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Samsung HW-K950 Dolby Atmos Soundbar Review

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Samsung save the best for last

by Steve Withers Aug 13, 2016

  • SRP: £1,300.00

    What is the Samsung HW-K950?

    The HW-K950 is the latest soundbar from Samsung and represents a quantum leap from the manufacturer in terms of design, features and performance. The HW-K950 not only boasts a wireless active subwoofer and wireless active surrounds, but it also supports Dolby Atmos, using upward-firing speakers to deliver a 5.1.4 multi-dimensional audio experience. If that wasn't enough the soundbar includes support for Samsung's Multiroom platform as well as Ultra HD 4K with High Dynamic Range (HDR) and HDCP 2.2. So you can combine the HW-K950 with an Ultra HD TV and Ultra HD Blu-ray player for the ultimate in home entertainment whilst minimising the impact on your living space. Naturally all this innovation doesn't come cheap and the HW-K950 will set you back £1,300 but when you consider what you're getting it starts to make sense.

    It's been a strong year for Samsung in terms of their soundbar line-up, with the entry-level HW-K450 picking up a Best Buy badge and the mid-range HW-K550 and HW-K650 both earning Recommended awards. What makes the HW-K950 different from these other Samsung soundbars is that it's the first model to be completely developed at the Samsung Audio Labs in the US. The HW-K950 has been built in-house from the ground up with one ambition in mind – to outperform the competition. On paper at least the HW-K950 has the edge over the only other Dolby Atmos soundbar currently available – the Yamaha YSP5600. Not only is the Samsung model cheaper but it comes with a wireless active subwoofer included, uses actual surround speakers and supports HDMI 2.0a. So the real question is – does it sound any good? Let's find out.

    The design is stylish but minimalist with an impressive level of build quality

    Design

    The first thing you'll notice about the HW-K950 is that it's pleasingly straight, none of this curved nonsense. Aside from that it sports a minimalist design that is intended to sit beneath your TV and not draw attention to itself. This is ideal for a soundbar, which should be all about improving the sound rather taking your attention away from the picture. Despite the minimalist approach to the HW-K950, it remains a stylish looking soundbar with a black finish and an excellent level of build quality. There is a simple display to the right of the centre drivers and there are brushed metal panels at each end, whilst the metal grilles that cover the front and top of the soundbar look attractive and provide an effective level of protection for the drivers themselves.
    Samsung HW-K950 Design
    Samsung HW-K950 Design


    The soundbar is laid out with three front-firing channels for the left, right and centre, 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 main unit is large enough to deliver high quality sound but it isn't so large that it makes installation an issue like the Yamaha YSP-5600. You can position the HW-K950 beneath your TV on a suitably wide stand or even 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 main soundbar measures 1210 x 82 x 131mm (WxHxD) and it weighs in at 6.7kg.

    Unlike the Yamaha YSP-5600, which uses sound projection technology to create an immersive audio experience from a single point, the HW-K950 actually comes with a pair of wireless active surround speakers. When Samsung refer to 'wireless' speakers, they mean that the surround speakers connect wirelessly to the soundbar itself but they aren't completely wireless. Since these speakers are active, they still need to be plugged in but there are no cables running to the front of the room, which makes them easier and tidier to install. The surround speakers use the same styling as the main soundbar with a black finish and metal grilles. There are forward-firing drivers for the rear left and rear right channels and also upward-firing drivers for the rear top left and rear top right channels. The rear speakers each measure 120 x 211 x 141mm (WxHxD) and weigh 2kg. For optimal performance you should probably invest in some speaker stands or wall mounts but none are included with the HW-K950.
    Samsung HW-K950
    Samsung HW-K950

    Finally there is a wireless active subwoofer that is ported at the rear and uses a side-firing driver on the right hand side as you face the subwoofer. For this reason Samsung recommend that you position the subwoofer to the left hand side of the room but, if you can, it's always best to experiment with different subwoofer positions until you find the one that delivers the most even bass. However we appreciate that subwoofer placement is often limited and Samsung have designed the HW-K950 to be fairly flexible, so anywhere at the front and to the left or right of the soundbar should be fine. The subwoofer has a matte black finish, with a black cloth grille covering the sideways-firing driver and a port at the rear. The subwoofer measures 204 x 399 x 414mm (WxHxD) and weighs 9.6kg.

