Samsung HW-N850 Soundbar Review
Do you really need rear surround channels?
What is the Samsung HW-N850?The Samsung HW-N850 is a mid-range soundbar and sits just below the flagship HW-N950 in the company's line-up. The N850 uses exactly the same main unit and subwoofer as the N950, so the only thing missing is the rear wireless speakers. That means you still get the upward and side-firing drivers built into the soundbar itself, and support for Dolby Atmos and DTS:X.
There's also the same level of build quality and tuning by Harman Kardon. The N850 supports Hi-Res Audio and has built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth for wireless streaming. In addition, the HDMI inputs and output support High Dynamic Range (HDR10, HLG, and Dolby Vision). There's also a handy remote and the option to control the soundbar using Samsung's SmartThings app.
The HW-N850 retails for around £999 as at the time of writing (October 2018), which is £500 less than the N950. Which raises an obvious question: are the rear speakers on the N950 worth the extra cost, or is a single soundbar and subwoofer combination enough to create an immersive audio experience?
DesignI could simply refer you to the N950 review at this point, because it's exactly the same soundbar and subwoofer combination used in the flagship system. However to recap, the main unit is large and very well made. It's best suited for screen sizes of at least 55-inches, and you'll need a minimum of 83mm to install the N850 in front of your TV. However, there's a bracket included for those who want to wall mount.
The design remains minimalist, with a black finish, metal grilles at the top, front and sides, and brushed metal on the edges and rear panel. There's an LED display located on the front at the far right of the soundbar, which lights up when it receives an instruction. It also provides feedback on the volume, inputs, various settings, and whether the signal is Atmos or DTS:X.The information provided by the display is fairly basic, and while it gets the job done, I would like to see it provide more feedback or, better still, for Samsung to add onscreen menus (which wouldn't be that hard given the HDMI output). The controls on the soundbar are equally simplistic, with basic touch sensitive buttons for power, input selection and volume.
The included subwoofer is the same bass-reflex model provided with the N950, and it has built-in amplification and a side-firing 8-inch driver. The sub complements the design of the 'bar, and the two should pair automatically. If not, you can manually pair them by pressing the pairing button on the back, and there are also indicator LEDs to show the connection status.
The N850 boasts the same well-made soundbar and subwoofer found in the N950 system
Connections & ControlThe Samsung HW-N850's connections can be found in a recessed area under the soundbar, where you'll find two HDMI inputs plus an HDMI output with ARC (Audio Return Channel). All the HDMI connections support 4K/60p, 4:4:4, Wide Colour Gamut (Rec.2020), High Dynamic Range (HDR10, Hybrid Log-Gamma and Dolby Vision), 3D and HDCP 2.2.
Other connections include an optical digital input, and built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. On the underside, you’ll find a USB port (although this is only for service updates), a connector for the two-pin power cable, a button for Wi-Fi setup, and a button for pairing the wireless subwoofer if necessary.
The remote control is better than the ones normally included with soundbars. It's ergonomically designed and comfortable to hold, with all the necessary buttons sensibly laid out. As a result, controlling the N850 is an intuitive process, and if you connect using HDMI ARC, you can also use the remote to control your TV.
You also have the option of controlling the N850 using Samsung's SmartThings app, which is actually very effective. It has a slick and well-designed user interface and provides more feedback than using the display on the front, which saves you having to cycle through options or inputs.
There's even Amazon Alexa voice control. To set this up, simply go into Skills on the Alexa app and enable Samsung Wireless Audio, then under Smart Home you select devices and discover the N950. This will enable the 3PDA skills and allow you to interact with your soundbar using Alexa voice control. It does work and I paired the N850 with my Amazon Echo, but if I'm being honest I find it really frustrating to use, and the remote or app is often faster and easier.
I'd like to see more than two HDMI inputs, and while Alexa voice control works, it can be frustrating
Samsung HW-N850 Features & SpecsThe Samsung HW-N850 has exactly the same features as the HW-N950, with one major exception that I'll come back to later. The main feature is the soundbar's ability to decode both Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, using a 5.1.2 system that utilises no fewer than 8 speakers built around a total of 13 drivers.
The front three channels are composed of three drivers each, using two woofers and a wide range tweeter, while all the other channels use single drivers. All 13 drivers in the system are powered by individual amplifiers with a total of 372W including the subwoofer, and the system as a whole has a claimed frequency response that goes from 34Hz to 17kHz.
