K850 actually sounds very good with music, which means if you do use it as part of a multiroom system or just as an audio source in the lounge it won't disappoint. It's also an excellent soundbar in general, handling the audio from TV broadcasts and streaming services extremely well. It can handle multi-channel soundtracks via Blu-ray very effectively but the lack of DTS support beyond two-channel stereo is a major omission for anyone with a large Blu-ray collection. Of course the primary reason for getting the K850 is Dolby Atmos and here the performance is something of a mixed bag. The soundbar is certainly able to deliver an overhead experience and a wide and open soundstage but, due to the lack of any rear channels, the sound is obviously focused at the front. The subwoofer is also a little heavy handed at times, so careful placement and setup is important but the K850 is certainly capable of giving you a taste of Dolby Atmos, even if it can't deliver the full experience.
Ultimately the Samsung HW-K850 could prove a useful solution to someone who wants a soundbar with some Dolby Atmos capabilities but doesn't want to install rear speakers. If your main sources use Dolby in some form or another then the K850 should be ideal, although if you watch a lot of Blu-rays the Samsung is limited. However that caveat aside, in terms of performance, build quality and features, it's certainly worthy of a recommendation.
What are my alternatives?
The obvious alternative is Samsung's own HW-K950 soundbar which does cost more at £1,299 but includes wireless rear speakers with upward-firing drivers, allowing it to deliver a full 5.1.4-channel experience. Aside from that difference the two soundbars are identical, which means they have the same strengths and weaknesses. So, as with the K850, the K950 can't handle more than 2-channel DTS but in all other respects it's an excellent performer. If you want DTS and especially DTS:X support then the Yamaha YSP-5600 is a definite alternative and its manages to deliver both immersive audio formats from a single source very effectively but it's quite large and, at £1,699 without a subwoofer, it's also quite expensive. The YSP-5600 also doesn't pass HDR, which might limit it's usefulness in the near future.
As far as other Dolby Atmos capable soundbars are concerned, there's the new Philips B8 at £899 and the upcoming Sony HT-ST5000 at £1,499, but we have yet to review these particular models. Of course if you don't mind installing speakers around your lounge then an AV receiver is definitely your best bet, with a model like the Denon AVR-X2300 offering Dolby Atmos, DTS:X, HDR support and plenty of HDMI inputs for just £399. When you look at the prices of some of the soundbars we've just mentioned you actually could buy the X2300 and a 5.1-channel sub/sat system and still have change for some upward-firing speakers. As we have already mentioned, which alternative you choose will undoubtedly depend on your requirements and you budget but it's good to know there are plenty of options.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £899.00
Ease of use9
Value for Money8
Our Review Ethos
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