    The package includes a main unit, wireless rear speakers and a wireless subwoofer

    Connections and Control

    All the connections on the HW-K950 are located in two recesses on the underside of the 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, Rec. 2020, High Dynamic Range (HDR) 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 there is another recess, where you connect the AC/DC power adaptor and a micro USB port for firmware updates, although the soundbar will do this automatically if connected to the internet. The HW-K950 also includes built-in WiFi as part of Samsung's Multiroom system and support for wireless connection to Bluetooth enabled devices.
    Samsung HW-K950 Connections and Control
    Samsung HW-K950 Connections and Control

    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. The HW-K950 also comes with a remote control that uses a similar design to the model included with Samsung's KS range of TVs this year. The remote is small but comfortable to hold and easy to use with one hand, whilst the ergonomics are excellent with a sensibly laid-out set of buttons. In the centre are the navigation and play/pause buttons and above those are the surround upmixer on and off button and the source select button; which also doubles as the Bluetooth pairing button if you hold it down for more than five seconds.

    Under the navigation controls you'll find the sound effects button and the level control for setting the volume of each channel, along with the sound control button (which uses a gear wheel icon) for setting treble, bass and audio sync. If you hold down the sound control button for 5 seconds, you can also adjust the sound for different frequency bands. Beneath these controls is the volume button, which you push up or down to change the volume and push in to mute the audio, along with the woofer control, which you push up or down to change the subwoofer level and if you press it in, you reset the subwoofer level to zero. Finally, in the top left hand corner there is the power button.

    Dolby Atmos is the main feature but others include support for multiroom and HDR

    Features and Specifications

    The HW-K950 is a feature packed soundbar but obviously its major selling point is support for Dolby Atmos multi-dimensional audio. The Samsung is not only capable of decoding and delivering 5.1.4-channel Dolby Atmos but it does so using actual rear speakers, so it delivers a genuine 5.1-channel experience and then adds the overhead channels via upward-firing speakers that bounce the sounds off the ceiling. The HW-K950 has a total of 15 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. The wireless active subwoofer has 162W of built-in amplification and the wireless active surround speakers use two drivers each (one forward and one upward) with 35W of amplification for each driver.
    Samsung HW-K950 Features and Specifications
    Samsung HW-K950 Features and Specifications

    The HW-K950 is the first product that has been completely developed by Samsung's Audio Lab in the US and is the product of years of testing to create a soundbar that can not only deliver a proper multi-dimensional audio experience but can do so for as many listeners as possible. The HW-K950's ability to cover a wider area eliminates the traditional sweet spot and ensures that all the listening positions get a better experience. In addition Samsung have carefully tuned the speakers that make up the HW-K950 to deliver a sound that is balanced between a totally neutral studio monitor and a speaker with slightly more colour. The HW-K950 also includes Surround Sound Expansion Plus, which takes non-Atmos sources and upmixes the audio to 5.1.4 channels to provide a more immersive experience. It should be pointed out that although the HW-K950 supports Dolby TrueHD and Dolby Atmos, it only currently supports DTS two-channel audio. However their is no technical reason why the soundbar couldn't support DTS-HD Master Audio and DTS:X, should Samsung decide to add those formats later. In terms of other features, as already mentioned the HW-K950 uses HDMI 2.0a inputs and output, ensuring that it can support up to 4K/60p. Rec. 2020, HDR 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.

    Set up is straightforward, with a simple layout and intuitive control

    Setup and Operation

    Samsung has designed the HW-K950 to be as easy to setup as possible and we found this to be the case in practice. You obviously need to position the soundbar itself centrally beneath your screen at the front of the room. You can place it on a shelf, in an equipment rack or you can wall mount it – the HW-K950 comes with wall brackets and a wall mount guide included – and Samsung recommend that the soundbar be at least 5cm below your screen. 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. The HW-K950 comes with power cables for the subwoofer and the surround speakers and there is an AC/DC adaptor for the main soundbar.