The N850 also benefits from Samsung's ownership of Harman Kardon, with the former ensuring the soundbar supports Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD and Dolby Atmos, along with DTS Digital Sound, DTS-HD Master Audio and DTS:X. Meanwhile, the latter has ensured the soundbar delivers a sound that is dynamic and spacious but retains clear voicing.The N850 uses side-firing drivers which create width speakers in a 5.1.2 configuration. It also uses the second generation of Samsung’s wide-range tweeter, which now boasts an improved lower frequency response.
The soundbar includes various sound modes that use digital signal processing (DSP) to enhance the audio experience. The standard mode just decodes the audio format as it is, the surround sound expansion mode upmixes the audio to use all the available speakers, and the smart mode analyses the incoming signal, choosing the best available processing.
In terms of other features, the N850 includes built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, which allows users to effectively access their music libraries and streaming services. There's also support for numerous lossy and lossless audio formats including AAC, WAV, OGG, ALAC, AIFF and FLAC, with high-resolution support up to 32-bit. Samsung even includes high quality, UHQ 32-bit upscaling for supporting devices.
The one feature on the N950 that's missing from the N850, is the inclusion of wireless rear speakers. You can buy the SWA-9000S wireless speakers separately (£170), but they only add surrounds, making a 7.1.2 system. The wireless rear speakers included with the N950 also have upward-firing drivers built into them, making that soundbar the only one from any manufacturer that can deliver a genuine 5.1.4-channel experience.
Apart from the wireless rear speakers, the N850 has exactly the same features as the more expensive N950
Setup & TestingThe Samsung HW-N850 is easy to setup, perhaps a bit too easy. You simply place the soundbar beneath your TV (ensuring that nothing is blocking any of the drivers) and then position the subwoofer towards the front of the room. The upward-firing drivers should hit the ceiling towards the front third of the room, creating the front overhead channels, while the side-firing drivers are there to give the soundstage greater width. The upward-firing drivers require a low, flat and reflective ceiling to work best. If your ceiling is very high, vaulted or will absorb sound waves, then the effect is diminished.
You'll need an SPL meter (there are plenty of free SPL apps for your phone) and some test tones (if you can get your hands on a Dolby Atmos demo disc that makes life easier) to set the levels for the centre, side, front top, and subwoofer channels. At this price point, it would be nice to see Samsung include proper built-in test tones like the Sony HT-ZF9 or an automated room EQ setup with a dedicated microphone like the Bose SoundTouch 300. It's even possible to use the microphone in your smartphone for setup, like the Sonos Beam. Perhaps room EQ is something that Harman Kardon can bring to the party with future soundbars.
However, if you take the time to position everything carefully and set the channel levels correctly, the result is a solid front soundstage with well-integrated bass. For testing, I connected various devices directly via HDMI, including an LG UP970 UHD Blu-ray player, a PS4 Pro, an Apple TV 4K and a YouView set top box. I also tested the Audio Return Channel capabilities of the soundbar by connecting everything to an LG 65C8 OLED TV and sending the audio back via ARC. I also connected the N850 to my wireless network using the SmartThings app, and I paired the soundbar to both an iPhone X and a Samsung S9+ via Bluetooth, allowing me to test its capabilities with streamed music.
Setup is easy, but built-in test tones or auto room EQ software should be included at this price
The Samsung HW-N850 retains many of the strengths found on the the HW-N950, which makes sense when you consider the similarities. So, starting with music, the soundbar delivered a very strong performance. It produced excellent detail and clarity and, thanks to its width, was also able to provide plenty of stereo separation. As a result, there was some very good stereo imaging, which allowed for precise localisation of instruments across the front soundstage.
I've been listening to Suede's new album, The Blue Hour, a lot recently, and the N850 did an excellent job of rendering the complex and layered mix. The vocals were clear and focused, while the instruments were spread out across the front of the room. The drums and bass drove the rockier numbers with a pleasing sense of urgency, and the sub ensured that the lower frequencies were both presented and well-integrated with the other speakers.
The influence of Harman Kardon was certainly apparent in the musical nature of the N850's performance. It was also very effective when it came to streaming music, and The Blue Hour sounded the same whether I played the CD or streamed the lossless file over my home network. The Bluetooth also sounded great, especially if I used UHQ with the Galaxy S9+. Since I was only using the front two channels and the subwoofer for music, the performance of the N850 was identical to the N950 in this respect.
I then moved on to the new 4K Blu-ray of X-Men, with its DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack. The opening voiceover from Patrick Stewart was delivered extremely well, his dialogue sound, clear and emanating directly from the screen. The music then kicked in and spread across the front of the room, expanding either side of the screen. It sounded very good, with some nice stereo effects and plenty of width that drew you into the film.