    The surround speakers are best positioned at ear height to the side and slightly to the rear of the main listening position at an 80 degree angle, and to get the best results it might be worth investing in some speaker stands, although you could also wall mount. We appreciate that sometimes a degree of compromise is required when installing speakers in a living room but the better the positioning, the better the results. As with the subwoofer, you will need power sockets for the surround speakers but otherwise there is no other wiring required. Since the HW-K950 works by literally bouncing sounds off the ceiling of your room, the effectiveness of the overhead channels will depend on the type of ceiling you have. Ideally you want a flat ceiling that isn't too high above you, so if you have a vaulted ceiling, for example, that might not be best suited for this type of technology.

    Samsung have also included a High Speed HDMI cable but given there is a second HDMI input and an HDMI output, you will need additional HDMI cables. Make sure these cables are also High Speed, especially if you plan to use the HW-K950 with Ultra HD content. We connected a Samsung UBD-K8500 Ultra HD Blu-ray player to the first HDMI input, a YouView box to the second HDMI input and an Apple TV to the optical digital input. We then connected the HDMI output, which supports ARC (Audio Return Channel) to a Samsung UE65KS9500 Ultra HD TV. 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 HW-K950 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.

    The wireless surround speakers and subwoofer should automatically pair with the main soundbar when you first turn everything on but if they don't, there is the option to manually pair them. 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. The free Samsung Multiroom App for iOS and Android is easy to install, it's intuitive to use and it lets you connect the soundbar to a smart device, your network and the Internet. Finally if you have any Bluetooth devices that you can to connect to the HW-K950, you can do this by selecting the BT source input and pairing the device with the soundbar.

    Once you have everything setup and connected, actually controlling the HW-K950 is simplicity itself, 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, although with Dolby Atmos content the HW-K950 will default to the 5.1.4-channel configuration. 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. In general we just used the Standard mode which is the original unprocessed sound but you might find Night Mode useful for late night listening.

    Samsung HW-K950 Video Review


    Performance

    Whilst it's great to have all these features in a soundbar, what really matters is the sound quality and here the HW-K950 certainly impressed. There's no question that the years of development at Samsung Audio Labs have not been wasted and the result is a soundbar that genuinely delivers a superior level of sound quality. Starting with the main unit first, Samsung have developed a ceramic-coated inverted dome tweeter that has a frequency response that goes down to 400Hz. This is surprisingly low for a tweeter but is part of the HW-K950's ability to deliver an immersive experience over a wider area. It also means that dialogue is handled better resulting in more natural-sounding voices and improved intelligibility. When you combine the three tweeters with the six mid-range drivers, the main unit delivers a wide and expansive front soundstage that retains clarity and a marvellous precision with effects.

    The fact that each driver has its own dedicated amplification also means that the soundbar has greater fidelity too and thus genuinely sounds good with music. Samsung's efforts to 'voice' the drivers somewhere between a neutral studio monitor and something with a little more warmth have clearly paid dividends and the resulting sound was brimming with detail and had plenty of dynamic range. The HW-K950 handled stereo sources extremely well, retaining a sense of separation with excellent imaging that benefited both music and TV programmes. Where appropriate dialogue remained centred and clear, whilst there was a naturalness to the overall sound that we really liked. The fact that the HW-K950 forms part of Samsung Multiroom system means that you can also stream high resolution audio to it and, unusually for a soundbar, actually listen to music that is accurate and retains excellent stereo imaging.

    In fact, the HW-K950 delivered such a good performance as a basic soundbar that it would have been enough on its own to earn the Samsung a recommendation but , of course, there was much more to come. The wireless active rear speakers use front-firing full range drivers and the 35W of amplification dedicated to each one means that the sense of surround presence is quite pronounced. As a result the HW-K950 was a fantastic 5.1-channel system, delivering a cohesive sound field that steered effects superbly and, thanks to the tonal matching, did so seamlessly. The subwoofer also did it's part and produced a solid foundation for the entire system, providing low frequency presence where necessary. We did feel that sometimes the subwoofer could be a little heavy handed but careful placement and setup will help mitigate that. Overall the HW-K950 handled 5.1 as effortlessly as many AV receivers that we've reviewed.

    As always the more time you spend setting up a system, the better it will sound, and we took care to make sure that the HW-K950 was optimised for our living room. However when we did deliberately move the surround speakers and subwoofer to less-than-ideal locations, the Samsung still managed to retain a nice sense of cohesion. That brings us on the the one aspect of the HW-K950's performance that will be very dependant on your environment and that's the upward-firing drivers. These full-range drivers are located in the top of the main unit and the surround speakers, they have their own dedicated amplification and they literally bounce sounds off the ceiling. So the type of ceiling you have will be a factor and a vaulted ceiling, for example, would certainly be problematic.

    We have a low flat ceiling which is ideal and we also found that giving the main unit and the surround speakers some space when positioning them helped with overhead effects. Whilst most of the channel levels didn't need too be adjusted , we did find that the rear overhead channels needed to be brought down a touch, possibly because we were nearer to them or possibly because according to the specifications the rear overhead drivers have 35W a piece, whilst the front overhead drivers only get 18W each. However with each driver getting its own dedicated amplification and the subwoofer being driven by 160W, the HW-K950 had power to spare. It would certainly be more than enough for any normal sized living room and the system could go very loud without becoming harsh or brittle.

    The performance with Dolby Atmos content was genuinely impressive and starting with our trusty Atmos demo Blu-ray we ran through a number of test sequences. During the rainstorm it sounded as though we were completely engulfed by a deluge and the 747 taking off roared right over our heads. The helicopters hovering, which only uses the overhead channels was very well rendered, with the choppers moving around above our heads. Once we moved on to an actual movies the results were equally as impressive, with reference Dolby Atmos soundtracks like Mad Max: Fury Road and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice sounding superb. We were particularly impressed by the HW-K950 when watching 10 Cloverfield Lane, with the scene where something moves noisily overhead being very effective, although the soundbar also handled the ambient aspects of the soundtrack just as well. The bass could occasionally be a bit heavy but overall the Samsung sounded almost as good as our full 7.2.4 setup with actual overhead speakers and that system cost considerably more.

    As a rule we don't recommend using any sound effects settings but we have been consistently impressed by the Dolby Surround upmixer, which was equally as good on the HW-K950. It gave soundtracks more space and created a greater sense of immersion, with sounds being directed overhead where appropriate. Although the films and TV shows we were watching weren't mixed in Dolby Atmos, you could almost be convinced in to thinking they were. The surround upmixing was particularly useful for improving our experience with Blu-rays that use DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks. Which brings us to our only real complaint about the HW-K950...

    The soundbar doesn't support DTS-HD Master Audio/DTS:X, in fact in doesn't support higher than two-channel DTS. This is a shame but how much impact it will have on your audio experience will largely depend on your sources. If you predominantly plan to watch streaming, DVDs or Ultra HD Blu-rays then Dolby is the dominant sound format. If you mostly watch Blu-rays, then DTS-HD Master Audio is the soundtrack of choice, in which case the HW-K950 is limited. There is no technical reason why the HW-K950 couldn't support DTS-HD Master Audio/DTS:X, so perhaps if the latter format catches on, then Samsung might add it in future. As it currently stands, Samsung appear to be pitching the HW-K950 at the Ultra HD streaming and disc markets where Dolby Atmos is the dominant immersive audio format, so it may ultimately be a moot point. However in the meantime, some Samsung Blu-ray players including the UBD-K8500 provide the option to output a DTS bitstream as a Dolby Digital bitstream, which would provide an effective work-around.

    The HW-K950 sounded almost as good as our full 7.2.4 setup with actual overhead speakers

    Conclusion

    9
    AVForumsSCORE
    OUT OF
    10

    The Good

    • Great audio performance
    • Impressive Dolby Atmos support
    • 4K/60p, HDCP 2.1 and HDR compliant
    • HDMI 2.0a inputs and output
    • Samsung Multiroom
    • Attractive design
    • Excellent construction
    • Wireless subwoofer and surrounds

    The Bad

    • Currently no DTS multi-channel support
    • Bass can be a bit heavy
    • More HDMI inputs would be nice
    You own this Total 0
    You want this Total 3
    You had this Total 0

    Samsung HW-K950 Dolby Atmos Soundbar Review

    Should I buy one?