So far, so good, but when it got to the actions scenes the limitations of the N850 became more apparent. There was some impressive placement of effects across the front of the room, and to a certain degree to the sides as well, while the sub added plenty of grunt to the explosions. However, there was no real sense of sounds emanating from behind. This was particularly true of the scene where Wolverine wakes up at the X-Men mansion and Charles Xavier's voice can be heard from various channels. At certain points, his voice is supposed to be behind you, but this was never the case with the N850.
The soundbar had no problems with 5.1 soundtracks over HDMI ARC, but for some reason, the N850 I was testing wouldn't detect and decode Dolby Atmos using this connection. I had the same problem with the N950, and at the time thought I may have made a mistake when setting the system up. However since the N950 review, I have also tested the LG SK10Y and Sony HT-ZF9, and neither had any trouble with Dolby Atmos over ARC.
I doubled checked the N850 setup, and using my Dolby test disc I confirmed that it could decode Atmos delivered via Dolby Digital Plus. Unfortunately, I just couldn't get the N850 to detect and decode Atmos from Netflix or Amazon. In fact, once I switched to ARC, the Netflix app on my C8 no longer showed Atmos as an option, just listing 5.1 instead. I reported my findings to Samsung, and hopefully it will sort the problem out with a firmware update.
At least there were no such problems when it came to Dolby Atmos from a Blu-ray, although the same weaknesses applied. Watching Deadpool 2, all the jokes and dialogue were delivered with clarity and precision, and Celine Dion's opening number sounded fantastic. But once we got to the action set pieces, the soundstage became very front heavy. The X-Force parachute jump created a wall of sound at the front of the room, with effects emanating from the sides and the front ceiling, but it never felt truly immersive. The soundstage essentially covered the front third of the room but never extended behind me.
The same was true when watching Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom in DTS:X. The roar of the dinosaurs had plenty of sonic depth thanks to the subwoofer, and there was no shortage of headroom either. The N850 can go very loud without distorting or losing its cohesion, and once again dialogue was clear and music reproduced with some style.
However, get to the point where the volcano on the island erupts and once again the sound field is very much focused at the front of the room. There are effects spread around the screen, both to the sides and above, and the sub does its part to give the eruption plenty of low-end presence. However volcanic rock should have been raining down on me, and I never really felt that was the case.
If you're short on space, tight on cash, or don't want rear speakers, then the N850 will give a taste of both Atmos and DTS:X. However, if you really want to be immersed in surround sound, you will either need to buy the optional wireless rear speakers or, better still, get the N950.
- Great performance
- Dolby Atmos & DTS:X support
- Straightforward setup
- Attractive and well made
- Front heavy effects
- Only two HDMI inputs
- Limited audio calibration
Samsung HW-N850 Soundbar Review
Samsung HW-N850 VerdictThe Samsung HW-N850 is an impressive soundbar that delivers a solid all-round performance. It's attractively-designed, extremely well-made, and offers plenty of useful features. Some more HDMI inputs would be nice and setup was rather basic, but the N850 detected and decoded both Dolby Atmos and DTS:X without any issues, and was equally as effective with regular soundtracks.
The only problem I encountered was that the N850 (and N950 for that matter) couldn't detect and decode Dolby Atmos over ARC, but hopefully Samsung will fix this with a firmware update. The sense of immersion was generally very good, although the lack of rear speakers meant the soundstage was rather front-heavy. It resulted in a wall of sound, which really lent itself to music, regardless of whether you stream via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth.
However, if you really want to immerse yourself in sound, I'd definitely recommended investing in a pair of wireless rear speakers. The problem is that even if you do that you still won't have rear overhead channels, so the height effects will be focused on the first third of the room. To get a proper 5.1.4 system you'll need to buy the HW-N950, but that extra £330 can really pay dividends in terms of object-based audio.
If your living room is fairly small, you're on a limited budget, or you simply don't want rear speakers, then the Samsung HW-N850 remains worthy of recommendation. But if you want the full monty, then you should really be looking at its bigger brother.
What are my alternatives?Aside from the N950, you could also look at buying an AV receiver and speaker package, but that will undoubtedly be more complicated and costly. So the best alternative to the N850 is probably the LG SK10Y, which offers the same 5.1.2 configuration using a soundbar and subwoofer combination. It’s been developed in conjunction with Meridian, so it even sounds great with music.
It supports Dolby Atmos, including over ARC, and overall it's a great performer, but the lack of DTS:X support is a serious misstep on the part of LG that's hard to understand. It would appear DTS:X isn't important to LG, and if you feel the same way because you stream all your content or plan to only use ARC, then the SK10Y is worth considering, but otherwise, the N850 is the better choice.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £999.00
Ease of use9
Value for Money8
Our Review Ethos
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