    The Samsung HW-K950 is a fantastic audio product that delivers in every aspect of its carefully designed performance. The soundbar itself is attractive, with a minimalist appearance that doesn't draw attention to itself. The build quality is excellent and the overall feeling is of a high-end product. The wireless active surround speakers are designed to match the soundbar both in terms of design and tonal quality, creating an effective five-channel setup. The addition of a powerful wireless active subwoofer and four upward-firing speakers means that the HW-K950 can deliver a highly effective 5.1.4-channel Dolby Atmos experience. The soundbar uses HDMI 2.0a with two inputs and an output that supports ARC and also includes Samsung's Multiroom system for music streaming, either via subscription services or extensive file support. The provided remote control is well designed and easy to use, whilst setting up and controlling the soundbar was extremely simple.

    In terms of its performance, the HW-K950 is simply the best soundbar that Samsung have released to date, with an open and immersive soundstage that still remains precise and controlled. The use of a wider dispersion tweeter combined with the larger soundbar and wireless surround speakers means that the HW-K950 can deliver a multi-dimensional audio experience to a wider area, rather than being focused on a single listening position. This makes sense when you consider that the soundbar is designed to be used in the average living room with the family spread out in front of the TV. As a result everyone can enjoy an immersive listening experience, rather than just the person sat in the sweet spot. How effective the upward-firing speakers are will depend on your ceiling but in our living room the experience was excellent. The HW-K950 steered sounds effectively around the room and overhead channels were clearly originating from above us.

    However it wasn't just that the HW-K950 can deliver a great performance with Dolby Atmos, it also sounded great with regular 5.1 mixes and the surround upmixing feature was also very effective. The front soundstage was particularly impressive, with great clarity and definition. Dialogue was always clear and music sounded particularly good, whilst sound effects are delivered with precision. Samsung have spent a great deal of time and money in developing a product where sound quality is paramount and their efforts have clearly paid off. The subwoofer has plenty of power and makes its presence felt but if we had one real criticism of the HW-K950, it's that the bass could be a little over-powering at times. This can be mitigated through careful placement and setup but we suspect it is an aspect of the system's attempts to provide an enjoyable immersive experience to as many listeners as possible.

    An extra HDMI input or two would have been nice and the absence of DTS-HD Master Audio/DTS:X support is a shame, although there's technically no reason why it couldn't be added via a firmware update later, especially if the number of DTS:X discs increases dramatically. Those complaints aside, the HW-K950 hardly puts a foot wrong and is one of the best soundbars we have tested to date. There's no doubt that if you're looking for a soundbar with great performance and features then the Samsung HW-K950 should be on your short list but if you're looking for one that supports Dolby Atmos, it should be at the top.

    What are my alternatives?


    In terms of alternatives, it's worth pointing out that for £1,300 you could definitely buy a Dolby Atmos capable AV receiver and speaker package, although such an approach won't be as tidy or easy to install as the HW-K950. However if we assume that you're specifically interested in getting a soundbar and you'd like one that supports Dolby Atmos then you currently have two choices, the Samsung HW-K950 or the Yamaha YSP-5600. In terms of simple pricing the HW-K950 is clearly the winner, it's not only cheaper but comes with a subwoofer included. The YSP-5600 is also quite large, so the HW-K950 is undoubtedly easier to install, either under your TV or on the wall. The YSP-5600 creates all of its audio channels from the soundbar itself by bouncing sound beams off the side walls, rear wall and ceiling and although this approach certainly works, it will depend on the shape of your room and it does tend to create a very focused sweet spot.

    The HW-K950's use of actual surround speakers creates a genuine 5.1 configuration and the Samsung has been designed to deliver an immersive audio experience over a larger area. Whilst both soundbars create the overhead channels by bouncing sounds off the ceiling and thus will be dependent on the type of ceiling you have, the HW-K950's use of rear speakers certainly helped create a better sense of sounds coming from overhead. In fact in general we found the multi-dimensional audio created by the HW-K950 to be superior to the YSP-5600 and overall we preferred the Dolby Atmos experience produced by the Samsung. The Yamaha does include four HDMI inputs, DTS-HD Master Audio/DTS:X and support for MusicCast but the YSP-5600 has a serious limitation in the fact that it can't pass HDR content. The HW-K950 has no such problems and is thus more future-proofed of the two soundbars. So although the Yamaha YSP-5600 has much to recommend, we'd be inclined to choose the Samsung HW-K950 instead.


    The Rundown

    Build Quality

    9

    Connectivity

    9

    Ease of use

    9

    Sound Quality

    9

    Features

    9

    Value for Money

    9

    Verdict

    9

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